Sustainable Farming: The Optimal System, Jun 05 | Organic Farming is the Optimal System for the Future


Jocelyn Engman and her family founded Choice Earth CSA (photo by Mark Paul Petrick).

“That’s a nice crop of organic weeds you got growing there.These ‘modern’ methods—organic, right? They must take a lotof hard work.” My sister and I smile at our father’s friend, atall man with a tanned, wrinkled face that marks him as a farmer. We’vebeen picking tomatoes for what seems like hours, squeezing our bodies betweenjungles of fragrant tomato vines growing beyond their trellises, and we arejust too tired to do more.

Later, when I tell my husband about our neighbor’s admiration of ourorganic velvetleaf, I say, “Modern methods. How are organic methods modern?Aren’t we farming the old-fashioned way—the way it was before combinesand anhydrous ammonia?”

The (Brief and Recent) History of Farming

Ammonia accounts for 90 percent of the nitrogenous fertilizers used inchemical farming. Nitrogen is a very necessary element of the growingsystem, and nitrogenous compounds are found in all fertile soils and livingcreatures. It was one of the elements Justus von Liebig found when heburned a plant, analyzed its ashes to identify the major elements requiredfor plant growth, and became “the father of modern agriculture.” Itis the N in the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) that makes up today’schemical fertilizers.

Nitrogen gas from the atmosphere is converted into ammonia, a form ofnitrogen plants can use, by the Haber-Bosch process. Invented by the Germanchemists Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch just in time for WWI, the Haber-Boschprocess most likely prolonged the war by enabling Germany to make explosives.After the war, excess nitrogen no longer needed for explosives was appliedto crops, along with leftover toxic gases, which were redirected towardkilling insects.

No longer needing to use traditional methods and crop rotations to ensureproductivity, farmers began specializing in a few high-value crops. Efficiencybecame the cry of agriculture, and instead of being fueled by human labor,farms began depending on heavy machinery and pesticides (for insect andweed control).

In the 1960s, Norman Borlaug began breeding plants to thrive in the environmentscreated by industrial agriculture, creating seeds resistant to the commondiseases in monocropping systems. Seed development continues; last yearwhen my neighbor’s organic cornfield succumbed to foxtail, he plantedRoundup Ready beans on top of the corn and foxtail, sprayed Roundup, andsuddenly had a weed-free beanfield. And just the other day I saw an articleabout research on GMO soybeans resistant to drought.

In 1962 Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which launched an
environmental movement in the United States. Others soon confirmed herwork on the effects of pesticides on wildlife, and the Sustainable AgricultureResearch and Education (SARE) program and the Organic Foods ProductionAct were created. Some farmers began modifying their practices; theConservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to take erodibleland out of production, became more popular in the 1980s and ’90s,along with minimum-tillage and no-till systems of planting.

On the whole, agribusiness, with its industrial machinery and chemicaldependency, became our ideal of agriculture over the past century. Today,almost all the food consumed in Iowa is imported, the average piece ofproduce traveling 1500 miles to end up on our plates. Once the majorityof the American population lived on farms, but now less than 2 percentare farmers. Farmers buy retail and sell wholesale, and most of the farmingdollars go to suppliers, marketers, machinery manufacturers, and so on.

It appears that industrialized farming became the convention because itrequires less human labor, it embraces the latest and greatest in technology,and it’s where the people with the money wanted it to go. Publicpolicy has helped shape today’s farms; since the 1950s, it has beenpushing farms to get bigger or get out. However, industrial agricultureis not a natural, inevitable consequence, and it does not have to be thefinal consequence for our food system.

An Optimal System

What defines an optimal food system? A traditional criterion for judgingour system is, Is it economical? Our industrialized system must be economicalfor someone; however, in my experience it isn’t for farmers. Accordingto the book Farming for Us All, in a good year a grain farmer can expect$30 to $40 an acre in profit—but only after the government chipsin $30 to $40 in subsidies (more when it’s particularly generous,as it has been since 1999). And in real dollars, net farm income in theU.S. is now lower than it was in 1929.

