The Ace of Trade motors toward Dean Blanchard’s dock, gannets in tow as it winches its nets into storage. Dean’s workers are Louisiana locals with homemade tattoos. Cigarettes in mouths, they vault aboard the trawler to shovel knee-high piles of shrimp off the fiberglass deck and into holding tanks, where they’ll be sucked into the warehouse via 12-inch-thick, semi-translucent pipes.
Dean has been in business for 37 years, distributing shrimp off the barrier island of Grand Isle in the Mississippi River Delta. He’s a squat man with a boxer’s nose, a soft-talking Cajun with the gravelly voice of a lifetime smoker. And since 2010, when the British Petroleum oil spill reduced his share of shrimp sales in America from 11 to 8 percent, he’s been a fierce adversary of corporate industry.
Dean and other Gulf Coast fishermen increasingly find their livelihoods threatened by a different type of pollution. It’s a threat to the shrimp trade and ocean biodiversity that’s unrelated to oil and much harder to fix.
“Sometimes we’ll get hundreds of dollars of shrimp a day, then the next day everything’s gone,” says Dean, “when the dead zone comes it just kills everything.”
Upstream, agricultural fertilizer from 31 states washes into the Mississippi River. Like a topological funnel, the river directs 41% of America’s water toward the Delta and some of America’s most productive fishing grounds. The chemicals concentrate in a patch of ocean off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas, encouraging the growth of algae. That growth sucks up oxygen, threatening species that spend time in the shallow waters overlapping the dead zone. Shrimp, fish and crab need to move from inshore nurseries to offshore spawning grounds, but hypoxia blocks their migration. Escaping fish are forced out of their habitats, and oysters perish where they lay, their silver shells yawning open over miles of ocean floor.
“Nobody’s forcing farmers to work in a way that doesn’t mess up the environment,” says Dean, diagnosing the problem, “if nobody forces them, they’ll do it the cheapest way. They’re in business.”
This year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Gulf dead zone is 6,952 square miles, slightly smaller than their prediction of 7,829 square miles, but much larger than the 5-year average of 5,770 square miles. And dead zones have quadrupled globally since 1950, according to the journal Science, expanding along with the human population and the reliance and large-scale farming.
But farmers in the Midwest are experimenting with new methods of agriculture, taking advantage of federal cost-share incentives and co-operative arrangements to limit the spread of fertilizers into watercourses. They’re bucking the trend of entrenched duocropping, aware of their own impact on the Gulf of Mexico.
Tim Little cuts his oven-bake cake into squares, excavating pieces from the foil wrapper and handing them around on paper plates. An assortment of china mugs wait for coffee. Shafts of morning sunlight peek through small windows, illuminating the inside of the steel barn — a John Deere tractor, a car lift and mechanical tools.
Tim and his friends grew up here in Minnesota, on family farms an hour from the Mississippi River. Now in their 60s they’ve formed a loose collective, meeting to pool resources, share knowledge and push their industry toward solving the problem of agricultural pollution.
“Our fathers had diverse crops — oats, alfalfa, corn, what we needed for the hogs and the cows,” says Tim Little, “but as the cows went we raised corn and soybeans only. We lost the crop diversity, and then we lost the soil health.”
Through the 1950s and ’60s farmers in America were pushed to mechanize, and machinery designed for specific functions — planting, ploughing or harvesting — pushed a natural tendency to increase profit through specialization. Demand for corn and soybeans increased as international trade expanded, and as uses as diverse as biofuels, animal feed, high fructose corn syrup and bio-based plastics increased. Farms planted corn one year, soybeans the next — a habitual duocrop rotation.
For five years Tim has been planting cover crops across his 2,000-acre farm, a method of reducing fertilizer runoff and increasing soil health that’s growing in popularity among conservationists and farmers.
The process works by sowing new seeds (a cover crop) into mature corn or soybean fields (the primary crop) before they’re harvested. When the primary crop is cut, the cover crop grows through the stalks of the primary crop. The decaying stalks return nutrients to the soil as worms break them down, boosting nitrogen levels for the next rotation of primary crop.
Cover crops protect the earth from the summer heat, and their root systems improve drainage so that rain and soil stay on the land, rather than washing off the top. They also make use of fertilizers left in the soil. Farmers report better soil health and a higher yield in their primary crops after just five to seven years. “It’s really opening up the ground, restarting the soil biology,” says Tim, “now it’s giving the nitrogen back to the soybeans. We’re seeing increased growth because of the nitrogen uptake.”
The hay-brown remains of Tim’s soybean harvest lie unplowed and rotting on the ground, with the new, green growth of his cover crops just pushing through. The cover crops are a mix of cereal rye, radish, kale and turnips sown by airplane. Tim uses a spade to cut into topsoil, levering up clods of earth, prying them apart to show earthworms and new root systems.
Most of Tim’s neighbors still farm the conventional way — harvesting corn and soybeans in the fall, removing old root systems and tilling the land with mechanical ploughs, leaving checkerboard parcels of black earth, empty of vegetation. Heavy rains wash their topsoil into streaming brown rivulets, carrying excess fertilizer toward drainage ditches. When the sun returns, without the shade of a cover crop, soil temperatures can reach over 115 degrees, killing microbes and worms.
Climate factors compound the growth of the Gulf dead zone, with increased rainfall contributing to field erosion and fertilizer movement. Last May the United States Geographic Society stated that the output of the Mississippi River and its distributary the Atchafalaya River were 67% above the long-term average between 1980 and 2018, estimating that this larger-than-average river discharge carried 156,000 metric tons of nitrate and 25,300 metric tons of phosphorus into the Gulf of Mexico in one month alone. The nitrate loads were 18% above the long-term average, and phosphorus loads were 49% above the long-term average.
