Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"A 50-Year Farm Bill"

That is the title of an opinion piece from the New York Times that frequent commenter Yeoman passed on to me the other day. You can check out the article for yourself by taking this link, and I do strongly encourage you to check it out because it is a very interesting bit of right that gives a thinking type of person a lot to think about. I thought I would take a few moments today to share a few of the quotes that struck me the most and then add a little bit of my opinion that that of the authors, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson.
"The extraordinary rainstorms last June caused catastrophic soil erosion in the grain lands of Iowa, where there were gullies 200 feet wide. But even worse damage is done over the long term under normal rainfall — by the little rills and sheets of erosion on incompletely covered or denuded cropland, and by various degradations resulting from industrial procedures and technologies alien to both agriculture and nature."
-Yes, we did have a lot of rain in Iowa last summer (not just June) and it did cause a lot of soil erosion. I saw pictures from around the state of huge washouts, I drove over roads that lost half of themselves down stream, and I even saw little waterways on our completely grass covered farm grow in size. This loss of top soil is something I find myself thinking about a lot as I drive the seven miles into town for work and see bare fields on either side of the road.
"Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice."
-I think this is an interesting comment about civilizations destroying themselves by neglecting their topsoil. In fact I would go out on a limb and say one of the man reason that it hasn't destroyed our American civilization yet is because we have a lot more land than many earlier civilizations and because our Midwestern region had seemingly unending topsoil when we got there. But, all you have to do is look towards the Eastern part of our country and understand why many farmers in the 18th and 19th centuries were willing to live on the edge of the wilderness where they had to fear for their safety ... because the land was being used up in the East.
"Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels and, by substituting technological “solutions” for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods."
-The further we get into our farming journey the more I become keenly aware that we are destroying "the cultures of husbandry". Really the old adage that there is nothing new under the sun is completely true when it comes to farming. The thing is though that we have just about lost what really worked and so it seems like people are coming up with lots of "new" ideas for farm management. Remember ... grass-fed isn't new, organic isn't new, natural isn't new, and extensive crop rotations aren't new!
"And with an increase in the use of perennial plants and grazing animals would come more employment opportunities in agriculture — provided, of course, that farmers would be paid justly for their work and their goods."
-This quote just really struck me because I often wonder how many people out there don't understand that many farmers/ranchers are underpaid for the work that they provide ... and I could even go so far as saying for the security they provide our country. I do like the possibility of increased employment opportunities in agriculture!
"We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities."
-Come on, do we really think we are willing to look that far into the future?

Of course there is a lot more that I could say, but I think this is enough for now. I do encourage you to go check out this short piece and report back with some of your thoughts. If nothing else it should make some good discussion.

12 comments:

Monica said...

"-Come on, do we really think we are willing to look that far into the future?"

On reading this two days ago, my thought at the end of the article was more like, "Come on, do we really think the massive bureaucracy that is the USDA can turn this problem around?"

Rich said...

"...and I even saw little waterways on our completely grass covered farm grow in size..."

While erosion can be a problem in cropland, it can be managed (and often times it takes a period of heavier than usual rainfall to expose the problems that need addressed). From my somewhat limited experience and study, many erosion problems are a water infiltration problem due to soil compaction, saturated soil, etc., and are not simply due to a lack of ground cover. Erosion and the conditions that cause erosion can be present in pastures, but the grass in the pasture usually hides the true extent of the erosion damage.

Even if perennial grain crops became commonplace, erosion is still going to have to be dealt with and will continue to be present in the fields and pastures. The conditions that cause erosion in cropland need to be fixed before it planted to another annual crop (with either conventional tillage or no-till), before it is planted to a perennial grain crop, or is turned into permanent pasture. Abandoning (or discouraging) the practice of grain farming won’t magically fix all the erosion problems in a field.

Regardless of its effects on soil erosion, growing perennial grain crops is particularly interesting, (I’ve been interested in the subject for a while) but why should it take so long to develop them? The Land Institute and various universities in WA, TX, OK, and KS have been hybridizing perennial wheat grass and winter wheat for years (decades in some cases) and yet they state that it will take many more decades to develop a viable crop. They get yields that are 60-70% of annual winter wheat yields, and the stands last for 3-4 years, and they can graze the fields during the summer. That sounds like something I would be interested in planting, but they continue to “study” the possibilities, instead of just making the seed available.

