Nature’s Trust Fund: Preserve Land and Water

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Dryland farming in central New Mexico gave way to cattle ranching in the mid-1900s, when the rain stopped and homesteaders left in droves.
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The author's father, Lonnie Welch, is the toddler in this photo, posing with his four siblings and Smart the dog. The Welch family's cattle ranch was in central New Mexico.

Central New Mexico, where my parents grew up, is arid and empty. Runty forests of piñon and juniper trees cover small mountain ranges. Dozens of miles of dry shortgrass prairie stretch between the hills. To support a herd of 100 cows, you’d need at least 5,000 acres of that arid land.

My grandparents moved to New Mexico around 1915 to homestead. They intended to raise cattle and grow pinto beans, and that’s mostly what they did for three decades while they also raised their 10 children. My father was their last child, and when he was in grade school, climate change altered their lives: The rain stopped.

Around the world, the history of agriculture is tied to the history of climate. Everywhere on Earth, temperatures have periodically risen and fallen. The rain has come and gone. Storms have destroyed crops. Floods have replenished the soil.

When the patterns shift, some farmers inevitably lose valuable resources while others gain a new advantage.

From about 1000 A.D. to almost the middle of the 20th century, the area where my grandparents homesteaded bustled with farmers. Local crops supported thousands of Native Americans, who were followed later by Spanish, Mexican and then Anglo settlers. But in the 1940s it stopped raining, and that was the end of dryland pinto bean farming — or farming of any kind in central New Mexico.

At the time my grandparents moved there, New Mexico’s homesteaders had been granted one square mile per family. When the rain stopped falling, most of the farmers left. They couldn’t make a living on 640 acres without consistent rains. Thousands of families left their farms and homes behind and the population plummeted. Between 1940 and 1970, Torrance County lost half of its residents. These days, the houses are almost all gone, but you can see clumps of trees where houses used to stand on each square-mile section — the only evidence of all those abandoned dreams.

The town of Corona, where my dad went to high school, has dwindled to fewer than 200 people. Cedarvale, a town closer to our home, where he went to grade school, recorded 58 residents in the 2010 U.S. census. Piños Wells, a few miles from my family’s ranch, now consists of a cemetery and an abandoned church. Websites list it as a ghost town: “four-wheel drive recommended.”

Climate change, and the human trauma and dislocation caused by it, are not new. Farmers have forever been pulling up stakes and moving on — literally to greener pastures — since the invention of agriculture. Before that, we followed herds of migrating animals.

The wilderness has always served as humanity’s bank account. Whenever the environment has sabotaged our food source in a given location, we’ve set out to find new resources in an undiscovered country.

When it became expensive to produce a lot of beef in Europe, the United States and Brazil filled the void. To a great extent, the vast wildernesses of the Americas provided the resources that fueled the industrial revolution in Europe. Much of our prosperity over the past two centuries has been underwritten by our banker, Mother Nature, who held our savings in her vault.

Now we’ve almost emptied that vault.

As human beings have filled the globe, we’ve limited our options. The philosophies of most industrial societies have mandated that natural resources be managed to maximize short-term opportunity. We no longer leave valuable resources untapped for the sake of future generations.

Unexploited resources still can be found, to be sure, but they are dwindling day by day. And most scientists agree we’re consuming a variety of critical resources — including clean water and fertile land — more quickly than they can be replenished.

In North America alone, we’re building the equivalent of a new Chicago every year. Imagine how many farms, fields and trees are displaced by a city the size of Chicago — and we’re creating a new Chicago every 12 months.

Events this past summer could cause one to brood about the climate. July and August in eastern Kansas were among the hottest and driest on record. Hay prices soared. Herds were thinned. Carolyn and I sold half our cattle, and still the August pastures were thinner than we usually like them. By September it was easy to imagine dramatic, permanent changes on our place. If we have another summer like the last one, we’ll need to cut our permanent herds by a third, cross-fence to create smaller pastures we can manage more intensively, and start chopping out the thistle and thorny bushes that are normally controlled by a thick carpet of grass.

It’s easy to blame climate change, but we can’t really attribute one or two dry summers to greenhouse gases. The effects of climate change are unpredictable. The climate is a huge system made up of myriad phenomena, each one influencing the others. No credible authority claims to be able to predict the ultimate effects of a higher-carbon atmosphere except in broad, general terms.

Farmland Inflation

It’s much easier to envision the ultimate effects of a growing human population that’s intensely hungry for energy and food. Agricultural resources will be exploited more ruthlessly. Farmland will become more expensive. While residential and business property values in the United States have stagnated over the past decade, farmland values across the Great Plains have increased by about 200 percent. Good farmland is four times as valuable now as it was in 2000. And the inflation has been accelerating. In the first part of this year, prices were up 26 percent from the same period last year. This summer, newspapers across the Midwest were reporting top farmland values between $10,000 and $15,000 per acre.

At those land values, based on current commodity prices and farm expenses, it could take 20 years for a farmer to pay off the investment. No small businessperson — not even a farmer — can rationalize a 25-year return on investment. Clearly, this inflation in the value of farmland is fueled by speculation: speculation that consumers can be forced to pay a lot more for food in the future and the certainty that no new farmland will be created.

When the land dried out in New Mexico, my grandparents bought their neighbors’ played-out farms and switched to raising cattle and sheep on the native grass. Even with a few thousand acres of grassland, ranching was barely lucrative enough to get my father and his siblings through school so Grandma could eventually sell the land and retire. We were starved out of New Mexico’s agriculture business. The next generation went to work in the oil business, the railroads, heavy equipment, construction and education. They moved on to their own version of greener pastures.

So far, humanity hasn’t needed to worry much about nature’s balance sheet. When we’ve needed new resources to feed more people or fuel new technologies, those resources have been available. But the longer we continue unsustainable exploitation of Earth’s resources, the higher the likelihood that some event — maybe climate change — will precipitate a human catastrophe.

As a society, we worry a lot about climate change these days. But I don’t think it’s climate change we should be most concerned about. With sufficient time and money we’ll probably find ways to mitigate the effects of climate change, or to reverse it. More fundamentally, we need to make sure we don’t bankrupt our treasury: We need to preserve land and water.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS Publisher and Editorial Director Bryan Welch preserves land and water on his farm in eastern Kansas. He is the author of Beautiful and Abundant: Building the World We Want.