Progressive is bad? Resilience in the High Plains

Yesterday, on a rooftop terrace in Seminole, Texas, near the New Mexico border, I heard four young men speaking a  strange German dialect.  They are some of the Mennonites who are reviving the town.  They are blonde immigrants from Mexico who began arriving about ten years ago and now are a quarter of the population.  One resident told us there are 18 Mennonite churches in the town of less than 8000 people.  All continue their services in low German.  The biggest also has services in English, though the German service is more popular.

caprock-in-texasWe’d come to Seminole in Gaines County to learn about how the Mennonites are transforming the organic peanut/wheat rotation system.  Arrowhead Mills chief buyer had told us that nearly all of his organic wheat is now obtained in this county.  Farmers here have discovered that wheat makes a good rotation for peanuts in an organic system.  The conservative Mennonites are innovative.

By all reports, Seminole was dying until the Mennonites started moving in.  Mennonites, with their conservative ways, are everywhere growing in population and wealth.  They are resilient and successful wherever they go.

We’ve been pretty successful on this trip too.  We brought rain.  The Extension agent in Deaf Smith County gave us credit for bringing rain to the High Plains of Texas.

We didn’t manage the feat immediately.  It was unseasonably hot and dry during the ten hours it took to drive from Little Rock to the High Plains of Texas.  The dusty, semi-arid plains on the drive were reflected in lawns barren of anything but a few weeds when the GPS took us to a transmission repair shop in a poor neighborhood with boarded up houses.

But we’d plugged in the wrong address and when we changed the address to 1500 from 500 we found ourselves on millionaire’s row.  Lush green lawns and huge houses, many with walls around them.  Amongst them is our Zen Cowboy House. Two huge Chinese lions stood beside the entrance and in the walled back yard was an Oriental garden with Buddhist statues and a waterfall.

The first night the weather broke and turned cold.  We bundled up and headed to Palo Duro Canyon–the Grand Canyon of Texas.  I hadn’t been there in almost 50 years and development had taken its toll.  However, the addition of dozens of structures, a paved road and hundreds of tourists detracted little from the rushing water, caves and cliffs.

We didn’t get much rain that first day, but ever since the rain has been our daily companion as we explore the High Plains of Texas.  The people we’ve met are happy we brought rain and even happier to help us explore resilience in their agricultural systems.

After our day of tourism to recoup from our long drive, we stepped out of the Zen Cowboy house to head to our first interview and were immediately greeted by the smell of manure.  The Southwest winds bring the smell of beef and dairy feedlots up from Hereford.  More than 30% of the beef produced in the United States comes from the High Plains.  Dairies are moving in from California and the Netherlands to escape regulation.  Huge confinement facilities generate lots of industrial meat and milk and contribute to the lack of resilience and sustainability of most of the High Plains.

Our focus is the few counties in the region which have bucked the trend.  Potter County, whose county seat is Amarillo, is one.  Amarillo prides itself on support of local businesses.  Chipotle came to town and had to close down because people liked their local Sharkey’s.  Most of the businesses sport names you don’t see in the rest of the US.  United is a local chain of grocery stores which buys local produce and features local farmers at point of purchase displays.  Toot’n Totum, founded in Amarillo, dominates the convenience stores/gas station sector, just as Stripes, founded in Lubbock, dominates that town.

As in all resilient systems, locally self-organized systems predominate.

Another very sustainable and resilient county, Borden,  at first glance appears totally different from Amarillo and Potter County.  It doesn’t even have a gas station.  It has just two restaurants and no other retail shops.  The county agent there told us the locals don’t want outside businesses to come in.  They like their county the way it is.  They are conservative

A 4000 acre organic cotton grower in the county put it this way: progressive is bad, conservative is good.  You don’t want to be the lead cow, the first one to adopt a new practice.  You want to be about the third cow back.  Resilient farmers are innovative, but in a conservative fashion.  The keep tried and true practices but are very quick to adopt innovations when they see they work.

It’s hard for those of us in sustainable agriculture to say progressive is bad because many of the folks who support sustainable and organic agricultural systems consider themselves progressive.  Unfortunately, resilient systems don’t fit neatly in the progressive mold.




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