Thursday, August 23, 2012

Rant: First world farming problems

One of the blogs that I read, Kevin Kossowans, has a video interview with a pair of farmers who are managing a third-generation farm, and I've watched the video a few times because I wanted to make sure that I understood what they were saying. 

What they're describing is taking 1/3rd of their land and planting trees and shrubs and grasses on it, and using the other 2/3rds of their land for raising heritage grains organically.  They make mention of the high-input modern farming methods -- you put a lot into the soil to get a decent harvest - but as this is a new venture apparently,they are speaking of the future and their hopes.  Time will tell if they can make a go of it. 

The video is very hopeful, you get a feel that they are true believers, and that they honestly believe that what they're doing will give them a better result than previous generations have, and I'd like to think that too.  I'm all for people trying different things. 

But what I was thinking was how this is really a first-world farming problem.  The vast majority of the farmed land out there is farmed by people who just can't throw away 30% of their land permanently; who choose farming methods based on a need to produce -- and not just profits, but food for their family.  

Let me give you an example from my own experience:  I was in Zambia; I was rafting down the Zambezi river; there were about 20 of us on 4 rafts, and what it did was it put us into a very rural part of Africa -- in that part of Zambia or Zimbabwe (the Zambezi river forms the border between the two countries) there may not be roads, and in this area there wasn't.  But I was surprised to learn that corn meal, and corn mush, was a staple of the local communities, and we saw many hand-irrigated corn fields as we floated by.  The locals would put their corn up a bluff from the river so that the hippos wouldn't eat it, or as much, and they irrigated their fields with hand-carried 5 gallon buckets.  You'd see these skinny kids carrying two buckets up a hill hundreds of times every day; they'd pour the buckets out and then return to the river and get another pair.  They'd tied ropes to the handle of the bucket and they'd throw their bucket into the river and drag it back with the rope.  Because if they got too close to the waters edge a croc might get them. 

Those farmers, if the crop failed, starved.  If they had an abundant crop with a surplus they could sell, life was good.  In our area of the country we are worried about "returning" land to what it was.  In other parts of the world it's a matter of life or death. 

So I'm watching these two idealistic Canadian farmers extol the virtues of the native grasses and trees, and I wonder what the bucket brigade would think about it.  Our food system is producing enough food to feed  the world now, but part of that is the fact that our per-acre-yields of virtually every kind of food has increased dramatically over the past 50 years.  Heritage grains are great, and there is a market for it, but the majority of the world needs that high yielding grain. 

As an example, corn yields have increased by 6x since 1940, and more corn is now being grown on fewer acres as a result -- if you really want to "save the land" maybe you should plant the most efficient seed you can and give the rest back to nature.  

About the only reason that they're able to even consider this course of action is that the land is (presumably) paid for, inherited or otherwise debt free.  Otherwise, as most farmers, you have a mortgage and a land payment and the you really don't have this sort of choice.  Maybe there's some sort of government program to sell carbon credits.  I'd be very uneasy about any farm plan that depended on a government program for survival -- politics change, and so do laws. 

We have a culture that says that fallow land, land that is allowed to go "back to nature" is laudable and good.  I take a different view.  If you take good farmland and make it fallow, your actions are destroying something that in another country would cost people their lives.  In the same way that I object to ethanol, I think that people who plant houses on good, fertile land are committing a sin.  It wasn't too long ago when we couldnt' feed everyone, and that time will come again.   I'll go a bit further:  If you're holding acreage and choose methods and crops that produce just the bare minimum from your land -- like you own 80 acres and produce 5 calves a year -- it's not as egregious a sin, but it is no less a sin.  Shame on you. 

And I'd hate to see people die because someone wanted a big lawn, or out of ego or hubris just decided to destroy a farm. 


Fransje said...

'Throwing 1/3 of their land away' - this is where you may not get why this may well work: by planting trees and perennial grasses, you preserve the soil, which obviously is the bank account that you have and will continue to need, which obviously gets thrown out, planetwide, which is why everybody has a huge problem in farming - first, second and third world.

Bill Gauch said...

Around here, the economics of that plan work because land is at a premium. 3rd and 4th and 5th generation farms turn into hobby farms because the latest generation doesn't really want to farm the land. They sell a conservation easement, taking the development rights out of the picture. They can then let the land go fallow, plant it, hay it, or whatever they want and still not have to worry about money. My front yard is 80 acres of former farm, turned nursery, turned fallow land. The conservation easement was sold for $1.5 million. Then, instead of farming, the owner now builds hotels. I say instead, but occasionally he is out there. Last year, he cut, dried and baled round bales of "hay" which is mostly crabgrass, chicory, aster and wild rose. They rotted in the fields all Fall, Winter and into Spring. A couple years ago, he planted a few hundred tomato plants, staked them and then let them rot. It's sad really.

Rich said...

They kept talking about the "sustainability" of their farm, but I don't see how it can be sustainable to rely on some sort of carbon credit payment or a conservation easement payment.

Is the money for that type of "sustainability" going to last forever? Can everyone that wishes to have a "sustainable" farm get those type of payments for 'not farming'?

Not to mention the nonsense about not wanting to be involved in "industrial farming" and wanting to grow organic "heritage" grains.

The only reason they are going to be able to grow organic grain is because their grandparents and parents put in the work to clear the brush, fix the drainage, built the fertility up and maintained it with fertilizer applications, and controlled the weeds with herbicides or tillage.

