Farming in Utopia

What farming is today, what it should be, and what people think it should be are very different things. Pro-organic, pro-biointensive mini- and maxi-activists have a distinct idea of what they think farming should be, but don’t quite understand all of the ramifications. For the most part, I heartily agree with them, but I do understand (at least some of) the ramifications for our society and our food supply.
The industrial revolution brought people away from their fields and into the cities. More and more mouths need to be fed, but fewer people want to farm. There are a few ways to solve this problem. One is our current system – larger and larger monoculture farms, with every aspect (from seed to grocery store) controlled by fewer and fewer corporations, and farmed by fewer people. In this system, the need to achieve higher and higher yields of a few main crops has caused increased dependence on chemical inputs. These crops aren’t even considered food anymore, having moved to commodity status.  There are, of course, numerous well-known problems with this system. What are the alternatives?
In the dreams of activists, all farms would be small, perhaps 50 acres or less. Farmers would use as little technology as possible in farming (only “natural” pesticides, no fertilizers besides manure and compost, no tilling of the soil, etc) so as to be more “natural”. The crops would be heirloom varieties, with much genetic diversity and never altered with technology. Monocultures would not exist, with plants grown together in systems designed to help keep the soil healthy and share nutrients. Farms would distribute their produce no more than 100 miles from where it was grown.
For example, the gold standard of bio-intensive farming was pioneered by certain Native American tribes. They planted the “three sisters” – corn, squash, and beans. In this ingenious system, the plants deter each other’s pests and fertilize each other.
This system is so great that farmers is the US and other developed countries should be using it, right? Not having to use fertilizer or pesticides would save money, and be better for the environment, right? The activist’s dream seems to be perfect, until we look a bit deeper.
Unfortunately, things just aren’t that simple. As depicted in the picture to the right, a larger square footage needs to be devoted to this style of farming. The crops must be planted, tended to, and harvested by hand because farming equipment would squish the squash. Fertilizer is still needed for all but the most perfect soils, irrigation remains necessary, and pests are still a constant threat. In other words, this method is great for hobbyists or subsistence farmers who have the time to care for their plants by hand. It might even work for CSAs or other small vegetable farms that can use volunteer labor or charge a premium for their produce. It won’t work, however, to feed the millions of people that live nowhere near farms.
So-called organic farming won’t feed the world either. It’s great for many reasons, but is inherently more risky than conventional farming. Recent studies have shown that organic can compete with conventional farming for yield, but that’s in ideal conditions. We have to consider temperature fluctuations, droughts, insect infestations… problems that can be best solved with technology.
Organic farming also requires more labor to produce the same amount of food. Modern society simply is not prepared to have large proportions of the population employed by farming.  Less than 1% of Americans make their living as farmers. With the price of food being so low and the price of land being so high (even before corn ethanol), it is impossible to recruit enough people to become farmers to feed every person with this type of farming method. I don’t forsee huge numbers of people deciding to farm, or forsee the population getting any smaller.
Another problem is that few people eat squash and beans. Unfortunately, food is subject to the laws of supply and demand. Consumers in the US, and increasingly in the rest of the world, want convenience more than they want fresh vegetables. Although things are getting better, Americans in particular still choose grain-fed beef and fried potatoes over whole grains and leafy greens. Huge fields of corn, soy, rice, wheat, and a few other crops are simply a fact of life.
Does that mean we should give up and accept factory farming, row after row of environment and health damaging monocultured crop? Of course not, but there is a way between the ideal organic and ideal corporate farms. Last week, in a wonderful lecture about her small farm in Iowa, Laura Krouse said something profound: her farm is “as organic as it needs to be”. Using ideas from all types of farming is the only way we can meet the demands of the future.
I propose that we find a happy median – intelligent use of technology combined with stewardship. We need to find the best ways to grow enough food without irreversibly damaging our land and water. Genetic engineering can solve many of our problems, but it needs to be carefully applied. I’ll discuss how in future posts.