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:

Official Business March 17, 2015, 4:01 am

Radio Hustle

Listen to the broadcast version of “American Hustle,” Alexandra Starr’s story, for the April 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, about how elite youth basketball exploits African athletes.

Official Business January 8, 2015, 3:57 pm

The Art of Outrage

We defend Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish its cartoons—and our right to critique them.

Memento Mori September 2, 2014, 5:33 pm

Charles Bowden (1945–2014)

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author
Article
Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If you short-circuit the bottom, you threaten the entire cycle,” Joye told me. “Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.”
Illustration by John Ritter

Length in days of the sentence Russian blogger Alexei Navalny served for leading an opposition rally last year:

15

Israeli researchers developed software that evaluates the depression of bloggers.

A teenager in Singapore was convicted of obscenity for posts critical of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding father, that included an image of Lee having sex with Margaret Thatcher.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today