“It’s often expressed that 70% of the problem is coming from 20% of the people. That’s not invalid,” says Brad Redlin, of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, “but it seems to be a different cliché, like death by a thousand paper cuts. Every farm is a little bit leaky and the cumulative result is a dead zone in the Gulf.” Brad’s green work jacket conceals the button-down office shirt beneath, and heavy leather boots suggest a comfort in hands-on work.
In 2012 Brad designed a certification program for farmers in Minnesota in partnership with the USDA and EPA for agricultural water quality standards. Together they developed a matrix of conditions in line with current environmental law, but also looked forward to possible future regulations. It offers farmers a 10-year contract of environmental compliance, protecting them from potential new federal water quality laws.
“There’s been little to no taste for regulating agriculture anywhere in Minnesota, or any other state,” says Brad. “But there’s a level of reassurance that conservation systems do exist out there in the countryside.”
In 2016 his network of 15 certifiers began walking the land, field by field, acre by acre, to begin assessments. The service itself is free and voluntary and appeals to farmers, who welcome the opportunity for a soil health and efficiency assessment of their whole farm. But if the farm is not up to par, certification may require an investment — things like planting cover crops, or buffers designed to interrupt the flow of runoff. To date Brad has 778 producers certified, including Tim and his colleagues, over a total area of 519,554 acres.
Stefan Gailans, Research and Field Crops Director for Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a 3,000-farmer organization, carries a battery powered microphone through a field of knee-high oats in Keota, Iowa. He’s preparing to address group members about cover crop strategy with Tim Sieren, his host.
“At the moment the main economic opportunity to cover crops is as a food source for livestock,” says Stefan.
Most PFI members plant cover crops on their farms, and between 50 and 60 run research trials, sharing their findings with the rest of the group. They consider species, management techniques, planting dates, fertilization and how to use a harvest. But the evolution of farming in America to a duocrop model has eroded markets for alternative species.
“Corn and soybeans are easy to find markets for,” says Stefan, “But stuff like wheat or rye isn’t grown here so much anymore, so there’s no market.” Currently farmers planting alternative species as cover crops have nowhere to sell their harvest.
PFI is making some headway, though; Pepsi and Unilever are both now offering financial incentives to farmers growing cover crops, and Target is now buying oats grown as cover crops.
“Land use is something that we don’t talk about enough, and there’s political reasons for that,” says Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. “It’s hard to talk about changing our farming structure.”
Laurie tracks conservation practices and water quality on farms across Iowa, one of the largest producers of corn and soybeans in America. He says switching corn and soybean fields to prairie after one rotation, and using it to graze livestock, would help conservation efforts. The soil would have time to regain its nutrients and would need less fertilizer to support future crops — and the planned downtime would reduce fertilizer use.
“It could have a much greater impact on nutrient loss,” she says, “but it’s a really difficult conversation.”
More conservative and directed applications of crop fertilizer would mean a hit to the farm supply industry too, Brad says, pointing out that “the more fertilizer they sell, the better for them.”
But as nutrient management practices evolve and the need to track changes in soil health across large areas increases, agricultural supply companies are now offering services like soil testing and data analysis.
“It’s capitalism 101: if you’re not doing product, you can do service.”
Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, smooths his navy-blue suit jacket as he prepares to co-chair this year’s Hypoxia Task Force Meeting in Baton Rouge.
“We all understand that we feed into the Gulf,” he says, “and shame on us if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity to show that we can be effective.”
In 2008 The Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force, organized by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), promised a 20% reduction of the dead zone by 2025, and, along with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), has granted millions of dollars to agricultural and conservation groups for the development of nutrient reduction strategies.
Mike argues that if conservation were a regulatory obligation versus a personal responsibility, the dynamic between farmers and government would change for the worse, that forced conditions would breed bitterness. “We want people to use their own innovative approaches,” says Mike, “I think we’ll get to a better place, and we’ll get there faster through unleashing people’s creativity.”
By assisting collaboration between public and private interests — farmers, fertilizer sellers, environmental scientists and government bodies — he says he’s able to offer access to equipment, technical assistance and financial aid for nutrient reduction projects, so far realizing 1 million acres of cover crops planted, 90 completed wetlands projects, with another 30 under development across the state.
This hasn’t been enough so far.
There is no national prediction indicating the total fertilizer load that would lead to a reduction of the dead zone, or how long a reversal would take. The problem is complex, its outcome reliant on rainfall, ocean temperature, soil health, crop growth …
Guesswork is rife but well-meaning: alongside the Hypoxia Task Force’s promise to shrink the dead zone by 20%, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy have also promised to make a 45% decrease in fertilizer runoff. Earlier this year the Census of Agriculture published that in 2017 Iowa had nearly a million acres of cover crops planted, with a slight increase predicted for 2018. “To put that in perspective though, studies in nutrient reduction strategy in Iowa show that we need 14 million acres of cover crops,” says Laurie, “we’re only just scratching the surface.”
In Keota, the sun is grasping at the horizon. With Stefan’s talk finished, his guests amble in the waning light, following up on the talk’s finer points. Dressed in checkered shirts, blue jeans and a spectrum of faded baseball caps, they head to their parked cars.
“There are practices that can improve water quality in the Mississippi River,” says Stefan, “but can agriculture have a positive impact on the dead zone? Absolutely we can. It’s a matter of do we want to?”
For now, the Gulf Coast dead zone remains, oblivious to swinging political pendulums, nutrient regulation negotiations and cover crop incentives, an apex predator of our own invention, hungrily digesting fish and fertilizer alike.