Modern industrial agriculture is one of the best things ever to happen to mankind. It’s also one of the worst.
On the one hand, we now have more food than ever before. We grow more calories with less human effort, and we can easily distribute those calories to the farthest reaches of the globe. Natural disasters are no longer the biggest causes of famine and starvation; now it’s just political corruption standing in the way. Our bellies are fuller than they’ve ever been. Praise God.
On the other hand, we are destroying our land in the process, and the food in our bellies is of questionable quality (to say the least). We drown our crops in poison, which is bad for the land and even worse for anyone who happens to eat the crops. Every year new pesticides and herbicides are synthesized while older ones are banned and removed from the market for being too toxic. In other words, some farmers are spraying pesticides right now that the EPA will ban in a few years for safety reasons. Meanwhile, the much more mundane forces of erosion wash away our topsoil and create huge gullies on the edges of our fields. In drier climates, mismanaged animals and crops cause desertification at an alarming rate. Paying no regard to the lives of our beasts, we concentrate them in feedlots and make them sick, creating new diseases the world has never seen. In summary, it’s a disaster.
Oh, if only we could return to the good ol’ days, right? Wrong. This mess is nothing new. The Great Dust Bowl in the 1930s happened before the onset of chemical agriculture. We don’t need chemicals to wreak havoc. Heck, we don’t even need tractors. Look back at Southern plantations in America. You still had erosion, vast monocrops, and depletion of the soil. There was a reason American farmers always kept moving on to virgin soil: they ruined anything they touched. And by today’s standards, those same farmers would qualify as “organic.”
But let’s go even further back. Although desertification today is progressing faster than it ever has, bear in mind that the majority of it occurred hundreds of years ago. The Australian desert, for example, was probably manmade, caused by Aborigines who hunted all the native big game to extinction – who would’ve known that large, grazing herbivores played a vital role in maintaining the health of grassland? Deserts continue to creep forward in South Africa. You can visit sand dunes in West Texas. And we can’t just shrug our shoulders and say it’s all because of global warming. Our ancestors have been shrugging their shoulders for too long. This is bad management of our land, and it is reversible.
The problem is with man’s attitude toward his land, which has been pretty much the same for hundreds, if not thousands of years. If the Babylonians had pesticides, I’m sure they would’ve used them. Persia, Rome, Medieval Europe, and Modern America all display basically the same mind-set: exploitation of the land. The only difference is that Pre-Industrial Agriculture was built on the backs of slaves and serfs, whereas Industrial Agriculture is built on the backs of tractors and poison. There are no “good ol’ days” to return to. We’re doing the same thing we’ve always done; the only difference is that now we do it with more power.
The first step towards a solution is admitting we have a problem. There is a natural order, and it doesn’t bode well to fight against it. Grass grows a certain way, cows live a certain way, and ecosystems react in a certain way. The natural order might be vague, and it might be somewhat flexible, but it’s always there. The world isn’t just a big rock that we can carve out however we want. That would be nominalism, the view that we impose our labels and inventions onto creation arbitrarily, and it’s not a view that’s compatible with true dominion. Instead, we need to observe nature and learn from it. That’s how we become better stewards. Stewardship doesn’t mean re-fashioning the earth after our image. Stewardship means making nature more natural.
Stewardship has two important implications. First, it means that nature isn’t perfect. Often nature is broken – just look at alkali flats! – and we can fix it. Or, even where nature is fine and dandy, we can still improve it greatly. Secondly, this implies there must be a standard for improvement, outside of our arbitrary desires. If Christians believe God has made us caretakers of the earth, well then, that assumes some sort of standard of care, doesn’t it? And if there is a standard, we are most certainly failing to meet it. Mankind is a tenant farmer, and so far a very poor one.
The solution is a New Agriculture, a radically different way of thinking and farming. The goal should be to enhance natural processes. Not only is this healthier and better for the land, it also ends up being far more efficient and economical. Fighting against nature requires a lot of hard work and money, and it only gets harder the longer you fight. The more fertilizer and pesticide you spray this year, the more you’ll have to spray next year. Working with nature, on the other hand, only gets easier and more productive with time. It pays to do things the right way.
