Nov 1, 2013

Google Glass as an agronomy tool

See how one farmer and crop adviser see the future unfolding for Google Glass and other similar devices as a tool in the farmer's agronomy management.

Google Glass as an agronomy tool

Oct 31, 2013

Sustainable farming strategy mimics savanna ecosystem | Manitoba Co-operator

Farmer and author Mark Shepard conducted a workshop in Manitoba last month

Aerial view of swales and berms that are used to trap water.  photo: daniel winters

Garden of Eden-style farming combines strategic water management, 
perennial fruit and nut crops, along with multi-species grazing

Forget “food forests” and the latest genetically engineered crops.

The key to feeding a soaring global population lies in mimicking the most photosynthetically productive natural system on Earth – the savanna, says American farmer and author Mark Shepard.

Unlike a forest, where the canopy shuts out sunlight, a savanna complex is composed of multiple layers of trees, bushes and shrubs that allow sunlight to penetrate through to a grass understorey capable of supporting annual crops and grazing livestock.

And it was from this habitat that Homo sapiens emerged.

Shepard has spent the past 18 years developing his vision for “Restoration Agriculture” on a 110-acre farm in Wisconsin, and has written a book of the same title.

In a recent weekend workshop, the operator of New Forest Farm was sharply critical of both the hippies, for “hallucinating” a future world of vegan backyard vegetable gardeners, and Big Ag, with its calls for more intensive, ecologically destructive annual cropping propped up by an ever-more potent arsenal of chemicals and fertilizers.

“If you were to just eat out of your vegetable garden, you’d starve to death because there’s not enough carbohydrates, proteins and oils,” said Shepard, who has training in both mechanical engineering and ecology.

Modern agriculture, on the other hand, which produces the staple food crops the world depends on, has succeeded in polluting the wells in his area with nitrates and atrazine after only 60 years, Shepard said.

“All civilizations that have relied on annual agriculture have collapsed,” he said.

Systems that don’t work with nature are inherently destructive and inefficient, because they require the existing ecology to first be eradicated and then continually suppressed. In modern times, that’s done by fossil fuel-dependent technologies, and in the past, through endless physical labour.

“I assert that we can revegetate the entire planet in 15 years and produce more food, more fuel, more medicines, more fibre, while cleaning up the water and detoxifying our environment. And we can do that while making a profit,” said Shepard.
King Corn

King Corn is often touted as a solution to world hunger, but despite its capacity to produce nearly 14 million calories per acre, it is not nutritionally complete and requires a never-ending supply of non-renewable inputs and fuel to produce, he said.

An acre of designed savanna-style agriculture, in comparison, with its animal component included, can sustainably produce well over five million calories per acre with virtually no inputs, writes Shepard in his book.

On his farm, he has planted 250,000 trees, bushes and shrubs producing edible fruits and nuts selected to thrive in the local biome along a carefully thought-out “keyline” pattern based on the land’s contours to maximize water-storage capacity and minimize erosion. In between the layered rows of trees, spaced to accommodate his tillage and harvesting equipment, he grazes cattle, sheep, and poultry in successive waves.

By arranging his farm to maximize his photosynthetic harvest, and using livestock to redistribute nutrients, he figures that he has increased productivity fourfold without the use of costly inputs or excessive labour.

When designing a “real-world” permaculture farm, Shepard uses the native ecology as a guide for choosing what plants will thrive and offer good economic returns.
Mixed skyline

On his farm, in the Oak Savanna biome of Wisconsin, that means tall, nut-bearing trees such as oak, chestnut and beech, with a large variety of home-raised apple trees taking up the middle layer.

In the niche beneath that, he plants spreading shrubs such as hazelnuts, cherries, plums and peaches, grass-competitive perennials such as raspberries and blackberries, and shade-tolerant gooseberries and currants.

Grapes are thrown in wherever they might thrive, and mushrooms are harvested from dead wood.

Portable electric fences are used to manage grazing, and prevent damage to vulnerable trees.

Suckering roots are controlled with a subsoiler, which he periodically uses to reinforce the keyline pattern. Ponds that were formed by the keyline’s tendency to capture and retain rainfall and snowmelt provide habitat for pollinators and pest-devouring critters, as well as irrigation when needed.

“Let’s take our agriculture and push it into the forest, and bring the forest out into our agriculture to make one, unified system that we’re managing all at once,” said Shepard.

Disease is a major obstacle for perennial cropping. Shepard uses the Luther Burbank method for selection, which involves planting thousands of seeds and cuttings, then selecting only the very best disease-resistant and highly productive specimens for propagation.

In just 400 years, he notes, the North American continent has been transformed by annual cropping from a resource-rich, species-diverse paradise, to a devastated landscape on the verge of ecological ruin.