I honestly didn’t think farming in the Midwest could be very profitablewithout subsidies until I learned of Angelic Organics, a large CSA servingthe Chicago area. Angelic Organics consists of 1150 members and 50 acres,25 of which are in production during a single season. Although the manyvariables playing in the economics of farming make comparisons difficult,with a good crop at an average price, my father estimates that in a yearhe grosses $500 per acre on corn and $350 to $400 per acre on soybeans.Of course, price and the weather vary so much that these numbers are alwaysfluctuating. Meanwhile, however, Angelic Organics, in a steady price marketwith guaranteed income whatever the weather, grosses $11,500 per acre.It seems to me that sustainable organic farming for a CSA can be as viablea living for a family on a few acres as conventional farming is with itshundreds of acres.

Perhaps a better criterion for an optimal system is, Is it sustainable?The history of humans centers on security. We convince ourselves (or someoneelse convinces us) that by industrializing agriculture, we can make itpredictable. We can make food a sure thing. But a sure thing cannot escapethe test of sustainability. No matter how efficient we are at producingfood, if we exhaust the land that produces it, we won’t eat. Also,as Elizabeth Henderson writes in Sharing the Harvest, “from fertilizersand pesticides, to transportation and energy, industrial production ofour food is now absolutely dependent upon the massive consumption of petroleumproducts—a non-renewable resource.” How sustainable is a practicethat relies on burning a nonrenewable resource that contaminates our environment?

Exploiters Versus Nurturers

I think another question should underlie our understanding of an optimalfood system: Is it good for our culture? In The Unsettling of America,Wendell Berry suggests that we are divided between exploitation and nurture. “Theexploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standardof the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care.The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goalis health…. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land onlyhow much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asksa question that is much more complex and difficult: How much can be takenfrom it without diminishing it?”

We are all both exploiters and nurturers, and we farmers are all atonce sustainable and conventional. However, it seems that in the lastcentury of farming, we have been expressing our exploitive selves, andmaybe it is time to introduce balance.

Haber-Bosch or Nitrogenase?

My husband is a science junkie. The other day he emailed me an articleon Interplanetary Superhighways. These superhighways, created by the interactionsof gravitational fields, are already being used by satellites. The fastway to get spacecraft into low-Earth orbit, or to the moon, is to burna lot of rocket fuel and cut a straightforward path through the earth’sgravitational pull. However, satellites can ride the winding, InterplanetarySuperhighway almost for free, letting gravity do the driving.

Superhighways versus straightforward launches is one more example ofthe way we use our knowledge of nature. We can fight nature, work withnature, or possibly do both. Blasting off into outer space is fast andeasy but is also a fight against natural laws, and thus comes at a highcost of energy. Following the gravitational superhighways takes more timebut comes with a very low energy cost.

The Haber-Bosch process that produces the nitrogen consumed by modernfarming requires an immense amount of energy, taking place at 400 to 500 °Cand about 200 atm of pressure. But long before Haber-Bosch, nature hadits own way of splitting nitrogen that doesn’t require burning copiousamounts of fossil fuels: nitrogenase. Nitrogenase is a complex and elegantenzyme and though we pretty much know its structure, we haven’tquite figured out how it works. Nitrogenase exists in symbiotic nitrogen-fixingbacteria that invade the root hairs of host plants, where they multiplyand stimulate the formation of root nodules. Within the nodules the bacteriaconvert free nitrogen to nitrates, which the host plant utilizes for itsdevelopment. Nodules are found in legumes such as alfalfa, beans, clovers,peas, and soybeans, and before ammonia, farmers relied on nitrogenase.

A Ride on the Interplanetary Superhighway

When we raced to get to the moon, burning vast quantities of rocket fuel,we were exploiters. Maybe our initial fight against gravity was all wecould do given the knowledge that we had. But since that fight, perhapseven thanks to that fight, we have been gaining the knowledge we needto use the natural systems of gravity to reduce our use of rocket fuel.We no longer need to blast off into outer space.

We have come to the same place in agriculture. It is time to stop burningthrough fuels and topsoil. It is time to become sustainable.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to seein the world.”

I vividly remember watching my father plow the soil of our gardens lastsummer. The land had been resting, and it was the first plowing in threeyears. The alfalfa growing there was well-established, its roots deepin the ground, pulling on the moldboard plow so that the front end ofmy father’s old International spent most of its time in the air.Those long, deep roots and their nodules full of nitrogenase are whatmake our organic weeds (and everything else!) grow so well.

Since our neighbor’s visit, I have revised my opinion of organicgrowing methods as modern. I agree that they are modern. In fact, I thinkthey are our future.

Visit Choice Earth CSA’s website.