1. Caring for and Nurturing the Soil
Agriculture is, first and foremost, the science of culturing the soil – that is, improving and building it up. There are two primary ways we can do that: minerals and microbes.
We should try to maintain a proper mineral balance in our soil. This helps plants grow faster and healthier and also makes them resistant to pests and drought. Conventional farmers are beginning to realize this, which is why you see more and more farmers doing soil tests and spreading zinc or selenium (for example) on their fields. Mineral levels also affect the texture of soil: excess magnesium can make soil sticky and compacted, whereas excess calcium can make soil too friable and loose. Most importantly, proper mineral balance in our soil gives us higher quality food to eat.
Sadly, this is an area where the organic movement has fallen far behind. Organic farmers seem to think that if you dump on enough compost and manure, it will all work out fine in the end. Plants will develop deeper roots so they can “mine” out minerals from the subsoil, right? Yes and no. What if the subsoil doesn’t contain those minerals to begin with? It’s foolish to just cross your fingers and hope the rocks beneath your soil have the exact minerals your plants need. Some regions of the world are deficient in key minerals. Sub-Saharan Africa is notoriously low in selenium, for example (which, incidentally, is a mineral that helps prevent HIV from developing into full blown AIDS).
If you discover your land doesn’t have enough zinc, then you should add more zinc. More compost won’t fix the problem, especially if the compost comes from plants grown on your own zinc-deficient land. Likewise, if soil is low in calcium – a common problem, since plants use so much calcium and tend to deplete it – then add it. Spread on 1,000 lbs of powdered calcium carbonate (for example). Or better yet, spread tons of calcium-rich pebbles—the sort of pebbles that take years to dissolve, thus ensuring a more long-term supply of calcium. With the right education and the right pebbles, we could fix most of the world’s mineral deficiencies.
As an aside, this is why organic crops today rarely contain more vitamins or minerals than conventionally grown crops. They might have less pesticide residue, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more nutritious. It all comes down to the minerals in the soil. Some farmers have lucky geology under their feet, whereas other farmers need to actively work at balancing their minerals.
The other half of the soil equation is microbes. The more alive our soil is, the better. Soil bacteria capture nitrogen from the air, break down waste matter into valuable humus and nutrients, dissolve and chelate minerals, and can even break down pesticides into safer forms. Fungi produce antibiotics and hormones in the soil which protect roots against disease, discourage parasites, and promote plant growth. Mycorrhiza form symbiotic relationships with most plants, basically adding extensions to their roots and exponentially increasing the availability of water and nutrients. Actinomycetes, nematodes (most of which are good), protozoa – you could spend your whole life just studying the benefits! And of course, earthworms are great too.
So how do we promote the life in our soil? First of all, stop tilling it. Tilling the soil destroys microbial communities by literally turning the ecosystem upside down. Down in the ground those microbes were cool, dark, and moist, surrounded by their friends in a microbial metropolis. But after a thorough plowing, they’ll bake to death in the sunshine. Imagine you lived in New York City and within a few seconds were mysteriously transported to the middle of the Sahara desert. Same thing. Tilling is microbial holocaust.
Plowing the soil also ruins any physical structure it might have had. Healthy soil structure contains many channels and tunnels from decomposing roots, fungi, etc. You know how folks praise earthworms for making those tiny tunnels in the soil? The tunnels that help deliver oxygen and water to soil? Well, what do you think happens to those tiny tunnels when you run an industrial tiller over them? Ruined. To top it all off, plowing is the primary cause of erosion. Just watch what happens to that bare dirt whenever it rains or the wind picks up. It’s bad enough if the land is mostly flat, but just think how bad the erosion could get if you plowed steep hills! We should think of bare dirt like an open wound. Cover it up with something as soon as possible. And when weeds pop up, don’t blame them; they’re just doing their best to stop erosion.
