Article — From the July 2012 issue

Broken Heartland

The looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains

For me the Great Plains have a releasing effect. . . . Human effort is seen there in all its pitiful futility.
— Thomas Hart Benton
 

Late one afternoon in the winter of 1987, a pair of academics named Frank and Deborah Popper were inching their way down the New Jersey Turnpike when the idea hit both of them at once. Or anyway, that’s how Frank tells it. There they were, puttering along, chatting about the conundrum of the Great Plains, whose rural population has been dwindling for nearly a century, when they were overcome by a shared epiphany, and turned to each other in giddy rapture to cry out the words that have defined them ever since.

Deborah, typically, recalls no such thing. No epiphany, no rapture, no spontaneous outburst — all of which she regards, with apologies to Frank, as the grandiose mythmaking of an old romantic. In her version, the two were simply arguing. Bored and irritable, they were passing the time by throwing out ideas for how to repopulate the plains, and dismissing each other’s proposals in turn. Deborah thinks she may at last have blurted out, “Fine, just give it back to the buffalo!” And Frank, who is rarely at a loss for words, stared out the window for a long moment before whispering, “The Buffalo Commons.

Today, the idea of a return to nature, which the Poppers first described twenty-five years ago in a scholarly article entitled “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” has become central to almost any conversation about the region’s future. The suggestion that residents embrace their own decline and convert their land into a vast national park known as the Buffalo Commons has sparked the enthusiasm of conservationists and the wrath of local farmers in equal measure.

It’s easy to understand why. Stretching along the eastern steppes of the Rockies from Montana to Texas, the plains constitute nearly a fifth of the land in the lower forty-eight. In the late 1800s, they were the very symbol of our country’s expansionist ambitions, flush with homesteaders drawn to the promise of 160 acres of free land, and a blank page on which to rewrite their lives. But over time the plains have also come to reflect the more modern habit of overdevelopment. By 1930, the agricultural boom in the region had already begun to stretch the limits of sustainability. Groundwater dried up. Drought set in. And under a billowing prairie wind, the shallow roots of annual crops proved incapable of holding the topsoil in place: with massive dust storms darkening the horizon, the migratory exodus began.

For the past eight decades, it has continued. Although many cities on the plains have grown, rural communities across Kansas and Nebraska, Montana and Texas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas have shrunk each decade since the Great Depression. In Kansas alone, more than 6,000 towns have vanished altogether. Nearly a million square miles of the American heartland currently meet the definition of “frontier” used by the Census Bureau more than a century ago.

Since their breakthrough on the New Jersey Turnpike, the Poppers have undertaken dozens of missions to the plains, preaching the gospel of the Buffalo Commons and a philosophy they call “smart decline.” Their trips do not always go well. They have been shouted down at community meetings from the Canadian border to West Texas; at times, they have required police protection. Still, the Poppers persist. In 2010, they were invited to address the annual convention of the Kansas Farmers Union by the group’s president, Donn Teske, who farms the same land his family has owned for five generations.

“We’re not sure what to expect,” Frank told me shortly before he and Deborah left. Teske, he explained, had told them that their appearance would be “controversial.”

When I reached Teske, he was even more blunt. “Anytime you get somebody talking about a government takeover of the land,” he droned in a voice like a didgeridoo, “people around here are going to start grabbing their guns.”

Communities on the plains, he said, were already stretched to the breaking point. Teske suggested I come see for myself, and offered to let me stay on his farm in exchange for help with the chores. So, on a cold December day, I tossed a few things in my duffel and headed west.

Teske turned out to be a lumbering man with a prodigious belly and a mustache so thick it could pass for a gag. I arrived at his house late on a Sunday, after a long drive through the Stygian blackness of the Kansas night. Hoisting my bag from the trunk, I followed him up a short flight of stairs to the living room, where he settled into an easy chair surrounded by stacks of books. He motioned to a seat nearby, and I offered him some whiskey I’d brought along, which we nipped at in companionable silence. Periodically, Teske would clear his throat and say something like, “Well, I guess it’s cold back there in New York City,” and I would explain that, although this magazine is based in New York, I don’t live there or visit often, to which he would nod thoughtfully and furrow his brow, as if this made a great deal of sense.

In the morning, we drained a pot of coffee and headed outside to see about the cattle. The early light sparkled on the open fields, and a pair of farm dogs lapped at our ankles as we crossed the frozen ground to a paddock. The calves inside were young but sturdy, with broad heads and straight backs, and Teske smiled almost imperceptibly at them rustling in the pen.

“These just got weaned,” he said, puffing on his second cigar of the morning. “Took about three days for them to stop bellyaching.” He tossed a few pellets of wheat middlings into the lot and rested his elbows on the top rail, his eyes darting over the contours of each animal. Then he nodded toward a nearby freight truck, its bed loaded with huge sacks of grain. “Best get moving,” he said, clambering up into the cab, and we bounced down the driveway for the eighty-mile trip to the seed cleaner.

Along the way, Teske explained why, in a state filled with silos and cleaners, we had to drive so far to deliver his clover. The seed, it turned out, was organic, as were all of Teske’s crops — though he was quick to clarify that this was “not just for moral reasons.” On the contrary, organic farming seemed to him the only sensible option left. Decades of innovation had turned conventional farming into such an expensive and technical proposition that it was hopeless for anyone but agribusiness conglomerates to attempt it. This, he said, was the real cause of depopulation. Modern technology made it possible, and more or less obligatory, for a single owner to work fifty times as much land. So neighbors got to buying out neighbors, and then were bought out themselves. The only way forward, Teske figured, was to reject all those modern innovations, at which point you were basically “organic.”

