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.

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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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