The Tragedy of Phiney Flat


The north end of our ranch is part of a many thousand acre, level piece of ground known as Phiney Flat. By the county soil maps I know that the Flat is a fertile place for this part of the world and, in the places where the native, perennial grass still grows, it does extremely well. But people have been trying to farm other parts of the Flat since homesteading began in the early part of the twentieth century. For the most part, the efforts of these farmers were not successful. When we moved to this area, the neighbors with farming tendencies joked sheepishly that they only got a crop every three or four years, but that the federal government paid out for these “disasters” and so farming was profitable. Some of them would not meet your eyes when they talked like this but some actually winked.

We are not crop farmers, we are farmers of grass. We know that plowing up native grasses destroys an ancient ecosystem of plants, animals, birds, and insects that have evolved here for thousands of years. Along with the plants, animals, birds, and insects goes the unique system that pulls CO2 from the air and, with the help of some microbes in healthy soil, splits the carbon (C) away from the oxygen (O2) and deposits it in the ground where it can’t create havoc in the atmosphere and cause climate change. As a happy side effect, the native grasses expire those two atoms of oxygen and make them available for us to breath. The reason that the native, perennial grasses do such a good job of this nifty trick is that sometimes 90% of a perennial plant’s mass is below the surface of the soil. It keeps growing every year and carbon builds with the root system. Of course, when someone plows up such a plant and root system and replaces it with an annual plant, which only lives for one year and has no time to build an extensive root system, the ability to sequestering carbon is reduced by a huge percentage. The fertility of the soil is hauled away in grain trucks each fall and the carbon is released into the atmosphere.

Many people would disagree, but one of the lucky things about the American Great Plains is that, for the first hundred years of settlement, there was seldom enough rain to grow grain. The Great Plains was always considered one of the world’s greatest grasslands, but a poor place to farm. From the time of the buffalo right up through the era of the cowboy it has nourished countless herbivores. The buffalo, elk, antelope, cattle, and sheep grazed on the renewable grass and the fertility and the carbon stayed in the ground where it belongs. But now, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century all that is beginning to change.

To get the whole picture you have to understand a few things about farming: Farming is about nurturing a single kind of plant and destroying all other plants that can compete with that chosen plant. In places where moisture is in short supply a farmer’s job is to make sure that the crop that he chooses to grow gets as much of the rainfall as possible. On most of the Great Plains, crops like corn, beans, wheat, and sunflowers do not get enough water to grow unless all the competition is killed. We call the other plants that try to grow in a farmer’s field weeds, and for generations the only way to get rid of them was to mechanically remove them. In a garden we call that process hoeing but in large fields it requires plows, disks, and other cultivators pulled by powerful tractors. Because every living thing has a penchant for staying alive, weeds are difficult to kill. Mechanical removal never worked very well because the weeds just keep coming and, as they come, they suck up the water that is needed for the anointed crops to grow. That is why on many twentieth century agricultural maps there was a precipitation line on about the 100th meridian that marked the frontier of profitable farming. That line saved the Great Plains’ grasses that harbored most of the living things, pumped oxygen into the air, and sequestered billions of tons of carbon each year.

A second way to control the weeds in farm fields is to poison them with chemicals. If before a farmer plants his crop he sprays the field with a powerful herbicide – usually a product called Round Up – he kills many of the weeds that threaten to steal water from his crops. But weeds that have not yet begun to grow when the crop was planted jump out of the ground and, because Round Up will kill the crop too, use the valuable crop as protection. The weeds figured out to way to get enough water to live and hurt the farmer’s yield enough to make farming on the Great Plains a marginal enterprise. The precipitation line moved a little bit to the west, where the climate was drier, but still managed to keep farming from destroying huge portions of America’s grasslands.

Then came genetically modified organisms – GMO’s. Scientist figured out a way to change the genetic makeup of certain crops so that Round Up, and other chemicals normally poisonous to all plants, had no effect on these genetically modified crops. This process dramatically increased yields by destroying the competition. It was lauded as a miracle that would help the world produce much more food by not only this increase in yields of existing cropland, but expand farming into areas that had never been able to economically produce crops before. All of a sudden the precipitation line that had protected the grass resources of our continent, and Phiney Flat, was pushed westward. In one generation it became profitable to grow farm crops by plowing up healthy grasslands.

GMO crops have been criticized for many reasons. Some call them Frankenstein plants complete with the allusions of monster plants creeping out of laboratories to prey on unsuspecting life forms. Others are concerned about GMO’s ability to cross pollenate with “normal” plants. Certainly they destroy biodiversity by creating sternal monocultures where nothing grows but the chosen GMO plant. They have been called the harbinger of a new silent spring and many worry about their effect on animals and humans consuming the grain that they produce. There are also legal questions about the ownership of seeds produced by GMO’s – do they belong to the farmer or to the chemical companies that created them? It is hard to measure the validity of these concerns but there is one concern that is undisputable – GMO farming threatens the biodiversity of our Great Plains and all the benefits that derive from them.

GMO technology makes profitable farming possible on our portion of Phiney Flat and so supplies an incentive for us to convert that grassland to cropland. This will never happen as long as I am alive but it is tempting. I can resist the incentive but there is also a penalty for not making that deadly conversion. It is a little known fact that, in many states, property taxes are calculated on a “best use value” not an “actual use value”. What this means is that our ranch is taxed on what the income could be if plowed up Phiney Flat and began farming it. Never mind the loss of biodiversity diversity, fertility, or the loss of carbon to the atmosphere. The tax differences are significant and the margins in ranching are slim. There is no question that GMO agriculture is driving loss of grasslands and those losses are not redeemable. This perfect storm of incentives and penalties is perhaps the greatest indictment against the use of genetically modified organisms. All of us who support GMO use by growing them or allowing them to be fed to animals are culpable for the inevitable grassland conversions that will necessarily follow.

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