“Most of us who do organic,” Teske said, “are only doing it because we went bust at conventional farming. We learned the hard way.”

For Teske, that lesson had come in the 1980s. While he was growing up the farm had done pretty well, but after a raft of bad breaks descended in the late 1970s — surging interest rates, plummeting property values, and a sequence of droughts and floods — many of Teske’s neighbors started struggling. Then the U.S. government froze grain shipments to the Soviet Union in January 1980, in response to that nation’s invasion of Afghanistan.

“Before that,” Teske said, as we headed down the highway in the freight truck, wind whistling through the floorboards, “I wasn’t much more than a hired hand to my dad.” The old man had always managed the farm with an unassailable calm, but as the debt piled up and the bank began to threaten foreclosure, tension in the family mounted. Soon his father was showing signs of fatigue, forgetting things, lapsing into downright confusion. Eventually, Teske had to step in. “And I’ll tell you,” he said, “I had no idea what to do.”

For two years, he tried anything that might work: poring over the books, shuffling debt, transferring the title to his own name and back. In time, almost without knowing how, he brought the farm back to solvency. But Teske’s father never recovered. The frustration gave way to disorientation, then dementia. “For the last ten years, he couldn’t even recognize me,” Teske said, gripping the wheel and glaring straight ahead. “To this day, I can’t help wonder if the debt brought it on.”

At the seed cleaner, we pulled up the driveway and parked in front of a small granary, watching through the window as the tiny silhouette of the owner’s son, Jack Geiger, rolled toward us across the undulating fields on a vintage tractor. When Geiger arrived, he grinned and nodded, then hauled Teske’s seed bags into the granary. Once this was done, he shut off the tractor and hurried over to shake hands vigorously.

He was a sturdy man in his early forties, with a dusting of stubble and tan coveralls. He spoke in a slightly formal manner. “Well, Donn,” he said, raising his chin, “I’m very glad to see you. Why don’t we step inside?”

We entered the granary and came upon the looming seed cleaner. It was made of steel and white oak, with a lustrous glow even in the unlit barn, and Geiger spread his arms at the sight of it. “She’s still running, Donn,” he said proudly. “She’s still running.”

Teske grunted. “Good thing,” he said, crouching to study something near the base.

Geiger ran his palm over a sleek curve of wood. “This was originally built in the 1940s,” he said. “It was no longer in service when we bought it. We stripped the wood and waxed it, replaced all the belts. I made only one small modification to the gear-and-chain system. Other than that, it’s exactly as it was.”

I walked in a circle around the old machine, studying its lines and surprised by its beauty. The merger of industrial gearing and burnished hardwood gave it a certain steampunk chic, and I could easily imagine it adorning a hedge-fund manager’s loft or a museum. For Teske and Geiger, however, the beauty went much deeper. Without the organic cleaner — one of the few in Kansas — they could neither process nor sell their seed.

Back outside, Geiger explained that his friendship with Teske was rooted in common experience. As a teenager during the 1980s, he too had watched his family business implode and had stepped in to save the farm. Now he ran the place with his father and brothers, turning to the old machines and methods that industrialized farming had left behind.

“It used to be, when one family was struggling, all the other families would help them out,” Geiger said. “But now, if somebody’s in trouble, everybody else is looking to see if they can buy their land.”

Teske nodded. “These days, you’ve got to grow to survive,” he said. “It changes how people relate.”

In the dystopian future that Teske imagines, the cycle of farm dissolution and amalgamation will continue to its absurdist conclusion, with neighbors cannibalizing neighbors, until perhaps one day the whole of the American prairie will be nothing but a single bulldozed expanse of high-fructose corn patrolled by megacombines under the remote control of computer software 2,000 miles away. Yet even this may be optimistic. Farming on the plains may survive in the near term, even without the communities it once sustained. But soon the water will run out.

Sprawling beneath eight states and more than 100 million acres, the Ogallala Aquifer is the kind of hydrological behemoth that lends itself to rhapsody and hubris. Ancient, epic, apparently endless, it is the largest subterranean water supply in the country, with an estimated capacity of a million-billion gallons, providing nearly a third of all American groundwater irrigation. If the aquifer were somehow raised to the surface, it would cover a larger area than any freshwater lake on Earth — by a factor of five.

Until the Second World War, the Ogallala went almost entirely untapped. Nomadic tribes such as the Comanche and the Sioux had long adapted to the vagaries of the plains by avoiding permanent settlements. They drew water from ponds and streams and gullies, and when those ran dry, they followed the buffalo elsewhere. Even when European settlers began to run massive herds of cattle on the plains in the nineteenth century, they relied largely on native plants for grazing.

It wasn’t until the 1940s, when a variety of new technologies coalesced on the plains, that large-scale irrigation sprang up for the first time — but from there, the transformation was quick. Within a decade thousands of wells were drilled, creating a spike in productivity as unprecedented as it was unsustainable. Land that had been marginal became dependable; land that was dependable became bountiful. Even as the U.S. population surged, with soldiers returning and babies booming, the output of the plains rose fast enough to meet and exceed demand.

