Biting the land that feeds us

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I am a rancher. I live on the land I grew up on, in the house my father built for us. For more than 25 years, I have tended descendants of the same cows my parents bought when they married 64 years ago.

I am also a licensed professional engineer. I hold an advanced degree in agricultural engineering. I have done university agricultural research, and I have designed and built specialized machinery to farm research plots.

I think I have a pretty wide view of agriculture.

What I see are wonderful people doing their best to care for creation and produce healthful food. And I see practices that pollute the soil, water and air, and destroy our long-term ability to feed ourselves.

It’s easy to blame lazy, greedy farmers for destructive agricultural practices. But I believe that the economy within which farmers must operate is responsible. This economy aims only for cheap food and a quick bottom line. It forces farmers to cut corners with our soil and water, to use practices that harm the land on which agriculture depends.

As our source of food suffers, so eventually do we all.

For about 15 years I have been involved in various efforts to change the things in agriculture that, if not stopped, will lead to hunger in the future. Others have worked far longer and harder than I have.

Have things changed? Certainly. They have gotten worse.

More fertilizer has polluted the rivers, more topsoil has washed away to the ocean, and more pesticides have polluted the groundwater. Noxious odors and dust have fouled the air. Bioengineered “Frankenfoods” have infiltrated the supermarket and corrupted the gene pool. Multinational corporations have commandeered the marketplace. And many more of those wonderful people have had to leave their farms forever.

That’s not to say efforts have been wasted in promoting an agriculture that can furnish abundant food and also protect our soil and water. The situation would be far worse without this work. But I no longer believe that farmers alone can change agriculture for the better.

Agriculture is the basis of civilization, and the two are inseparably linked. No wonder, then, that our agriculture reflects the rest of our economy, in which everything is simply a resource to use, profit from and discard. Our economy’s lust for resources has become so rapacious that its relationship to the agriculture that feeds us has become like that of a drug addict who is willing to rob his own mother for another fix.

Many non-farmers are as concerned as anyone else about this. And now that more than 98 percent of Americans don’t farm, the decisions these non-farmers make about what to buy, what kind of work to do, what kind of public policy choices are made, and what to value have far more influence than the decisions farmers can make about how to farm.  When our economy is driven by consumption, the cheapest possible price and immediate profit, it is not realistic to think that farmer’ decisions about how to farm will be based on feeding generations to come.

Our future food security depends on redirecting our society and its economy. I am not about to prescribe the form this should take. But I hope that once we realize our headlong race to the bottom of the resource barrel is madness, our combined good will and intellect will be sufficient for a new path.

Farmers and ranchers are a small minority of our population. They cannot keep feeding us in an economy determined to extract every penny from every resource as fast as possible. Whether our grandchildren will eat is up to non-farmers.


Jim Scharplaz raises cattle in Ottawa County, Kan., and serves on the board of the KansasRuralCenter. He wrote this essay for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, KS.


By Jim Scharplaz, Prairie Writers Circle

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