Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It

Perilous Bountypublished by Bloomsbury Publishing, Bloomsbury.com
hardback, 256 pages, $28.00, eBook $19.60
review by Jack Kittredge

Tom Philpott is a serious journalist, but also a farmer. I first heard of him when he was writing for the environmental organization Grist, but he moved to Mother Jones in 2011 and has done excellent work there. I learned reading this that he also spent 8 years farming in North Carolina, which gives him a star in my book for feeling, as well as understanding, what he is writing about.

What he is writing about will not be news to readers of this journal. Among other things, this book is a text about the over-expansion of American agriculture in the two spots of which our farmers and agricultural experts are most proud – the Central Valley of California and the Corn Belt of the Midwest.

The Central Valley is some 11.5 million acres, a strip 450 miles long by 50 miles wide between the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coastal Ranges to the west. For easterners, that is about the total land mass of Vermont and Massachusetts. The drier San Joaquin Valley makes up the southern two-thirds up to Sacramento, and the lusher Sacramento Valley extends from there to the Cascade Mountains.

California, including the Central Valley and lesser but also important areas such as Salinas and the Imperial Valley, produce an astonishing one-third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts grown in the US. Throw in the dairy products (one-fifth of the nation’s milk) as well as alfalfa, beef and other farm products, and the state generates $49 billion worth of food per year, almost double the amount from Iowa, its closest competitor.

At the time of the California gold rush (1849), according to Norris Hundley in The Great Thirst: Californians and Water (published in 1991 and revised in 2001), the Central Valley was a magnificently lush environment: “Rivers flowed uninterrupted into valleys, marshes, bays and the ocean.” The indigenous inhabitants (Maidu, Miwok, and Yukots) settled there, where the water was. And it was plentiful, he says, the site of “numerous rivers, lakes, and marshlands that were in existence more or less year-round and alternately expanded or contracted with the rhythm of the seasons.” Underground aquifers were brimming with water. Salmon was so abundant in the valley’s rivers that Native Americans harvested 8.5 million pounds of it annually.

Early Spanish and Mexican rule had not interfered with the waters of the valley much. But after the gold rush California became a US state in 1850 and settlers began to focus on seizing the land and diverting its waterways to raise cattle, wheat, cotton, and ultimately fruits and vegetables for the rapidly growing coastal population. In their press to exploit these amazing water resources, they developed the principle known as “prior-appropriation” water rights, essentially that the first settler (Native Americans were ignored, of course) who diverted a stream and put it to “beneficial use” such as for gold extraction or agriculture, established a right to continue to use that amount in perpetuity. Amazingly, this continues to be the basis of water rights law in much of the west.

Today much of the Central Valley would be unrecognizable to an early inhabitant. Only about 9% of the wetlands remain, protected by heroic restoration campaigns by environmentalists to benefit wild birds. The rest is farmland, fed in wet years by the Sierra Nevada snow melt. This was largely adequate in the later 20th century, but even then many farmers had drilled wells into the aquifer to use occasionally.

Since 1975, however, droughts have been more regular and climate change seems to be driving warmer, hotter weather. To maintain their production and continuously ship out such a bounty of produce, farms need to be using the aquifer more, so it is dropping and wells are having to be drilled ever deeper. Without adequate snow melt to recharge the system (average rainfall in the south is about 5 inches per year), the future for the Central Valley looks challenging.

The other dominant food-producing region Philpott examines is the Corn Belt. He is a little vague about the exact boundaries of this region, but Iowa is at its center, which suggests parts of Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri are involved. He also gives it a dimension, 1.5 times the area of California. At 164,000 square miles for California, that would put the Corn Belt at close to 250,000 square miles, or roughly 4.5 times the size of Iowa. It also produces almost 90% of US corn and 80% of our soy. So think Iowa and half of each of the adjacent states and you will be close.

The Corn Belt is the old prairie, where buffalo roamed. As Philpott puts it, settlers to Iowa in the 1850s: “…found marshlands and prairie, with hundreds of species of wild perennial grasses and legumes. Flowers tottered over the newcomers’ heads, their roots plunging just as deep into the earth, burying carbon snatched from the atmosphere. Vast herds of bison ate their way through meadows, stimulating new plant growth and recycling nutrients through their manure. Native American people played an active role in managing the ecosystem; they periodically set fires that quickly freed nutrients and prevented trees from establishing, allowing prairie plants to thrive without being shaded out. These interactions among people, plants, animals, and climate left behind a majestic store of loamy, fertile topsoil.”

It is this soil, of course, which is being used up and eroded away so quickly that many fear it can never be recovered. Back of the envelope calculations by an agronomist at Iowa State and the state’s Department of Environmental Protection suggest a destruction rate of something like 8.4 tons per acre per year, while recent research suggests natural replenishment may generate about 0.5 tons per acre per year – a factor suggesting we are losing 17 times more than we are making.

Corn and soy, of course, are the key ingredients fueling our national addition to meat and animal products, which currently are the source of 26% of the calories in the average American’s diet. But the two crops do more than feed animals, as the primary source of US vegetable oil, soy accounts for another 7% of American calories in this form, and corn-derived sugars like high-fructose corn syrup add 7% more, totaling corn/soy input to our diets of about 40% of ourcalories!

Beside spending all our priceless soil reserves foolishly, Corn Belt agriculture is also heavily dependent on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which have fouled the ground water in much of the area when floods inundate their manure lagoons, and synthetic fertilizers which are over-applied to drive even larger yields but pollute natural waterways and drinking water.

So what does Tom think we can do about all this? He seems well aware of the various reform efforts swirling about in modern agriculture. He cites public work such as state laws revising water rights (California) and Corn Belt research by Iowa State University personnel at Marsden Farm to show that proper crop rotations can reduce fertilizer and herbicide use by 80% – 90% while increasing overall crop yield and farm viability.

And he also introduces us to farmers such as Iowa’s Tom Frantzen who is bringing back rye as a cover crop as well as for grain and doing well at it, and Joe Del Bosque who grows melons and almonds in the San Joaquin Valley’s west side, trying to balance the increasing costs of labor for the 300 workers he hires each year to expertly harvest the flavorful but irregularly ripening heritage melons he is famous for versus putting in more nuts which are fully automated and require no labor to grow but demand more water than he may be able to secure in drought years.

Philpott’s Perilous Bounty is a book which will acquaint you with the complex ways human energy and science are coming into conflict with Nature’s limits. Bloomsbury is expanding into more academic books and this one, priced where it is and without a paperback version, seems designed to be studied and used in college classrooms to focus on exactly such issues. You would do well to read it and be an informed part of this discussion about how we can meet our species needs without wearing out our welcome on this planet!