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“True Environmentalists” Make East River a Factory

Last year, I had a depressing experience on my bicycle. After a glorious school year of biking and hiking the winding roads and wilderness trails around Spearfish and the Black Hills, I returned to East River for the summer. The first sunny weekend back, I set off toward Orland and the Valley Road for a long ride. Not long into the ride, I felt a creeping ennui.

What the heck? I'm on my bike! The juices are flowing! I should feel great!

It wasn't the tedium of pointing due south for over half an hour. It was the realization that I was riding through an endless industrial complex. Corn and beans, corn and corn—all around me was land closed to public use and dedicated to ag-industrial purposes. Scenically, spiritually, I might as well have been riding on North Cliff Avenue in Sioux Falls or out on Eglin Street by Target east of Rapid.

Terry Sohl knows the feeling:

...I work at USGS EROS, a facility that sits outside of Sioux Falls 10 miles. I always used to have my camera with me when I drove to work, and I usually would take gravel roads, driving by the few remaining “micro-habitats” that remained in a sea of farmland.

...Just a couple of miles southeast of USGS EROS, there used to be a marshy pasture, with scattered wetter spots that actually supported cattails and other wetland vegetation. When driving to and from work, it was the one spot I would often pause at with my camera. It was the ONLY little patch of wetland left on my way to work, and I was often rewarded with photos of some nice birds. Swamp Sparrows, Le Conte’s Sparrows, Sedge Wrens….

I knew that spot was likely in trouble when I saw heavy equipment sitting on the land last fall. The natural drainage through the area, this little ditch that often held standing water, was dug up and expanded. The entire field was drain-tiled, and this summer when I drove past the spot, the entire area was now a corn field. "Progress"…South Dakota style. I don’t bother bringing my camera to work any more. I don’t bother taking gravel roads. Even these little micro-habitats that once held birds are now all gone, plowed under in the rush to grow even more corn [Terry Sohl, "Revisiting Farmers as 'True Environmentalists'," Feathers and Folly, 2013.09.03].

Sohl looks at the food factory we live in and calls the South Dakota Corn Growers' favored propaganda baloney. Expanding your factory to maximize production and profit does not make you an environmentalist, at least not a "truer" one than anyone else. The corn factory changes and scars the environment as much as a conventional smokestack plant:

I love to fish, but I rarely bother fishing in this part of the state, and I CERTAINLY wouldn’t ever eat a fish I caught around here. The water is incredibly turbid and so full-of ag-runoff that on a recent birding trip, I literally had to hold my nose driving past many of the lakes and ponds in the area. Fertilizer runoff ensures massive algae blooms in the summer, and the stench around Lake Thompson and other lakes in the area is pretty horrid right now [Sohl, 2013.09.03].

Sohl and I both recognize that 7 billion people need to eat. Perhaps our boredom commuting and pedaling through the great East River food factory is a small price to pay for fending off starvation. But we should recognize the price we pay... and keep an eye out for sustainable practices that could leave a little more prairie unturned.


  1. Porter Lansing 2013.09.03

    Recently spoke to a corn farmer friend near Oldham. "I'm making more money now than I ever have selling a type of corn that animals won't even eat. The land my dad bought for $35 an acre is now going for over $1700 an acre and yet the gov't keeps sending me checks." he boasted. He's gotten rich selling corn to make into auto fuel at an overblown price propped up by federal subsidies which do nothing to help America and increase our debt. These subsidies are gifts by Republican law makers to huge agribusiness corporations in turn for generous campaign donations and are a fraudulent slap in the face to "we the people". Especially when self serving politicians like Kristi Noem vote to keep her ag checks coming but refuse to help hungry seniors and disabled voters with a few bucks a month to help buy food. Deplorable, Ms. Noem.

  2. David Newquist 2013.09.03

    Agriculture has been displaced by agribusiness. The major difference is that the latter regards conservation as needless expense and effort. There was a time when grass waterways, shelterbelts, woodlots, and natural areas were a part of farming, but it has been seduced by corporations which get farmers to think they are ceos over the land, when in fact they are serfs who work in behalf of the major agricultural corporations. Once again our farmers are falling into the "capital farming" trap that set them up for the crisis of the 1980s.

    The most worrisome aspect is that we have no idea at this time of the effects of GMOs and soil saturated with glysophate that is causing super bugs and super weeds to evolve. Scientists who question the massive application of chemicals and injections of hormones are silenced by those who are in effect getting well paid to silence those questions.

  3. Roger 2013.09.03

    I still don't see why we HAVE to feed the 7 billion.... oh yea, tidy profit...

  4. Garyd 2013.09.03

    Porter: I have a couple of questions.

    This farmer from Oldham, what kind of corn does he raise that animals won't even eat? If you are implying that it will be made into ethanol and therefore won't be used for animal feed you are completely WRONG. Even after processing for ethanol, one third of a bushel of corn is left that goes as distillers grain which is a VERY high quality feed. So, explain that one to me.

    Next, the farmers father bought some ground for $35/ acres and sold it for $1700. What year did he buy and when did he sell. Is that any different from someone who invested in say Microsoft or Apple when they were start ups. How many years did the dad sacrifice and/or do without to keep that ground?
    What subsidies is ethanol getting that the oil companies are not? The blenders credit went away over 18 month ago! Tell us how ethanol is supposed to compete in a market that is controlled by oil?

    What checks is he getting from the government? Direct payment ARE going away if the Congress can get their act together and pass the farm bill.

    Either you or your farmer friend are misinformed or stretching reality or both.

  5. Jerry 2013.09.03

    What may be the final breaking point for the polution business that AG has become will be the pheasant numbers decreasing. Now that is gonna make for some interesting debate. The AG folks are polluting the land and taking away the ground cover for the birds and in some locations, a loss of some 70%. That means that out of state hunters will not come here to spend their millions that go to the small villages that are in AG country that go into state, county and city coffers. AG moolah is no longer dispersed in the communities in the percentages that they once were. Soon, big AG will get its just reward of being just another huckster business that pollutes the land and water with little or no regard of what they do. It may be too late in the game as we are seeing more and more good grassland being destroyed by AG as if topsoil and water are of no concern. This is exactly what greed is all about, damn shame too.

    Put the land back to where it was. Stop pumping corn into animals and motors so it poisons all who eat it and come into contact with it. Go to grass fed beef and remember how good that was to eat without all the marble. It is tiring to hear about a farm bill that enriches a few at the great expense of the many.

  6. John 2013.09.03

    Cory, you stumbled upon and nailed the reason I no longer hunt pheasants, waterfowl, and deer that feed and drink of our agricultural waste. If its not grass-fed I'll have no part of it. Similarly there is no reason good enough to eat fish coming from a lake surrounded by the refuse of our industrial agriculture. Yep, farmers are the first conservationists, sure, can I sell you a glacier in Montana:

  7. Wayne B 2013.09.04

    Jerry nailed it. Pheasant counts just came out - 1.5 birds per mile, down from last year's 4.9 birds per mile.

    The writing's on the wall. CRP is getting taken out as fast as the terms come up. Our prairie grasses are disappearing, and fields where cattle roamed are now getting broken up. I imagine our taxation structure has something to do with this, too , but a large driving force is the price of corn.

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