Palouse "Beauty" is Really an Ecological Disaster

Author(s): 
Chrys Ostrander

Palouse Ecological Disaster[Updated 02/10/2021] This photo (widely shared on Facebook) of Washington's Palouse region, and many others like it, are visually striking and often used to portray eastern Washington's dazzling beauty, but in reality they depict an ecological disaster of huge proportion.

The Palouse has historically been considered a region of some of the deepest, most fertile topsoils on the planet, but decades of increasingly industrialized extractive agriculture have ruined vast swaths of this once rich resource. Some farms where the topsoil has eroded away due to poor farming practices are growing crops in what is essentially low-fertility sub-soil, requiring so much water-soluble synthetic fertilizer that the water tables are being contaminated with it.

There should be trees along every fence line and roadside, even interspersed within the fields, not just clustered around homesteads. Trees help soil hold moisture and help create humid micro-climates and provide habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators.

The brown is bare fallow which has now made the Palouse famous for the amount of topsoil it continues to lose every year from wind and water erosion. Every grain field is left fallow every other year in this deeply flawed broad-scale, dryland growing system. There should be cover crops on fallow fields, never bare soil. Also, the bare soil fallow is maintained by applying tons upon tons of herbicides to kill any plants that start to grow in it.

Then there's the issue of mono-cropping. One of the reasons farmers who mono-crop need to apply as many pesticides as they do is because hundreds of acres of one crop is like a feast for the pests that harm that crop and those pests don't face any competition from other species because no ecosystem exists for those other species to inhabit.

Also largely missing is livestock. There's one approach known as "Beefing Up the Palouse" that aims to replace annual mono-cropping with perennial pasture upon which cattle and other ruminants are raised using managed, rotational grazing, a practice that can actually rapidly build new topsoil. Another way is to incorporate long rotations where livestock are run on a field for a number of years (improving the soil while they're there) and then annual crops are grown for a few years and so on.

We need to decentralize the livestock industry. I'm referring to our obscene dependence on industrial-scale factory-farm meat production where you have hundreds of thousands of animals raised in disgusting Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Instead, we need hundreds of small-scale livestock producers spread out in the countryside producing meat (that we all should be reducing our consumption of, by the way) for local markets. There are two bills in the WA legislature right now that would help this meat industry transformation happen in WA if passed. They are HB 1102 and SB 5045 (the latter has a much better chance of passing) in case you want to contact your state legislators. Yes, it's a pretty picture unless you really look into it with not just a critical eye, but an eye towards implementing the solutions that already exist. Let's do it!

Update: 

Linda Chase, a reader who lives at "The Gateway to the Palouse" south of Spangle, WA wrote in with a couple of really good points I didn't cover in this article and she gave me permission to use her points to update it.

One thing the picture doesn't show is thousands of miles of agricultural drain tile buried in each of the valleys between the Palouse Hills. I grew up riding my horse for miles along the grassy drainways - grass because the ground was too soggy to get the spring planting equipment in as the water sequestered along the miles of valleys slowly drained down into the water table. Now, and for good reason, the farmers are ecstatic about the crops they are getting from the deep, virgin soil that has been opened up to them by virtue of the drain tile they installed with back hoes. And the water? Well, it was ushered out to the nearest road where it ran into the ditch, down to the creek, out to the river and on to the ocean. It is quite possible that people whose water level in their wells is dropping, may be blaming neighbors for watering their gardens, but what they don't realize is, the big problem does not come from gardens and baths pulling up too much water ...the big problem is the water never got there in the first place.

Another thing the picture doesn't show is how farmers manage the "new-fangled" practice called "No Till." It sounds so organic and so respectful of the soil, doesn't it? No Till. Wow, that speaks of respecting the soil tilth and structure. But wait, what was the purpose of tilling in the first place?  To keep weeds controlled. So how do No Till farmers control weeds? Herbicides, of course. The farmers around us soak the ground with herbicides every spring as the weeds and any crop seeds that last fall's combine missed are beginning to grow. Recent studies regarding the biological health of the soil show that the herbicides once thought safe actually harm the microbiome. 

The picture also doesn't show how the farmers around us get their crop to ripen at the same time. Lentils and wheat are notorious for ripening first along the tops of the hills and ridges while still green along the lower areas.  No problem. Call in the local crop-duster to spray the herbicide Round-up all over everything which acts as a crop desiccant (dries it out).  Problem solved.  Green goes away. But I often feel for the poor vegetarians who buy the bags of lentils thinking they have done the healthy thing for themselves. 

The use of Round-up (active ingredient glyphosate manufactured by Bayer which bought its originator, Monsanto) to dry crops just prior to harvest is not illegal. It's hard to believe, but it's true. And guess what, there are measurable amounts of glyphosate in many of the foods we eat, even some organic foods (primarily from unintentional contamination although some imported grains score so high as to indicate they are fraudulently labeled organic). Studies indicate ingesting glyphosate residues on food may have adverse effects on the gut micro-biome. The Environmental Working Group is an organization that has done some of the best work identifying glyphosate residues in food in order to educate the public and activate us to harangue our electeds and policy-makers to end its use (and not replace it with just some other herbicide). See:

EWG Tests of Hummus Find High Levels of Glyphosate Weedkiller

Roundup for Breakfast, Part 2: In New Tests, Weed Killer Found in All Kids’ Cereals Sampled

I wrote about the use of Round-up as a crop desiccant in this Inland FoodWise article from 2017:
https://inlandfoodwise.online/web/archive/june-1-2017/chasing-toxic-herbicides-out-of-washington-state

I have railed against chemical no-till more than once. I mention it in this take-down of an NPR fluff piece they did on "regenerative agriculture:"
https://www.facebook.com/chrys.ostrander/posts/10212147936673968

The Rodale Institute is doing fantastic work developing an organic version of No Till agriculture.
Organic No Till - Rodale Institute

 

Edition: 
February, 2021