Where Water and Land Meet
Agriculture affects broad swaths of Missouri’s land- thousands of watersheds and millions of acres- and it has a major impact on our environment. Cropland, ranchland and timber are major land uses in our state. Because the Missouri Coalition for the Environment advocates for the health of our environment, we engage the forces that shape the land in our state, impact our food supply and our water.
Missouri is a Rural State…
With nearly 39 million rural acres, Missouri ranks 13th in the nation for rural land acres- that’s about 87% of the state’s land area. Agriculture dominates our landscape. It also affects our state’s politics.
Missouri has nearly 6 million mouths to feed with the bulk of the population living in urban areas. Nearly 70% of Missouri’s people live on just 2.6% of its land. The Census Bureau’s most recent estimate places Missouri’s rural population in 2009 at 1,564,967; about 26% of the state’s estimated 5.9 million people.
Because agriculture dominates our landscapes and land uses, efforts on clean and healthy water, clean air, and land must engage our state’s tradition and history of working crop and forest lands. We cannot achieve our goals of a healthy environment without addressing farm, forest, and food systems.
We recognize that agriculture has tremendous potential to be a self sustaining system when natural cycles of soil fertility, water, and nutrients are allowed and encouraged to operate. Good crops naturally depend good soil. Currently however, Missouri agriculture depends heavily on chemicals like herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and fuels, mostly sourced from fossil fuels. Having few local sources of fossil fuels, our food system depends on resources over which we have little control in a world where global demand for those resources is increasing. Further, our rural lands themselves are endangered. Our state's soil erosion/soil loss rates remain dramatically above the rate at which soil is created and persistently ranks among the worst in the nation. Our state's irreplaceable prime farmland has been disappearing under the pavement of shopping malls, roads, and developments for decades while world population and demand for food is rising. Our priorities for agriculture are to:
Rural Land Profile
Much of Missouri’s rural land is used for cropland (about 13 million acres), pasture land- usually for hay for livestock (about 10 million acres), rangeland for livestock (about 83,000 acres), forestland (about 12 million acres), Conservation Reserve Program land (privately held land set aside to conserve soil losses- about 1.5 million acres) and other uses, including confined animal feeding operations or “factory farms”, etc. (about 648,000 acres).
Like the rest of the nation, the trend in Missouri is toward reduced acres of rural land as development creeps in. Urban development often targets prime farmland. In Missouri in the past decade Missouri has lost 278,900 acres of prime farmland that was converted to urban uses. Much of Missouri’s prime farmland lies in the fertile floodplains of our major rivers.
Much of the farming practiced in Missouri relies on large scale, fossil-fuel and chemical dependent, industrialized systems. Fortunately, we still have independent farmers producing livestock and food crops in sustainable ways too. Missouri grows soybeans, corn, and wheat, along with rice, cotton, sorghum, pecans, blueberries, grapes and dozens of other crops. Learn more through the links below.
Our nation's food and farm policies are influenced most profoundly by a package of laws known collectively as "The Farm Bill." Congress writes a new Farm Bill every five years, though many Farm Bill programs set the nation's course for decades. The 2012 Farm Bill may not be completed by year's end. You still have a chance to impact it.
The Farm Bill encompasses a staggering range of policy issues from research and trade, to insurance subsidies, soil and water conservation, energy, and programs that provide food to low income Americans. Learn more about the Farm Bill here.
Livestock farming in the past 40 years has come to include methods that confine animals indoors, in cramped conditions, while they grow to a size large enough for slaughter. These Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, apply a factory production model to livestock where inputs are tightly controlled, consistency is valued, and volume production at maximum profits is the goal. Poultry and egg laying operations are the most common types of CAFOs, followed by hogs, and then cattle feedlots. Confining tens of thousands to millions of animals in one space also concentrates and consolidates the manure from those animals, creating sewage management conditions rivaling that of a small city. Learn more about where CAFOs impact Missouri's environment here.
