A Changing Agricultural Paradigm (Part 2)

As I stated in last week’s post, the industrialization of American and, increasingly, world agriculture has had both good and bad consequences. As tillage equipment and fertilizers became bigger, more powerful and more easily managed the average American farmer has been able to supply food for more and more people. However the quality of that food has often suffered as there have been more and more distance and middlemen between the grower and the consumer. When the consumer knows the producer, both have a vested interest in helping each other. Even if the consumer and producer only know the middleman, everyone involved has accountability. When the producer is several times and thousands of miles removed from the consumer it becomes merely a business transaction. In spite of what our government food police would have us believe, the best food quality is when there is a tie between the producer and the customer.

Environmental degradation has been one of the unintended results of large mono-cropped fields. When a farm consisted of both pasture and tilled crop, land erosion tended to be controlled by the firmly rooted pastures catching the soil from the crop lands. Mono-cropped, tilled-row crops have lots of open soil for falling rain drops to start to run off causing both erosion and surface water loss. A good tight pasture sward breaks up the rain drops, catching them and providing a catchment which allow the water to enter the soil profile.

In the past, most farmers rotated their crops which helped control weeds, as most weeds tend to be specialists and are either weeds of pasture or weeds of row crops. Rotation between pasture and row crops then suppresses the weed crop. My high school agriculture teacher taught us that nature abhors a vacuum. A well-cared for, diversified pasture has very little open space for errant plants to enter, whereas most mono-cropped, tilled systems have large open spaces between plants offering opportunistic weeds plenty of place to enter. The industrial model has been to find weed-killing chemicals; many, if not most of which, have had environmental and human health problems. The standard model for the diversified farm is to plant a pasture and suppress the row crop weeds. Then in a few years the pasture would be planted to some kind of tillage crop which would suppress the pasture weed thus reducing or even eliminating the need for chemical herbicides. But to make pasture use financially effective there is a need for animal agriculture.

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