Next Generation Farming

Harper's Magazine Proclaims Collapse of Agriculture

Urban magazine's dim view of the Great Plains is built on cultural myth.

Farming on the Great Plains is doomed, according to an article in the July issue of Harper's Magazine, but it won't be because of the drought.

In the article titled "The Looming Collapse of Agriculture on the Great Plains," Harper's Magazine predicts that the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer will be the ultimate undoing of industrialized agriculture on the Great Plains. As the author puts it, "Farming on the plains may survive in the near term, even without the communities it once sustained. But soon the water will run out."

Without the aquifer, the article implies, farming here will be pointless and unsustainable.

The article goes further and paints a picture of how the collapse of modern agriculture will make possible the plan of turning the Great Plains into a Buffalo Commons, as the Poppers famously prophesized in the midst of the 1980s Farm Crisis.

The author of the article, Wil S. Hylton, traveled across Kansas for the story and stopped here in Lane County while doing his research. He spoke with a number of local farm families, including us. Everyone he spoke with here farms predominantly dryland. Irrigation, we told him, is a luxury for those living farther west where the Ogallala is much deeper. Even without abundant irrigation, farming is still a great way to make a living. With or without irrigation, farmers everywhere will serve a more important role in the future with rising world population and increasing demand for food and fiber. We all agreed, though, that farming will continue evolving and will look very different 20 or 30 years from now than it does today.

Hylton's interview with us, though, was left out of the story. Farmers who see a future on the Great Plains must not have fit the intent, which was to portray Kansas and the Great Plains as a region with a limited lifespan as a result of industrialization.

Why the doom and gloom? Harper's Magazine doesn't exactly give frank economic analysis of an industry or projections on profitability. Rather, the New York-based magazine seeks to provide a provocative and entertaining look for its readers – who mostly reside outside the Great Plains – at something foreign and unknown.

And, instead of performing journalism's duty of destroying myth and establishing fact, Harper's Magazine seems more inclined to stroke their readers' political and cultural leanings, and to reinforce common urban-held myths of farmers. As a recent article in The Atlantic best describes the myth, "Urbanites may picture farmers as hip heritage-pig breeders returning to the land, or a struggling rural underclass waging a doomed battle to hang on to their patrimony as agribusiness moves in."

Harper's Magazine takes the easy route and plays into urban myth, pitting farmer versus industrialization and predicting everyone losing on a colossal scale.

Their prophesy of a bleak future for farmers, however, stands in contrast to the advice I received from a long-time friend and farmer who lived through the Dirty 30s and still runs a successful farm today. After graduating from college, I mentioned to him I was thinking of coming back to farm someday. With no hesitation, he summed up his view very simply: "There's always a future for a well-managed farm."

I'm inclined to believe the latter.

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