No one worried about the aquifer. To farmers it seemed a bottomless reserve, generating the same outlandish volume no matter how many straws went in. Soon there were hundreds of thousands of wells producing the same reliable flow, year after year, without any evident stress.

Then, during the early 1990s, farmers throughout the Great Plains began to notice a decline in their wells. Irrigation systems from the Dakotas to Texas dipped, and, in some places, have been abandoned entirely.

One day last spring, I stopped by the office of Kevin Mulligan, a professor at Texas Tech University who is leading an effort to monitor the Ogallala. Funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mulligan and his team have spent the last decade examining data from thousands of irrigation wells across the Texas Panhandle. Their hope is to divine exactly where the water is, where it was, where it’s going, and when, if ever, it might come back.

I found Mulligan in the university’s geosciences department, in a conference room plastered with charts and maps and illuminated by so many fluorescent lights that it seemed as if the walls were shivering. He is a wiry man possessed of too many elbows and knees, with a shock of gray hair plastered down in places and bursting free in others. Though he wore a starched blue oxford shirt and a new red tie, the craggy lines across his face and his perpetual squint gave him the air of a man standing atop a windy summit.

Mulligan began laying out a series of poster-size maps of the Panhandle. The first showed the base of the aquifer in burgundy. During the late Tertiary Period, he explained, the region we know as the Great Plains wasn’t composed of plains at all — it was a stony terrain of cliffs and valleys. Gradually that surface was buried by erosion sediment from the Rockies, which blanketed the region with the smooth surface of today’s plains. But underneath, the hills and valleys of the prehistoric landscape remain, forming the bottom of the Ogallala Aquifer.

Mulligan spread out a second map on top, which showed the same region, but in shades of blue instead of burgundy. “This is the saturated thickness of the Ogallala in 2004,” he said. “So that’s basically the available water.” The contours of the prehistoric landscape remained clear: where there had been hills, the water was shallow, and where there had been valleys, the water was deep.

Next Mulligan spread out a map recording the impact of wells, which were represented with hundreds of tiny dots. The burnt-orange shading on the map indicated a rapid rate of depletion. Mulligan said, “What you’re looking at is a drawdown on the order of five to six feet per year. So over the last fifteen years, it’s gone down eighty, ninety, one hundred feet.”

None of which, he went on, is likely to come back. For complex reasons involving wind, weather, and soil composition, the Ogallala does not recharge in the way one might expect. In fact, of the eight states above the aquifer, only Nebraska, with its sandhill dunes, is permeable enough to contribute any serious replenishment.

Now Mulligan spread out the last two maps of the region. The first was covered with crimson spots. “So what we did is, we highlighted all the areas that are less than thirty feet,” he said. “Thirty feet is kind of a magic number. You’re down to so little water that you’re not going to be able to pump nearly enough.” The map was almost a quarter red. “So that’s 2004,” he said, turning, “and this is 2030.”

In the last map the Panhandle was nearly all red. “I look at that,” Mulligan said, “and I can only surmise that there will be very little irrigated agriculture on the high plains twenty years from now.”

“It’s hard to imagine what there will be,” I offered.

Mulligan smiled. “Just because we’re all born into this, we think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But our human perspective is very biased.”

As we continued speaking, I began to realize that Mulligan wasn’t particularly concerned about the disappearing aquifer. “Why save it?” he asked. “What for?” As Mulligan saw it, the water had been hidden for millions of years, and if it disappeared again, this was a return to normal. The apt comparison was not to a reservoir, but to a seam of gold: you could take it or leave it, but you couldn’t expect to harvest forever. “It’s being mined,” Mulligan shrugged. “When it’s gone, it’s gone. The interesting question is: What comes next?”

But here, for the first time, Mulligan looked troubled. “What scares me,” he said, “is wind.”

Mulligan went to a nearby computer and brought up a satellite photo of central Texas, mottled in shades of beige, and overlaid with bright-green digital markings. “This is down in Nolan County,” he said. “We’ve mapped about four thousand turbines as of 2008. There’s probably six thousand down there now. If this continues, how many are we going to have? Forty thousand? Maybe fifty?”

“What would that look like?” I asked.

Mulligan snorted. “I think this environment’s destroyed,” he said. He punched a few more keys on the computer and a panoramic view of the same region came up — a vista of one hundred miles reaching toward the far horizon, strewn all the way with a multitude of turbines standing like an army at attention.

“This whole G.E. commercial, with the green grass and the turbine and the cow grazing?” Mulligan said. “Looks very aesthetically pleasing. But it’s a completely industrialized environment. They’re everywhere. You’re always in it. You can’t get away. A little wind farm — fine. But the whole landscape is like this? And you drive and you drive, and there’s endless machinery as far as you can see, in every direction? That scares me.”

Until recently, most of the wind farms on the plains have been clustered below the Texas Panhandle, but not for any meteorological reason. The winds in that area are no better than those further north; they are simply easier to sell.

That’s because most of Texas is tied into a special power grid that feeds only Texan homes and, in true Texan fashion, is cut off from the rest of the country. (Elsewhere in the continental United States, electricity is supplied by either of two grids, the Eastern Interconnection or the Western Interconnection.) But since the Texas grid also encompasses many of the largest cities in the region — Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, Austin — a wind farm anywhere else on the plains is barred from those prime markets, and must instead ship its electricity across long distances at great cost. Predictably, as wind developers have approached the plains, they have begun with the flats of central Texas.

