It’s a stark contrast indeed. As I often wrote about Iraq, the vast desert regions of tan and light brown colors fill almost every landscape. Yes, there are fields of green near rivers and next to canals and there are still date palm tree orchards south of Baghdad. In the northern regions, fields of cereal crops, including wheat and barley, sit in the more rain-fed areas, and we find these crops beneath center pivots.
But here in the Midwest, from an agricultural perspective, the vastness of our production farming system is extraordinary.
I recently flew my N201NJ over to Willmar, Minnesota. The flight of three hours covered 500 miles, and as I flew over at an altitude of two miles above sea level, the colors of blue and green spread out as far as the eye could see. These are the colors of life. And beneath me, the crop fields of corn and soybeans and grass and vegetables and orchards were just at their maximum growing point. The scientist in me is thinking about photosynthesis … the abundance of inorganic carbon fixed as organic … the enzyme Rubisco at work catalyzing this carboxylation.
The colors of life include blue, from the lakes of Minnesota and Wisconsin which settle in the landscapes, and of course I flew over Lake Michigan for about 20 minutes. The water is blue, and an abundance of ecology does surround these bodies of water. This region is, of course, part of the dairy belt, and often I could see cows grazing in green fields beneath me … dots of black and white and brown at times gathered near a barn but spread out in the grass too. The remarkable ruminant is comfortable in these fields.
I write of this stark contrast for a very important reason. We ought not ever take this rain-fed system for granted. We should be, in all manners possible, thinking about the land use decisions that will change or could change the ecology of this vast productive area.
In our little town of Alma, Michigan, time and time again, it is production agriculture that provides the lifeblood of economic sustainability. We often hear that industries can come and go but the land remains. This is true today, as it has always been.
I imagine that just as I made this 500-mile trip to and from Willmar, there are hundreds of towns just like Alma between here and there. They survive because the soils are productive, the rainfall provides water for transpiration, and there are farming families, generation after generation, growing food and feed for the entire world.
Yet in the dry arid regions of Iraq, with a few exceptional areas of the extreme north where there is sufficient rainfall some years to grow winter wheat, nearly everything that is grown there must be done with two huge constraints – irrigation water and soil/water salinity. Much of the dry, arid world must deal with these two constraints. They can certainly be mitigated if enough effort, money and technical expertise are spent, but these can be extraordinarily expensive. Countries that shift resources to produce sufficient food for their populations do spend their economic currency to mitigate water and salinity constraints. However, Iraq is not yet one of them.
I often stated that addressing these constraints in Iraq or similar regions does not require new technology. We can go ahead right now with the effort and then work on improving efficiency once underway. These efforts are fundamentally political in nature. Iraq, for instance, has not yet decided to rebuild its agriculture system. And it once was vast … the Mesopotamia Plain region was considered the Garden of Eden in Biblical days. The intrinsic soil properties are good enough that Iraq could once again have fields of green.
We must give them some time. The country has been through several wars and basic human needs come first … electricity, housing, roads, schools and a safe and responsive government. But at some point, the political leadership in Iraq might think about committing adequate resources to grow most of its own food for 30 million people (expected to be 40 million in 10 years).
The stark contrast of Iraq and the Midwest is evident in another, perhaps more important way. And that is the people.
In Iraq, the treadmill of war and enduring decay has driven many people, especially the young, away from farming. There is desertification underway, especially in southern Iraq. Yes, we may blame a lack of water to some extent, but at another level it is the people giving up and moving into towns and cities because the economic and infrastructure support have been missing for decades.
Yet in these fields and towns below me as I make the three-state flight, the opposite is true. It is the production farming system that is the very economic driver for this vast region, and at its core are farm families who are committed to grow food and feed for the world. And having the water as rain and in sufficient volume to leach salts, thus avoiding salinity issues, are absolutely essential.
My 16-month tour in Iraq gives me a much greater appreciation for the colors of blue and green that were below me on my recent flight. The mosaic of corn and soybean and grass and trees and rivers and ponds and riparian areas … these were missing in Iraq. This new appreciation of mine comes with the knowledge that we should think about our land use decisions so these fields are productive for our future family members. They will be tasked with even more important roles of growing food for people as the world adds another billion people by 2025.
I gazed out of my aircraft at fields of green and waters of blue, and I knew I was home. The vast deserts of Iraq seem far away. And I am comforted in knowing that down there, in hundreds of towns and thousands of farm families, production agriculture is healthy, vibrant and making a huge contribution for humanity.
Wherever I have been in the world, every time I come home and once again the corn is shoulder-high about the first of July and the once- or twice-weekly thundershower turns the soil black, I know that this part of the world is extraordinary, it is the full manifestation of blue and green as the colors of life … and it is my home. PD
Foreign Ag Service
Soil and Water
Ministerial Adviser in Iraq