Farmers did not used to be categorized as conventional or organic. They were much more independent and they followed many farming styles. In the last century, agriculture has gone through profound changes and farmers seems to have settled into two camps: conventional (using approved commercial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides) and organic (for simplicity, I am including all those who do not use commercial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, including Certified Naturally Grown.) While they use different farming practices, I believe that they share many common interests and needs.
Today, all farmers must be very resourceful. They must be able to prepare budgets and business plans, maintain and repair equipment, address legal issues, produce a marketable product, deal with pests, deal with environmental issues, and make a profit (more years than not!). Most engage in land conservation practices and both conventional and organic farmers can legitimately say that their method of farming has come from scientific research.
Brendan McGrath recently reported on a visit to a farm in New Jersey by the State Secretary of Agriculture to Chickadee Creek organic farm in the New Trenton Times. The Secretary was impressed with the successes of the farm’s 13th generation farmer, Jessica Niederer, including her participation in the state’s community-supported agriculture program. Then the discussion turned to the tension between the organic and conventional farmers. Niederer said “We have different things that we’re interested in exploring, but it’s really alienating when organic farmers start only focusing on the things they don’t agree with conventional farmers on, instead of opening up doors for opportunity for learning from people who have been doing it longer.” The reverse is true as well. Conventional farmers tend to view organic farmers as impractical hobby farmers. Both can learn from each other.
Conventional farming grew out of science and policy
Conventional farmers are constantly learning new approaches. They have benefited from the work of land-grant colleges with their test plots and scientific research to pursue better yields, lower costs and more profitable methods. Farmers did not individually discover contour plowing, no-till practices, genetically modified seeds, herbicides and pesticides on their own. Farmers made use of the research and government assistance provided them to modernize their operations.
Much of the credit for the modernization of agriculture is given to Norman Borlaug, the “Father of the Green Revolution.” The initiatives, led by Borlaug, were credited with saving millions from starvation in third world countries, through development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Those innovations were passed on via Extension agents, Soil Conservation Districts and company representatives.
U.S. farm policy also encouraged rapid expansion and specialization. As noted in the USDA report The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, the federal government enacted farm bills which provided price supports and income support payments that would manage supply and reduce risk for farmers. Then, under the leadership of Earl Butz in 1973, Congress adopted a farm bill that “introduced target prices and deficiency payments to replace price supports, coupled with low commodity loan rates, to increase producer reliance on markets and allow for free movement of commodities at world prices.”
Most farmers did not choose to specialize in one or two crops, nor did they choose to see most of the farmers in their region get out of business. Global competition did that. The farmers I knew as a kid preferred to be diversified in the event that one or more of the crops failed. Most of those who are still in business wound up specializing in order to compete. A friend of mine from Iowa told me that when her father went to a bank in the 1970s to borrow $100,000 for a tractor, he was told that they would not loan $100,000, but they would loan $1,000,000. The message; scale up or get out!
Of course, there have been economic cycles where farmers who did scale up were
wiped out by a few bad years or weak crop prices, but farmers with bigger bank roles (or a greater stomach for risk) would usually step up and purchase properties in foreclosure. In The Making of Megafarms, a Mixture of Pride and Pain, Dan Charles reported on the pride that surviving farmers felt in the Midwest for being able survive the scale up age they lived in, but they also felt the loss of their farm neighbors and farm towns that continuously lost population and businesses.
I have heard that same sense of loss in the farming community here in Maryland. After attending a lengthy meeting with well-intended non-farm members, a farmer told me that she no longer felt that she liked the community she lived in any more. Too few residents understood anything about farming.
Over the last decade or so, conventional farmers have been criticized for their farming practices. That is not fair. Farmers have been taught by universities and companies that these are the best methods to use and they were supported by federal government regulation and policy. Through the use of these techniques, production grew dramatically, farm prices dropped and the U.S. became a major exporter.
Most of the farmers who did not scale up and follow the new approaches are no longer farming. The vast majority of the remaining farmers have not gotten rich. They are the survivors.
Organic farming also grew out of science
Most of the new “conventional” farming practices are only about 70 years old and not every farmer agreed with the approach or the science. J. I. Rodale was impressed with the work of Sir Albert Howard, a botanist living in England who studied the interface between ecology and agriculture. Rodale founded Rodale, Inc. in the U.S. and established the Rodale Organic Gardening Experimental Farm in 1940, which has been conducting its own scientific research and recommending production improvements for farmers who chose not to rely on the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
Many conventional farmers believe that to reject the new conventional practices would be to accept the crop yields of a century ago. However, organic farming has progressed in yield and profitability in the last 70 years. In fact, a study by Iowa scientists (Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health) revealed that a diversified cropping system with minimal chemical inputs produced comparable yields and profits as conventional operations. And by using these diversified cropping system approaches, they have been able to improve the soil profile and make it more resistant to the impacts of flooding and drought. Likewise a 30 year study by the Rodale Institute showed comparable crop yields using organic production techniques (as compared with conventional) and much improved yields during drought years.
Prospects for the future and reasons to unite
In its report on The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy, the USDA acknowledges that “Certainly, not all adjustments have been voluntary or preferred, and regional differences have affected the outcomes.” One result of the transformation of U.S. agriculture and farm policy has been the loss of farmers and the cost for new farmers to get in the business. As of the 2012 Ag census, 33% of the remaining farmers are 65 or older and the USDA has been repeatedly warning that there will not be enough farmers in the future. In addition, both conventional and organic farmers are challenged by global competition and an increasing percentage of the U.S. food is being imported.
Now that the world seems to have caught up with U.S. in production techniques (this year, Brazil is expected to out-produce the U.S. in soybean production), U.S. farmers will need to explore ways to remain competitive. Recently, I’ve been watching the commodity crop price futures reports. Predicted record yields in the U.S. are expected to drive prices even lower, making annual profits a big question mark even if yields in are high. Bloomberg writer Alan Bjerga reported on July 11th that there is the prospect with record yields that prices will tumble to levels requiring subsidy payments to farmers. I worry that the downturn in prices will only result in even larger farms and fewer farmers.
Both conventional farmers and organic farmers have more to learn. Will they be willing to share their collective knowledge and take agriculture to the next level in the U.S?
It only makes sense.