That situation is about to change. In August, crews in New Mexico are scheduled to break ground on the first intergrid connection to link the eastern, western, and Texas grids. Though the Tres Amigas SuperStation is not expected to be complete until 2018, it has already transformed the market for wind on the plains — promising to open not only the cities of Texas, but also the rest of the Sun Belt, from Albuquerque to Phoenix to Las Vegas. Faced with such a huge new market, developers have begun scrambling to secure wind rights throughout the region. One of these planned megafarms, the Mariah Project on the New Mexico–Texas border, is slated to produce at least three times more power than any wind farm currently in existence.

One bright Texas morning, I met up with a poet named Andy Wilkinson to visit the Mariah Project and see the Tres Amigas area. I had first encountered Wilkinson outside a bar in Kansas, after one of his poems was read aloud by a young cowboy in a thousand-gallon hat, and I’d been struck by his passages on the Poppers and the Buffalo Commons:

learned professors have studied the exodus
made by our people, our water, our resources,
calling our depopulation a certainty,
saying why fight it? let’s recognize lost causes
when they are lost causes, let’s give the prairie back,
back to the ruminants, back to the grasses . . .

Wilkinson cut a gentlemanly figure, with a mane of white hair swept back from his forehead, a tidy goatee, and spectacles perched near the tip of his nose. With a Moleskine ledger tucked under one arm, he looked like a banker in a Gary Cooper western. He also happened to be royalty on the plains. A century ago, he told me, one of his distant uncles, Charlie Goodnight, became famous for his exploits as a Texas Ranger and his innovations as a rancher, including the invention of the chuck wagon. Today, Goodnight’s lasting fame has given his descendant an unusual entrée among a motley assortment of plainsfolk, from the orneriest cattleman to the crunchiest hippie — all of whom Wilkinson was in the process of interviewing for an oral-history project. He was particularly interested in documenting the rise of wind power on the plains, which he, like Mulligan, had come to regard as the inevitable next step.

We decided to spend a few days exploring, so we piled into a large white van loaned to us by the university, pointed its great chrome nose west, and set out across the landscape of the Llano Estacado.

Like the Ogallala basin, the Llano is a vast geologic expanse that is virtually impossible to see. The difficulty is not that the Llano is underground — on the contrary, it rests on top of the plains, a vast slab of caliche that covers 37,000 square miles and eludes perception only because it is so huge that it seems less like something than like everything. In fact, the only place the Llano is really apparent is along parts of its boundary, where the edge of the mesa suddenly drops away in a steep escarpment to the floor of the plains.

As we barreled across this undifferentiated expanse, Wilkinson furnished a landscape of his own, drawn from a lifetime spent on the plains. He shared private details of Charlie Goodnight’s history, which he had soaked up as a child in his grandmother’s lap; he recalled the rise of cotton in the 1950s, and the days he missed school for the harvest; he laughed at the gaping disbelief of tourists arriving on the high plains for the first time. He pointed out the strange, ubiquitous green circles called playas, which fill with rainfall to form intermittent wetlands for migratory birds, and recalled being on an airplane once, near a guy from Minnesota who looked down at the playas and cried out to his wife, “Oh my God, look at those lakes! We’ve got to come back here and do some fishing!” Wilkinson laughed and shook his head. “I didn’t have the heart to tell him they were a foot and a half deep and would be gone by the time he got there.”

The next morning we continued west, passing small towns and empty homesteads and fields of unassembled turbines. Finally, about noon, we arrived at the headquarters of the Mariah Project, a ramshackle old brick building in the heart of Bovina, Texas.

The local organizer of the wind farm was Jim Bob Swafford, a plump fellow with buzzed white hair and a bunchy green sweater. In a large room with plaster flaking off the walls, we sat down at a table with Swafford and one of his Norwegian partners, Harald Dirdal, who happened to be in town for a few days.

Swafford was a longtime Bovina resident who tended to sit quietly with his hands in his lap, peering through a pair of enormous glasses. Dirdal was lean, fast-talking, and outlandishly handsome, dressed for the imaginary West in a fitted shirt, silver belt buckle, and black cowboy boots. For years, his company, Havgul, had also been working on a wind project in Lake Michigan, much to the disgruntlement of local residents, who agonized over the ruination of their sunset. In Bovina, he had no such problem. He and Swafford had already acquired about two thirds of the county’s wind rights, without a single negotiation with an individual landowner. They simply offered the same deal to everyone, which everyone either accepted or declined — or, Dirdal said with a smile, declined for a while, and then accepted.

As we flipped through various plans for the project, Dirdal explained why his company was interested in developing the Panhandle. “In a wind farm, the wind is free, so the costs are maintenance and capital,” he said. “And they’re exactly the same whether you’re here or in California. But in Texas, you don’t have regulatory issues! I mean, in California, to develop a wind farm is a nightmare. Here, you can do whatever you want.”

As Dirdal laid out his plans, the front door of the building swung open, and a burly farmer named Floyd Reeve strode in to deliver some paperwork. Reeve had the look of a man who brooked no distraction, and when I invited him to sit with us, he made a big show of studying his watch, then shrugged: “I guess I’ve got about thirty minutes.”

I asked Reeve what his reaction had been at the first news of a giant wind farm in Bovina. “Well,” he said, glancing at Dirdal and Swafford, “we’ve been about something to do with the wind forever here. Electricity didn’t come until about 1940, so many folks had these eight-volt wind chargers to run a radio with, or maybe even a milking machine. So wind chargers, they’re way old.” He added, “But not near the technology that’s jumped on it now.”