I recently read a book from the turn of the century on wheat production, and it had a section on the process farmers could use to improve their wheat crop by saving and improving their seed.

The interesting point I drew from the process was that a single superior head of wheat would be selected, and then the grain would planted in a row. Superior heads in that single row would be selected and replanted into a bed the next year. The grain from the bed of wheat would be planted in a plot the third year, and then in once again into a field.

Using this process, a single head of wheat would result in enough wheat seed to plant 400 acres in about 4 years. If perennial grain crops are being seriously studied and they are a viable alternative, then why is it taking so long to develop them? Using established techniques of seed multiplication; it should be relatively easy to grow enough seed to try growing perennial grains on a much larger scale to test them.

I wonder what else is moving at such a slow pace in the agricultural world? Would it move much faster if individual farmers were participating more in the actual research and development?

Rich said...

"...And with an increase in the use of perennial plants and grazing animals would come more employment opportunities in agriculture..."

Why would employment be increased by focusing on perennial plants and a grazing based form of farming?

From a workload standpoint, it would much easier for me to handle 10 times more cattle and grassland than trying to handle 10 times more cropland.

Yeoman said...

Rich said:

"From a workload standpoint, it would much easier for me to handle 10 times more cattle and grassland than trying to handle 10 times more cropland."

I doubt that.

Huge farms in the Midwest run with darned few people. You can have, let's say, a mechanized wheat farm of 10,000 acres and not involve that many people in it. The farmer himself is the main person involved. That's why (as Berry has noted) huge swaths if the Mid West have been depopulated by modern industrial crop farming. Drive through the Mid West, and you'll see the visible evidence of this everywhere. A 10,000 acre wheat farm today, was probably four farms, employing about five times as many people, 30 years ago. 50 years ago, it was likely at least ten times the number of farms, employing a significantly larger number.

If you put that 10,000 acres in grass, it'd be a nice decent size cow calf operation, in the arid regions. Not too big, but not too small. That'd employ one family, with three working members continually, nicely. But that would also require additional help during the busy seasons, as all the cow operations in that regions do. And then add in the specialist, the vets, the brand inspectors, the shippers, the cattle buyers and so on, and its quite a few more. Sure, that's also true of farming, that is ,that there are the specialist, but you're not looking at as many.

Convert a good farming region, however, to true mixed production family farming, with a mixed base, and you have something yet again. Much smaller, but individually sustainable, in the right economy, with more people living on the same farmed land.

Murph said...

This struck me from the article:

"Unlike oil, it has no technological substitute — and no powerful friends in the halls of government."

We could never sustain 50 years, because there are no politicians that look past their next election. If they did, they would be out of a job.

Murph

Rich said...

Yeoman, I don't think I explained my thinking in my previous comment clearly enough, and also made the mistake of commenting based on my own set of assumptions.

The type of farm I am familiar with is about 20-35% cropland (typically wheat for grain and/or grazing) and the rest is pasture grazed with cattle. If all the cropland was converted to perennial grasses, it would take much less manpower to run the same farm. The number of cattle would increase about 20-35%, but the amount of time needed to be spent working with them in a typical day would stay about the same, while the time previously spent on the cropland part could be easily devoted to an expansion of the grazing operation (either by multi-species grazing the same amount of land or grazing a larger amount of land).

If it would take less men to run one farm after it was converted entirely to grazing perennial grasses, then it would seem that extrapolating out it would take less people in a county or a state if grazing was widely adopted.

I am interested in your other statement,

"...Convert a good farming region, however, to true mixed production family farming, with a mixed base, and you have something yet again..."

What exactly are you describing? Unless I'm mistaken, that almost sounds like what is typical in parts of my area.

There is usually about 25% of the acreage planted to wheat for grain and winter pasture, about 10% is devoted to hay production, and the rest is a mix of native and introduced grasses for grazing cattle. Typically, an extended family works on the farm in one way or another.

Is that typical of what you are referring to when you describe a mixed-production farm?

Ethan Book said...

Monica - You probably do make a decent point there.

Rich - Of course erosion will always be around, just ask the Grand Canyon ... but, I guess the question is to what extent it is increased on farm ground that is mostly bare most of the year. As to why the perennial crops aren't available yet ... I'm going to guess it has something to do with money ... like who has it and who wants it and stuff. But, maybe there is a good reason?