In short, plowing damages the biology of the soil, the physical structure of the soil, and even removes the soil itself. We should avoid plowing whenever possible. For some of our crops, like corn and wheat, that might mean developing perennial varieties that reduce the need for tilling. I’ll return to this point later. Sometimes, granted, we’ll need to plow to make room for our more delicate crops, like annual vegetables. Most vegetables are inbred weaklings, and require a friable, loose soil with little to no competition.
I don’t mean that in a bad way; I think it’s glorious that vegetables are inbred weaklings. Wild plants tend to have vigorous root systems, smaller fruits, and more seeds, because these traits are competitive for survival. When men domesticate plants, we tend to select and breed for bigger fruit (or more edible leaves) and weaker root systems. It’s like we make a pact with the vegetables: “If you concentrate on being extra big and tasty instead of being wiry and strong, then I promise to protect you from your wild competition and baby your root system.” So, perhaps we might make an exception for a few of our annual crops. But in general, our goal should be to plow our land as little as possible. All the better – plowing is hard work!
That’s the simplest answer. Throw away your plow. But if you’re really dedicated, and you don’t mind the hard work, you can actually take some radical steps to increase your topsoil. We’ve all read about how topsoil is the most important part of agriculture and how it takes anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to accumulate an inch of topsoil. Normally that’s true, but there’s a faster way. Effectively the only difference between topsoil and subsoil is that topsoil is alive whereas subsoil isn’t. Under the right conditions you can convert the dead subsoil into rich, living topsoil. Those right conditions are air, water, and microbial food. Supply those, and the soil will come alive and do the rest.
Here’s how to do it: instead of plowing, go get your tractor and drag a series of 18 inch blades through the ground, slicing through the subsoil and thereby exposing it to air and water. This process is called “non-inversion tilling,” or subsoiling. It doesn’t harm any of the grass growing in the pasture; all it does is open up the subsoil so it can breathe for the first time. Combine this with some high-intensity grazing, and you can easily create eighteen inches of topsoil in just a few years. It’s a minor miracle.
What else can we do to promote the life of our soil? Avoid poisons. Did you know pentachlorophenol stops nitrogen fixation? Or did you know some herbicides damage root hairs? If you want to improve your soil, stay away from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and the like.
Unfortunately, even some fertilizers can cause damage. Potassium chloride, which typically represents the ‘K’ part in N-P-K fertilizers, is extremely toxic to soil organisms, from bacteria on up to earthworms.
Yet avoiding poisons doesn’t mean avoiding all chemicals. Potassium sulfate is a much better alternative to Potassium chloride and can be helpful for soil fertility when used properly. Humic acid can be artificially added to the soil to increase fertility. Chilean nitrate, though often banned by organic standards, can be a beneficial source of iodine, sodium, boron, and nitrate. Probiotic sprays can be very helpful for speeding up soil recovery (they’re called “probiotic” for a reason).
2. Improving the Ecosystem Above Ground
Soil is the foundation for everything we do, but we need to grow something on that foundation – we need to properly manage what happens above ground. That goal has three facets: we need to grow the right species in the right places in the right ways.
First, the right species. Since our goal is to enhance natural processes, we should aim for diversification. I don’t mean that in the mutual funds sense of spreading out risk, although producing more than one crop does lend more economic stability to the farm. Primarily I’m talking about the biological benefits of diversification. The more species and the more working relationships we have on the farm, the better. This isn’t just hippie nonsense; it’s practical farming. If we want nature to do the work, we need to have the right players on the field.
Consider what happens if you plant a huge field of corn. Just corn. What sorts of insects will be attracted to that field? The sorts that eat corn! Corn earworms, corn borers, corn rootworms, corn maggots, etc. You’ll find barely any birds or predatory insects eating these pests in the field, because the predators tend to live on other plants – the predators effectively have nowhere to live. Consequently, there’s nothing to keep the pest population in check. If you were an corn earworm, this field would be your idea of heaven.
Furthermore, crowding all the corn together like this makes it much more susceptible to diseases, like corn smut. Corn is also a heavy feeder, and the soil can become depleted in certain nutrients (especially nitrogen) after years of growing only one crop. All in all, it’s a recipe for disaster. You can sympathize when farmers resort to expensive pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers.
