silt-rich bottom of huge prehistoric LakenAgassiz. It took only a hundred years ornso for man to nearly deplete it.nAnd now John Gardner, a NorthnDakota agronomist, is telling GreatnPlains farmers from Saskatchewan tonTexas how to rescue their most valuablenresource. What he says is basic andnsensible enough to make farmers blush.nBut will they listen?nGardner, superintendent of NorthnDakota State University’s research andnextension center in Carrington, calls hisngoal “sustainable agriculture.” Farmersnhave been frustrated for decades, hensays, with no clear path in sight, nonpromise of relief from the everincreasingndemand for vigilance andneffort. Farmers don’t burn out and sellnout only for financial reasons: they alsonsimply get worn out, with worry andnwork. And that’s because they’venwound themselves into a spiral of artificiality.nGardner urges farmers to look at thenlong run, to weigh economics and thenenvironment against each other, and tonconsider the whole ecosystem. He cautionsnfarmers to stop “recreational” ornunnecessary tillage, to stop continuousnplanting of any species, and to knowneconomic thresholds for weedsn(“Farmers today no longer understandnhow many weeds it takes to hurt a cornncrop. Today, whether there’s one weednor a hundred, they’re weeds, andnthey’ve got to go”). He would like tonsee government farm programs becomenmore flexible in allowingnnonprogram crops. And he’s also engagednin more exotic experiments: withnshallow tillage, livestock-intensivenfarming, multiple crop systems (forninstance, planting flax with wheat, harvestingnthem at the same time, andnseparating them later, or planting soybeansnin wheat and harvesting themnseparately), and perennial wheat andnlegumes.nMuch of this seems like plain oldncommon sense, things that should havenbeen tried decades ago in a part of thencountry where the family farmer battlesndaily to, literally, hang on to hisnturf Even when it rains on the plains,nfarming is hard. So why aren’t Gard­n50/CHRONICLESnner’s recommendations common practice?n”Well, it’s complex,” he says, unwillingnto blame any party. “The agnsituation that we’re in right now is anfunction of a lot of factors: social,neconomic, and political. Before then30’s, we plowed everything black —nand not just in the Red River Valley,nbut all over. It was kind of the Russiannapproach, where we thought one managementnscheme would work everywhere.n”We had some dry years in the 30’s,nour soil started to blow away, and all atnonce — all of a sudden — we realizednthat we need soil conservation.n”During World War II there was anlot of experimenting with chemicals.”n(2,4-D, one of the first herbicides,ncame out of World War II.) “And afternthe war we discovered that, hey, we cannreplace some of our tillage with somenof these chemicals.” The soil conservationnlearned at such a cost during thenDust Bowl was rapidly unlearned.nFarmers got careless with their practices.n”Unfortunately, at that time wenmade a choice. We didn’t know wenwere making one, but we were. Wendropped the study of biology for 30nyears and went whole-hog into chemistry.nThat’s when we became very dependentnon fertilizers, especially sincenwe had ‘mined’ all the nitrogen andnother nutrients out of the soil.n”Then, in the 70’s, there was whatnseemed to be a world food shortage.nThere were incentives to raise as muchnfood as possible. And we started tellingnour farmers, ‘We don’t want you standingnaround with a pitchfork, raisingnhogs and cattle and chickens and beingna part of the ecosystem. That’s oldfashioned.nWhat you need to do isnbulldoze the barn and plant wheat.’nWe had experts who told us that whatnworked in business would also worknbest in farming — and business wasnstreamlined and capital-intensive.n”We created a big problem for ourselves.nNow North Dakota, for instance,nprobably has the capability tongrow more different kinds of crops thannmany other states, but we don’t. Wenhave a lot of guys who are in angovernment program that tells themnthey have to plant wheat, so they plantnwheat. Our farm program and ournfarm practices aren’t built on an under­nnnstanding of the farm process, but onnproducts. Gommodities. None of thesenfactors would have been so bad bynitself—using fertilizer in itself isn’tnbad, streamlining in itself isn’t bad —nbut together they were terrible fornfarming.”nWhat plains farmers need to learnnfast, says Gardner, is that “there’snsomething that’s a lot better thannstreamlining, and that’s diversification.nNature is successful, sustainable, andnstable because it’s diverse.”nHe’s reminded that a lot of farmersnhave come to be completely dependentnon government farm programs. Isnhe recommending that they see thenlight and wean themselves individually,nor would he like the government’s helpnin changing farming habits?nHe laughs. “Ten years down thenroad there probably won’t be any governmentnprograms. Wouldn’t it be nicenif during the intervening years thengovernment encouraged good farmingnhabits instead of discouraging them?nOn the other hand, some very goodnarguments have been made that Americannfarming will never be able tonsupport itself in a free market, thatnsubsidies are necessary. That’s the waynthe Europeans do it. They say, ‘Wenvalue the agrarian way of life, so we’rengoing to subsidize farms.'” Either way,nhe says, the government should encouragenthe right kind of farming.nFrom a purely biological point ofnview — Gardner isn’t interested in gettingninto the politics or the sociology ofnfarming — are small family farms betternthan large farms? “The most effectivensystem would be a moderatelysizednfarm. What’s important is thatnthe farmer has a stake in the ownership.nThere’s something distinctly differentnin the kind of decisions made byna farmer who hopes to pass the farm onnto his children and their children, and anguy who comes in and is paid $5 annhour to make decisions.n”But I’d go one step further and saynthat the farmer is part of the ecosystem.nHe and all the crops he plants andnall the animals he raises are part of thensystem. And a farmer who has ownershipnin his decisions is going to understandnthat better than one whondoesn’t.”nJane Greer edits Plains PoetrynJournal. She lives in Bismarck.n