“How much ground do you expect each turbine to use?” I asked.

“Maybe 100 square feet.”

“Will it make any difference to your farming?”

“No, that’s the beautiful part,” he said. “The interruption to daily life is minuscule.”

After a while, Reeve had to move on, but Wilkinson and I stayed the afternoon, meeting with other farmers who stopped by, and I began to see the wind the way these men saw it: not as a solution, but as a stopgap to compensate for the disappearing aquifer. If they had to live under industrial installations that blotted out the sun every third second, well, at least it was better than being shunted off to some urban nightmare. I also noticed that Wilkinson had become uncharacteristically quiet. The evening before, when we’d stopped for dinner with a priest and nun near the town of Nazareth, he’d been voluble and lively, but something in Bovina troubled him. Later that afternoon, as we headed south toward Muleshoe, Wilkinson tapped his fingers on the wheel, and eventually spoke up.

“You know,” he said, “a lot of these farmers say they’re going to keep farming after they get wind. Some of them say they’ll quit row-cropping and keep cattle. My fear is, they won’t do either. When you visit actual wind farms down south, most of them used to keep cattle, and most of them don’t keep cattle anymore. Now the only thing they farm is wind.”

Back in Kansas, Donn Teske wouldn’t hear it. Sure, if you asked him point blank, he’d allow that wind was coming, and that after the family farms gave out and the aquifer ran dry and the megafarms vanished, the only thing left might be windmills. That’s why his son was at college studying turbine technology. But Teske wasn’t giving up. He was still looking for an agricultural future.

After a few days together on his farm, we had developed an easy rapport. We sorted calves and hauled them to the stockyards, a rambling compound of kicked-up dust and cattlemen stretched on wooden bleachers under a droning auctioneer’s call, which yanked me back to childhood memories of the Virginia yards, with my grandfather buying and selling and hustling and bullshitting the same twenty men he’d known all his life. Teske was a perfect guide to this world, pattering under his breath about friends and neighbors and newfangled ideas with the cool detachment of an immersion sociologist. When it finally came time for me to pack up and continue west, he mumbled that I would need an interpreter, and began throwing shirts in a bag.

But the trip initially disappointed him. The farmers we stopped to talk with seemed to break his heart more each day. On a 12,000-acre plantation near Weskan, Kansas, we stood inside a cavernous warehouse of gleaming tractors and combines while the owner chattered and Teske interjected questions about loan terms and well output. He nodded gravely at the answers and chomped on the stub of his cigar until, as we headed down the driveway, his face collapsed and he moaned, “That poor bastard can’t even see the cliff he’s going off.”

Now we were on our way to see a rancher I’d been hearing about for several weeks, mostly in angry whispers. At seventy-four, Larry Haverfield was the scourge of every neighbor within fifty miles because he refused to exterminate prairie dogs. Instead, he allowed them to burrow into some 6,000 acres of a 10,000-acre ranch, which to most farmers is like giving 60 percent of your kitchen to rats. Terrified that the dogs would spread to their own property, Haverfield’s neighbors had issued threats and lawsuits, while he amassed support from such groups as Audubon of Kansas and the Nature Conservancy — which only added to the widespread suspicion that Haverfield was some kind of subversive out to wreck farming.

Haverfield’s ranch was beyond remote: it was alien, hermitic, godforsaken — a pile of nailed-up wooden planks adrift on a sea of soil. We drove for hours just to reach the nearest town, Russell Springs, population twenty-four, and then we continued past fields of mangy cattle teetering on a desiccated horizon before finally pulling up to the farmhouse, where we parked beside a 1974 pickup with a white grain box strapped on top like a saddle.

Haverfield met us at the door with a glare, a short, brittle creature in coveralls, with a stubbly white beard and hands so weathered that most of his nails were broken off entirely. I had called that morning to see if it was okay to visit, and he sounded welcoming on the phone, but the sight of Teske seemed to put him on edge. He motioned for us to take a seat at the Formica island between his kitchen and living room, and looked us over, wondering aloud, “Who’s taking care of who here?”

“I’m his chauffeur and interpreter,” Teske grunted.

Haverfield scowled and walked into the kitchen. A sticker on the refrigerator said STOP G.O.P. LIES. He put a kettle of water on for tea. “Well, what it is here,” he said, “is we’re mimicking the way it was when the buffalo were here.”

Teske nodded. “I’m on the Kansas Graziers Association board,” he said.

Haverfield’s scowl deepened. “Them guys,” he said. “I don’t see much good coming out of them.”

“You’re thinking of somebody else,” Teske said quickly.

“I’m thinking of anything I see.”

“Well, we’re not with K State or anything.”

“Oh,” Haverfield said. “That helps.”

Teske opened a copy of Audubon magazine on the table, then closed it. “I’ve had the opportunity to go down to Allan Savory’s school,” he offered.

“You’ve been there?” Haverfield said.

“Mm-hmm.”

“On a full-week deal?”

“Mm-hmm.” Teske smiled. “I’m a little strange nut, too.”

Now Haverfield was grinning. “You are!” he cried, hurrying back to the table. “I’m feeling more comfortable all the time!”