Healthy Food Systems
People throughout Missouri and the nation are questioning our dependence on fossil-fuel based agriculture, high fat, high sugar processed foods, and a food system in which our food travels farther in a week than we do in a year. Increasingly, farmers, gardeners, chefs, consumers, health professionals, grocers, schools, hospitals, and restaurants are seeking foods that are free of chemicals, produced with respect for land, water, and wildlife, locally grown as much as possible, fresh, and that promote good health. We contribute to that effort by identifying policies to promote these aims, targeting obstacles to these aims, connecting communities creating solutions, and sharing information to help imform public decisions.
About 55% of our cropland acres are at high risk for soil loss from erosion – and 48% of our cropland acres are designated as ‘highly erodible’, the most vulnerable land. Missouri still loses on average 5.3 tons per acre per year on cropland- and we rank in the top ten for these dismal erosion statistics. In 2007 we lost at least 55.8 million tons of soil to erosion (Erosion from urban land development is significant- and undercounted.). Our cropland erosion rate at about 5.3 tons per acre per year remains one of the worst numbers in the U.S. and nearly twice the national average.
Threats to Drinking Water
Rural drinking water sources- groundwater and reservoirs- are impacted by agriculture. Missouri has been forced to address high levels of the pesticide Atrazine in some of its drinking water reservoirs. Bacteria and nitrate contamination remain threats in rural wells in farm country.
Most urban areas obtain drinking water from surface waters- rivers, lakes and reservoirs. The Missouri River, the Mississippi River, the Meramec River, Truman Lake, and Mark Twain Lake are examples.
Giant hog operations which can produce as much waste as a town of 30,000 people also introduce unprecedented quantities of sewage into our rural watersheds as waste is sprayed or spread across fields. Even though the quantities of waste often exceed that of the nearby towns, hog waste receives no pre-treatment and remains a huge threat to water quality. Hog waste spills have caused massive fish kills in Missouri. In Big Hog country, most of the area’s streams are damaged by excessive pollution. Rural residents who remember childhoods spent splashing in Missouri creeks now must warn their grandchildren away from the same waters because the pollution has made them unsafe to swim in.
The Role of Big Rivers & Ag
Our state is also home to the nation’s largest rivers- the Missouri and the Mississippi- and while their fertile floodplains are ideal for cropland, without proper precautions fertilizers and farm chemicals can enter those waters. Both rivers serve as drinking water for communities along their shores. They also serve as a superhighway to transport pollution to the Gulf of Mexico, where fertilizer chemicals cause a fish-killing Dead Zone that grows every year.
Sensitive Landscapes & Ag
Forests dominate the Ozark hills which are characterized by karst topography- landforms of caves, sinkholes, and freshwater springs where streams flowing along the surface can suddenly disappear becoming underground rivers that re-emerge later at springs.
The Ozarks are home to some of North America’s most spectacular spring-fed rivers including the Current, the Jacks Fork, and the Eleven Point. These rivers are spring-fed, clear, and cold. They are home to species of crayfish and fish that live nowhere else on planet Earth. North America’s largest spring, Big Springs near Van Buren, Missouri, pours more than 286 million gallons of cold water into the Current River every day from a complex karst system that harvests rain from as far as 40 miles away and from an ancient underground aquifer.
Karst systems are extremely vulnerable to pollution because they lack nature’s filtering systems.Karst occurs throughout Missouri from St. Louis to Kansas City. Agriculture in the land of sinkholes and springs requires careful attention to land disturbance/erosion, manure managment, fertilizer application, and chemical use because few natural filtering systems operate in this type of landscape. Erosion can quickly fill clear water pools of Ozark waters with silt and gravel, eliminating critical habitat for fish, crayfish, salamanders and invertebrates. Sediment can destroy native fish populations because it smothers the eggs of aquatic animals, impacting the entire aquatic food chain. In karst, pollutants like sewage and chemicals are effectively transported unexpected distances. In 1978, the sewage lagoon at West Plains Missouri was swallowed by a sinkhole- and the sewage was tracked to where it re-emerged at Mammoth Spring, Arkansas 36 miles to the southwest.
Watch this video to learn more about Missouri karst: http://www.watersheds.org/earth/karstvideo.html