Many of his best customers are “prepper” survivalists. They are often dismissed as “crackpots,” but Shepard said he admires them for their sense of urgent purpose.

With Peak Oil, a financial system on the verge of collapse, natural disasters, and the looming threat of global war and civil insurrection, he believes that a “new nature of the future” needs to be created to ensure a decent quality of life for future generations.

“This is what the planet does. So why don’t we line up with it and live a really cool life having a blast?”

Sustainable farming strategy mimics savanna ecosystem | Manitoba Co-operator

Oct 30, 2013

The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture: Wendell Berry


The Unsettling of America has been recognized as a classic of American letters. In it, Wendell Berry argues that good farming is a cultural development. Today’s agribusiness, however, takes farming out of its cultural context and away from families. As a result, we as a nation are more estranged from the land—from the intimate knowledge, love, and care of it.

Sadly, as Berry notes in his Afterword to this third edition, his arguments and observations are more relevant than ever. We continue to suffer loss of community, the devaluation of human work, and the destruction of nature under an economic system dedicated to the mechanistic pursuit of products and profits. Although “this book has not had the happy fate of being proved wrong,” Berry writes, there are good people working “to make something comely and enduring of our life on this earth.” Wendell Berry is one of those people, writing and working, as ever, with passion, eloquence, and conviction.
The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture: Wendell Berry: 9780871568779: Books

Crop Insurance Hazards Revealed in Lost Pheasants in Grasslands - Bloomberg

By Alan Bjerga - Oct 29, 2013

The hunters tramp through neck-high prairie grass with a pair of golden retrievers named Moe and Buck, flushing out birds in a freezing autumn drizzle.

When one flutters from the South Dakota grassland, Dick Schmith, 58, calls “rooster!” Guns rise and a long-tailed pheasant drops. Moe bounds through the meadow to pick it up.

Crop Insurance Hazards Revealed in Lost Pheasants in Grasslands

A number of reasons are cited for the decline, ranging from harsh weather to a boom in commodity prices that has encouraged farmers to plow grassland and plant crops, reducing habitat for pheasants and other wildlife. Photographer: Kent Kidd/Getty Images

Such successes, key to the state’s $172 million pheasant season, are getting harder to come by. Bird numbers are down almost two-thirds from last year.

A number of reasons are cited for the decline, ranging from harsh weather to a boom in commodity prices that has encouraged farmers to plow grassland and plant crops, reducing habitat for pheasants and other wildlife.

Some see a man-made element: taxpayer-supported crop insurance, a program that critics say has contributed to a decline in acres set aside for conservation. A House-Senate conference panel that begins meeting today will consider trimming government subsidies for the insurance and adding conservation incentives as lawmakers reconcile multiyear farm bills approved by each chamber.

“By making it less risky for farmers to plant lucrative cash crops in these areas, we’re seeing expansion onto lands that probably wouldn’t be planted without the benefit of the crop insurance program to encourage it,” said Claire O’Connor, a Santa Monica, California-based policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Most Expensive

Crop insurance, intended to protect growers from price and weather risk, has become the most expensive U.S. farm-aid program, costing taxpayers $14 billion in subsidies for farmers and payments to companies, including ACE Ltd. and a unit of Wells Fargo & Co., after last year’s drought pushed payouts to a record, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

Besides a loss of habitat, expanded planting can worsen erosion and chemical runoff and damage ecologically sensitive land, said conservation groups such as the NRDC and Environmental Working Group.

Insurers counter by saying their industry is being unfairly singled out when the crop insurance program’s impact on the loss of grassland is “at most 1 or 2 percent,” said David Graves, manager for the American Association of Crop Insurers, a trade group in Washington.

“Farmers don’t go out and adjust land-use patterns only to be able to take advantage of a crop insurance program,” he said. “The banker wouldn’t let them.”
Higher Rates

Land considered high-risk due to poor soil quality, or a location prone to erosion, floods or other disasters, also comes with higher premiums. Acres converted from grassland also carry lower benefits, which blunts cultivation of marginal acres, according to National Crop Insurance Services Inc. of Overland Park, Kansas, an industry group.

Under the insurance program, the government subsidizes the majority of premiums paid by farmers, covers much of the administrative costs tallied by insurers to run the program, and guarantees that all losses are met. A series of stories by Bloomberg in September examined the debate over the program’s structure and costs.

More than a half-decade into a price boom expected to push farm profits to a record $120.6 billion this year, land in Midwest and Plains states has shifted toward crops, according to the USDA. This year’s corn acreage of 97.4 million acres was the highest since 1936. About 86 percent of U.S. acreage was covered by taxpayer-backed crop insurance last year, the agency said.
Wildlife Policies

At the same time, about 400,000 acres of grasses and newly broken ground went into production last year alone, according to USDA data analyzed by the Center for Rural Affairs, a farm-advocacy group in Lyons, Nebraska.

