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PostPosted: Tue Oct 23, 2012 8:20 am
 


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October 19, 2012, 1:05 pm

A Simple Fix for Farming
By MARK BITTMAN
The New York Times

IT'S becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals. And I'm not talking about imposing some utopian vision of small organic farms on the world. Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use - if it wants to.

This was hammered home once again in what may be the most important agricultural study this year, although it has been largely ignored by the media, two of the leading science journals and even one of the study's sponsors, the often hapless Department of Agriculture.

The study was done on land owned by Iowa State University called the Marsden Farm. On 22 acres of it, beginning in 2003, researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer.

The results were stunning: The longer rotations produced better yields of both corn and soy, reduced the need for nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides by up to 88 percent, reduced the amounts of toxins in groundwater 200-fold and didn't reduce profits by a single cent.

In short, there was only upside - and no downside at all - associated with the longer rotations. There was an increase in labor costs, but remember that profits were stable. So this is a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons. And it's a high-stakes game; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, about five billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the United States.

No one expects Iowa corn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they're afraid to tell Monsanto about agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

Debates about how we grow food are usually presented in a simplistic, black-and-white way, conventional versus organic. (The spectrum that includes conventional on one end and organic on the other is not unlike the one that opposes the standard American diet with veganism.) In farming, you have loads of chemicals and disastrous environmental impact against an orthodox, even dogmatic method that is difficult to carry out on a large scale.

But seeing organic as the only alternative to industrial agriculture, or veganism as the only alternative to supersize me, is a bit like saying that the only alternative to the ravages of capitalism is Stalinism; there are other ways. And positioning organic as the only alternative allows its opponents to point to its flaws and say, "See? We have to remain with conventional."


The Marsden Farm study points to a third path. And though critics of this path can be predictably counted on to say it's moving backward, the increased yields, markedly decreased input of chemicals, reduced energy costs and stable profits tell another story, one of serious progress.

Nor was this a rinky-dink study: the background and scientific rigor of the authors - who represent the U.S.D.A.'s Agricultural Research Service as well as two of the country's leading agricultural universities - are unimpeachable. When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, "These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don't hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you."

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other nonchemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that's a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming - more thoughtful and less reflexive - requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they're needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. "You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs," Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report's abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Why wouldn't a farmer go this route? One answer is that first he or she has to hear about it. Another, says Matt Liebman, one of the authors of the study and an agronomy professor at Iowa State, is that, "There's no cost assigned to environmental externalities" - the environmental damage done by industrial farming, analogous to the health damage done by the "cheap" standard American diet - "and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn't questioned."

This study not only questions those assumptions, it demonstrates that the chemicals contributing to "environmental externalities" can be drastically reduced at no sacrifice, except to that of the bottom line of chemical companies. That direction is in the interest of most of us - or at least those whose well-being doesn't rely on that bottom line.

Sadly, it seems there isn't a government agency up to the task of encouraging things to move that way, even in the face of convincing evidence.


http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/19/a-simple-fix-for-food/?src=recg

*edited for added emphasis (in bold)


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PostPosted: Tue Oct 23, 2012 8:36 am
 


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the environmental damage done by industrial farming, analogous to the health damage done by the "cheap" standard American diet - "and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn't questioned


To me that's the salient point. Ultra large lobby from the large chemical fertiliser companies.


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PostPosted: Tue Oct 23, 2012 8:51 am
 


NFU and other left leaning farm groups have been talking about this for years. Study after article after study going on about how small farms are a more efficient, better use of the land.

You can't make it anymore unless you are getting bigger. The loss of the wheat board is only going to speed this trend up.

Chemicals are a much easier way to manage large chunks of land. One good high clearance sprayer with a GPS system and you've got it licked.


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PostPosted: Tue Oct 23, 2012 8:54 am
 


Robair wrote:
NFU and other left leaning farm groups have been talking about this for years. Study after article after study going on about how small farms are a more efficient, better use of the land.

You can't make it anymore unless you are getting bigger. The loss of the wheat board is only going to speed this trend up.

Chemicals are a much easier way to manage large chunks of land. One good high clearance sprayer with a GPS system and you've got it licked.


