Farming Controversies Are So Complicated


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From GENE LOGSDON

​I read an article on the DTN/Progressive Farming website that once again shows how difficult it is to resolve differences of opinion in farming disagreements. The article was an even-sided discussion of possible overproduction of organic crops, (which I plan to write about soon) but a respondent took the occasion to launch into a rather vitriolic attack on organic farming. He was irritated about the organic stand against herbicides. How could organic farmers consider their methods to be environmentally correct, he wrote, when they use cultivation to control weeds in row crops and shun herbicides. Cultivation increases the severity of erosion and uses more fossil fuel than herbicide applications. That’s true as far as I know. Cultivation also releases CO2 to the atmosphere, disturbs soil life negatively, and breaks up soil particles too much, he argued. He concluded by opining that those of us who cultivate row crops, or use flame throwers instead of herbicides to kill weeds, are stupid.

​But herbicide farmers cultivate the soil quite a bit too, during fall and spring when erosion is more severe. At least here in my neck of the woods, fields are cultivated in the fall, so as to be ready for planting as soon as possible in spring, and then cultivated again in the spring ahead of planting. If a no-till planter is involved, the operation is called “no-till.” Beats me. The big trend now is cover crops overwinter, surely a good idea, but that means either more herbicides in spring to get rid of the cover or more cultivation of some kind to smack down the cover crop.

​It leads me to a dismal conclusion. As soon as mankind reaches a population level where agriculture, as opposed the hunting and gathering, is necessary to provide enough food, collapse of the civilization is inevitable.

​But wait. In the online discussion about herbicides vs. cultivation, no mention was made about other alternatives— as if they did not exist. How about pasture farming. Organic farmers who let their farm animals graze instead of feeding them cultivated grains, would not be so stupid, right? Or how about Wes Jackson and his Land Institute in Kansas, working hard to develop perennial grains that would make yearly cultivation unnecessary and reduce herbicides?

​Or how about the traditional kind of farming common before herbicides, where rotations of corn, wheat and three years of hay and pasture crops (or something similar) is followed? In this situation, cultivation or herbicides for weed control is necessary only for the corn, or one year out of five. I know this kind of farming works because I lived it from childhood until early manhood. In that rotation regimen, the corn stalks could be shredded in the fall for ground cover. Or the field could be fall-sown to wheat (to be harvested the next year and to act as cover crop over winter) and even grazed a bit in early spring. In spring red clover was sown to grow up in the wheat. After wheat harvest the clover would grow back to provide a seed crop worth about $80 a bushel right now or could be used as pasture or hay and then becoming cover crop over winter again. The next two years the clover makes a hay crop and when it grows back, another cutting or a seed crop or pasture. A fifth year it would still make hay or pasture, especially if in the fall preceding, it is winter pastured. The livestock eat the fading forage and the mature seed heads, trample some of the seeds into the soil to grow the next year, or defecated with the livestock manure to sprout that way. Rancher friend Oren Long in Kansas told me how he did that successfully years ago. All this cutting and pasturing for three years controls weeds quite well. Then the field can be plowed for corn again, or sprayed and planted for truly no-till corn.

​Why has this kind of farming been abandoned on so many farms? Because farmers decided that they could make as much or more money just growing grains and not mess with livestock or making hay. Their rotation was corn, beans and three years of bitching about grain prices.

​So whose stupid? Maybe we all are nuts for increasing and multiplying and making any kind of farming necessary.

~~​

24 Comments

Heckman, J.R. 2015. The Role of Trees and Pastures in Organic Agriculture. Sustainable Agriculture Research. Sustainable Agriculture Research. 4: 47-55.

http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/sar/article/view/50105

My. Logsdon,

Hi! I’m sorry I don’t know if my previous comment went through.

Anyway! I’m a big fan of your books and blog. I’m learning a lot from this wonderful community.

I’m 26 and recently graduated with a master’s in english. I love writing but I find my love of nature pulling me away from academia. I have been intrigued with gardening ever since I can remember, planting something every year I can, and am trying to do as much research as possible about farming so that can one day start a small farm here in Ohio (I live in Cleveland, pretty sure the librarians are getting sick of seeing me).

