Prayers For The Prairie: Photojournalist Calls Attention To Soil Erosion In Western Minnesota

Submitted / John White captured no fewer than 150 images showing the problem of soil erosion during a short drive through portions of four western Minnesota counties in 2015. This is among them.

People from Wisconsin have asked him: What is it?

His Minnesota neighbors never need to ask.

Their reaction is almost always: “Wow that is really beautiful, but it is really sad.’’

John White has been receiving a lot of comments in the last two years to the photographs in his exhibit called the “Art of Erosion.’’ It calls attention to the issue of soil erosion as revealed by the soil smeared snow we know as “snirt.”

The 19 images in the exhibit were the only works by a Minnesota artist featured when the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center hosted the Smithsonian Institute’s “Water Ways’’ exhibit last summer. His images of snirt have been displayed at Sustainable Farming Association events and soil conferences in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

They’ve also made the pages of online and print publications, including the Corn and Soybean Digest edited by Kurt Lawton. The issue of soil erosion is getting more attention as agronomists and farmers work to reduce the economic losses and harm to our waters that soil erosion represents, according to Lawton.

“To see John’s photos really brings it to light,’’ said Lawton. He credits White for photojournalism skills that “can help farmers see dirt in a different light – as a valuable living soil that must be improved and protected.”

John White is an avid outdoorsman.

The exhibit is currently receiving its first public showing that is not part of a special event. The exhibit is on display this entire month of March at the Java River Cafe in downtown Montevideo. An artist’s reception, titled “Prayers for the Prairie,’’ was held March 10 and featured musicians CJ Ford, Audrey Arner, Emily Wright, and Malena Handeen as Homemade Jam.

White, former editor of the Clara City Herald, is retired after a career in journalism.  He lives in Big Stone County. He said a Thanksgiving trip to see family in Missouri in 2014 opened his eyes to the urgency of doing something about soil erosion. The fields of Missouri, Iowa and western Minnesota were all covered by snirt during that trip. “It was atrocious,’’ he said. “It was everywhere.’’

That same winter he read David Montgomery’s book, “Dirt -The Erosion of Civilization.’’ And then he made a Saturday trip to Marshall and found that there was no escaping snirt. He grabbed his camera the following day and made a drive through Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, and Swift counties and captured 150 images of snirt.

He selected 20 to place on canvas.  He made no alterations other than some minor cropping. The stark, seemingly black-and-white photographs were all shot in color, he pointed out to an audience that filled Java River during the reception for the exhibit.

All of the images can be described as dramatic.  They have to be, White explained. “It’s a tragedy what’s happening,’’ he said.

He’s been asked if soil erosion is only a winter-time phenomena. Unfortunately it is not. The contrast of soil on white snow only happens to reveal it. Wind erosion happens year around, he points out.

We can greatly reduce erosion by making changes in farming practices.  We have to, according to White. “Right now we’re farming the very last frontier, not only here but around the world,’’ said White. “If we allow that (topsoil) to blow away or wash away there’s no place else to go for food. That’s it.’’

Submitted / This and other photographs in the exhibit by John White are being displayed through the month at the Java River Cafe in downtown Montevideo.