“This is about more than a few hunters running around chasing birds,” said Dave Nomsen, vice-president for governmental affairs at Pheasants Forever, a St. Paul, Minnesota-based advocate for hunting and habitat. “This is about having solid wildlife, water and conservation policies that benefit everyone” by providing cleaner air and soil while reducing chemical runoff into water, he said.

As cropland has gone up, nationwide enrollment in the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to idle land to improve water, soil and habitat, has dropped 20 percent from its 2007 peak, to 29.5 million acres in 2012. In South Dakota, where crop revenues have risen 44 percent to $7.7 billion from a half-decade earlier, the drop was 29 percent, with set-aside acreage last year at its lowest since 1988.
South Dakota

About 4.4 percent of South Dakota’s land moved from grass to other uses from 2007 to 2012, with corn-planting accounting for about a third of the loss, according to a study sponsored by seven state farm bureaus released last July. The study found little relationship between crop-insurance subsidies and changes in land use.

A 2012 study led by Iowa State University found that up to 3 percent of land covered by the program in the Dakotas may have remained grassland were it not for insurance subsidies. A 2011 USDA study focusing on the same region in the years before the commodity-price boom found that crop insurance may have increased cultivated land by about 1 percent.

Higher prices are the main motivating factor behind increased production, and adding cropland isn’t something producers take lightly, said Keith Alverson, 33, who raises 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans with his family near Chester, South Dakota, about 40 miles from Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city.

“Farmers will respond to the market, but you’re not going to tear up grass unless you feel like it will make sense in the long term, because it’s expensive to do,” he said. “We certainly need to strike a balance.”
Fewer Birds

Less grassland means fewer birds, said Tom Kirschenmann, wildlife chief for South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish & Parks.

“We’re seeing native grassland being converted. We’re seeing tree shelter belts being removed, and in some areas we’re seeing wetland loss,” he said. “We’ve also had problems with weather, but we can’t control the weather. We can talk about conservation programs.”

Environmentalists and farm subsidy critics are trying to drive that conversation as farm-bill talks intensify on Capitol Hill.

While overall increases in cropland attributable to the program may be small, local effects can be much greater, said Craig Cox, a vice president based in Ames, Iowa, for the Environmental Working Group, which seeks broader reform of crop insurance, including reduced premium subsidies and a halt to proposed program expansions.
Farmer Discounts

In Congress, lawmakers are debating “conservation compliance,” which would require farmers to create conservation plans for their property before qualifying for crop insurance while discouraging the draining of wetlands or farming highly erodible land.

Backers note that such plans have long been required for participation in other farm-subsidy programs.

Conservation compliance is important regardless of how much new land comes into cultivation because it covers all farmland, no matter how it’s used. “Compliance simply tries to improve the way sensitive acres are managed,” said Cox in an e-mail.

The New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council is advocating for the equivalent of “good driver” discounts on crop insurance, which would offer premium reductions to farmers who improve land-use practices.
Environmental Benefits

Compliance opponents say adding such requirements to crop insurance may keep some farmers from signing up for coverage, thus raising premiums and taxpayer costs while providing few additional environmental benefits.

In May, 31 commodity, crop insurance and conservation organizations ranging from the National Cotton Council to the Environmental Defense Fund agreed to support a compliance provision that phases in over time. That proposal, included in the Senate farm bill approved in June, balances the interests of conservationists and the industry, said Graves, whose insurance organization supports the compromise.

The House of Representatives bill doesn’t have the provision. Lawmakers including House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, an Oklahoma Republican, don’t support the approach, saying it would be hard to enforce and impose a regulatory burden on farmers.

The Senate’s bill also included a measure to reduce crop-insurance costs. It would trim the government’s portion of farmers’ insurance policy premiums to 47 percent from 62 percent for growers with adjusted gross incomes over $750,000 a year.
Sodsaver Provisions

The measure, affecting about 20,000 producers nationwide, would save about $100 million a year. The House didn’t include those cuts in its version of the bill, but did pass the non-binding resolution urging its conference committee members to adopt them.

The two chambers also differ on so-called sodsaver provisions, which would lower federal insurance-premium subsidies on newly broken land. While the Senate would implement the policy nationwide, the House would limit it to five states in the so-called prairie pothole region where conversion has been most dramatic, including South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Iowa and Minnesota.

