Yesterday, Jeanne and I spent the afternoon hiking at Glacial Lakes State Park with our black lab Sophie. We took advantage of the cool breeze to walk the prairie and get that sense of openness that I spoke of earlier in the week. We sat and ate lunch on the high point, watching the grasses seemingly crawl across the landscape as the wind moved them. The amount of rain we've received this year has made the prairie very green, it is really very lovely. Glacial Lakes is one of the few places left in Minnesota where one can walk for over an hour and still be on prairie. Over 99% of the prairie that once covered the state has either been plowed up or paved over. It is the most endangered ecosystem in North America and with the pressure to produce more food to meet global demand for food as well as to take advantage of the highest commodity prices few, if any, farmers have ever seen, the prairie is under even greater pressure today.
With that in mind, it is interesting to note that during the debate that centered on the recently enacted Farm Bill, conservation programs were very unpopular. Basically, they are an easy target; it is easy to pick on something without a large constituency, easy (albeit wrongly) to make the claim that they cost jobs, easy to make claims about needing land for more food production. (Again, I've noted before that nobody seems to ever talk about food conservation or reducing our waistlines to save some food.) However, one aspect of food production that few people realize is that in the last 25 years the United States has lost, on average, 2.2 MILLION acres of farmland. Total losses equal an area the size of Maine, New Hampshire, and a good portion of Vermont. Despite these losses we've maintained a food production system that until now had very few bumps in it. We've done that by genetically modifying plants, adding more chemicals and fertilizers to the land, and industrializing our meat production.
Where may you ask has all this farmland gone? Some has been lost to erosion and can now be found at the bottom of our lakes, rivers, and even the Gulf of Mexico. However, most of it is now paved. It is either a suburban yard, a school, a strip mall, a parking lot, or a church. At this rate, the most endangered ecosystem in the U.S. will not be prairie (that will be long gone), it will be farmland.
Instead of plowing up prairie, perhaps we need to take a closer, much closer, look at our zoning laws that allow us to pave anything for any purpose. Perhaps we need to declare farmland an threatened commodity. This is particularly needed in suburban areas where farmers, out of necessity, have to subdivide their land because taxes have increased to a level where they can no longer afford to farm their land.
Churches are as guilty of this transformation from farmland to pavement as anyone. In Alexandria alone three new churches have been built in the last 5 years that have consumed nearly 40 acres of crop land. In suburban areas surrounding the Twin Cities it is even worse. Churches need to be leaders in this area by redeveloping areas in down towns and main streets. Otherwise, they're taking food directly from the mouths of those who need it.