Midwest farmers uproot FDR’s ‘Great Wall of Trees’

Midwestern farmers, seeking to expand their crop lands, are destroying millions of trees that helped protect the region’s soil after the catastrophic Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The removal of these trees is expected to worsen the impact of a mega-drought that could come as climate warms the region, says Carson Vaughan in FERN’s story with The Weather Channel.

Under FDR, the federal government and local farmers teamed together to plant more than 220 million trees — or 18,000 miles of “shelter belts” — on 33,000 Great Plains farms in a grand effort to stop soil erosion. But  “today, due to improved agricultural technology, a subsidized marketplace that incentivizes fencerow-to-fencerow planting, and a waning conservation ethic among Plains farmers, many if not most of those shelterbelts have been systematically removed: cut, burned, and buried where they stood,” writes Vaughan. “In Nebraska alone, 57 percent of the original (tree) plantings have been cut back or lost altogether. To many, ‘FDR’s trees’ are simply no longer necessary.”

Farmers have instead turned to no-till agriculture and to a lesser extent, cover crops, in the hopes of protecting their soil from erosion, but both methods only work when there is enough water for these crops to grow. As agriculture drains the Ogallala Aquifer, irrigation — at least at the rate it’s used today — may become a thing of the past. With little water underground, farmers will become more dependent on increasingly sparse rainfall.

“A 2015 study by researchers at NASA, Columbia University, and Cornell University, published in the journal Science Advances, analyzing more than a thousand years’ worth of climate data, takes the forecast a step further, predicting a generation-spanning “megadrought” sometime between 2050 and 2099, barring serious government intervention,” writes Vaughan.

At the same time, farmers are under pressure from nearly every angle — banks, seed and fertilizer companies and even tax assessors — to plant every available acre. The math, especially for young farmers, is almost impossible.

“I hate to see that shelterbelt go,” said one Nebraska farmer about a line of trees near his property.” But the big scheme of it is, for a kid my age, 30-years-old, to go out and borrow a million dollars to buy a quarter of ground — if you don’t farm every acre that you’re buying, we barely stand a chance of getting it paid for to begin with.”