We poured tea, and Haverfield began to explain his thinking about the prairie dogs. The short answer was that he, like Teske, was a student of Allan Savory. As an officer in the Northern Rhodesian Game Department during the 1960s, Savory had set out to redesign the basic tenets of livestock husbandry. Eventually, he developed a series of methods known as “holistic management.” At their core, these involve a simple insight: landscapes like the Great Plains have evolved to support native species, like buffalo, and so the best way to preserve those landscapes is to behave like the native species did.

This, of course, is easier to preach than to practice. For ranchers on the plains, it means encouraging large herds of cattle to behave like buffalo, a task made no easier by the fact that cattle and buffalo act nothing alike. Buffalo tend to roam widely, eating most vegetation and stopping only periodically at waterways, while cattle are finicky and easily habituated, lingering near water sources and grazing the same patch of ground repeatedly.

To bridge the gap between cattle and buffalo, Savory proposed a number of methods, but the most dramatic was a change in fencing. Instead of allowing cattle to run free within the perimeter of the property, ranchers could install a series of smaller paddocks, through which the herd could be shuffled every few days. This would force them to pick each paddock clean before they moved on, and then allow each paddock time to recover. The cost of the additional fencing and herding, Savory argued, would return to the rancher in efficiency and sustainability, as the fields produced more grass and the cattle ate more of it.

By the time Haverfield heard about Savory, he was in his forties, married, and had children who were already branching off to run cattle of their own. But after three decades of working his land, Haverfield was convinced that “we were doing a poor job.” In 1986, he went off to a management school run by one of Savory’s associates, and when he returned he was committed to rotation grazing. Gradually, he began to pay more attention to Savory’s holistic philosophy. What his neighbors would come to regard as a “prairie-dog problem” was to Haverfield just one detail of a much larger awakening. And now he asked: “Did you see any prairie dogs coming in?”

I realized that, in the course of the seemingly endless drive, I hadn’t.

Haverfield nodded. “We might not see a prairie dog all day,” he said. “I’m seeing more hawks than I am prairie dogs.”

But this, he added, was just the point. Centuries ago, dog towns on the plains were kept in check by a host of predators, including hawks, eagles, and ferrets. But the systematic extermination of dog towns had gradually wiped out the predators as well. For most of his life, Haverfield said, “I’d never seen an eagle here, and I didn’t know what a ferruginous hawk was.”

Now these predators were back. “About three weeks ago, we saw forty ferruginous in two hours,” he said. “Yesterday, I saw a golden eagle on a highline pole.” To Haverfield, this made the talk of a “prairie-dog problem” shortsighted at best. The problem had never really been the dogs. It was the lack of predators, and the two canceled each other out.

Haverfield gulped the last of his tea and invited us to have a look, so we crammed three wide into his pickup and rattled out across the open fields. Here and there, we did see dogs pop up to sniff the wind, but Haverfield was right: the more dazzling spectacle was overhead, as hawks and eagles spiraled in such numbers that Teske, a lifelong Kansan, kept shaking his head in disbelief and saying things like, “Them get big!”

After a few minutes, Haverfield pointed to a small butte on the horizon with a thin crust of rock at the top. “That,” he said, “is the Ogallala.”

Teske laughed. “You’re underneath it!” he said. In this area, the layer of rock at the bottom of the aquifer had never been covered with sediment. In fact, that layer itself had eroded, dropping the surface of the landscape until the only place the aquifer basin remained was on the tops of the hills that hadn’t washed away. All of which made Haverfield’s ranch an accidental model for the post-Ogallala future: there was not a quadrillion-gallon jackpot below. Yet somehow, with Savory’s guidance, Haverfield got by. Even without the Ogallala, he said, there was a shallow aquifer a few feet down that produced a thin stream of water — not enough to row-crop corn, or any of the other madness on the plains, but enough, it turned out, to survive. “We could do everything we need with two ten-gallon wells,” he said.

This turned out to be Haverfield’s mantra. Nothing about the ranch was ideal, but at each turn, he had chosen wisdom over comfort. The well might be shallow, the fencing system complex, the fields shot through with dog towns and burrows — but in the end, the place offered a vision of livestock on the plains that could last without destroying the land.

As we neared the edge of a rotation paddock, we could see the strands of an electric fence drawing close, but Haverfield kept speeding forward with no sign of slowing down. He flashed a rascally smile and said, “You want to see how I cross?” Before we could answer, he’d thrown the truck into low gear, opened the door, and jumped out, leaving Teske and me in the driverless pickup still lurching toward the electric wires, until here came Haverfield sprinting ahead, kicking up a seventy-four-year-old leg to stomp down on all the wires at once, just in time for the truck to rumble across, while Teske and I glanced at each other in disbelief. The driver’s door began to rattle again, and Haverfield leapt back into the cab. Teske chewed on his cigar. “Well,” he said slowly. “Damn.”

After a few weeks on the plains, the sight of Frank and Deborah Popper can be startling. Despite twenty-five years of roaming the region, they remain so completely out of place that if you happened upon them at a gas station, there’s a good chance you would peg them immediately as hapless eastern academics in search of some heartland grail.

This is not to say the Poppers look alike. Frank is a burbling, bubbling character, with a great bald pate and saucer eyes that beam ecstatically with the arrival of each new idea as he relates his vision for the Buffalo Commons in a lisp reminiscent of Wallace Shawn’s. Deborah is wary, petite, with gemlike cheekbones and flashing eyes. Next to Frank, she is Esmeralda in the tower. She is also compulsively thorough, clinically precise, and sometimes difficult to comprehend.

