Thursday, February 2, 2012

Are we trying to fix what's broken?

We do a fair bit of reading in the Winter regarding various agriculture issues, philosophies, problems and potential solutions.  We also try to keep an open mind so we can understand all sides of the issue, even if we are decidedly opposed to certain approaches.  This alone can be quite a task, especially when the item just read was clearly written by someone who does *not* care about opposing views.

Some of the topics that I've recently read about that make me a little less than happy include, but are not limited to, grafting tomatoes, GMO seed, atrazine use, plastic mulch and commercial agriculture rotations.

In most of these cases, discussion boiled down to the bottom line - was the approach profitable in the end for the farmer?   I have no problem with this specifically.  In fact, I agree that it is critical for farmers (including ourselves) to earn a profit that is reasonable and appropriate.  But, I disagree with the tendency to boil it all down to dollars and cents to the exclusion of other things of value.  I especially disagree when I realize how easily the facts, numbers and analysis can be turned in more than one direction. 

In fact, I begin to wonder if these issues actually deal with what is broken? 

Example 1: crop rotations
There are now a number of studies that show that Iowa farms that would be willing to add a third year to their rotation would see increased yields.  In other words, conventional farms would get better corn and soybean yields if they added a grain, or some such thing to their rotation (a 3 year instead of 2 year rotation).    And yet, we see all sorts of research attempting optimize the 2 year (or even 1 year - corn on corn) rotation.  Is this because the 3rd crop has no value?  No.  But, it does require more agility or flexibility by the farm instead of a rigidly specialized system.  And, the bigger a farm gets - once it gets to a certain size - the less flexible or agile it becomes.

I realize this is, perhaps, an over-simplification of the whole matter.  But - I still have to ask:

Do we continue to work so hard to develop new seed, sprays and tools to support shorter crop rotations because we are trying to improve yields to "feed the world" or are we doing it to facilitate very large, specialized farms?  Since it tends to come down to the money, I suspect it is more of the latter than the former.

In fact, most farmers I talk to would admit a 3rd crop in the rotation would probably be a good idea.  But, they will stick with their shorter rotations and they have their reasons.  One of these reasons has to do with the system that rewards growing certain crops to the exclusion of others.  Another has to do with the infrastructure that has grown up to specialize in only a couple of crops.  In short, it takes some initiative to break out of a short crop rotation.

So - what really is broken here?  Is it the strains of corn and soybeans we plant?  The tools we use?  The herbicides, pesticides and fungicides we use to control weeds, insects, etc in our crops?  Or is it the fact that we need to increase the demand of corn/soybean products?  You would think so since so much or our R&D goes to these subject areas.

Maybe I'm wrong.  Feel free to tell me here - or tell me what IS broken.  Let's see where this goes.


  1. I was recently told that we only halfway to max corn production by someone in the poultry industry.

    I am scared of something like the potato famine happening with such a reliance on so few crops.

    It does not seam odd to me since $ maximization is the only goal of corporations.

  2. Let me ask a different question then Ryan.

    If we had a significant failure in our corn crop, how much would that actually hurt the food supply?


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