“I don’t want to incentivize bad land practices and over-production,” said Representative Kristi Noem, a South Dakota Republican and House farm-bill conferee who backs a nationwide sodsaver provision and doesn’t support conservation compliance. “If crop insurance is doing that in some area, it needs to be tweaked.”
McGovern’s Gun

At Leader Sporting Goods, a hunting-gear store in Mitchell where the late U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern would go to get his gun repaired, sales are flat. Owners Ken and Jeanne Blaalid said the bird numbers have kept out-of-state hunters away.

“People we’ve known for years will call us and say the birds aren’t there, that’s why they’re not coming,” said Jeanne Blaalid, adding that half her store’s sales come during the three pheasant-hunting months. “You have to have habitat.”

Hunters say they see the effect of less land on bird populations as they enter pheasant country.

“When you sit on a farm in the morning, you will hear pheasants cackling,” said Thomas “Red” Pederson, a member of the group that has driven six hours from Minneapolis to hunt the birds near Highmore, about 40 miles east of Pierre, the state capital. “This year we haven’t heard so much.”
Burning Sloughs

“A couple years ago, I was coming across South Dakota and I was wondering what was going on, it was fire after fire. It was sloughs being burned so they could be prepared for corn fields next spring,” said Pederson, who was nicknamed “Red” back in the day when he had a full head of hair.

The 8,000-acre ranch where they were hunting is owned by Jim Faulstich and mixes crops including grain, wheat and oats with range and grasslands he keeps as pheasant habitat to attract hunters.

With prices driving crop decisions, the market may ease the habitat crunch even if the government doesn’t, Faulstich said.

Corn, which peaked last year at $8.49 a bushel in Chicago, is down almost 50 percent. Crop-price booms tend to be followed by busts -- and then the grassland returns as farmers idle property, he said.

Still, relying on market fluctuations is no way to balance land and wildlife, Faulstich said.

“I’ve made a lot of money off of corn, but I try to keep several things going on at once. There’s no question I could have made more money on corn than on pheasants the past two years, but we’ll see what that looks like two years from now,” he said, loading Buck and Moe, the retrievers, into his 1986 Ford F-150.

“This is something we can manage better.”
Crop Insurance Hazards Revealed in Lost Pheasants in Grasslands - Bloomberg

How You Pay Farmers To Watch Their Crop Shrivel Up and Die | Mother Jones

The federal crop insurance program puts farmers in a real bind. And as climate change intensifies, it's only getting worse.

—By Laird Townsend
Wed Oct. 30, 2013
Eric Herm, 36, unloads non-genetically-modified cotton seed into a storage barn on his 6,700 acre farm in West Texas. Photograph: Ben Depp

In 2011, Eric Herm's cantaloupes exploded.

A fourth-generation cotton farmer in West Texas, Herm was experimenting with a home garden to help feed his family during the onset of a drought in the area. Blistering heat, including 100 degree days as early as May, was wilting Herm's cotton—and in the end, it turned his melons into pressure cookers.

Most of Herm's neighbors have lost their cotton crop the last three of four growing seasons—part of the most severe regional drought in more than 50 years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 temperatures in the US were the hottest in recorded history. And a May 2013 report by the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate concluded that "human-induced climate change" played a statistically significant role in the record-breaking temperatures of 2011, adding that the period from October 2010 to September 2011 "was Texas's driest 12-month period on record."
As of October 2013, more than 80 percent of Herm's neighbors declared their cotton a failure and collected crop insurance claims, subsidized by US taxpayers.

With the exception of scattered irrigation, most farmers in West Texas practice "dryland" farming, meaning they're entirely dependent on rain. Rainfall on Herm's acreage had previously averaged 17 inches a year, but in 2011 and 2012 the annual averages were 3 and 8 inches, he said. Even the driest years of the Dust Bowl, which lasted off and on from 1930 to 1940, brought about 9 to 14 inches of rain to Herm's region, according to Natalie Umphlett of the Nebraska-basedHigh Plains Regional Climate Center.

"In the back of my mind I'm wondering, 'where do I go if things get that bad,'" Herm said back in May, while planting for the 2013 growing season. "If we do not make a crop this year, I'm going to have to a real serious look at [the] future."

The latest news is not reassuring. As of October 2013, more than 80 percent of Herm's neighbors declared their cotton a failure and collected crop insurance claims, subsidized by US taxpayers.

If recent research by the US Department of Agriculture is any indication, the crop failures will be a sign of the future. In a February 2013 report, the agency rounded up relevant scientific findings from 56 experts from federal service, universities, and non-government organizations. The results cast doubt on the viability of the US heartland in the age of warming—and not just for dryland cotton. "Continued changes by mid-century and beyond," the report said, "are expected to have generally detrimental effects on most crops and livestock." Among other problems, "weed control costs total more than $11 billion a year in the US. Those costs are expected to rise with increasing temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations."