Now, compare this to the Native American way of growing corn. First they plant corn in small hills; then they plant a few beans around each corn stalk. As the beans grow, they fixate nitrogen into the soil to feed the corn. As the corn grows taller, the beans climb up the corn and have the support they need. Meanwhile, in the spaces between the corn hills they plant squash and melons. The squash spreads out and provides a thick groundcover, blocking out any weeds. Squash also has prickly hairs which discourage pests from moving in.
Corn + beans + squash = awesome. It’s called “Three Sisters Agriculture,” though in reality every Native American community used more than just these three species. At the very minimum they also planted flowers. Aside from being beautiful, flowers attracted pollinating species, vital for a good harvest of beans and squash.
Diversity is a strength because it enables nature do more of the work. Every species is a different worker in your field, and the more workers you have the better… provided you’re a good manager. Of course, some species will be more useful than others, and you’ll want to manage with that fact in mind. Even forbs (stereotypical weeds) can be useful at appropriate levels. Forbs can add nutritional diversity to a pasture, stop erosion, and help rejuvenate barren land where nothing else will grow. And if your soil is good enough, grass will have the competitive edge and forbs won’t be able to dominate your field completely. Diversity is strength, and it takes skill to manage that strength. But the bottom-line is, never turn down free labor.
Part of cultivating the right species means developing the right breeds. Some breeds fit well into a certain environment, and some don’t. Today’s monoculture varieties of corn and beans wouldn’t fit well into Three Sisters agriculture. We need to select for corn that’s not quite so tall, so it doesn’t shade out all the other plants. We need beans that actually climb up corn, unlike modern “bush beans” designed to grow free-standing in the field. But on the other hand, we don’t want beans that grow so vigorously that they choke out the corn. Three Sisters agriculture can be great, but it’s a balancing act.
Proper management also means developing appropriate breeds. Like most farming, Three Sisters agriculture requires clearing and plowing the land each year. But what if all the plants used were perennial? Then we could eliminate the hardest part, because perennial crops stay in the soil and overwinter year after year. I mentioned earlier the possibility of perennial grains. A few species already exist, but most of them are obscure and unpopular. If we want to keep eating crops like wheat and corn, then why not develop perennial varieties of them? The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas is working on this precise project. Once we have perennial grains, we’ll only need to plow and plant them every once in a while. Imagine the savings in labor and soil erosion alone! And that’s before we consider the savings in water and nutrients (perennials have far superior root systems).
Next, we need to grow our crops in the right places. Certain regions are suited for certain endeavors. The Midwest is an awesome place to grow grain, while West Texas has horrible land, suited for very little besides cattle. Some vegetables like celery are impossible to grow in clay-dominant soil—you simply can’t grow good celery unless you have sandy-loam. Period. Pineapples only grow in moist tropical regions.
Everybody knows this, but sometimes we forget the obvious. The local-food movement has fostered the myth that it’s efficient to grow all your food locally. But if your local area has clay soil, then you’ll fail to grow vegetables as efficiently as other places with sandy-loam soil. On the other hand, clay soil can be perfect for less intensive operations, like animals or grain. While every region should be diversified, every region should also specialize in what they’re best at. A global market is great, because it lets us all work together and trade to get the best fruit possible.
Third, we must grow our crops in the right ways. Good agriculture calls for intelligent, observant management. As I mentioned above, it’s a balancing act. If we want to care for the minerals and microbes in our soil, if we want to manage the different species on our land, if we want to choose the agricultural ecosystem most suited for our climate, then we need to pay very close attention to our farms. We need to always be reading, experimenting, adjusting, watching, playing around. We can always improve. The average piece of farmland in America today is owned by a multi-national corporation and managed by a distant CEO. When you have a vast bureaucracy, simpler methods are preferred. The less you have to depend on educated and skilled farm managers, the better. But that’s exactly what we need. We don’t need an agriculture run by uninvolved CEOs. We need managers who live on the land.
3. Using the Best Tools Possible
You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m not against modern technology in agriculture. If it can help, then let’s use it. Better yet, let’s build even better technology. As our goals change, so should our technology. Our tools are only limited by our imaginations.