I’m curious if you have any advice for such a novice like me. I don’t have any money and I’m in debt from my degrees, but I’m eager to learn so that I can have my own sanctuary of trees! I just feel like the dream is so far from my reality, and I don’t know which steps to take. If you or anyone has any advice I would appreciate it so much.

-athena

    Athena, sorry I did not get your previous comment. My usual advice is that people in your situation (no money, like the way I started too) must have a source of income apart from your sanctuary, at least for awhile. But be an absolute tightwad about spending money. Settle in a rural area where you feel at home, and keep your eyes open for possible little sanctuary bargains to show up. Research into farming might help, but better just talk to farmers or work as an intern on one of the new garden farms coming into existence. The area around Cleveland is full of them. Don’t equate academia with writing. Gene

Changing how we grow food is important, yes; but changing why we grow food is even more important. Where did the USA get the idea that we are responsible for feeding the world? Where on earth did that distorted notion come from, anyway? It’s not our job to feed the world, nor should it be.

America is a nosey parker. We insist on trying to run the entire show (read: food, wars, medicine, technology, etc) because we have somehow gained a reputation as a superpower. We are no such thing, on any level, and we shouldn’t try to be. America gave itself that title because of arrogance.

We better first look towards taking care of america. We throw away more food every day than most countries produce – because we are a wasteful society. We have an overweening gov’t who is pushing their overween-i-ness onto other countries who don’t even want it – go figure. Many countries hate america, and we’ve given them good reasons.

I agree with Emily; if people would grow food in a manner that was considerate of the earth’s needs instead of killing insects and microbes, causing pollution and erosion, damaging the soil structure and laying waste to the oceans, we could feed a much bigger population. In the US alone, at least 25% of the food grown is wasted (some studies say it’s as high as 40%). And Russ, when are you going to write your book (or have you already and I missed it)?

    Beth walking down the street it appears that a whole lot of consumed food is ‘wasted’
    (LOL)We’ll probably the 1st society on Earth that died off because of too much food.

      “America is the only nation in the history of the world that ever went to the poorhouse in an automobile.” That was the quote that got me hooked on Will Rogers. He and Gene Logsdon are my favorites!

    @ Beth: You said “if people would grow food in a manner that was considerate of the earth’s needs instead of killing insects and microbes, causing pollution and erosion, damaging the soil structure and laying waste to the oceans . . . ” and that’s just what we’re doing wrong.

    I just recently finished reading a book about why america is in the fix it’s in (nothing to do with farming though, sorry!) and it was such heavy reading it made my blood pressure skyrocket to think of how we’ve been taken in by many aspects of life for MANY years – and by whom. Soooooo, when I finished that book, I downloaded Farmer Boy to my kindle and have been reading that because it’s always been my favorite book – since childhood I have loved that book. I consider it the best of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, actually. When I read that book I feel like you do – – if we just used a bit of common sense like what the people in those days did, we would all be so much better off and so would our animals, our water supplies, and our earth itself, much as what you said in the quoted material above.

    My older brother and I are both of the idea that we were definitely born 100 years too late. :- ) We both feel we just don’t “fit” into today’s fast-paced, over-done world. Progress is one thing but over-progression is another. My Dad always told us “everything will be fine in the end; if it’s not fine, it’s not the end” and I guess we can always hope that “fine” will find it’s way into our lives soon, especially in areas of food production.

Read Farmers of Forty Centuries by King. Gene has mentioned it. Before the use of fossil fuels East Asians fed themselves (which much greater population densities that USA 2016) and fed themselves well in a sustainable system that reads like one of these unconventional modern polyculture/permaculture books. We’re nowhere near carrying capacity. Worrying about it is akin to worrying about the sun burning out. Worry (or better yet, do something positive) about stupid agriculture, which is all around us, and will destroy our soil and create a famine if we are unable to stay a stey ahead with mining/manufacturing fertilizer.

It’s as easy to get some conventional to rail against organic (or proven traditional methods which before oil based chemical was basically organic) as it is to get some scientist to rail again climate change. Ironically or realistically they are indelibly linked. Responsible zero based population grown would be good. Brent makes good points. Animal power as a component of the Amish and other cultures agriculture is seldom discussed, but a proven viable method of addressing human needs, although humble and more human labor intensive, I beg to ask and echo – What are people for?