Yep. I've no doubt on a small scale, this works wonderfully (and did for thousands of years too), but on a large scale, chemicals are probably far easier and cheaper to use. In the case of the huge farming companies, profitability is far more important than the environment.


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PostPosted: Tue Oct 23, 2012 9:06 am
 


This study doesn't mention small-scale farming nor does it advocate for the elimination of chemicals, when needed. Rather, it says that proper crop rotation, mixed farming/livestock production, mulching, etc. are more effective, and "chemicals can be used to 'fine tune' the system rather than drive the system". Although they haven't tried the study at commercial scale yet, they expect it to work.

Here's a fuller article from Wired Mag:

Quote:
Big, Smart and Green: A Revolutionary Vision for Modern Farming
By Brandon Keim
October 19, 2012 5:00 pm
Categories: Environment, Food

What they’re doing on Marsden Farm isn’t organic. It’s not industrial, either. It’s a hybrid of the two, an alternative version of agriculture for the 21st century: smart, green and powerful.

On this farm in Boone County, Iowa, in the heart of corn country, researchers have borrowed from both approaches, using traditional techniques and modern chemicals to get industrial yields — but without industrial consequences.

If the approach works at commercial scales, and there’s good reason to think it will, it might just be an answer to modern farming’s considerable problems.

“We wanted to show that small amounts of synthetic inputs are very powerful tools, but they’re tools with which you tune the system, not drive it,” said Adam Davis, a researcher with the United States Department of Agriculture.

The Marsden Farm experiment, which is described in a study published Oct. 10 in Public Library of Science One, started in 2003, when Davis was a graduate student under agronomist Matt Liebman of Iowa State University. Liebman’s specialty is integrated pest management, or strategies that use nature to accomplish what’s typically done with pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizer.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that’s been generally neglected for the last several decades, as large-scale farming came to rely on simplified, chemically intensive and ultimately unsustainable approaches. For a while, these worked, but with high yields came big problems: the threat of catastrophic disease outbreaks in monocultures, an insatiable demand for nitrogen fertilizer, pesticide-resistant bugs and herbicide-resistant superweeds, and a new generation of crops designed to be drenched in toxic chemicals.

“We have two choices now,” said Liebman. “We can double down, load more chemicals into the system, and get another decade of increasingly ineffective control — or we can choose the path towards integrated management.”

Liebman, inspired in part by a pioneering Iowa farmer named Dick Thompson, wanted to bring integrated pest management back, but augmented with technology’s new tools. On 22 acres at Marsden Farm, his team planted three plots with different rotations of crops. The first followed a two-year rotation, alternating between corn and soybeans, as is customary in the region. It was managed the usual way, with lots of chemicals.

For the second plot, the researchers rotated over three years between corn, soy and oats, with red clover planted in winter. The clover, which absorbs atmospheric nitrogen, was planted between crop rows and plowed under as soil-replenishing “green manure” in spring. On another plot, instead of red clover the researchers planted a fourth-year crop of alfalfa, which can be used to feed livestock. The animals’ manure came back as fertilizer.

On these fields, the researchers still used herbicides and pesticides, but not the usual way. Rather than spraying them routinely over large areas, Liebman’s team applied them only when necessary. “We use low-dose products in the smallest quantities possible,” he said. “We’re not against their use. What we’re arguing for is using them as carefully deployed tactical options.”

Liebman called these applications “therapeutic measures.” Therapy wasn’t often needed. Having different crops with different life cycles made it harder for weeds to grow. What might flourish among corn and soy, for example, was disrupted by oats. When red clover and alfalfa were mowed, weeds were chewed up before they flowered. As for insect problems, low pesticide use, along with habitat provided by cover crops, allowed pest-eating bugs and birds to flourish.

After eight years, Liebman and Davis used eight times less herbicide in the three- and four-year rotations than in the conventional plot, they report in the new study. Ecotoxicity in surrounding water was two orders of magnitude lower. Thanks to clover and alfalfa, the experimental plots also used 86 percent less synthetic fertilizer.

Most important of all, the experimental plots were as productive as the conventional. They produced just as much total crop biomass. When the researchers calculated the value of their environmentally friendly harvest, it was every bit as profitable.