Interviews with more than a dozen climatologists, agronomists, agro-economists, and agricultural statisticians have generally echoed the USDA's prognosis: after about 30 years, greenhouse gas concentrations will reach critical enough levels to significantly disrupt agriculture. But even the next ten years will probably prove challenging for American farmers, because the weather will be more variable. As Columbia University associate professor of international and public affairs Wolfram Schlenker put it, "there's more certainty that there will be less certainty."

In any case, taxpapyers are on the hook for climate-related disruption of US food production—mainly in annual outlays for crop insurance. In February 2013, the same month that the USDA released its bleak assessment on global warming, the Government Accountability Office released a statement warning about the federal government's "fiscal exposure to climate change," including the crop insurance program.
If the current version of the farm bill were extended ten years into the future, crop insurance could cost $8.41 billion per year.

Based on USDA data, if the current version of the farm bill were extended ten years into the future, even without expansions under debate, crop insurance would cost $8.41 billion per year, or $84.1 billion total, according to Jim Langley of the Congressional Budget Office. With the expansions the projected costs rise to about $99 billion. And that figure does not account for recent climate-related impacts on crop yields, including the drought of 2011 and 2012 in Texas and the midwest.

"We treated those two years as outliers," said Langley. "We don't explicitly take into account climate change. It's not like something dramatic is going to happen in next ten years. We assume weather going to be normal."

To be sure, it's hard to turn estimates about climate impacts on agriculture, and by extension crop insurance outlays into hard numbers. And there's no consensus that taxpayers will pay more than projected. Advocates of crop insurance claim that the program works better than disaster relief. "It forces farmers to manage risk before, not after it happens, which saves taxpayers money," Tom Zacharias, president of National Crop Insurance Services, an industry group, has written.

Still, the tab has been steadily rising. According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance averaged $3.1 billion annually between 2000-2006, but have more than doubled to an average of $7.6 billion for 2007-2012. Much of the fiscal bleeding has resulted from what's called a "harvest price option," an insurance option that compensates farmers for the revenue they missed when prices skyrocket amid climate-related scarcity. In the extreme weather since 2009 costs have tripled overall, rising every year from about $4.8 billion to the record high of more than $13 billion in 2012, according to Patrick Westhoff of the University of Missouri's Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

These increasing costs, at least partially related to climate variability, have called attention to the role of crop insurance in the farm bill. Under the new bill, the crop insurance program would largely replace traditional crop subsidies, becoming the main way taxpayers are asked to support farmers. On Wednesday, a House-Senate conference will begin to reconcile two versions of the bill, both of which are strongly favored by agribusiness and insurance interests. Most of the politicking has long since been choreographed, as a range of lobbying reports and campaign contributions could attest. But the stakes in the debate are profound and long lasting, and they can be seen clearly in the desiccated row crops of West Texas.

QUINTON KEARNEY, 38, who farms with his wife and five employees near Lamesa, Texas, about 60 miles south of Lubbock, started out in 1996 with 700 acres and steadily expanded to 9,700 acres. Like other farmers in the area, Kearney lives in a comfortable middle class home.

But after three years of drought and two failed crops, Kearney's margins have become razor thin. Since insurance payouts are based on past yields, every year a farmer loses his crop means he can claim less the following year—even as his premiums go up. "It's rough," Kearney says. "There's only so much salary you can pay after 3 years of drought, and still have cushion if the banker calls in the chips."

Another farmer, Steve Bodine, who farms 2,000 acres about 40 miles south of Kearney, barely broke even the previous two years, even after collecting on claims. He had similar luck in 2013. "Three in a row, it's getting really hard to stomach," Bodine said.

Given an average crop price, insurance claims might provide margins of 1 or 2 percent, according to farmers in the area. By guaranteeing at least this minimum margin, taxpayers are keeping conventional large-scale farmers on the land. But perhaps just as importantly, they are subsidizing the producers of expensive things that farmers buy each year—starting with seed.

In a normal year, virtually all of the cotton farmers around here plant Monsanto's Roundup Ready "technology," as they call it. The advantages are obvious: it saves tremendous time, doing away with hoeing crews for weeding and related personnel management. The labor is essentially replaced by a large spray rig, a 400-gallon tank filled with Roundup, and fuel to drive it through the fields maybe twice a season. The spray kills everything except the cotton, which is genetically engineered to resist it.

But the drought has temporarily called into question the use of GMO seeds. At planting time this May, the ground was essentially dust, with almost no chance for seeds to grow. In such unfavorable conditions on the heels of two straight crop losses, no smart farm manager on the southern plains would feel comfortable investing in expensive technology.

