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Perilous bounty
Drift from a Driftless place
Perilous Bounty book cover

GAYS MILLS - That’s the title of a book I just read. Written by veteran food and agriculture journalist Tom Philpot, it is an informative, educational, and somewhat disturbing book about American Farming. Subtitle: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It. Since my career was teaching high school agriculture it looked like a book I should read.

Since I retired in 2003, farming has changed, or should I say it has continued to change, and the pace seems to have picked up. As consumers, we don’t notice these changes. The marvelous flow and the tremendous bounty and choice of food available to us continues. Philpot gives the reader a peek behind the scenes of where our food comes from and the “quiet emergency” of several crisis’s facing American agriculture. Philpot focuses on two regions for his analysis: California and the Midwest. 

California is a powerhouse of food production.  With its great climate and productive soils, California produces more than 50 percent of the fruits and vegetables that we eat. Only with adequate water can this miracle of productivity exist. And that is California’s crisis.

California’s Central Valley, where most of the food production in the golden state takes place, depends on a healthy winter snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to feed a series of rivers which are used to irrigate the millions of acres of crop land below. Some years, that snow pack doesn’t happen.  Then farmers tap into the aquifer below them to pump water. That source is not keeping up with the demands of the intense cropping that has developed on the surface. Example: one very thirsty and lucrative crop that has taken over much of the San Joaquin Valley (the south end of the Central Valley) is almonds.  It takes a gallon of water to produce each almond. Much of the almond crop is exported to foreign countries.

The Midwest has a different crisis: soil depletion. Cropland in Iowa, where Philpot concentrates his attention, amounts to oceans of corn and soybean fields as far as the eye can see. The reliance on this duopoly of crops rather than the typical crop rotations of former years, plus the dependence on chemical fertilizers and pesticides makes for beautiful scenes of bountiful crops. But it is depleting the health and life of Iowa soil.

The relatively cheap Iowa-produced feedstuffs are fed to large-scale cattle, chicken, and hog operations in what Philpot refers to as the Meat Empire. He reports on something called the “fecal equivalent” of Iowa. For its 3 million people, Iowa produces the fecal equivalent of 168 million people with all the livestock it produces. The manure doesn’t always make it back onto the soil as in former styles of agriculture, it often runs off during rain events or finds its way into the water table.


At the end of the book, the author proposes the use of cover crops to protect harvested corn and soybean fields and shifting Midwest crops toward more fruit and vegetable production.

If you’re an eater or a food producer, this book will give you some vital information and insights about our food production system.

Available at the Gays Mills Library.