“We exceeded those goals — not by pumping chemicals in, but by maximizing ecosystem services,” Davis said. “We’re not throwing away those tools. They’re very important. But you use a strong cropping system as the foundation for your agriculture. Then, when you need it, you tweak it a little bit with the inputs.”

Liebman and Davis said the system can be scaled up and applied to other crops. While the new study’s details were local, the essential underlying principle, of building a crop system around the ecological services it provides, is universal.

This is a great study,” said John Reganold, a soil scientist at Washington State University who was not involved in the research. “We’ve been pushing the envelope on yields, and not paying as much attention to the environmental and social and economic consequences. This shows that these integrated systems can be profitable, produce high yields, and offer more environmental benefit.”

In a paper published last year in Science, Reganold called for a transformation of U.S. agriculture along the lines seen at Marsden Farm. “They’re almost like a blend of conventional and organic, using the best of both worlds,” he said. “It’s these kinds of systems we need.”

“Their ideas point to the way that agriculture has to be in the future,” said agronomist Nicholas Jordan of the University of Minnesota. “There’s wide consensus that we have to figure out this fusion of ‘organic’ and ‘industrial.’ They’ve illustrated what that fusion looks like. It’s power and efficiency.”

Jordan stressed that the Marsden Farm data was sound: No fudged numbers, no apples-and-oranges comparisons or subtle statistical slip-ups. Asked if the methods could scale commercially, Jordan said “the answer is a resounding yes.”

His enthusiasm was, however, tempered with caveats about challenges. Integrated pest management is much more complicated than industrial farming, requiring more day-to-day decisions and local knowledge. “We’ve become very, very used to a system that’s straightforward,” said crop scientist Germán Bollero of the University of Illinois. “Implementing this at a large scale is not going to be easy.”

Integrated pest management also requires more work. In the new study, the conventional method demanded one-third less labor than Liebman and Davis’s fusion. “It takes an energetic farmer, someone who’s investing a lot more of their own time, or potentially hiring added labor,” said agricultural economist Greg Graff of Colorado State University.

These challenges should not be insurmountable. Locale-specific research will help with complexity. As for the additional labor, money that would have gone to chemicals can be used to hire workers. “I would argue that needing more labor in these systems means more jobs,” Reganold said. “It will be good for the well-being of rural communities.”

There are other advantages to the Marsden Farm method. As corn and soy production intensified in the midwest, field farmers often stopped raising livestock. These are now grown in concentrated animal feeding operations, which both incubate new disease and generate immense amounts of waste. If livestock again became part of local farming, as was required to consume the Marsden Farm’s alfalfa, that waste would be fertilizer.

Diverse, year-round crop rotations are also more resilient to climate stress. Weather patterns in the the midwestern United States are becoming more extreme, veering between the catastrophic floods of 2008 and 2010 and this summer’s epic drought. Complex root systems prevent soil from washing away during spring rains, and store extra water against dry spells.

“These more diversified systems, the three- and four-year systems in the study, are less vulnerable to resource scarcities, climate change and market volatility,” said Reganold. “These systems use less fertilizer and pesticides than the typical conventional system. Yes, this is environmentally beneficial, but it also has economic benefits because the price of fertilizers and pesticides will likely increase in the future.”

If transforming agriculture seems an imposing task, Liebman said it can start small, with something as simple as weaving conservation strips into fields. It also doesn’t need to happen immediately, in one radical step.

“The concept could be introduced by encouraging farmers to continue farming in the traditional way, but little by little introduce diversity. There could be tax benefit or subsidy for introducing things like cover crops,” Bollero said. “If those signals are there, you’ll see a lot of farmers adopting this.”

Graff noted that farm subsidies currently favor intensive soy and corn production, and that industry lobbying groups have actively resisted subsidy reform that rewards other types of crop production. Ultimately, however, this is an issue that citizens can decide.

