I am embarrassed to admit that I drove through the fabled Flint Hills of Kansas last week and barely noticed.

I flew to Wichita, rented a car, and drove to a no-till workshop in Emporia, ninety minutes to the northeast, cutting right across the state’s famous grasslands. I did notice how dry everything looked, but that was about all. Arriving at the workshop, a colleague asked me what I thought of the Hills. I gulped. What hills? Did he mean the slight up-and-down motion I experienced on the highway, like a gently rolling ocean wave covered with grass? He did. Were those hills? The Flint Hills?

Chagrined, on the drive back to the airport two days later I paid more attention. Sure enough, I saw outcrops of limestone and the highway definitely made a rolling motion, dipping down between grassy swells. Hills! How had I missed them? I knew why: I was still in New Mexico mentally. Gentle hills like that would hardly merit a second look in the Land of Enchantment, especially with so many mountains around. But that was my fault. I was in Kansas. I needed to get out of my Box. After all, the Flint Hills are pretty. Take a look:

   Historically, the shallow deposits of flinty limestone that make up the 82,000 square-miles of the Hills, mostly located in eastern Kansas, prevented the land from being plowed up. That’s why it’s such good ranchland today. Geologically, 250 million years ago the area lay at the bottom of a widespread sea where for millennia it collected the remains of countless dead sea creatures. Carbonically, the shells of these creatures are composed of calcium carbonate (CaCO3), a mineralized version of carbon dioxide that makes its way into the oceans via rain and rivers where it eventually gets compressed into rock. This process is an essential part of the planet’s carbon cycle. In fact, 80% of the planet’s terrestrial carbon is locked up as limestone. As for the flint, they’re quartz-like intrusions made mostly of silica – a whole different kettle of fish.

The Flint Hills are a remnant of the vast Tallgrass Prairie that once covered Kansas and other parts of the lower Midwest. Its rareness means it’s the subject of keen interest by conservationists and ranchers alike – often in tandem. I knew that the Hills were a model of collaborative conservation and good stewardship, especially the constructive role fire plays in prairie landscapes. In fact, Flint Hills landowners were well-known for being ecological pyromaniacs. Signs along the highway warned drivers about fire and smoke – and to not call the police. It was just the way things were in this part of the country.

What wasn’t normal was the drought. On the first day of the workshop, the thermometer hit 105 degrees. Throw in the incredible humidity and you had a recipe for a Midwestern sauna. It wasn’t just the heat, however; it had stopped raining as well. The weatherpeople called it a ‘flash drought,’ which meant it had happened in a hurry. All over the nation too. On Monday, the federal government announced that drought conditions covered more than 60% of the nation’s counties and had reached a scale of severity not seen since 1956! The news across the Midwest was all about farmers plowing under or chopping up their corn and soybean crops, writing off the year as a complete failure. Yikes!

The term ‘Dust Bowl’ was being tossed around too. Standing near a group of farmers during a break in the workshop, I overheard a young man talk about a wall of dust he had witnessed the previous week while driving. It was probably 500 feet high, he said. Seriously? This is Kansas, after all, not dry and dusty New Mexico. Supposedly, farming practices had improved considerably since the 1930s. But 500 feet! Was the drought that bad?

“I had heard about these things,” the young farmer said matter-of-factly, “but I never thought I’d see one of them in my lifetime.”

Of course, this was the point of the workshop. No-till farming means exactly what the name implies – no tilling. No plowing. No turning the soil over. No dirt blowing away. The key to no-till is cover crops – plants that keep the land covered with something green and growing at all times, even in winter. Conventional farming, in contrast, likes a lot of bare dirt between the crop plants. It likes a lot of till too. In fact, the idea of not plowing fields is roundly pooh-poohed by nearly all of Big Ag and large parts of Academia and the Government. No-till is way out of the Box, especially in a farm state like Kansas.

Here’s a photo of no-till farming (in the fall):

It’s not out of the Box for a growing group of farmers worried about drought and Dust Bowls. To them, the Box is disintegrating around them – drying up and blowing away.

I won’t go into the details here about the advantages of no-till. One snapshot will suffice: during the on-farm portion of the workshop, we walked into a cover-cropped corn field with butterfly nets supplied by one of the instructors, a USDA entomologist. Under a blazing sun, we swept the ground fifty times with our net and returned (quickly) to the shade of a large tree where we examined what we had caught. There were bugs galore in our nets, especially spiders, which excited the entomologist. It proved, he said, how much life existed in this field. A comparative sweep of a conventional cornfield, drenched in fertilizer and pesticides and largely uncovered by green things for most of the year, would have some up mostly empty, he said. It was the difference between biology and chemistry, he continued. Which we did we prefer?

A 2009 paper by Prof. John Antle of Montana State University predicts that that by 2030 farmers in the U.S. corn belt will see significant decreases in productivity due to droughts (which could be offset by gains farther north), especially if they continue to grow in severity. Better farming techniques – such as no-till – can soften some of the damage. While no-till generally produces lower yields than industrial farming (though that’s changing), it significantly improves soil health, temperature, and water-holding capacity, as we learned.

As I knew, the difference is carbon.

To explain why, read this great blog post by Tom Philpott, who writes for Mother Jones magazine. It was published on July 9th and is titled Food and Extreme Weather: It’s the Soil, Stupid 

http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2012/07/what-organic-ag-teaches-us-about-feeding-ourselves-while-planet-heats

Meanwhile, the next time I travel I’m going to make I look at the land with fresh eyes. You never know what you might miss!

Here’s another view of the Flint Hills:

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