Harper's Finest — May 21, 2013, 3:09 pm

Wil S. Hylton’s “Broken Heartland” (2012)

The looming collapse of agriculture on the Great Plains

This past weekend, the New York Times published a report from Haskell County, Kansas, where drought conditions have hastened the draining of the High Plains Aquifer, foretelling a future in which irrigated farming is no longer possible in some parts of the state. 

Harper's Magazine (July 2012)Last summer, Harper’s Magazine got out in front of this story, publishing “Broken Heartland,” a narrative feature by Wil S. Hylton in which the author highlights the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer, a branch of the High Plains system:

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. . . .

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. . . .

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.

In the course of his narrative, Hylton spends time with farmers seeking to overcome drought conditions, with residents jousting over plans to introduce wind farms, and with two academics putting forth a radical proposal to create an agricultural commons on the plains. All are attempting to avert the dystopian vision put forth by one of the farmers Hylton meets:

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Harper’s Magazine:

Mentions July 16, 2014, 7:00 pm

“The End of Retirement” on MSNBC

Watch Jessica Bruder on MSNBC’s The Cycle

Official Business June 25, 2014, 8:00 am

Garry Winogrand at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A retrospective exhibition from June 27 to September 21 in New York City

Heart of Empire, Mentions June 20, 2014, 11:41 am

Andrew Cockburn on Democracy Now

Andrew Cockburn discusses the origins and possible fate of Nouri al-Maliki’s prime ministership

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2014

The End of Retirement

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Octopus and Its Grandchildren

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Francis and the Nuns

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Return of the Strongman

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The End of Retirement·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“For those riding the economy’s outermost edge, adaptation may now mean giving up what full-time RV dwellers call ‘stick houses’ to hit the road and seek work.”
Photograph (detail) © Max Whittaker
Post
The Many Faces of Boko·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“People want education. Open a school and they will rush.”
Photograph © The author
Article
The Octopus and Its Grandchildren·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Stanford University’s origins and vision
“The pervasive fantasy that Silicon Valley doesn’t need the government obscures the role of that government in funding much of the research that built it.”
Photograph © Sallie Dean Shatz
Post
God Lives on Lemon Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Bethel was Oz-like for me. I mean that with all the awe, utter hopefulness, and mythic fear with which Dorothy and her friends had approached that magical city.”
Photograph (detail) ©© Clemens v. Vogelson (Flickr)
Article
Francis and the Nuns·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“A year and a half into his papacy, Pope Francis is looking an awful lot like his predecessors.”
Photograph (detail) © Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

Estimated additional hours Americans would spend stoned annually if marijuana were legal in most states:

30,000,000,000

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University said that most alcohol-related airplane accidents happen at night and in bad weather.

A waitress in Chengdu ate a cockroach in response to a complaint by a customer who had discovered the bug in his salad. “You will always find cockroaches in the food,” she told him. “It is very normal.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today