What really makes those invested in chemical agriculture upset is when they realize that those ‘stupid’ farmers who have placed soil health at the forefront of their operation use neither herbicides nor cultivation to control weeds–they simply aren’t a problem. If we weren’t so concerned about growing monoculture grains–whether organic or conventional–to feed livestock (or combustion engines), so-called weeds would not be an issue. Natural nutrient cycling with animals is an incredible way to maintain soil health and reduce weed pressure, but the modern system has gotten rid of the livestock and instead purchase “fertility” from unnatural sources that actually makes the weed problem worse…good for agribusiness, not-so-good for the land or the farmer’s pocketbook. Weeds are indicators of an imbalanced system, so until we correct the source of the problem, we will continue to have to intervene with fleeting fixes like chemicals and tillage.

You’ve got the cart before the horse here, Gene, in that final sentence, as most people do. Agriculture CAUSED populations to grow, not the other way round. Put simply, in ecological terms; a species that can make more food available to itself than the natural environment would provide, will grow its numbers. So numbers grow and hey, whaddya know, we’ve got to grow more food to feed them. Result: the treadmill we’ve been on for the past 10,000 years.

You pretty much nailed it when you said: “​It leads me to a dismal conclusion. As soon as mankind reaches a population level where agriculture, as opposed the hunting and gathering, is necessary to provide enough food, collapse of the civilization is inevitable.”

Except that hunting and gathering always provided enough food…enough for some people to survive and replace themselves. And that’s all that’s ever needed. It’s the way life on Earth works.

Agriculture (i.e. providing more food than the environment would do naturally) will ALWAYS be unsustainable because it will ALWAYS grow populations and therefore has to rely on people voluntarily keeping their numbers low or at carrying capacity, and we all know where that got China’s one-child policy and that wasn’t even voluntary.

As one who supports his farming habit by teaching math, I must express my dismay concerning the great disparagement of multiplication. I am saddened by this cause for division and must add that this condemnation only subtracts from the need for treating each other as equals.
Also as one who has had the great privilege of being married for 44 years to the most beautiful woman in the world who also is a world class mother and grandmother, I must say that multiplying has been the most satisfying endeavor of my life.
But I agree that controversies are almost always complicated. Well done.

Perhaps some of you know of George Monbiot, a rigorous and, I think, excellent writer on environmental issues. He usually backs his opinions with good science. In August 2000 he wrote this piece about organic farming, and the ridiculous mantra of both the Monsantos of this world, and some farmers apparently fixed ideas that monoculture, particularly GMO monoculture, is THE best.
http://www.monbiot.com/2000/08/24/organic-farming-will-feed-the-world/
Thomas Malthus suggested in the early 19th century that population growth was a threat to the survival of the human species. In comes “guano”, and since then “BigAg”, just to prove him wrong. Technology “saves the day”!
http://www.monbiot.com/2008/01/29/population-bombs/
Guess what? If we go on forcing more and more fertiliser, and weedkiller’s, on to the soil the soil itself will no longer be the living thing that we now have. But, as George says, feeding the world is only partly mitigated by population control. It requires political will in the rich world, and a change in our economic perspective. We, in the wealth countries, need to curb OUR consumption. Perhaps we might consider Gene’s idea of returning to crop rotation, something that I – as a member of our “urban species” – knew of in the 1940s and 50s.
There’s lots more…but I won’t go on.

The five year rotation of crops you describe was the norm for agriculture in Europe and elsewhere for centuries.. and land so farmed remained in good tilth for centuries. Probably there were no abundances so common as to require huge storage facilities. So maybe the modern goal is more for profit through feeding more and more people than it is for preserving the health of the soil. Your thoughts on so many topics are pretty logical… at least they appeal to my sense of logic…..always glad to see a new post of yours.