“A very large amount of taxpayer money is channeled through the federal government into the farming sector. In Iowa, it’s something like $1 billion of your money,” Liebman said. “If you can get cleaner water, less exposure to pesticide, and more wildlife habitat, if farmers can maintain their revenue streams and work in a healthier world — why wouldn’t you do that?”


http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/10/big-smart-green-farming/


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2012 2:10 pm
 


BeaverFever wrote:
This study doesn't mention small-scale farming nor does it advocate for the elimination of chemicals, when needed. Rather, it says that proper crop rotation, mixed farming/livestock production, mulching, etc. are more effective, and "chemicals can be used to 'fine tune' the system rather than drive the system". Although they haven't tried the study at commercial scale yet, they expect it to work.


A good study when most "scientific" agricultural studies are done by the Monsantos and Dows etc. And they don't specify that we should do small scale farming, but they do say,

"Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming - more thoughtful and less reflexive - requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they're needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. "You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs," Davis says."

To have that kind of dedication and energy from farmers you pretty much have to get away from the laird and serf model of farming that we have been working towards over the last thirty years. People have more interest in making the process work if they have a direct interest in the land and the neighbourhood.

A landed gentleman farmer who hires workers to take care of the thousands of hectares of land making up most commercial farms in western Canada for example isn't going to go out there and learn the soil, the implications of different actions for different sites and soils.


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2012 2:22 pm
 


BeaverFever wrote:
This study doesn't mention small-scale farming nor does it advocate for the elimination of chemicals, when needed. Rather, it says that proper crop rotation, mixed farming/livestock production, mulching, etc. are more effective, and "chemicals can be used to 'fine tune' the system rather than drive the system". Although they haven't tried the study at commercial scale yet, they expect it to work.


The study uses a 22 acre test plot.

Average Alberta farm size in 2011: 785 acres.

I don't imagine many farmers will be too receptive to the massive increase in work load this test entails.


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 29, 2012 5:06 pm
 


The authors do point out that many of the costs of farming are in the costs which aren't currently recognized by society.

"Why wouldn't a farmer go this route? One answer is that first he or she has to hear about it. Another, says Matt Liebman, one of the authors of the study and an agronomy professor at Iowa State, is that, "There's no cost assigned to environmental externalities" - the environmental damage done by industrial farming, ..."

If farmers are paid enough to compensate for the extra work, as they are in parts of Europe for example, for environmental services, such as flood control, soil erosion prevention, healthy food, etc. I think farmers would be willing to do the work. A good part of the reason that we are seeing increased farm size and high use of unsustainable resources is that the work load is otherwise too high while returns are too low.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 19, 2012 4:36 am
 


amandaweekss wrote:
That is actually an awesome idea to be executed. But the problem is they don't flag it in media much don't know why.
Pest control bed bugs

Either do I, but watch how fast your post gets flagged as spam :lol:


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 19, 2012 5:45 pm
 


kilroy wrote:
A good part of the reason that we are seeing increased farm size and high use of unsustainable resources is that the work load is otherwise too high while returns are too low.


Eggzackery.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 19, 2012 8:02 pm
 


Hope some of youse guys watched Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl the last couple of nights on PBS. Absolutely fascinating. The small actions in farming can lead to either total disaster or to long-term and sustainable profits, and to environmentally healthy crops. I've got a whole new respect for this aspect of human activity as a result.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 19, 2012 9:42 pm
 


Ditto. Burns is a pro. Any of one his documentaries would qualify as a credible PhD dissertation.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 19, 2012 10:09 pm
 


"So this is a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons."

And I stopped reading. If you want to report something leave the spin out of it.


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 19, 2012 10:20 pm
 


Xort wrote:
"So this is a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons."

And I stopped reading. If you want to report something leave the spin out of it.


Translation: their were two meny werds I coodn't unnerstrand


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PostPosted: Mon Nov 19, 2012 10:38 pm
 


ShepherdsDog wrote:
Translation: their were two meny werds I coodn't unnerstrand

No, when I read bias junk I ignore it as an unreliable source of information.

I wasn't expecting much from a source like 'http://opinionator.blogs' to start with, but now and then you can find people that can at least present the facts without trying to influence the reader by the words used, rather than the content shown.

peck420, was thinking criticaly about this. His comment about the size differance is a very good point. For a small farm this method may have results that could be repeated. However it's not a given that it will scale up and keep all the cost relations the same for a much larger farm.


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