We can design easier, faster ways to test for mineral deficiencies. I’ve already mentioned probiotic sprays and synthetic soil amendments. We should develop even better ones. And we can build cheaper transportation systems, which would make food even cheaper.
Many people are afraid of Genetically Modified Foods. Although the technology is greatly abused today, it needn’t be. In most cases, we perform genetic modification in pursuit of some trait there’s no good reason to be pursuing in the long run. Many GMOs are created in order to tolerate higher levels of herbicides (Roundup Ready® corn, Roundup Ready® soy, etc.), when we probably shouldn’t even be using herbicides to begin with.
Instead, why not use the technology to fix harmful mutations? Most breeds of plants and animals contain them. For example, Holstein cows carry a mutation that misshapes the beta-casein protein in their milk, causing it to break down into caso-morphine during digestion. It’s not a good thing. Maybe we could fix that mutation someday using advanced GM technology. Instead of using GMOs as a crutch for bad agriculture, we could actually use it to repair organisms. Much better in the long term.
While we’re at it, we can store genetic information for the wild variants of our crops. They’re dying out quickly, and the information they contain is invaluable. As soon as it becomes economical to do so, we should begin mapping out genes for rare breeds. In case a breed ever dies out, we might have a way to bring back some of its traits.
Most importantly, and more mundanely, we can build better machines for harvesting our food. Right now most of our machines are designed for huge monocultures. We need smaller machines that can help us harvest a diversified landscape, like with Three Sisters agriculture. It’s possible: if we can make iPhones, I’m sure we can do this. Perhaps we could plant thin stripes of different crops, which might retain the advantages of diversity while still being easy to harvest. In any case, when we design our machines, we should do so without compromising our farming. It’s easier to bend our machines than it is to bend biology.
So then, these are the three steps I propose for a New Agriculture. It all sounds wonderfully idealistic, which brings up the inevitable question: if what I’m saying is true, why haven’t other people caught on yet?
The short answer is that they are catching on. Agricultural subsidies are a big impediment to progress, as are the tax advantages enjoyed by multi-national corporations run by distant CEOs, but these forces can only slow down the inevitable. In England, about 25% of dairy farmers have recently switched to grass-based methods that could almost be called organic. E&J Gallo Winery, one of the largest wineries in the world, uses sustainable agriculture in their vineyards without advertising it, simply because they’ve found that it’s more efficient and produces better wine.
We are on the cusp of a revolution. In fifty years, it will be over. The best agricultural methods will win. It’s not necessarily about ideological movements, like organic or localism. “Farming with nature” might sound hippie and environmental, but it’s really just practical common sense. It works better, because it was designed to work that way. Agriculture is not a contest between man and nature, anymore than plowing is a contest between a man and an ox. Nature is ours to steward. Nature is our ox. If we take the time to train and nurture it, everybody wins.
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I am greatly indebted to many for the thoughts and ideas expressed in this article. The following authors have been especially inspiring:
Holistic Management, by Allan Savory. The most important book on the list. It’s about grazing and reversing desertification, but also about how to think about management in general.
Gardening When It Counts, by Steve Solomon. The best book I’ve found on growing vegetables. Simply the best.
New Roots For Agriculture, by Wes Jackson. A short book with some good ideas. Jackson works with perennial grains at the Land Institute in Salina, KS. He’s a friend of Wendell Berry’s.
The Ideal Soil: A Handbook for the New Agriculture, by Michael Astera. This book is about minerals. It’s a poorly edited self-published book, but worth its weight in gold for the information it contains.
Fertility Pastures, by Newman Turner. A very practical book, written by a British dairy farmer in 1955. The first book I ever read on agriculture. Taught me that profitable farming is cheap farming!
The Keyline Plan, by P.A. Yeomans. This book is about efficient irrigation. Yeomans was the man who figured out non-inversion tilling (subsoiling), which farmers can use to deepen their topsoil rapidly.
Plowman’s Folly, by Edward Faulkner. The classic book, written in 1943. Available free online. Probably more valuable for the interest it generated rather than what it actually says.