Down on the Farm (by Mike Murray, 11936)

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As a chef and as a father I have been wary of conventionally grown food since before it went mainstream. This term in school I have been volunteering with the Environmental Center at PCC and it’s Organic Gardening Club. Both of these organizations focus on the environmental impacts of growing food as well as our ability to grow our own. This experience and my own personal experiences have raised this question for me:

What keeps conventional farmers from going sustainable?

Mine is a family with one foot in the city and the other far out in the country. Many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins live at the epicenter of this topic which may give me some insight to the plight of the conventional farmer, but does not justify their resistance. The impact of conventional farming practices on the environment is well documented and irrefutable. Harmful chemical pesticides leach into the ground water polluting it and the use of chemical fertilizers deplete the soil of vital nutrients, rendering it useless to future generations (Samie). In short, it’s bad.

Part I: The Research

Doyle-Burr, Nora. “Are Crop Yeilds the Achilles Heel of Organic Farming?” Editorial. Christian

                  Science Monitor 25 Apr. 2012: 1. Ebscohost.com. CSMonitor.com. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.

This article is a great example of bad, old, or bias information which leads conventional farmers to believe that organic farming is inferior to conventional. It claims that organic farming has significantly less yields and that the inputs used take longer to implement which implies that it will require much more work to produce far less food. This statement in particular by ecologist Catherine Badgley of the University of Michigan caught my eye while researching: “Since the world already produces more than enough food to feed everyone well, there are other important considerations.” Statements like these are used to redirect the focus of conversation away from sustainable vs. traditional methods, and are used wildly out of context demonstrating a glaring bias on the subject.

Waddingham, Jake. “Conventional vs. Organic.” Editorial. Creston News Advertiser 23 Aug.         

                  2013: n. pag. Ebscohost.com. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

In this editorial out of Creston Iowa, the author takes a direct approach to the question: “Which is better, conventional or organic?” It cites and summarizes a recently concluded sixteen year study performed at Iowa State University which concluded that there is very little difference in yields between conventional and organic crops. I chose to include this in my research for this project because the author interviews two farmers on opposing sides of this argument. The opinions of these two echo what I have heard in my own experience and thoroughly sums up the trepidation shared by many conventional farmers when considering the transition to sustainable.

Hanover, Lorraine. “Tools and techniques for sustainable farming.” Resource: Engineering &

                  Technology for a Sustainable World 6.6 (1999): 50+. Academic OneFile. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

Tools and techniques for sustainable farming defines sustainable agriculture and lays out the basic techniques which are implemented by farmers to reduce the amount of inputs, or chemical fertilizers and pesticides they use in their soil and on their crops. It is a strong example of how much more “management intense” sustainable farming can be versus traditional “input intense” conventional methods.

Samie, Abdus.”ECONOMICS OF CONVENTIONAL AND PARTIAL ORGANIC FARMING SYSTEMS AND

                  IMPLICATIONS   FOR RESOURCE UTILIZATION IN PUNJAB (PAKISTAN).” Pakistan Economic and

Social Review 48.2 (2010). Academic OneFile. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.

This study takes an in depth look at the profitability of organic farming versus conventional farming in under developed countries. Some of the highlights of the text are the results of studies showing the decline of yields using conventional techniques due to decreased soil fertility and the advantages of organic farming in that area. Not only did organic farming ensure higher yields in their study, but it reduced dependence on external inputs further reducing the upfront costs of producing foods.

Part II: The Public Writing

Living in Portland it is hard for me to imagine not having access to local, organic, or sustainably grown food, but that is the reality in many areas of our country and across the globe. It is all too easy for some of us to consider conventional farming as a thing of the past or careless considering that our opinion of the subject is tainted by our local saturation of farmers markets and co-ops. While my family and I were in Texas two years ago visiting my in laws, my then 10 year old daughter had some confusion about what to do with her banana peel. She looked and looked for the compost bin in the kitchen and eventually inquired to my brother and sister in law where it was. There was some chuckling of course, but I explained to her that not everyone has a composting system in place for residential use. Her response was simple and honest as only a child’s can be: “Why not?” I have often had the same attitude toward the lack of sustainable farming, why not? What would motivate a person to continue using methods that are proven to harm the environment? In other words: What keeps conventional farmers from going sustainable?