In a previous era, after a dry winter on the heels of three drought years, the grandparents of today's farmers would not have spent the money even to plow the land for planting. They would have let the ground fallow and tried to find a job, perhaps in the oil fields, hoping to return with the rains. But today's generation can collect on crop insurance, which means they do things differently.

To be eligible to file a crop insurance claim, a farmer is required to plant the seed. That provision provides a built-in advantage to the seed companies, because farmers must plant by government-mandate deadline, no matter how futile the act of doing so. But Roundup Ready cotton seed is expensive—as much as $350 to $400 a bag, farmers said, which can amount to more than $100,000 in annual seed costs. In interviews, every one of a half-dozen local farmers who normally purchased Monsanto technology said they simply abandoned the practice this year. Instead, they purchased conventional seed at one-fifth the cost. Then they planted it, knowing that it would be very hard to turn it into a successful crop—but that if the crop failed, insurance might keep them afloat until the rains returned. That would give them a chance to resume normal practices.

"It's a no-brainer," said Louis Addison, an agent with Adams Crop Insurance in Lamesa, Texas. "It doesn't make much sense to put a $350-to $400 bag in a dry seed bed when you own or are storing good viable seed in your barn. They were just seeding to satisfy their insurance requirements."
"You're almost pushed into this GM seed deal because it's about the only way to farm anymore."

The crop insurance program works in favor of the companies that produce the GM seeds—and a range of other related agricultural inputs—that farmers in the area typically buy in non-drought years. No wonder, then, that more than 120 insurance and farm interests, from John Deere and Monsanto to the insurance companies Ace and Wells Fargo, lobbied for crop insurance in 2012. (In an email, Monsanto spokeswoman Christy Toedebusch declined to comment on the role of federally subsidized crop insurance, noting that the company is in the process of purchasing the Climate Corporation, which will allow it to sell supplemental crop insurance. She added that the company's seed pricing "is in line with the marketplace.")

Even if the rain came, it would have been extremely difficult to produce a crop with the conventional seed the farmers planted. That's because it would have required old-fashioned weeding—spraying Roundup would have taken out the plants along with the weeds—and these farms were mostly too big for that. They would have had a hard time summoning up the old hoeing crews from the pre-biotech days.

"We used to have migrant crews that would come in and take care of the weed problem," says Addison, "but the GM seeds have basically done away with that. It makes it very difficult on the farmer, you're almost pushed into this GM seed deal because it's about the only way to farm anymore."

Of the farmers I interviewed who abandoned Monsanto seeds this year, every one ended up filing for an early crop failure, adding to taxpayer subsidies. Addison did not know any such farmer who made a crop.

EVEN IF the rains return, the farmers of West Texas face a string of economic and ecological dilemmas that could affect their bottom line. In place of labor, farmers now pay for GMO seeds, diesel, fertilizer, $200,000 spray rigs, and other sophisticated equipment. The smart farmers see only one way out: "we have to do it on a lot of acres," Kearney said. "It's the only way we can make it work."

Following a nationwide trend, the farms in West Texas grew significantly larger as biotech seeds spread in the 1990s and have not shrunk since then. Crop insurance has facilitated the trend. Federal subsidies cover about 60 percent of farmer's crop insurance costs on both ends—premiums and payouts. Banks treat the subsidized insurance as collateral to finance expenses during the growing year. Farmers can also pay higher premiums to guarantee a high portion of revenue—as much as 75 percent. The result is that the subsidies drastically reduce the risk of annual operations—and of expansion.

But this risk reduction brings risks of its own. The Environmental Working Group found that crop insurance has played a role in encouraging farmers to expand row crops onto marginal land like wetlands or prairie, which exacerbates vulnerability to erosion, floods, and drought.

And yet the crop insurance program provides no formal incentive for water conservation or soil preservation, key elements in climate adaptation. On their own a few farmers around here experiment with traditional conservation practices, including cover crops. Some farmers have recently planted black-eyed peas and other secondary crops in the wake of cotton failures, bringing new nutrients to the soil. Others participate in voluntary paid conservation set-aside programs, which increases acreage for wildlife.
If you thought more than one year out, one farmer told me, "you couldn't get out of bed in the morning."

But they don't talk about global warming. They talk about drought, which is something their elders survived in the 30s and 50s by dint of off-farm work, gardens, and butchered hogs. Even those who monitor climate science and allow themselves an occasional "sinking feeling," as one farmer put it, are constrained by the stubborn optimism that is necessary for farming. If you thought more than one year out, one told me, "you couldn't get out of bed in the morning."

So what if the government were to pull the plug on crop insurance? It would mark the end of independent farming on the southern plains, says Bodine, where his family's been farming almost 100 years. "There is a legacy here," he told me. "You do away with crop insurance, there's no way people can get financed."

