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Jacobs: Ag practices take a big toll on nature

Let’s be clear about one thing: In the war between man and weeds, I do not cheer for the weeds.

For the most part, I think modern agriculture is a marvel. It feeds us well and cheaply. Consolidation of some agricultural operations, such as feedlots and slaughterhouses, has made the world cleaner and better fed.

Mike Jacobs

Still, I’m afraid that Big Ag has become a greater threat to nature than Big Oil, for this reason:

Agriculture is spread out all over the landscape. Oil production is more localized.

In the jargon of environmental regulators, agriculture is ambient. Oil is a point source.

This has become more evident as oil production has become more precise. Modern technology allows recovery of much more oil from a single well, so well sites are farther apart.

There’s open space, even native prairie, between wells in western North Dakota.

Of course, oil development threatens some species. Fragmentation of habitat by roads and pipelines disturbs natural areas. Noise and dust have consequences. Probably, light pollution does, too — light pollution of the sort caused by flaring of natural gas in the Bakken Formation.

But oil isn’t everywhere.

By contrast, modern technology has enabled tillage where tillage was impossible less than a decade ago. Field tiling has become widespread in the Red River Valley. This allows efficient drainage of wet areas that once remained in grass.

Even small wet spots shelter a range of species that can’t survive in a corn field.

As tractors have become larger, roadside ditches have disappeared. These provided important habitat for a variety of species. Perhaps the best known is North Dakota’s state bird, the western meadowlark.

Meadowlarks once were abundant even in areas where there was little pasture. Now meadowlarks are rare in the Red River Valley. In some areas, they’re gone completely. In others, they hang on in small and declining numbers.

This is not an impression. There’s plenty of documentation of the decline.

Nor are birds the only wildlife species affected. Red-bellied snakes were abundant at our place west of Gilby, when we moved there 13 years ago. I welcomed them because they’re interesting and because they live on slugs — and any slug-eater is welcome in my garden.

I haven’t seen a red-bellied snake in two years.

Of course, red-bellied snakes are secretive creatures. They spend the day under rocks and forage at night, when slugs are most active.

But I always knew the snakes were around because they were run over on the road. I have a collection of red-bellied snake carcasses, small enough that they dried to leather on the pavement between our house and our mail box.

Then there are the deer, of course — fewer now than at any time in the past three decades, and not just in western North Dakota, where oil development would be expected to disturb and displace them. Deer are dramatically fewer in the Red River Valley, too.

One of the disheartening things about these trends is that they’re government sponsored. The push for energy independence led to incentives for ethanol production. This has driven up corn prices, and rising farm profits have made ever-more invasive technologies affordable.

Here’s something else to be clear about:

Individual farmers are not to blame. Farmers depend on markets, and grain markets have become badly skewed by government programs, including the ones that encourage ethanol production.

That’s not the end of it, however.

In its search for alternatives to direct payments to farmers, Congress embraced the idea of a more generous crop insurance program. That means that there’s far less financial risk in agriculture than there used to be.

What’s the consequence of reduced risk?

Better bankability.

That has two impacts on the land. It leads to higher land prices and drives the conversion of marginal acres to crop production.

In the days of direct payments, checks could be made dependent on individual conservation practices. That’s harder with the new regime, and farm representatives are resisting the tying of insurance to conservation compliance.

So, the war on weeds has expanded into something much larger and more troubling. Nature is in danger.

Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, a member of Forum News Service.  Email him at