What Truly Is Progress In Farming


Now that glyphosate (Roundup) doesn’t work so well, the chemical industry is using the old Agent Orange in various new herbicide admixtures. When the general public learns about this, there is going to be an uproar. But what if the only other alternative is for farms to “go back” to mechanical cultivation to control weeds. Big farms probably couldn’t do that because cultivating weeds is so slow compared to chemical weed control. But if big farms become obsolete, the world would end according to current economic theory. Is that true?

It is amazing what happens to your mental calculations if you start thinking about a future based on the assumption that smaller farms are inevitable. Without the striving to get bigger in order to get profitable, agriculture suddenly becomes a very promising way for more people to live and work, akin to gardening. Instead of glorying in how many acres big machines can prepare and plant in a day, we could take pride in figuring out how many people can be employed profitably in farming smaller units. Instead of counting how many jobs that factories create while make those machines, we could concentrate on how many jobs farming could provide at less energy and carbon cost. It is practical to control weeds with cultivation and hand labor on small farms and so the lack of herbicides would be only good news. Hoeing and plowing out weeds may not be the nicest work in the world but there have surely been more cases of clinical depression since we quit doing it.

I keep thinking about that new one-horse plow I described here two weeks ago. It was so light and simple that I could push it easily with one hand over a hard surface. I keep thinking how much better it lends itself to sustainable farming than the huge, heavy vertical tillage machines that have taken its place. And the small plow encourages good farming, something the soil conservation experts missed in their well-intentioned efforts to reduce erosion by replacing it with so-called minimum tillage. A light, small plow used properly to plow sod in a three year rotation with cultivated crops does not have to cause erosion at all. I have seen steep hills on small Amish farms, plowed in strips on the contour, where not enough erosion was occurring to fill the dead furrows in a year. Much of the really bad erosion comes on large fields even with gentle slopes because the water can flow long distances without interruption, gaining speed that really gullies out the land. Nor has minimum tillage stopped that kind of erosion. Also while small plows and even horse hooves can cause compaction, plowing deep-rooted clover sod every third year avoids the problem almost completely, while it is only compounded by heavy machines, minimum tillage or no minimum tillage, especially the deep down kind caused by heavy tractors, harvesters, and trucks.

The masters of large scale farming tell me I’m all wrong about the energy consumption of small vs. large. A 200 hp tractor pulling a big vertical tillage machine can get over an acre in a minute or two, while it takes an hour for a two or three horses and a plow to do the same. So, they say, per acre, the big machinery is more efficient. I can fidget around with numbers too, and while that calculation is true depending on how one defines efficient, the cost of manufacturing and owning those two hundred horses and big machines, plus the cost of the herbicides necessary to make that kind of tillage work, is more than horses, small plows and harrows even if you never take the big machines out of the barn.

But when the mind comes to bear on a kind of agriculture where getting bigger would no longer be profitable or even possible, the concern about time also becomes obsolete. Who cares about breakneck speed if it no longer results in the possibility of any economic reward? Then the farmer is going to tend his garden farm with deliberate skill and the timeliness or timelessness of the changing weather and if he needs more income, he will find it off the farm, perhaps working in a factory that makes horse harness, harrows, hoes, and hammocks.


Sadly, i think the general public tends to buy the marketing, especially regarding safety of products like glyphosate. They want to believe.

Great tie in just received my Acres USA magazine yesterday and there is a great article on
glyphosate very eye opening.This new research will speed the demise of Industrial
Ag for sure.

Lots of education has to happen… evennthose who “ought ” to know … just had my soil tested for a new little plot of lanf we just bought, the extension agent who handled the report gave me recommendations for amendments, but said ” manure is ok, but not good to use long term”.! Really? They were pushing fertilizers.

All I ever heard growing up in the 60-70s was Get a desk job! Hard physical work doesnt pay . There is NO future in it. The money and respect is in ‘white collar” jobs !We were supposed to be living like the Jetsons in the 70-80s. Instead we are now slaves at whatever jobs are left in this country.I thiink Everybody saoid it well including you Betty =)

I couldn’t agree more and think of all that healthy hard work that will help with the obesity and diabetes epedimics!

