Gjerloff Prairie

Lincoln -- Last weekend we drove over to Griffith Prairie in Hamilton County (now re-named Gjerloff Prairie), managed by Prairie Plains Resource Institute. This is the source of the native prairie grasses and forbs we sowed to restore a couple of acres of our own Lancaster County prairie in 2012. The results have been good.

This is a wonderful prairie to walk, sloping down as it does over abrupt hillocks and through rough ravines to the Platte river at its north end. Acre after acre, native grasses cover tall eolian (wind formed) mounds and ridges of loess soils.

Take a hike!

The drive to and from the prairie was no less interesting, although not always in a positive way. Corn and soybean fields are bare, susceptible to blowing should there be drought and winds. Cornstalks have been baled and removed from the fields. Windbreaks that formerly protected the soil are long gone, being in the way of center-pivot irrigation systems. No wonder there are no pheasants here anymore, as there is no cover.

The ancient formations of wind-blown soils on the Gjeroff Prairie is a reminder of the work of the historian James Malin, who took a long view of history and said the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s were nothing remarkable. The Great Plains, he maintained, have long been subject to cycles of desertification. As to the cause of the Dust Bowl, he minimized the effects of the plows that broke the plains and stripped them of their protective grass cover. Malin warned that the establishment of Soil Conservation Districts would lead to government tyranny. Few remember Malin, apparently, or he would be the poster child of those who hold similar views today about climate change. What I remember of the early 1950s, when drought once again threatened another Dust Bowl, was that farmers were actually grateful to the previous generation--and to the Soil Conservation Service--for planting windbreaks and instituting conservation practices that worked effectively to stave off a repeat.

The countryside between Lincoln and Hamilton County is not bare when it comes to ethanol plants, seed laboratories, and anhydrous ammonia distribution centers. Chemical agriculture rules. There is a price to pay, of course. The newspapers are full of stories about the need for new water treatment facilities in the towns and cities, about the need to boil water in contaminated rural water districts, and about lakes and streams that are so dangerous that they are off-limits to people and pets.

All this is tolerated because Nebraska agriculture is needed to feed the world, or so it is said. Just who that might be in the world is not asked. The answer seems to be that, in reality, precious little of the agricultural production has been going to poor countries to feed any of the world's needy. But the phrase is ubiquitous as the justification for endangering Nebraska's soil, water, and health and human resources. To suggest that the phrase might be a PR gimmick of middlemen who exploit Nebraska farmers and natural resources would be heresy. It might be true in the future that Nebraska agriculture is needed to feed an impoverished world, but so far it is not. Just as it might be accurate to say GMO technology will someday cut pesticide usage and increase crop production, so far that hasn't been the case, either. What agricultural overproduction and GMO technology have done, so far, is to drive down crop and livestock prices, increase federal taxpayer costs for ag subsidies, ruin habitat, and drive important pollinator species to the brink of extinction.

The drive through the countryside is not all bleak, however. We saw several fields lush with turnips and radishes, cover crops to hold the soil and provide good grazing for livestock. We saw a farm near Marquette that has been turned into a supplier of organic grains, with impressive domestic and foreign markets. It also produces antibiotic-free beef and pork. Maybe its products will someday work their way into the local economy.

It's ironic that the livestock may be eating better in these counties than the humans. We stopped in York for lunch at its most renowned restaurant and found few if any greens on the menu. The salad was mostly stale, imported iceberg lettuce; the server did not know where the beef or chicken came from. Apparently we were the first patrons who ever asked. Many of our fellow diners were seriously overweight. A whole overweight family wheezed through their meals at a table next to us. "Was everything okay?" the server asked as we departed. I did not answer. Where to start?

Better to contemplate the highlights of the day, and to appreciate those who have taken the time and trouble to preserve the remarkable resource that is the Gjerloff Prairie.