At Home on the Farm: Nobody's neighbor

by Sam Ihm, Promotions Coordinator

My parents' northern Illinois farmhouse sits on a few acres atop a hill just outside DeKalb. You can easily see into town and as far as your eyes can take you in every direction. It makes for incredible sunrises and sunsets, as there's a 360-degree skyscape at all times. That's one of the benefits of living in a flat state: lots of sky, and a more subtle - or trained, perhaps - appreciation of beauty.

This land didn't always seem so flat. It's only now, with the razed post-harvest cornfields that you can see forever. There was probably a time when, if you stood on my parents' property, you'd be enveloped by forest. Maybe the 150-year-old trees that overlook one of the neighboring cornfields remember being small among giant ancestors.

Whatever was there, it's not there anymore. There's nothing. It's barren, edge-less, tree-less, life-less fields in every direction. The year's productivity is summed up by the "Caution: Harvest In Progress" signs that tell the uninviting, impersonal story of modern farming. Watch out! We're feeding the world!

The first thing I see when I look at our Illinois landscape is what's no longer there: the animals, the rivers, the people, the prairie. They've been replaced by our modern farming economy, which works on industrial scales toward the eradication of everything unnecessary. What we're learning, though, some of us more intuitively than others, is that what is good for productivity and the bottom line is often bad, bad, bad for people and planet.

My parents' neighbors didn't even bother with cover crops, which benefit the soil greatly while it waits to bear next year's fruit. Cover crops are known to improve soil fertility, quality, and biodiversity; hold water; and deter weeds, pests, and diseases. Perhaps most importantly, they help to manage erosion, a problem we don't frequently associate with flat land.

Erosion is something we don't see, but it's very much there. Twelve percent of Illinois farmland is between one and two times the tolerable soil loss level, the highest percentage since 2006 ( https://will.illinois.edu/news/story/illinois-facing-most-severe-erosion-in-two-decades ). Mechanical tilling, careless inputs, and lack of cover crops are major contributors to this. "Overall, we've lost about half of the organic matter that we had when we started plowing," says Jennifer Filipiak of American Farmland Trust.

Erosion occurs when soil can't hold itself together. It leads to decreased yields now and in the future as well as reduced water quality and purity. Wind and rainfall, which exacerbate erosion, are expected to increase steadily due to climate change. The very soil which is eroding holds a key to combating climate change, as plants and soil work together to sequester carbon, removing it from the atmosphere. However, the poorer our soil becomes, the harder it will be to recover from the effects of our poor decisions.

It's easy just to point out the problems with industrial agriculture (there would be no end to it if I wanted to keep going). Awareness is the first step, but it does little alone. We need solutions. We need to look beyond what is convenient to what is right. When the problem is big, the solution is small.

Small farming, that is. I believe the co-op and this community of farmers, conscious consumers, and caring, careful neighbors is working toward solutions. We support local farmers - not farmers who have fields locally, but local farmers who produce and distribute their food locally. Small farming is based on doing what you can, with what you have, where you are. It avoids the pitfalls of industrial farming because the system is not based on productivity alone, but considers and depends on the health of the overall ecosystem: the microorganisms, the bugs, the birds, the mammals, the plants, the people, the trees.

Those expansive fields aren't helping (or feeding) anyone. Sure, they produce an amount of pounds of corn and soybeans, but it's mostly not for human consumption. And at what cost? The forest is gone. Or was it a prairie? Doesn't matter now! The soil is virtually uninhabitable, only deer dare roam the fields. The blowover of pesticides routinely damages my mother's garden. I wonder if those who keep this system in place care about these sorts of things.

I am sure, though, that thinking about this, caring about these things, doing what you can, and encouraging others to do their part, is worth it.