I”m always amused by the contention that the big modern approach is the answer to addressing human needs from the natural world. All these new ways are unproven over the long term. The traditional animal powered agriculture including sound farming principles of crop rotations and mixed diverse ventures that include livestock and human participation is the proven sustainable approach. It’s how we got to where we were before the advent of cheap intensive “labor replacing” artificial energy and the accompanying chemistry that reduces the soil to an inert medium to hold a plant up while growing it on artificial “fertility”. That is an experiment that is running it’s course and is nearing the end. It’s as if our soil is addicted to drugs or at least our food is generally being grown on land addicted to drugs, so it follows that we would inevitably have a certain segment of our population that consumes that food becomes drug addicts too…sorry that’s a bit abstract, but…albeit obvious.

There are two undeniable factors that I always bring up in public speaking on subjects of my expertise. First is cancer, everyone in the audience knows someone that has battled that in their lives and there is no doubt that the entry of chemicals in our lives is playing a part in triggering/causing that evil disease. The second is extreme weather, everyone on the planet has had that experience more of late than historically. Both these potentially unifying common experiences are oil related and can be aptly addressed with exactly the type of farming and lifestyle Gene writes about directly and between the lines in his every word.

The biggest criticism of this “small” approach is that of it being to “labor intensive”. And to quote our friend Wendell Berry – “What are people for?”. My concern is the lack of education and demonstration of these techniques to inform and inspire our youth to what is obviously the best way to move forward. I have invested much of my life in doing those two things as a responsibility for actually doing the work and living this way.

I just saw a piece on RFD-TV that said consumers don’t care if modern farmers are feeding the world, they care about buying good healthy nutritious food in their own community. The path to change will be cleared by consumer demand. It won’t be easy. Depending on and betting on people being lazy and not wanting to do the work is the “get big” trump card. People seeking dignity in their existence is Gene’s, Wendell’s and mine. Probably most of the readers of the Contrary Farmer too. Good job again Gene, it’s nice when the echo of my own voice is that of others that feel, say, write and do the same things. Warm Salute my friend, Jason Rutledge

Maybe we should be thinking less about “farming” and more about pastures, in terms of big. Farms need to stay small and productive with things like hay as the main crop, which can’t be done if everything is tilled up and planted to some grain crop no one wants or can use. Hay will always be a commodity crop, as long as there’s cattle and sheep, etc., in this world. I prefer pastures and cattle (beef and milk cows) to a farmed grain field any day of the week.

Very nice to think about, Betty! I have the same dream.

I do believe there will be more small farms over time mostly due to “new” farmers not being able to afford land. The Amish can do it because they work as a community not just as individuals. Labor is not valued the same way. They also practice a production economy not a consumption economy like us “English” folk do.

Just look at Germany’s economy to understand the value of a “production” or manufacturing economy. I had a German citizen recently tell me the biggest difference between Americans and Germans is that Germans work to live and Americans live to work. I think she may have gotten that correct. I believe the Amish work to live as well.

We will see. I sure hope you are correct Gene.

Gene, your post this week echoes my observation of the Amish economy in communities that are sprinkled throughout an area bounded by New York state, Tennessee, Minnesota, and southern Ontario. It’s what I like to think of as a “human-scaled” economy, one that exists primarily for the benefit of its members, micro rather than macro in scale. In addition to small farms of 80 to 120 acres in size, about what one family can manage with horse-powered tillage, there are numerous small workshops that cater mostly to the needs of those who live within a day’s round trip buggy trip. If this is to be the future of the “English” economy as well, well then…bring it on!

Actually in pure economic terms small farming has already won really.The things keeping current industrial ag going are the Gov’t handouts and the Ethanol Mandate.Take away their subsidies,Gov’t crop insurance and forcing folks to buy their ethanol and Industrial Ag as its now practiced is dead in the water.Something that dependent on the Taxpayers and the Federal Reserve recklessly conjuring up money cannot last period.Plus consumers are getting tired of their products.It all adds up to a very bright future for the small to medium
sensible ag enterprises.