But Bruce Babcock, an Iowa State agricultural economist and critic of the subsidies of crop insurance, has another idea: If the US scaled down subsidies, he says, it could scale up research in adaptation—identifying what varieties best adapt to drought, researching crover crops and soil moisture, studying where crops should be grown. "That's going to have to take place in the next 10 to 30 years. Farming is like any business—areas that can adapt best to climate change will make more money over time. This kind of [adaptation] support will help farmers more than handouts and crop insurance will."

If Babcock got his way and funding changed from insurance subsidies to adaptation funding, the farmer who might stand the best chance of surviving are the ones who resisted the trend. Eric Herm, 40, grew up on his father's farm in Ackerly near Big Springs, left at age 23, and returned in 2005, full of ideas about environmental stewardship, including the home garden full of cantaloupes. He has ensured that the 6,700-acre farm remained free of Roundup Ready cotton: at most, the acreage receives an older-generation herbicide treatment before planting.

In order to practice these non-GMO methods, Herm and his father have retained longstanding relationships with migrant labor from the Rio Grande Valley—about the only farmers around that do so for weeding (some crews have returned this season for secondary crops like sorghum and black-eyed peas).

As it turned out, this workforce saved the Herms during the 2013 planting season. With three weeding crews of 20 to 25 workers each, the Herms' team was able to go over the crop rows with the routine two passes with a weeding tractor and two passes with hoes. The exception was four passes each on 250 special acres—Herm's first certified organic cotton crop.

"I can't tell you how many people told me I couldn't do this," says Herm, about the cotton that he says is the only organic variety for 20 miles. "Without herbicides they said you'll never able to make it work. I worked harder on it, but it's going to be worth it." Most habitual Roundup Ready farmers around Herm, even those that received roughly the same rain Herm did, had planted conventional seeds—and failed out their crops in July.

As of early October, Herm was tending to a full crop on most his fields, still hoping for rain before the harvest.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism. Additional reporting support was provided by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Naomi Klein: How science is telling us all to revolt

Is our relentless quest for economic growth killing the planet? Climate scientists have seen the data – and they are coming to some incendiary conclusions.


Waste land: large-scale irrigation strips nutrients from the soil, scars the landscape and could alter climactic conditions beyond repair. Image: Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London, Pivot Irrigation #11 High Plains, Texas Panhandle, USA (2011)

In December 2012, a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held annually in San Francisco. This year’s conference had some big-name participants, from Ed Stone of Nasa’s Voyager project, explaining a new milestone on the path to interstellar space, to the film-maker James Cameron, discussing his adventures in deep-sea submersibles.

But it was Werner’s own session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . . . how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.

Plenty of scientists have been moved by their research findings to take action in the streets. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. And in November 2012,Nature published a commentary by the financier and environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham urging scientists to join this tradition and “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

Some scientists need no convincing. The godfather of modern climate science, James Hansen, is a formidable activist, having been arrested some half-dozen times for resisting mountain-top removal coal mining and tar sands pipelines (he even left his job at Nasa this year in part to have more time for campaigning). Two years ago, when I was arrested outside the White House at a mass action against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, one of the 166 people in cuffs that day was a glaciologist named Jason Box, a world-renowned expert on Greenland’s melting ice sheet.

“I couldn’t maintain my self-respect if I didn’t go,” Box said at the time, adding that “just voting doesn’t seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also.”

This is laudable, but what Werner is doing with his modelling is different. He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.

That’s heavy stuff. But he’s not alone. Werner is part of a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system – is leading them to similarly transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions. And for any closet revolutionary who has ever dreamed of overthrowing the present economic order in favour of one a little less likely to cause Italian pensioners to hang themselves in their homes, this work should be of particular interest. Because it makes the ditching of that cruel system in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity.

Leading the pack of these new scientific revolutionaries is one of Britain’s top climate experts, Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which has quickly established itself as one of the UK’s premier climate research institutions. Addressing everyone from the Department for International Development to Manchester City Council, Anderson has spent more than a decade patiently translating the implications of the latest climate science to politicians, economists and campaigners. In clear and understandable language, he lays out a rigorous road map for emissions reduction, one that provides a decent shot at keeping global temperature rise below 2° Celsius, a target that most governments have determined would stave off catastrophe.

But in recent years Anderson’s papers and slide shows have become more alarming. Under titles such as “Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous . . . Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope”, he points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast.

With his colleague Alice Bows, a climate mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson points out that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies – all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned – that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else.

