#Organic is Modern 2: Response to @Thefarmerslife

25 Jul

A response to HIS response to a post, at Blast Magazine entitled “Modern agriculture’s enormous environmental footprint.” His comment become long enough that he decided to re-post it there on his blog.

It became “High Tech Ag is Good for the Earth and the Wallet.” I hope I’ve done it justice in it’s introduction here. Please read it, because a lot of farmers feel this way.
Here’s my rebutt:

The proper environmental response is that high tech ag is not natural.

The response to your first paragraph, where you talk about all the benefits to GE crops, is that you are using a clone seed. Exactly like your neighbor is using. And all the other corn farmers in the Midwest (or, wherever..). It attracts pests that eat that one variety. This makes the basis for what you have to spray. The right response is not to make the sprays better, but to grow your own seeds from the best producing plants. They survived so they have a tolerance. That’s the environmental basis for seed saving, and also against herbicides. At the best of sustainable farms, we use heritage seeds or save our own. At those organic farms that are sales-oriented, there are catalogs for that. If plants replicate themselves, you don’t have to spend the money. I think we can all agree on that.

Just so I hit all the points mentioned– Drought immunity in the seed is impossible. IMO. All plants need water. Spend the money on drip, and don’t buy that stuff they’re selling you. Droughts are coming up, especially in Southern US areas because of climate change. No modified plant is going to make up for having a plan on how to water your plants. re N: Planting any seed takes nitrogen out of the soil. What matters is where is your nitrogen coming from? If it’s 10 tons of cattle manure from that guy down the street, that’s okay. If it’s anhydrous ammonia which is based in fossil fuels and leaches through the ground and kills fish and frogs and people from some company who’s charging and arm and a leg for it to import oil from the Middle East where they’re killing people, that’s going to be harder to maintain in the future. Rotate/cover crop and fallow some, which you alluded to there. Get the maximum composting action you can, like by turning in clovers/organic material/COMPOST TEA graze some animals, cover rows with leaves, flood it!, all of the above, whatever! See Oregon Tilth and http://ATTRA.org/ for good resources on managing long-term soil health. But this is very important. Reducing how much fertilizer and pesticides your plants need should come from the yearly continual improvements on the soil you are observing. If you’re just giving the plants “enough,” then that leaves the soil with nothing at the end of the year. Got me? It’s a dead substrate, not natural..

Leads to the response to the second paragraph. About GPS. You are planting a monoculture. This is the [other] number one thing to watch out for. Monoculture creates the problems that technology tries to fix. On my farm, we have asparagus, beans, beets, brocolli, cauliflower, collards, greens, kale, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, squash, onions, garlic, more varieties, more tomatoes, more lettuce, etc. In a day where most food grown by farmers is not edible, I think the right way to think about your farm is: “What would I want to eat,” and then if it grows I will have extra for my markets. DIVERSIFY.

Solves all that. Technology saves time, sure. Tractors do. But in a time where there are NO jobs for men out there? Wouldn’t you rather have a few interns or volunteers and do vegetable rows? Or (if you’re farm’s massive) a young entrepreneurial farmer pair manage a field for your community? If you have a farm that helps decrease the national waistline, you won’t need GPS to tell you what to do. Save the GPS/VRT machine and get their pitchforks and wheelbarrows to put more compost on the squash mounds that are sometimes shady. I say (firstly that more people need to be into farming, and secondly) that we need to learn from nature. It’s the only way that plants have grown provenly in long periods on this planet. The rainforest grows a bountiful diversity of plants from composted topsoil. And that has been around for millions of years.


-Eddie Miller
BU ’10 — Economics and Sustainability.


4 Responses to “#Organic is Modern 2: Response to @Thefarmerslife”

  1. JPlovesCOTTON July 25, 2011 at 12:34 pm #


    Thanks for tagging me in the tweet. I think its awesome that you grow such diversity on your farm, it sounds much like my brother’s farm. At the same time, I don’t think we have to choose between the types of farming Brian (@thefarmerslife) does and the kind you and my brother do. Both can thrive simultaneously.

    On the modern note, Emily at Zweber Farms wrote a great post on organic farming being modern some time ago but I’m having trouble finding it…. I agree it can be a modern set of practices just as some of the others using high tech tools may be more antiquated. To me, modern in itself is not a goal for food production.

    Reality is millions of people are like me, we don’t want to grow our own food and even if we did, we would probably suck at it. I expect the people who produce my food to do it in ways that work with the environment rather than against it. And I can see biotech, conventional and organic all fitting that requirement because I’ve spent large amount of time on farms for the past 20 years (yes, I’m old 😉 ). I appreciate whoever grows my food, much like I appreciate those who provide other critical services (doctors, firemen, cops, my hairstylist, etc).


