Wyoming’s past can help us adapt to a changing future

Despite our ideological differences, Wyoming residents share a profound love for our land and scenery. Because of our winters, our awesome range lands and mountains, we’ve developed an abiding respect for nature’s limits. That connection has spawned a resilient, resourceful, and pragmatic culture.  

But something is different now. Changing weather patterns are changing our relationships with the land, and its ability to support us. They may not talk about it much, but those closest to the land see the changes most clearly and bear the brunt most directly. 

So too our political climate is changing. Our youths feel betrayed by older generations, impatient with political inaction and uncertain about their own futures. Sooner or later they will leave Wyoming, moving to places more congenial and forward-looking. 

But it need not be so. As a deeply conservative state, and a place so in tune with the natural world, Wyoming should pioneer how to thrive in changing conditions precisely in order to preserve our values and ways of living.          

Wyoming agriculturists can teach us a lot about how to adapt. They’ve long been acute observers of the land, improving their cultivation methods while retaining rural values. For farmers, foresters and ranchers, it’s a matter of necessity. That necessity has now arrived for the rest of us as well. 

Since time immemorial, leaving the land in better condition than when they found it has been the mark of good agriculturists. To do so, they learned from experience to adapt to nature’s limits. But that changed when a growing population, the obligation to feed people overseas as the result of two world wars, and the desire to keep domestic food prices low, compelled the federal government to incentivize farmers to produce more calories per acre for human consumption. That effort has been enormously successful. But extending the limits of soil and water beyond their natural capacities — by using synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and technology — has contributed to soil exhaustion, lower ground-water levels and pollution.  

So they adapted. In recent decades, both industrial- and family-farm operations have turned to soil-friendly cultivation methods. Perhaps most visible to non-farmers is no-till — leaving plant residue after harvest, then drilling seeds through that stubble. This approach minimizes soil disturbance, enriches the soil, reduces the need for artificial fertilizers and helps cut costs; especially critical now since Russia has been a major supplier of artificial fertilizer.

Currently, four wheat farmers in Laramie and Platte counties are part of an imaginative approach to reduce planting and tilling of wheat fields. Conventional wheat used as flour, in bread and cereal, is an annual. But in collaboration with a UW faculty member and two graduate students, the farmers are testing Kernza®, a perennial wheat grain bred by The Land Institute, a nonprofit research group located in Salina, Kansas. With its extensive root system, Kernza® helps to regenerate the soil, serves as a net sink for atmospheric carbon, and tastes good with a sweet and nutty flavor. Recently, Kernza® has become commercially available to consumers. These farmers, in other words, are responding to the demands of the economy and the land to bring from the old a new, better way. 

As Wyomingites we are thoroughly familiar with carbon in the form of coal, created by the decomposition of plant materials over millions of years. Perhaps less well known, all farming depends on carbon in the form of hummus, created by that same decomposition over just a few years. Hummus is the organic component of soil; organic as in carbon-based. Once considered eccentric, organic farming is now recognized as the most sustainable method of cultivation. The true organic farmer creates a “virtuous circle,” sowing seeds, cultivating crops, saving some seeds for planting and returning crop residue to the soil where it is converted into hummus. At the risk of oversimplification, organic farming based on a cyclical principle operates within the limits of nature; conventional agriculture based on a linear or straight-line principle relies on perpetual growth, ever seeking to override nature.          

We’ve pursued a linear, straight-line approach to “progress” for centuries, and now it has caught up with us. Like the agriculturist, we must adapt. That cyclical principle, as ancient as farming itself, calls into question our modern understanding of progress, meaning unlimited growth and more of everything. It feels counterintuitive to equate progress with less of everything, but we must change our thinking and our ways of doing things by investing heavily in remediation and resilience. 

Our children and grandchildren who we hope to be part of Wyoming’s future may not say it this way but, like it or not, climate change will require us to replace our current “culture of growth” with a novel “culture of limits.” That will require some humility on our part, and a different connection with the land we love.

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