Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Living On The Cusp of Climate Change

Another summer job I had in high school was shoveling grass seed.  I even got to take turns driving the truck once it had been filled alongside the combine, over to where it was emptied and back again.

It was in the Northern Rockies of Idaho near where a lakeside rendezvous with family now takes place most summers. Yup, Idaho is a lot more than potatoes or even mountains.

Nearly half of the Kentucky Bluegrass seed in the nation is grown there as well as about 84 tons of fescue, a grass seed that is also used to create turf in North Carolina where I live.

Kentucky may have bragging rights for Bluegrass sod but the majority of it is seeded with grass seed grown in the mountains of Idaho.

By comparison, Idaho only grows 29% of the nation’s potatoes but more than 70% of its food-sized trout.  State slogans can be very misleading.

With 26,000 overall, the state of Idaho has only 1% of the nation’s 2.1 million farms and ranches, but still ranks in the top 10 for production of 26 different types of livestock and crops.

But these pale in comparison to the dominance of its mountains, forests, lakes and streams.

Northern Idaho is nicknamed the Idaho Panhandle.

It is 21,000+ square miles of spectacular, forested mountains, about a quarter of the land area of Idaho.  It includes 324 square miles covered by water, including many of America’s most scenic rivers and lakes.

Stretching between eight or nine of those lakes is the Rathdrum Prairie, part of a 370 square mile trench gouged out between the Selkirk and Bitterroot ranges and planed flat by a glacier.

About a dozen miles long and a dozen wide, it then elbows west across the border to Spokane, Washington.

But this Prairie, which discovered in the 1950s as the perfect place to grow grass seed, had been created 15,000 years ago by a series of floods after the 3,000 sq. mile Lake Missoula broke through an ice sheet dam sending a wall of water 2,000 feet high gushing down its length and beyond, clear to California.

The Cordilleran Ice Sheet, which held one and a half times what Antarctica does today or did until recently, also melted very fast leaving Northern Idaho’s spectacular, natural mountain lakes as remnants, 75 overall within 50 miles of Spokane.

I was reminded of that sweaty, dusty, round-the-clock work harvesting grass seed when I recently learned by trial and error that the ridgeline where I live a mile and a fourth from Downtown Durham, NC is apparently on the cusp of climate change.

Kentucky Bluegrass seed such I harvested is used to grow turf up in the mountains here.  But until recently, it has been fescue that ruled around Durham, including 10% of my city lot covered by four strips of lawn to slow runoff from my house and natural areas.

The battle lines for climate change apparently run between Durham and Raleigh, where the Piedmont falls away to the Coastal Plain, which has also been, until recently, a sort of demarcation line as well between “cool” and “warm” season grasses.

The year before last when heat and fungus overwhelmed my turf, I tried to jump ahead of the curve by replacing the fescue with what was touted as a cold tolerant Zoysia turf, as a few institutions and homeowners did.

Of course, grass is not always grown from seed even in North Carolina.  Tall fescue and Kentucky Bluegrass began and still are pasture grasses.

Back when I was a teenager, as the tall grass ripened,  big swathers, (aka windrowers) were used to cut the grass where it lay drying in the field for about a week or more.

Then several staggered combines ran down the rows without stopping while processing the seed into trucks.  Outgrowing teenagers, all of the equipment used today seems two or three times larger than back then.

Zoysia, which is primarily grown from plugs, is purely ornamental.

And as it seems the case with everything, there are now heritage or heirloom varieties of seed being grown.

But sod growers have a varied clientele.  In North Carolina, tall fescue sod is grown by 40% of sod growers compared to 25% who grow Kentucky Bluegrass.  Warm season grasses such as Bermuda and Zoysia are grown by 75% and 80% respectively.

Only 12.3% overall goes to homeowners while 63% goes to landscape contractors, 9% to golf courses, 7.6% to athletic fields and 4% to retail garden centers.

