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[Harper's Finest]

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.

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