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Farmers are not the root cause of every environmental problem on the planet.

July 18, 2016

2 Min Read

I get tired of the constant drumbeat of bad environmental news that comes across my desk.

The latest one is a story about the “guacamole coasts” of Florida. Water along some beaches evidently turns green with algae every summer.

According to this advocacy group, the big culprit is — you guessed it — agriculture. The group claims that runoff from citrus groves and — gasp — cattle pastures in central Florida is polluting the water.

I don’t know. It might be true. You can never tell with press releases from any organization. They might not be lying. But I never know what they are leaving out. Being suspicious of everything is the curse of being a journalist, I guess.

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In the Dakotas, we have our share of environmental scare stories. Red River runoff polluting Lake Winnipeg is one. The algae bloom in Lake Traverse on the South Dakota-Minnesota border is another.

It seems like every large dairy or hog operation in the Dakotas has been lambasted for what could happen with the manure its animals produce, even if they haven’t had a manure spill or leak.

Too many people think the “old days” were pristine, but they must be imagining what the land might have been like before Northern Europeans moved into North America.

I bet less runoff has come from confined animal feeding operations than what used to come from open cattle and hog pens. They were purposely built on hills and next to creeks, rivers and ditches so the slop would run off when it rained.

When I was a teenager, I canoed the Big Sioux River from Brookings to Dell Rapids, S.D. I gave up counting the number of small feedlots that were perched on the banks of the river, or the number of cows and calves that stood in river water during the heat of the day.

The topsoil loss that occurs today must be nowhere near what happened during the dust storms of the 1930s. The erosion was created, in part, by the government’s policy of giving land to homesteaders if they would break the sod and plant a crop. Farm magazines, including Dakota Farmer, reported that rain would follow the plow.

People in Minneapolis-St. Paul burned so much coal in the 1880s that rich folks’ stone mansions turned black from the soot — a fact you can learn by touring the James J. Hill mansion on Summit Avenue in St. Paul.

My take is that we are not doing so bad by the environment today. There is always more to do. But the sky is not falling. The world is not ending. Agriculture is adapting to climate change. Farmers aren’t ruining the world they live in. They are, in fact, making it better: one buffer strip, one cover crop, one holding pond at a time.

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