Anderson and Bows inform us that the often-cited long-term mitigation target – an 80 per cent emissions cut below 1990 levels by 2050 – has been selected purely for reasons of political expediency and has “no scientific basis”. That’s because climate impacts come not just from what we emit today and tomorrow, but from the cumulative emissions that build up in the atmosphere over time. And they warn that by focusing on targets three and a half decades into the future – rather than on what we can do to cut carbon sharply and immediately – there is a serious risk that we will allow our emissions to continue to soar for years to come, thereby blowing through far too much of our 2° “carbon budget” and putting ourselves in an impossible position later in the century.

Which is why Anderson and Bows argue that, if the governments of developed countries are serious about hitting the agreedupon international target of keeping warming below 2° Celsius, and if reductions are to respect any kind of equity principle (basically that the countries that have been spewing carbon for the better part of two centuries need to cut before the countries where more than a billion people still don’t have electricity), then the reductions need to be a lot deeper, and they need to come a lot sooner.

To have even a 50/50 chance of hitting the 2° target (which, they and many others warn, already involves facing an array of hugely damaging climate impacts), the industrialised countries need to start cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by something like 10 per cent a year – and they need to start right now. But Anderson and Bows go further, pointing out that this target cannot be met with the array of modest carbon pricing or green-tech solutions usually advocated by big green groups. These measures will certainly help, to be sure, but they are simply not enough: a 10 per cent drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually unprecedented since we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1 per cent per year “have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”, as the economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British government.

Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, reductions of this duration and depth did not happen (the former Soviet countries experienced average annual reductions of roughly 5 per cent over a period of ten years). They did not happen after Wall Street crashed in 2008 (wealthy countries experienced about a 7 per cent drop between 2008 and 2009, but their CO2 emissions rebounded with gusto in 2010 and emissions in China and India had continued to rise). Only in the immediate aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States, for instance, see emissions drop for several consecutive years by more than 10 per cent annually, according to historical data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre. But that was the worst economic crisis of modern times.

If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what Anderson and Bows describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”. Which is fine, except that we happen to have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted).

So what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.

In a 2012 essay that appeared in the influential scientific journal Nature Climate Change, Anderson and Bows laid down something of a gauntlet, accusing many of their fellow scientists of failing to come clean about the kind of changes that climate change demands of humanity. On this it is worth quoting the pair at length:

. . . in developing emission scenarios scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise, “impossible” is translated into “difficult but doable”, whereas “urgent and radical” emerge as “challenging” – all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance). For example, to avoid exceeding the maximum rate of emission reduction dictated by economists, “impossibly” early peaks in emissions are assumed, together with naive notions about “big” engineering and the deployment rates of low-carbon infrastructure. More disturbingly, as emissions budgets dwindle, so geoengineering is increasingly proposed to ensure that the diktat of economists remains unquestioned.

In other words, in order to appear reasonable within neoliberal economic circles, scientists have been dramatically soft-peddling the implications of their research. By August 2013, Anderson was willing to be even more blunt, writing that the boat had sailed on gradual change. “Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-)industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony” (his emphasis).

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some climate scientists are a little spooked by the radical implications of even their own research. Most of them were just quietly doing their work measuring ice cores, running global climate models and studying ocean acidification, only to discover, as the Australian climate expert and author Clive Hamilton puts it, that they “were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order”.

But there are many people who are well aware of the revolutionary nature of climate science. It’s why some of the governments that decided to chuck their climate commitments in favour of digging up more carbon have had to find ever more thuggish ways to silence and intimidate their nations’ scientists. In Britain, this strategy is becoming more overt, with Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, writing recently that scientists should avoid “suggesting that policies are either right or wrong” and should express their views “by working with embedded advisers (such as myself), and by being the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”.

If you want to know where this leads, check out what’s happening in Canada, where I live. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper has done such an effective job of gagging scientists and shutting down critical research projects that, in July 2012, a couple thousand scientists and supporters held a mock-funeral on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, mourning “the death of evidence”. Their placards said, “No Science, No Evidence, No Truth”.

But the truth is getting out anyway. The fact that the business-as-usual pursuit of profits and growth is destabilising life on earth is no longer something we need to read about in scientific journals. The early signs are unfolding before our eyes. And increasing numbers of us are responding accordingly: blockading fracking activity in Balcombe; interfering with Arctic drilling preparations in Russian waters (at tremendous personal cost); taking tar sands operators to court for violating indigenous sovereignty; and countless other acts of resistance large and small. In Brad Werner’s computer model, this is the “friction” needed to slow down the forces of destabilisation; the great climate campaigner Bill McKibben calls it the “antibodies” rising up to fight the planet’s “spiking fever”.

It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And it might just buy us enough time to figure out a way to live on this planet that is distinctly less f**ked.

Naomi Klein, the author of “The Shock Doctrine” and “No Logo”, is working on a book and a film about the revolutionary power of climate change. You call follow her on twitter @naomiaklein

Naomi Klein: How science is telling us all to revolt