The Future of Farming is Now
By Brian Middleton
From the air, the American Corn Belt looks like a corduroy quilt: mile upon mile of rectangular patches stitched together by ribbons of country road. Here and there sits a house, surrounded by a few trees and a bit of lawn, garden, or (less often) a tiny scrap of uncultivated land. But mostly what you see is that vast expanse of fine wale, stretching in every direction.
This is monoculture—the practice of growing a single crop intensively over a large area of land—and it is the hallmark of the industrial system of food production that has dominated the Corn Belt since World War II. This system was once hailed as a technological breakthrough that would solve the problems of feeding a burgeoning world population. But that hasn’t happened, and today the fabric of industrial agriculture is growing threadbare and fraying at the edges. Its reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics has led to depleted soils, herbicide-resistant “superweeds, ” and pollution that has fouled drinking water and created coastal “dead zones.”
In short, industrial agriculture is unsustainable—a dead end. If we keep growing our food this way, we will eventually exhaust our farmland and despoil our air and water. Fortunately, we have a better option.
Enter the Healthy Farm
The future of farming is what scientists call agro-ecological agriculture, but we simply call it “healthy farms.” Healthy farms must be:
- Productive enough to ensure abundant, affordable food for U.S. consumers while helping meet the needs of others around the globe; it should also produce a wide variety of foods important to healthful diets (see the sidebar below)
- Economically viable—capable of providing a good living for farmers and farm workers while contributing to a robust regional economy
- Environmentally sustainable, using and replenishing resources in a way that maintains the fertility of the soil—and the health of the surrounding landscape—for future generations
Meeting all three goals will be a challenge. However, a growing body of scientific research and agricultural practice shows it can be done, and on farms of any scale. The key is to avoid the temptation of relying on incremental improvements to the existing industrial system, and instead apply our knowledge to build a new system altogether— one that recognizes farms to be multifunctional, regenerative, biodiverse, and interconnected with the natural and human landscape.
A conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (left) meets with an Oklahoma farmer to review the progress of a grass-planting project on his farmland.
Practices Make Perfect
Farmers face many practical questions in their day-to-day operations: How do I keep my soil and maintain its fertility? How do I prevent my crops from being overwhelmed by weeds and pests, or shriveled by drought? How do I make the most of the available resources, maximizing productivity and efficiency?
Industrial agriculture’s answers to these questions tend to be simplistic, generally involving a liberal application of costly chemicals. This approach may work in the short run, but in the long run it leads to the erosion of both farmland and farming knowledge. Healthy farms, on the other hand, use a more sophisticated, science-based toolkit for ensuring both short- and long-term productivity. UCS has identified the following four practices as central to healthy farming:
Take a landscape approach. The industrial model treats the farm as a production facility isolated from its surroundings. But scientists and farmers are finding that the uncultivated areas around the farm are a powerful resource; the biodiversity they foster provides important benefits including pollination and pest control.
Grow and rotate more crops. Monoculture depletes the soil while creating an inviting habitat for pests. Growing a wider variety of crops—including fruits, vegetables, and even energy crops—avoids those problems and can facilitate longer, more complex crop rotations that enhance productivity while reducing the farm’s reliance on chemical inputs.
Reintegrate livestock and crops. The industrial system separates animal and plant agriculture, with animals crowded into CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), where the large volume of manure produced often leads to environmental hazards such as polluting spills. On a healthy farm (or group of neighboring farms), livestock manure can be used to fertilize nearby field crops, making it a valuable resource; well-managed pastures also reduce erosion, store carbon, and provide habitat for beneficial organisms.
Use more cover crops. Cover crops such as rye, clover, and hairy vetch are grown not for harvest and sale but to cover the soil between plantings of cash crops. This practice reduces erosion, retains or adds soil nutrients, reduces pests and weeds, and makes the farm less vulnerable to drought.
Learn more about the principles and practices behind healthy farms with our interactive graphic.
Some of these practices, such as crop rotation and crop/livestock integration, have been around for a long time. But there is nothing “old school” about the way forward-looking farmers are using them, and scientific evidence shows they can be just as productive as industrial methods.
Last year, for instance, a peer-reviewed report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Iowa State University, and the University of Minnesota examined the effects of increased crop diversity—particularly long, complex crop rotations—and bringing animals back into the mix. The study found compelling evidence that these practices do pay dividends. Other recent studies have provided evidence for the benefits of cover crops and whole-landscape approaches, as well as the viability of developing new markets for fruits and vegetables that can be sold at premium prices based on their place of origin.
How to Make Every Farm Healthy
If the evidence shows that healthy farms are better for farmers, the environment, and the community, why has this approach been slow to gain a foothold in mainstream U.S. agriculture?
The answer is complex, lying at the intersection of market realities, corporate influence, and public policy. Some healthy practices, such as cover crops, require up-front investment. Others, like taking land out of cultivation, may reduce revenue in the short term. In addition, the domination of U.S. agriculture by corn and soybeans tends to be self-perpetuating; farmers who want to grow a broader range of crops may have difficulty finding markets for them, or obtaining insurance and credit (as our 2012 report Ensuring the Harvest, found). Federal farm policy and publicly funded research, which have evolved to serve the needs of “Big Ag,” currently offer farmers little help in addressing these issues.
The good news is that none of these barriers are immovable. Smart, evidence-based agricultural policy, along with more research and outreach on healthy practices, can level the playing field for healthy farms, giving them the incentives and resources they need to thrive.
The resulting fabric of twenty-first-century agriculture will be different from the old industrial corduroy; it will be a more complex weave with many different threads. And with the help of smart policies and investments, and the contributions of innovative farmers and scientists, it will also be a more durable material—one that can serve our needs for many generations to come.
UCS Web Content Manager Brian Middleton writes on food and agriculture issues.
Learn more about—and get involved in—our campaign to transform U.S. farm policy.