Wednesday, August 22, 2007

There isn't a lot of dirt in Carroll County. I first realized that when I naively set out to put up a fence and busted my posthole digger the minute it stuck the earth. Out came a long iron bar and, two broken shovels later, I had dug a half dozen real sorry little holes. I believe I put up the crookedest, shortest fence in Arkansas history. However, I did have an impressive pile of rocks, probably enough to build a small cathedral or a large pony barn.

  Whizbangs at the University of Arkansas refer to where we live as the Ozarks Plateau Province or the Ozarks Highland Eco-Region. What's under our feet is limestone, dolomite, shale and cherty leftovers. These are all sedimentary rocks and, according to my Boy''s Book of Knowledge, date from the Lower Ordovician to Pennsylvanian eras. I don't know what "cherty" means and I will guess that the "Pennsylvanian era" was a really long time ago. There are some limits to the Boy's Book of Knowledge. Maybe cherty means lots of little rocks. Whatever it means, the Ozarks is one of the most fragile areas on earth. There isn't a lot of good dirt here.

  I grew up in a place where you could spit on the ground and a cherry tree would pop up a couple of hours later. Naturally, I have found gardening hard in Arkansas and the results of my efforts have been mostly (excuse me) fruitless. I have had good luck with bamboo. I have had tremendous luck with bamboo.

  As a county we have had tremendous luck with chickens and turkeys. According to the State of Arkansas, Carroll Country produced more than 50,000,000 broiler chickens in 1998. I wasn't able to get any more recent information since our state isn't all that hep to keeping track of such things (no money), but we can assume that since 1998 even more birds are raised here.

  A broiler is a young chicken, about 8-weeks old, and weighs about four pounds when it's trucked off to the chop shop. Broilers are grown in 400-foot-long brood houses and each house has about 20,000 broiler chickens in it. Based on the 1998 broiler production numbers, 49,233,000 broilers roughly equaled 2,462 Carroll County brood houses. Mathematically, that was an increase of 1,685 brood houses in 1998, up from 777 brood houses in 1984, the first year such information was available. The actual number of brood houses is not publicly available information but, nevertheless, such growth is a startling phenomenon.

  If these numbers are close to being accurate, the rate of brood house construction has required a fairly large amount of cleared, level land. Again, based on old 1984 to 1998 data, there was a net forest loss of 6,380.8 acres, or 9.97 square miles, over that 10-year period. Some of that land was converted into pasture for cattle, but the loss estimate did not include land cleared for residential building or industrial purposes.

  I don't think anyone will argue that the conversion of forests to pasture and brood house construction changes the landscape. And that important components such as natural vegetative cover, slope and the properties of soil itself help maintain the balance of the landscape and that changing these variables has an impact on the environment.

  I am avoiding the usual and predictable rant about the problems caused by industrial meat production. I will leave it to your imagination to figure out what happens when 50,000,000 chickens crap. What we don't need to imagine is that the annual contribution of agriculture to Carroll County's economy every year -- even west of the Kings River Bridge -- makes all the Yoo Hoo about tourism look like pocket change. Simply put, we'd better figure out a way to talk to one another about the future of Carroll County's environment, and not just in terms of its impact on tourism, or on our finer sensibilities.

  One way to begin the dialog is to read Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. Published more than 50 years ago, Leopold argues that every citizen needs to possess an ecological conscience which in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Leopold's "land ethic" implied respect for all our roles in our economy and for the community as a whole. That seems like a good starting place.

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