These differences also extend to their work. When the Poppers speak together, their presentations are rife with quibbles and quarrels, qualifications and disagreements, sometimes over the most basic details, like what “the Buffalo Commons” actually means. Since they first coined the term in the December 1987 issue of Planning magazine, they have retreated from some of their most specific prescriptions. In the article, for example, they described a federal takeover of abandoned land that would morph into a highly regulated national park: “We are suggesting that the region be returned to its original pre-white state, that it be, in effect, deprivatized.”

This kind of talk, the Poppers soon discovered, sparks fire on the plains. It may be agonizing for the average farmer to witness an exodus of neighbors, but in such a stubbornly individualist environment, the prospect of a federal takeover is something else entirely. As Deborah put it, “people were smiling a little more at us if we didn’t say federal.” Frank, of course, recalibrated quickly, and today he misses no opportunity to assure audiences that the Buffalo Commons can be achieved mainly through private enterprise.

At the Kansas Farmers Union convention, I found the Poppers by a table of ID tags. They weren’t scheduled to speak until the next morning, but they had come to pick up their materials, and now stood outside the opening ceremony. Through the door, they could see a room filled with farmers eating buffet while a female vocalist sang odes to the plains. Frank gestured toward the door with a smile. Deborah recoiled. “We’re going in?”

“Sure,” Frank said. “I think we have to.”

“We have to?”

“Yeah, I think we have to poke our heads in.”

Deborah looked aggrieved, but followed Frank inside, where we took seats in the back. The light was low, and as we peered across the chasm between us and the rest of the crowd, I had a flash of what the Poppers have experienced all these years on the plains. There was Donn Teske, in a wrinkled shirt that was either yellow or old; there was Andy Wilkinson, in a black vest and towering hat; there were the entertainers, taking turns at the microphone — singers, comics, a ventriloquist with a dummy — all illuminated by the stage lights while we observed from the shadows. It was like watching the Kansas Farmers Union on high-definition TV.

In the morning, the room was transformed: tables gone, chairs lined up in rows. A stream of speakers took turns offering updates on the state of farming. Finally, late in the afternoon, Teske rose to introduce the Poppers. Frank took the microphone first, but it didn’t work, so he stepped out into the crowd, speaking as loudly as he could.

“Deborah and I know how hard it is to be a member of this tribe,” he called out. “It seems to me, and I say this as a compliment, you are practicing what Bill Bradley called ‘Romantic Capitalism.’ You’re doing a job. You’re working for a living. The payoffs are not primarily economic. And you persist at this precisely because you are Romantic Capitalists — some of the last Romantic Capitalists in America . . .”

As Frank spoke, men began shifting in their chairs, leaning back and crossing their arms. Whether this was a reflection of dissent or boredom wasn’t entirely clear. Either way, Frank sallied on.

“Lots of things have happened to make the idea of the Buffalo Commons acquire what I would call the muscle of reality,” he told the crowd. “There is now a moderately thriving buffalo industry on the plains. There have been large-scale buy-ups by land-preservation organizations like the Nature Conservancy. Several Indian tribes, in states like South Dakota, now use the Buffalo Commons as a central part of their land-use planning.” He spent a minute or two debunking the idea that perpetual growth was America’s birthright, and that it was unpatriotic to question it. “We have occasionally been accused of having an un-American approach,” he said, “where the Buffalo Commons seems to imply a defeatism. It doesn’t. It implies that you get away from the idea of having too much growth, always overburdening the land, always overmastering the environment — and always getting kicked in the rear as a result.”

With a nod, Frank handed the microphone, which was now working, to Deborah.

“All right,” she said. “I’m going to go hide behind the table, how’s that?” There was no reaction, so she shuffled a few papers and began reading what sounded like an academic study about agricultural development. This went on for about fifteen minutes. People got to scratching their necks and picking lint off their clothes. It was hard to believe that someone as sharp as Deborah Popper could misunderstand her audience so completely. But when at last she finished, a few hands raised. Frank pointed to a stocky man near the front, who stood.

“America has been the great grain silo of the world,” he said. “This sort of pulls that theory apart. What are you going to do to feed the world, without American agriculture as it stands now?”

“Yeah,” Frank said. There was a long pause. “Our approach is not one where Americans give up on agriculture. They do a different kind of agriculture. And they may do it in regionally different ways. If you look, for example, at the statistics about where cattle come from, increasingly they do not come from the Great Plains. They come from the southeast — places like Tennessee and Alabama and Kentucky.”

Deborah took the mic and locked eyes with the questioner. “Let me be straightforward,” she said. “I don’t have the answer.”

“This is an area where we differ,” Frank added.

“Uh, yeah,” Deborah said. “What we need to think about is the assumption of America as the granary of last resort. We don’t need to move everything all over the world, and we want sub-Saharan Africa to remain competitive.”

This did not seem to offer much solace. Whether agriculture was heading for the Deep South or South Africa made little difference to Kansas farmers.

“Forty years ago,” one guy said loudly, “there’d have been five hundred people here.”

Frank nodded. “Over the last two generations, both agriculture and industry essentially had their lunch eaten,” he said. “We are now in what social scientists call the Information Age. This is not the world of the Kansas Farmers Union.”

Somebody called, “And you think America will succeed with that kind of employment pattern?”

