Monday, September 27, 2010

How To Farm The Great Plains

In Empire of the Summer Moon, S. C. Gwynne discussed water, or lack thereof, in America's Plains states during the reign of the Comanche:
"If warriors were on the trail and short of water, they might drink the warm blood of the buffalo straight from its veins."
And food:
"[Buffalo] entrails were sometimes eaten, stripped of their contents by using two fingers. (If fleeing pursuers, a Comanche would ride his horse till it dropped, cut it open, remove its intestines, wrap them around his neck, and take off on a fresh horse, eating their contents later.)"
Comanche survived on buffalo. They ate most parts save for the heart:
"They ate the kidneys and the paunch [stomach]. Children would rush up to a freshly killed animal, begging for its liver and gallbladder. They would then squirt the salty bile from the gallbladder onto the liver and eat it on the spot, warm and dripping blood."

"If a slain female was giving milk, Comaches would cut into the udder bag and drink the milk mixed with warm blood. One of the greatest delicacies was the warm curdled milk from the stomach of a suckling calf."
Comanches didn't farm. One reason: they didn't have to. The Plains were a virtual sea of buffalo in the 1700s, and buffalo provided most of Comanche needs: food, fuel (dung), shelter, clothing, tools (rope from twisted hair, water pouches from paunches, horn spoons), and weapons.

Another reason, as a semi-arid grassland the Plains were inhospitable to agriculture. In 1823, geographer Edwin James wrote of the region:
"I do not hesitate in giving the opinion, that it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course, uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence. Although tracts of fertile land considerably extensive are occasionally to be met with, yet the scarcity of wood and water, almost uniformly prevalent, will prove an insuperable obstacle in the way of settling the country."
So, what happened to the Plains that made it farmable? The Texas Panhandle was part of Comanche territory in the early 19th century. Here it is today. Keep your eye on Amarillo.

Let's zoom in:

A little closer, and to the north of Amarillo, near Dumas, TX:

Closer (These are photos, not drawings):


I want to thank BL for showing this to me. I was gobsmacked, still am. I had no idea how dependant this area is on irrigation.
The satellite photos of irrigated farms are from Google Maps. I can't tell if I'm allowed to post them on my noncommercial blog here. If I take them down, I hope you understand.


Family Nutritionist said...

Produce is irrigated in CA and FL -- no circles. Allocations and/or water tables are falling.

Bix said...

Those circles are creepy.

Family Nutritionist said...

The first time I spotted them from an airplane, I was on my way to Nevada. It took a little while to figure out what they were. They don't really look creepy from the plane, though. No more creepy than level furrow irrigation...

Bix said...

Those are fantastic photos. (I love dates!)

I think the Plains States would have a tough time eating locally and growing food for export if not for irrigation, and so, if not for sources of that water, like the Ogallala Aquifer.

The BBC, in 2003, said this aquifer may "dry up in as little as 25 years."

I don't know, maybe the Plains can get by without irrigation.

Family Nutritionist said...

Plains agriculture + empty aquifer = periodic multi-year dust bowl conditions.