Also, I have to go with Yeoman on the less workload on 1,000 acres of cropland than on 1,000 acres of managed grazing. Up here it is common for one or two guys to manage HUGE amounts of land with even BIGGER equipment. Between GPS, massive grain heads, huge hauling equipment, and plant technology it is possible for one or two guys to do quite a bit. I do think a more pastoral landscape coupled with farmers being paid what they deserve would increase the number of farms, but that is just my opinion.

I do think it is important to see the difference in agriculture in different parts of the country. Here in the middle of black dirt land (Iowa, Illinois, Southern Minnesota, and a bit of Indiana) almost every farm has gone to two crops alternating years. No more do they throw in hay fields or anything else. That is a big difference from what it was even 50 years ago.

Lots of good fodder for discussion though!

Yeoman said...

Rich stated:

"Is that typical of what you are referring to when you describe a mixed-production farm?"

Sort of.

Basically, up until some point in the mid 20th Century, most American farms (and there were exceptions) were quasi agrarian. They raised production crops, but usually more than one, but also consumed a percentage of what they raised. Large grain farms were a notable exception, as they were all production. Notably, for a variety of reasons, grain farms proved to be particularly vulnerable during the Great Depression.

Ranching was also mostly production, so is an exception as well, but for a variety of reasons it was naturally somewhat more agrarian in nature than grain farming.

Today, very few farms are quasi agrarian, and most farms are as dependent on the grocery store as anyone else.

What you describe is more mixed than often occurs, but it is still less diversified than what was once the rule in much of the country. Having said that, livestock men have always had a somewhat different operation than others, and there's always been livestock men for whom that was their main focus. Your example

Interesting to hear how that works in your area.

Yeoman said...

"Up here it is common for one or two guys to manage HUGE amounts of land with even BIGGER equipment. Between GPS, massive grain heads, huge hauling equipment, and plant technology it is possible for one or two guys to do quite a bit. I do think a more pastoral landscape coupled with farmers being paid what they deserve would increase the number of farms, but that is just my opinion."

I was trying to recall the figures I'd heard for really big farms. Some grain farms are absolutely enormous. It seems to me I've read figures of 10,000 acres or more, which would be the size of a decent, but not huge, cattle ranch out here. To farm that, with equipment, is a stunning thing to think of. All the more so if we consider that it can be done with next to no help.

One thing that's a little scary about that is to ponder the level of monoculture a really big grain farm like that encourages. That's a lot of grass (given that wheat's a grass), but it's a lot of one kind of grass. Not that I'm condemning that, it's just an odd thing to ponder.

Rich said...

Yeoman said, "...10,000 acres or more, which would be the size of a decent, but not huge, cattle ranch out here..."

I've always been interested in how other parts of the country and world organize their farms and ranches, and if you don't mind me asking, how is this type of ranch typically setup?

Is the ranch usually a contiguous piece of land, or is it spread out over several smaller pieces of property? Or, is the ranch divided into something like a summer ranch and a winter ranch?

How is the grazing typically managed? How do you handle winter?

rob said...

Perennial wheat-

I hadn't been aware that they ("they" being the Land Institute, the only people I know of in the US that are trying to breed perennial wheat for sure though I have heard that a couple of universities are into it too) had made so much progress.

I really have no idea why what they have hasn't been released yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had something to do with the grain quality. The average annual commercial variety takes 10-15 years to develop into something satisfactorily usable, and that's starting from something that was normal field wheat in the first place.

Sometimes new technologies do suffer from being introduced too early. For example, solar energy was supposed to be the best thing since sliced bread in the '70s, so a lot of people tried it. But we hadn't gotten the technology down too well by that point, so the things would break, or not make much power, or not work at all. It turned a lot of people sour on "environmental" alternatives and the backlash still exists somewhat today.

People and businesses are used to wheat that can be fitted to specific purposes in terms of protein, oil, and starch content, mills correctly, etc. Imagine what it would be like if perennial wheat was introduced while still somewhat rough. Sure, it's perennial and better to farm... but nobody wants it because it bakes up into bricks. You can bet that experiment's gonna die on the launch pad!

Although, it couldn't hurt to give them a call and ask to try some. Who knows?

Ben Penner said...

I know a guy in Central Kansas who has planted a little triangle of the perennial wheatgrass. It is a very, very small piece of land, and as far as I know he is one of only two farmers outside of The Land Institute planting it. I agree it would be worth a call to The Land Institute to see if they would let you plant some.

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