  2. Brian July 25, 2011 at 5:04 pm #

    Thanks so much for your response, Eddie. This is the type of conversation I really want to have here. And like you said on twitter, you’ve provided an intelligent response. So many out there just yell out their ideologies with catch phrases and talking points.

    There are definitely other ways to farm other than the way I do it, and I don’t have any real problems with any of them. I just have a problem when information available to the public is either incomplete (by choice or lack of knowledge) or just not true. Incompleteness is what prompted me to originally write the post.

    Now when you say high tech ag is not natural, I agree. I would also contend that no kind of agriculture is natural, but I don’t think any of us want to go back to hunting and gathering anytime soon.

    You talk about herbicides. I’ll say one thing. RoundUp Ready technology has probably been overused since it was introduced. I think someone would be hard pressed to totally deny that. There are some resistant weeds out there. I’ve seen them. Marestail is the one I see around here. Farther south I know people are having trouble with waterhemp. I’ve even read that some waterhemp is resistant to four modes of action. That’s not a good thing. That being said, not every GM field you see is treated with glyphosate. We grow waxy corn and popcorn. Neither is RoundUp Ready. Sometimes it would be nice to have some corn with other GM traits that isn’t also RoundUp Ready. That way it wouldn’t show up in bean fields the next year.

    As far as insects go we don’t want to kill them all. If we plant corn with insecticidal traits we have to plant refuge acres without those traits. This keeps the pest population viable and minimizes the risk of resistance being formed.

    You also mention drought immunity. That is impossible as you state. Drought tolerance is not. The technology is here and will probably be widespread for the 2012 season. It’s here, there’s a trial in one of my fields right now. Don’t laugh now, but a good portion of that trial was drowned out! Drought tolerance just means the plant has the ability to use less water. I think the application of this technology is two-fold. Not only will it protect some yield in hot, dry conditions, but also in a normal year on irrigated acres it will take less irrigation water and we all know water use is a hot topic. We don’t have a single irrigated acre on our farm, so I can’t get too technical in that area. Many GM traits do not directly add yield to a specific hybrid. What they can do is protect that yield when there is pressure on the plant that the trait can protect against. I see one problem with GM being that there is no real direct consumer benefit. Tradition plant breeding is still a major factor when it comes to yield.

    Anhydrous ammonia largely comes from natural gas converted by the Haber process. We fall apply nearly all of our NH3 and all of it is treated with Nserve. This helps keep the nitrogen from leeching out of the soil. Basically, if I’m losing N to leeching that’s dollars literally down the drain. We’ve started doing tissue testing to see how much N the crops are using. It would be nice to find out we applied more than necessary. If that’s the case, then it’s a win for both of us. We don’t use cover crops. Yet. I’m looking at them pretty hard, and if the costs work out it seems awfully hard to make a case against them. You are increasing organic matter in the soil, which, if we can get fancy for a second, will increase your Cation Exchange Capacity or CEC allowing your soil to hold onto more plant nutrients. I suspect you know that already, but maybe all the readers don’t. I’ve always liked the wooden barrel analogy for plant water and nutrient needs. You can never fill the barrel to the top (maximum yield) if one of the wooden slats only reaches part way up the barrel. I want to do more no-till acres, but we aren’t ready to push the whole farm into it just yet. It’s not something you can try for a few years; you have to commit to it for several years before you see a benefit.

    Let’s talk about that monoculture. I see that term thrown around a lot to describe so-called “big ag.” You listed around 20 different crops that you grow. That is awesome! However, and this goes for my farm and the vast majority of Midwest farms that I see, we are by definition not raising a monoculture. I grow corn, soybeans, and wheat. That’s three things. That is not a monoculture. Soybeans are almost like a cover crop you use for an entire year to fix nitrogen for corn. Are there farmers planting corn on corn every year? You bet. But you don’t have to drive to far from NW Indiana to start seeing things like mint, tomatoes, potatoes, sorghum, sunflower, and I’m sure the list goes on. This country does not raise a monoculture. It just doesn’t.

    In your last paragraph it’s true that it would do a lot of people a lot good to do some hard physical labor in their lifetime. I’m also sure that a surprising amount of food could be grown in people’s back yards and windowsills. The row crop farming I’m familiar with employs a whole lot more people than me, Dad, Grandpa, and one employee and ag is one industry that has been pretty much recession proof, and somebody has to design, install, maintain, and repair all this technology. I could probably start another website about why we aren’t seeing any appreciable job growth and many other political topics, but I’ve got a farm to run you know!

    If there’s one thing we agree on, it’s that it would be a great thing if more people were connected to all the different ways food ends up on their table. Thanks again, Eddie!

    PS: We made a decision today to use less fuel, less seed, and track less compaction causing tire tracks over our fields. We have a brand new 24 row (we have 16 row now) planter with GPS activated row shut-offs on order!


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