I dont think we can label one crop bad and another good when such a huge population needs to be fed. But I do think we can learn more systems of farming.People want to be able to declare like in politics than only one side is right when things are like life or a river ,ever flowing ,ever changing.I was born on a 40 acre hog farm so corn and hogs are my first loves along with the varieties of fruits,vegetables,crops and livestock that were grown there. That said though, i think ,especially for most livestock a pasture farm consisting of various clovers and even alfalfas that can be planted with a grain like oats can work good.When the oats are ripe combine a small acre or two for all the seed oats you might need in the upcoming year then let the rest stand to provide the grain for whatever livestock that follows..They eat the grain , “wasting” some which gets trampled into the top of the soil to sprout and grow again into grain or forage.Same way with the clover and alfalfa seeds. some is combined for seed to overseed in to the new forage field or interseed into the cashcrop or use as a cash crop. An old cheap line of equipment will do for a farm such as this and you can experiment or play with ,if you like getting by with as little equipment as you can. Really how much of the grain or “food ” grown is actually used for food? So much goes into other products as fuel. liquor,snackfood.. and how much of this and manufacturing is really needed and how much is too just give people jobs or something for the excess population to have something to do?

Part of the problem stems from the fact most so-called “modern” theories on agriculture seem to be predicated on an almost religious devotion to growing more and more corn. This year, despite a recognized glut of corn, USDA predicts a near-record 93.6 million acres will be planted this season. I have no doubt that this corn rush is highly profitable for the seed companies, the pesticide companies, and the commodities traders on Wall Street. Unfortunately, the farmer is the one left high and dry, with the optimistic ones thinking they might “break even” if weather cooperates. Simply put, someone needs to hit the reset button on American agriculture. Corn can be a fine crop when grow either for sweet corn or as field corn for grits, polenta, and meal. But when a farm starts to devolve into a factory producing an industrial commodity, things are all but assured of causing harm to the greater environment and the family economy. After all, it’s fundamentally better to grow food than fuel.

I would like to see your comments on Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm books. He made a big difference in the late 30s through the mid-50s.

Louise Bequette

    Louise, My mother made me read Pleasant Valley when I was a boy, and I was much impressed and influenced by it since the kind of farming he was describing was much like we were living and he knew exactly how to describe it. I’ve read other books by Bromfield and made it a point to learn a lot about him although I never met him or took the time to visit and write about him. The reason is that, although what he said about farming was correct and had great impact, I was not an admirer of him as a person. Some of his other books I do not think were written well either. I won’t go into that here.
    To all of you who have thus far responded to this post: I am so encouraged and relieved at the kind of thinking you express because it makes me feel like I am definitely not alone. Gene

It seems like ever since Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden we’ve been on this agricultural effort to feed ourselves, yet still seem almost oblivious to erosion and loss of fertility resulting from this effort.. I applaud the process of farming Gene describes.

Another such process is described by Masonobu Fukuoka in the book : “The One Straw Revolution” wherein he described his efforts toward essentially a no-till farming process, which he called:” do nothing farming.” However I sure don’t notice a huge amount of effort to repeat or replicate his process in America.

In Australia there is even a movement toward pasture cropping, which as I understand it means cool season grains are drilled into pastures that are mainly warm season grasses. There are probably a few such farmers in America. I even saw a photograph of sustainable agriculture spokesman Joel Salatin conversing with one of the originators of pasture cropping in Australia, Colin Seis.

Yet it still seems that such progressive agricultural ideas just don’t catch on very fast in the good old USA , in recent times anyway. I believe it is up to us Garden Farmers to bring about true conservation oriented agriculture. However, don’t expect support from the media or government if such types of agriculture don’t enrich the industries associated with agriculture such as seed companies, fertilizer companies, pesticide companies, tillage equipment companies etc.

An increase in organic, sustainable, regenerative farming is inevitable (let’s hope we can keep BigAg out of it!). This movement reminds me of any other movement forward–it’s ridiculed at first as people chuckle at you and pat you on the head, as in “There, there, little lady, you can’t do that.” But then when people invested in the status quo see change is really coming, they get angry.

There is no problem faced by human civilization that would not be made more “solvable” by reduced population. But…but…what about social security? We need young workers to pay into the system! A system of support for old people that depends on an ever-expanding population is doomed to long term failure, just as it dooms the ecosystem long term.

It’s okay if every Tom, Dick, and Harry multiplies and increases so long as they think like i think, talk like I talk, breed like I breed, and farm like I farm. If they don’t, I’m building a big wall.

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