                  While researching this subject I’ve found plenty of reasons why a conventional farmer would resist the transition. For many, it is simply what they know. It may be how their father and grandfather did it and such a dramatic shift in their practices seems out of reach. As stated by Kathleen Delate, a professor of agronomy and horticulture at ISU:

“(Conventional farming) is something farmers have grown up with and are hesitant or resistant to change. It becomes an issue of time or interest.”(Waddingham)

For others it is the control that conventional methods allows them. Wade Ross, a farmer that has grown up using conventional methods put it like this:

“With conventional growing, you have the ability to use a lot of the technology and hybrids they have developed.”( Waddingham)

Meaning that they can control weeds and insects by utilizing herbicides and pesticides along with the tools used to apply them, which are readily available and require minimal effort, even if it costs them a little more. Effort is a big reason in fact and sustainable farming requires a lot of it(Hanover). But a larger issue is demonstrated by the rainbow of information that is available and comically contradictory.

Consider the following statement referring to a total yield comparison between organic and conventional crops printed in The Christian Science Monitor, a publication that reaches many of those in farming communities:

“They found that crop yields produced using organic methods can be up to 34 percent lower than those produced using conventional techniques.”(Doyl-Burr).

This went to print in April of 2012, just a few years ago. If I were a farming man making a profit, this would mean 34% less income and give me cause to stay the course, especially considering the religious credibility that some would attribute to the source. It is information, or the skewing of information, such as this that causes people to be skeptical of sustainable or organic agriculture.

Another study performed at the Iowa State University, in the heart of big farm country, found that there was little difference in yields the following year. In fact they found that some crops such as soy beans had higher yields when grown using sustainable methods and inputs (Waddingham). In 2010, a study performed in Pakistan showed a significant decline in yields and reduction of soil fertility due to implementation of conventional methods over several years (Samie).

Remember that farming is a business. People, families, whole communities, have to live with the consequences of what I have always thought of as an easy decision. If you are a conventional farmer and you are keeping your head above water, what is your motivation to change the practices that are not only ingrained into you, but also paying the bills? You’re putting food on the table for your family and maybe even more. The environment? Mother Earth is not putting your kids through college. Whether we like it or not, there needs to be more incentive for the conventional farmer, and there should be. Until there is irrefutable evidence that sustainable agriculture can be and is as profitable as conventional agriculture, there needs to be more to entice the individual whose livelihood rides on her/his decision.

Yes, there may be some farmers that would resist even with adequate incentive. There may also be thousands who wouldn’t look back, and the world would be a better place for it. I don’t have a simple solution, I don’t think there is one. However, if the US can subsidize corn with billions of our tax dollars despite the surplus of corn every year, isn’t it possible that we could offer some financial assistance to ease the farmers’ hardship should they choose to transition? Perhaps that’s another paper.

What keeps conventional farmers from going sustainable? Motivation. We are insisting that hard working people work harder, learn more sophisticated techniques, and make an enormous commitment to the environment and yet we’re offering them nothing viable for their trouble. As a matter of fact, we are doing the opposite. If a farmer wants to be able to sell his product as “organics” she/he has to pay up to $25,000.00 for a certification from the government. Maybe the real question is: Why aren’t we helping our farmers’ transition to sustainable practices?

 

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One comment

  1. Casey M.

    Wow! I never really knew how big of a topic this was until I read your post. You have so much information packed into your post. It’s all great information and really helped me better understand sustainability. I think you are on to something with the possibility of helping farmers by giving them some incentive to switch over. It would make it easier on them and could possibly help make up the difference of income for right after they switch.

    The article that you chose to help support your topic are great! I think they go really well and that each of them brings something different to the table. Your summaries of the articles all give a good picture of what is going to be in the article. Everything is very clear and well thought out. Good job!

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