“I don’t know,” Frank said. “I’m ambivalent about it, too. It’s this weird new America, that maybe will make sense to our families generations from now. People stare at computers, and go to committee meetings, and write memos, and their product at the end of the day is what economists call ‘services.’ That’s not the tangible product you produce in Blue Valley, Kansas.”

“How much can I possibly add to that?” Deborah said. “One thing is, it’s an economy that does not absorb everybody. So we can see increased unemployment.”

As the Poppers continued, they painted a picture that was relentlessly grim, yet nobody in the room seemed shocked. The march of the past few decades had prepared them for the worst. Everyone, even the most stalwart holdout, was willing to accept that the academics had been right: the jobs were gone, the people were gone, and neither of them were coming back.

About halfway through the lecture, the door opened and a tall man in his seventies wandered in, taking a seat in the last row or two. He was built like a linebacker and had the shaggy hair of an insouciant teen. He listened attentively, but without expression, as the Poppers spoke. When the presentation ended, he sat motionlessly while the room emptied out. Then he stood, grinning, as the Poppers hurried over, and Wes Jackson wrapped Deborah in a hug.

Jackson is something of a mythic force on the plains. Born and raised near Topeka, he played football at Kansas Wesleyan, earned a doctorate in genetics at North Carolina State, and taught in California until 1976, when he returned to Kansas to form a nonprofit called The Land Institute. Ever since, Jackson’s singular ambition has been to remake the rules of agriculture. In particular, he wants to replace the annual crops of today’s farming with what he calls “perennial polyculture.”

As Jackson sees it, the biggest problem with agriculture comes from the annual sowing of seeds. If grains like corn, soy, and wheat could be turned into perennial plants, many of the environmental problems from farming could be relieved in one stroke. The deep roots of perennials would have access to more nutrients and water, would never have to be tilled, and so would require no pesticide, herbicide, fertilizer, or irrigation. What’s more, if those perennials could be planted in mixed fields, they would also phase out many of the problems associated with monoculture farming.

At the conference center, afternoon was fading into evening, and Jackson suggested we join him for dinner. We hurried off to collect our coats, then reconvened out front to pile into his sedan. Deborah wore a black dress with a lavender topcoat; Frank returned with an enormous hat shaped like the head of a buffalo. As he climbed into the car, Jackson nodded gravely, “That’s quite a hat you’ve got there, Frank.”

We followed the highway a few miles, with the sun dropping to the horizon and the sky turning a radiant orange. Jackson said little, smiling slightly while Frank and Deborah gazed out the windows. Then we turned onto a dirt road and drove into a field, where Jackson came to a stop and shut off the engine, rolling down a window in the dusky light. Nothing about the field seemed worth mentioning. There were rows of grain with the seed heads clipped off, and bare soil between plants, but Jackson had a beatific expression. He waved a hand slowly across the view. “Ten thousand years,” he said, “we’ve been waiting for that.”

The field, he explained, was a perennial variant of wheat. After nearly forty years of research, he was beginning to see the plants produce. In his greenhouse less than a mile away, he was also experimenting with perennial sorghum and sunflowers, but the wheat was so close, you could harvest and mill it. In fact, he was already packaging it and cooking with it. He’d even given it a name: Kernza, a combination of kernel and the Native American word kanza, which inspired the name Kansas.

We drove a little farther, crossed a river, then pulled onto a high bluff. Jackson turned off the car again. We were surrounded by a stand of native grasses. “This is prairie that has never been plowed,” he said. “I call this the tree of life.” Then he pointed down the bluff, to a field of cropland in the distance. “And that,” he said, “is agriculture. What we need to do is move what’s up here down there.”

After dinner, Jackson slipped a bag of Kernza flour into my bag and asked me for an honest opinion. As it happened, this was a few days before the winter solstice, the most important holiday for my family, when we gather to cook and exchange our thoughts at the end of another year. In the morning, I opened the Kernza and mixed up pancakes, explaining to my parents, and to my sister and her husband, who keep a tiny farm in the Appalachian foothills, where the flour came from and what it was. Then I loaded three plates for the children, while the adults gathered to sample what was left.

The truth is, there was nothing special about the Kernza. It tasted like any ordinary flour, without any memorable flavor or texture, though it occurs to me now that perhaps this was the point. We each tried a few bites, and remarked to each other how unremarkable it was, and then we moved on to other things, while my son and his cousins slathered their plates with syrup, shoveling down obscene mouthfuls. After a while, my son looked up. “Daddy,” he said, “where did you say these pancakes are from?”

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is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine.

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Commentary July 30, 2012, 8:49 am

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  • Joanne

    Very interesting and informative article. It would be wonderful if the prairie could go back to some semblance of the way it once was. I’m going to look for Kernza wheat flour. :)

  • Bee Farms

    the very best article ever written on these topics. thankyou so much!!!!

  • Bab

    The farmers in the audience hit the nail on the head. Most of us sit in front of computer screens producing entirely superfluous work for no discernible purpose whatsoever. I cannot see how it can go on for very much longer. Farming has always been a hard task, but at least those farmers have the comfort of knowing that people will always need food.

    As to a world nearly seven billion strong, running out of oil, running out of potash, and running out of water, I, like the Potters, have no answer. There will be terrible things in our lifetimes, I have no doubt of that. People in California had hard hearts when people in Oklahoma were starving, how much harder will they be when people in the third world are desperately crying out for food that isn’t there?

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