It took millennia for North Dakota soil to acquire what nutrients it has (and they’re substantial) in the Red River Valley along the eastern border, the silt-rich bottom of huge prehistoric Lake Agassiz. It took only a hundred years or so for man to nearly deplete it.

And now John Gardner, a North Dakota agronomist, is telling Great Plains farmers from Saskatchewan to Texas how to rescue their most valuable resource. What he says is basic and sensible enough to make farmers blush. But will they listen?

Gardner, superintendent of North Dakota State University’s research and extension center in Carrington, calls his goal “sustainable agriculture.” Farmers have been frustrated for decades, he says, with no clear path in sight, no promise of relief from the ever increasing demand for vigilance and effort. Farmers don’t burn out and sell out only for financial reasons: they also simply get worn out, with worry and work. And that’s because they’ve wound themselves into a spiral of artificiality.

Gardner urges farmers to look at the long run, to weigh economics and the environment against each other, and to consider the whole ecosystem. He cautions farmers to stop “recreational” or unnecessary tillage, to stop continuous planting of any species, and to know economic thresholds for weeds (“Farmers today no longer understand how many weeds it takes to hurt a corn crop. Today, whether there’s one weed or a hundred, they’re weeds, and they’ve got to go”). He would like to see government farm programs become more flexible in allowing nonprogram crops. And he’s also engaged in more exotic experiments: with shallow tillage, livestock-intensive farming, multiple crop systems (for instance, planting flax with wheat, harvesting them at the same time, and separating them later, or planting soybeans in wheat and harvesting them separately), and perennial wheat and legumes.

Much of this seems like plain old common sense, things that should have been tried decades ago in a part of the country where the family farmer battles daily to, literally, hang on to his turf Even when it rains on the plains, farming is hard. So why aren’t Gardner’s recommendations common practice?

“Well, it’s complex,” he says, unwilling to blame any party. “The situation that we’re in right now is a function of a lot of factors: social, economic, and political. Before the 30’s, we plowed everything black—and not just in the Red River Valley, but all over. It was kind of the Russian approach, where we thought one management scheme would work everywhere.

“We had some dry years in the 30’s, our soil started to blow away, and all at once—all of a sudden—we realized that we need soil conservation.

“During World War II there was a lot of experimenting with chemicals.” (2, 4-D, one of the first herbicides, came out of World War II.) “And after the war we discovered that, hey, we can replace some of our tillage with some of these chemicals.” The soil conservation learned at such a cost during the Dust Bowl was rapidly unlearned. Farmers got careless with their practices.

“Unfortunately, at that time we made a choice. We didn’t know we were making one, but we were. We dropped the study of biology for 30 years and went whole-hog into chemistry. That’s when we became very dependent on fertilizers, especially since we had ‘mined’ all the nitrogen and other nutrients out of the soil.

“Then, in the 70’s, there was what seemed to be a world food shortage. There were incentives to raise as much food as possible. And we started telling our farmers, ‘We don’t want you standing around with a pitchfork, raising hogs and cattle and chickens and being a part of the ecosystem. That’s oldfashioned. What you need to do is bulldoze the barn and plant wheat.’ We had experts who told us that what worked in business would also work best in farming—and business was streamlined and capital-intensive.

“We created a big problem for ourselves. Now North Dakota, for instance, probably has the capability to grow more different kinds of crops than many other states, but we don’t. We have a lot of guys who are in a government program that tells them they have to plant wheat, so they plant wheat. Our farm program and our farm practices aren’t built on an understanding of the farm process, but on products. Commodities. None of these factors would have been so bad by itself—using fertilizer in itself isn’t bad, streamlining in itself isn’t bad—but together they were terrible for farming.”

What plains farmers need to learn fast, says Gardner, is that “there’s something that’s a lot better than streamlining, and that’s diversification. Nature is successful, sustainable, and stable because it’s diverse.”

He’s reminded that a lot of farmers have come to be completely dependent on government farm programs. Is he recommending that they see the light and wean themselves individually, or would he like the government’s help in changing farming habits?

He laughs. “Ten years down the road there probably won’t be any government programs. Wouldn’t it be nice if during the intervening years the government encouraged good farming habits instead of discouraging them? On the other hand, some very good arguments have been made that American farming will never be able to support itself in a free market, that subsidies are necessary. That’s the way the Europeans do it. They say, ‘We value the agrarian way of life, so we’re going to subsidize farms.'” Either way, he says, the government should encourage the right kind of farming.

From a purely biological point of view—Gardner isn’t interested in getting into the politics or the sociology of farming—are small family farms better than large farms? “The most effective system would be a moderately-sized farm. What’s important is that the farmer has a stake in the ownership. There’s something distinctly different in the kind of decisions made by a farmer who hopes to pass the farm on to his children and their children, and a guy who comes in and is paid $5 an hour to make decisions.

“But I’d go one step further and say that the farmer is part of the ecosystem. He and all the crops he plants and all the animals he raises are part of the system. And a farmer who has ownership in his decisions is going to understand that better than one who doesn’t.”