Thanks for this post. I have to agree with you. America was the bread basket of the world with basically small family farms providing the bounty. Granted the tractor was adopted quickly and changes in agriculturial pracitice. However, I believe that in order to progress in our ability to feed ourselves, we need to step back and examine what worked before the maga farms, the heavy machinery and the heavy depencance on chemicals to control weeds and pests. My father worked on his brother-in-law’s farm as a young man, plowed with a team, cultivated by hand and horse drawn cultivator, and other “old-fashioned” methods. He told me that we would eventually see that the results of the heavy mechanization and chemical use would do damage, that the mono crops would not flourish with out them and the food produced would lose nurtrive value. Besides, there’s something deeply satisfying about working with a team (horse or oxen), being close to the land and aware of what it takes to keep it, the crops and ourselves healthy.

After working on different size farms i can vouch for small farming.Getting beat around for 10+hours a day in a big tractor gets old fast.Let me be the first to admit while growing up i studied the machinery parade in the farm magazines as much as the next guy and dreamed of having all of that bug and small equipment.But practicality is small buildings are cheaper to put up and maintain and so is small equipment.AN 8n ford can get into the basement of a bankbarn with the spreader saving so much effort of carrying manure several feet to the spreader . a small ford or an allis chalmers can do a lot of things the big ones cant and vice versa.A one tractor or one or two draft animal farm can use ingenuity and things that the big cant. A small farm with a tiny farm can use a hand corn sheller than grind it with a backyard chipper,grinder,. Make sileage in trashbags from grass clippings. When i was starting out in high school and had no equipment i had had a patch of corn planted . I used burlap bags or buckets to pick it. THen i got the idea of taking two bushel baskets tied to the end of a piece of balking wire covered in more bags as to not bother the horse’es back. Was very enjoyable picking at my own speed with the horse for company.I think the doing work that by yourself is or can be monotonous at times is what lead to bigger farms ,whether the work is done by family together in the field,barn or garden or with hired help . Maybe too much of some chores that are boring,because they need so much of a crop or animals to succeed.But small amounts and varying activities that are profitable even in a small way i think small can be beautiful and profitable and personally rewarding. Gargantuan farms and ranches not so much.

I think it is a bit mis-leading to use the term “agent Orange”. As far as I know there is no such herbicide used for farm crops. Sure we still have old reliable 2-4D which might share a few traits with it.
Don’t get me wrong. I would like to see all farms smaller than a thousand acres much like my own. But currently those size farms are disappearing.
And zero till and chem fallow actually prevents soil erosion. Years ago with conventional tillage the air would often be filled with dust from the spring winds blowing the bare topsoil of the summerfallow. Gullies washed by spring run off or heavy rains were common and regular occurrence.

YES yes yes yes yes! I think it is possible to provide good educations for our children while re-building a healthy rural society. I think it’s possible to both have a rooted peasantry (which I am happily a part of) and be able to support symphonies. I think it’s probably not reasonable to expect every family to have 12 kids in order to work the farm – that mathematical model doesn’t work in the long run – so we’ll need neighbors, helpers, sharing.

Maybe one day soon we’ll be saying, “Get small or get out!” I can dream.

saddlebackmountainfarm April 22, 2015 at 11:13 am

Indeed, more small farms. Only small farms, even. But pray Gene let us also have small cars, schools, houses, cities, factories, churches, families, universities, theaters, Christmases, airplanes, roads, tractors, snowmobiles, sodas, waists, butts, stores, meals, governments, pizzas, banks, breweries, grocery stores… And big? What big do we need? wilderness, open space, gardens, big clean oceans, big clean rivers, big sheds for hand tools, big festivals with lots of banjos, and not big farmers markets but lots, lots of small farmers markets with 6 people in line at each vender and all venders with big smiles and look at that huge big tub of lettuces!

guys, stitch this on your foreheads: small is beautiful

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