Lawns didn’t begin with the invention of the lawn mower.  They moved from pasture to homes in the 1500s during the Renaissance in France and England.

Both U.S. Presidents Washington and Jefferson had lawns.  They became fixtures around ranches and later farms for the same reason they had in Europe.

But it was the leisure activity of lawn bowling that had brought lawns to America by 1650.  By the 1850s, lawns were used to create meadows in urban parks, followed by golf courses by the 1870s.

The first lawnmower was invented in 1830 in England.  A reel mower was patented in the U.S. in 1868.  By 1890, they were a fixture of landscapes and by 1914 gasoline-powered mowers were available.

Even riding lawn mowers date to 1922.

But the lawn mower became truly mainstream in 1946 when soldiers returned from WWII and bought homes created for them in the suburbs.

That year, two years before I was born, 140,000 mowers were sold.  By the time I was three years old, 1.2 million mowers a year were sold in the U.S and lawns had become a fixture around farm and ranch houses as well.

By the time I turned ten in 1958, 4.2 million were sold annually, and using ours to cut neighbors lawns became one of my first part time jobs away from home.

Still, the majority of grass seed is for non-residential use.  There are nearly 50,000 square miles of lawn across America, about the equivalent of the entire state of North Carolina and more than irrigated crops such as corn and wheat.

When I worked part time to combine it in Idaho during the mid-1960s, grass seed was dry farmed.  Back then, as it had been since the 1950s, the stubble was burned after harvesting.

There are other ways to manage stubble including baling and selling it for feed but since 2007 but due, in part, to burning the number of Kentucky Bluegrass farms in Idaho has fallen by 55% and fescue growers by 40% as they have nationwide.

That practice came under increased scrutiny for air pollution until 2007 when as a result of a court case, the state of Idaho began to regulate burning of harvested grass fields except on tribal lands.

This involved permitting, burn management training and a $2 per acre fee to burn, as well as identification of no-burn days calibrated to atmospheric conditions especially near population centers such as Spokane.

Apparently Americans now spend $40 billion a year on lawn care.  However, NASA scientists believe that under conditions such as recycling grass clippings, lawns are a carbon sink, meaning they sequester harmful gases causing climate change.

But the real issue is water.  Over half (56) of North Carolina’s 100 counties are at risk for water shortages which nation-wide studies show will be aggravated by climate change.

Unlike Durham which began to invest heavily to build its own reservoirs in the late 1920s when the population was fewer than 50,000 people, less than 20% the size it is today, many counties waited for state and federal assistance, which dried up long ago.

In Idaho, which relies on melting snow, the percentage of counties at risk for water shortages is 64%, in part, due to overuse of the Snake River aquifer.  In other mountain states such as Utah it is 72%.

In Texas, it is 98%.  A quick calculation suggests there is a correlation between red states and water shortages.

But climate change, as it already has in North Carolina, is shifting growing zones north and west while creating drier, less arable micro-climates in some parts of the country.

This will also increase pest and noxious weed populations, all of which will create more pressure for burning as a crop management tool.  It will also lead to a return to dry farming rather than irrigation, resulting in more burning.

Dry farming is natural to one-third of the earth’s land surface.  Mormons heading west in 1847 learned it from Native Americans who had been practicing it in that region for hundreds of years.

At Fort Laramie, a stop on the trail, they also saw it being experimented with to grow wheat for provisioning along the Oregon-Mormon trail.  It is how we grew feed crops on our ancestral cattle and horse ranch west of the Henry’s Fork in the Yellowstone nook of Idaho.

Following a fifty year period when irrigation technology has depleted aquifers across the nation, 12 million acres of cultivation in the West has reverted to dry farming.

It was the technique that was used where I was harvesting grass seed forty-eight years ago even though Northern Idaho sits atop an aquifer, it has twice as much rainfall as Southern Idaho.

Look for dry farming to continue its comeback. 

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