Now that the grandchildren have a productive farm they are going to reap the rewards of all that work while criticizing the methods that made it possible for them to farm it organically (it's a lot easier to farm organically when you start with a clean slate).

Anonymous said...

Also, it's something of a myth that yields were never high before modern NPK agriculture. It was much more dependent on rotation (including letting land lie fallow periodically) and richness of soil. Joel Salatin's region had yields that still cannot be replicated with NPK agriculture there. Also, if you aren't growing corn, wheat or soy, modern ag methods don't give you better yields for all the damage they demonstrably cause.

off grid mama said...

The "most efficient seed" has it's own set of problems. Seeds like that require very high inputs of which 3rd world farmers can't afford. Frankly, neither can 1st. Next, they are often hybrid or GMO which means the farmer can't save his own seed. Another cost generated. I was in a seed shop for field seed this past year and they offered loans to buy seed... try again to convince me why we should plant the "most efficient seed " ?

Sunnybrook Farm said...

The root problem is that the government is involved and has been bought off by the seed and chemical companies. If the food had labels showing what has been done to it, people would demand the practices be stopped.

Bruce King said...

Fransje: I didn't hear erosion as being something that they were trying to combat, or that they had a problem retaining soil on the acreage that they're choosing to farm. It's fair to say that fallow land could be converted back to farmland at some point, but I don't think that will be possible if the "carbon credit" thing works like it does here. The payment is dependent on permanent encumberance of the land for the most part.

Bruce King said...

Bill: I hate seeing bales rot. It reminds you every day of the waste.

Around here it's the local goverments that are doing the same thing. The city of arlington bought out 400 acres of bottomland, that used to be two dairies. By closing the dairies they put 30 people out of work. They then spent a million bucks planting "native plants". The land is now a sea of reed canary grass, an invasive species, and all of the planted stuff is dead.

It's the "portage creek wildlife area".

So: Spend a few million dollars, close a couple of businesses, and take what used to be a tax-generating property and make it a liability (county pays to maintain it) -- and then close it because of budget shortfalls.

Bruce King said...

Rich: you bring up a good point. All the work that got them there is bad, basically. it's funny, because it's a 3rd or 4th generation farm and still in business and that to me means it was sustainable. Lets hope their new theory is also. They mention that neighbors and family are criticizing them for their choices. Maybe they're doing so because they don't want to lose the farm. If they didn't care they wouldn't say anything.

Bruce King said...

jsl32: I posted a link related to corn yields in this posting. You mention higher yields -- could you help me with that?

What crop, what are the historic yields, and what are they now?

Good farmland has always produced more than marginal farmland. That's why it was (is) considered good.

Joel Salatin's farm has had the benefit of 40 years (by his account) of soil additions drawn from neighboring properties and the region. He describes at length collecting organic material to put on his farm. Fertilizer, mulch and so on are effective ways to build soil fertility. It's just not something that every farm can do. Even in his area, as more farms turn to the organic soil amendments, he's finding that he has trouble competing for it. If every farm did what he did there wouldn't be enough material to meet the demand. I was at a lecture he did in Seattle where he went on at length about the difficulty he had in procuring a load of sawdust.

Bruce King said...

off grid: The most efficient seed can reduce the acreage required to grow the same amount of food. I'm not selling you on planting seed, but I am pointing out that if the goal is to return farmland to fallow state there are other ways to go about it without reducing your production, and in fact, since we're using 20% less land to produce the same amount of corn today,it's already happening - see link in the post.

Bruce King said...

Sunnybrook: I think that it's not just the seed company. Money has permeated every aspect of our political system and judicial system, to the extent that you really don't get a fair shake in the courts or in the law unless you have a lot of money.

It's a great system if you're rich. Not so much if you're not.

judicial system not fair: in civil lawsuits you don't get a free lawyer. So if you're poor you can (and often do) accept being trampled on because you cannot affort representation. Land use lawsuits are a prime example of this. If you're wealthy, at least around here, you have a much better chance of doing what you'd like with your land than someone who is not.

Political system not fair: it's been my experience that "donations" to politicians make problems go away. Have no money to contribute? Sorry son, I've got more important things to do. The nice thing is that it's cheaper than civil suits (see above) but in my opinion it's still a bribe in all respects.

becky3086 said...

I have to say that when I watched that issue of Kevin's I thought the same thing. I can't quite understand the reasoning behind it.
I also have to wonder how much research they have done. How "natural" is it to plant so many pines? Here it seems all the farms are planting pine and the pollen in the spring is horrendous! (don't believe them for a second when they say the pollen doesn't come from the pines, you can see it blow off them in the spring).
I truly hate to see the fields that someone took so much time to clear being allowed to grow up into pines that are clear cut when they are grown. Seems a horrible waste to me but at least they are still farming- just a tree farming instead.
I really couldn't figure out what the purpose of the farm in the video was, especially the part about trying to plant a wild ecosystem. I just don't think that is possible.
Sometime things can be made to sound so good but they just aren't feasible in the real world.

off grid mama said...

No it is not a healthy ecosystem to plant one type of tree. They create a monoculture of trees then. Sepp Holzer ( speaks of such in Austria. A truly wild ecosystem is not created by humans but using permaculture humans can create a good useful ecosystem that produces food and builds soil.