Thursday, February 26, 2015

Chemical Agriculture 200: Elucidation

When I was in high school I was the poster child for modern chemical agriculture. I grew up on a chemical agriculture farm and spent the first 25 years of my life being "educated" by a system that brought us the "green revolution" and I don't mean recycling. I was FFA (Future Farmers of America) chapter president for three years and took 4 years of Ag training while in high school. I was an avid reader (still am) and read every book I could get my hands on how to grow corn, soybeans, oats, sorghum, alfalfa, and clover.

I also studied livestock husbandry. I wrote a 50 page thesis on bacterial diseases of livestock for my high school biology class. I was so interested in this that I borrowed all the books our local veterinary (a recent graduate of Iowa State University) had on bacteriology, biology, and livestock diseases. I read them cover to cover and then asked if I could use his micro scopes, centrifuge, stains and antibiotic sensitivity disks to identify various livestock bacteria. What newly minted PhD in veterinary science could turn down such a wannabe disciple. He and I had a great time my sophomore year in high school reviewing the basics of veterinary bacteriology. Looking back on it was probably a good review for him too. He was a very talented surgeon and was very good at diagnosing problems. By the time I was off to college I had inoculated and vaccinated thousands of head of livestock (on our farm) for various common and minor maladies.

I share this with the reader so you understand I'm not just an organic zealot (yes I am that), but I understand the other side of the coin pretty well.

Elucidation is a verb meaning to explain and make a subject that is hard to understand clear or easy to understand. The root of the word is from the Latin "lucid" to make clear. Let's look deeper...

I certainly didn't reject all this great training and knowledge from my father, my Ag teacher or my veterinary pal.  I'd like to think of it more as going back to the roots of my farm heritage to the wisdom of an earlier age (not that they had all the answers either). Three generations ago we farmed without chemicals. My grandfather and great grandfather remembered those days. The "green revolution" that I mentioned above came about after WWII when the munitions industry was looking for a way to use the chemical factory capacity no longer needed for the war effort.

Ag chemicals were a logical step, especially chemical fertilizers, but also very powerful herbicides and pesticides.  Cheap oil was the catalyst for cheap food and boy did it work. Politically and financially we were focused on could we and very few were asking the question of should we! We could and we did in a big way and the agriculture that had grown up in a symbiotic relationship with the great civilizations of the world was set aside for a quick fix and the spin doctors sold it to the public.

Is all of this a conspiracy and a grand plan to undermine our society. A resounding NO. But I think it is wise to think about where we have been in agriculture and where we want to go from here.  Many of the systems in our current agricultural system are not sustainable, and I do not use that word lightly. In some areas our agricultural practices have destroyed thousands of years of deep prairie soils and contaminated aquifers that took thousands of years to develop, in just a few short generations. We need to recognize this and find a different way to conduct our business.

In addition to being providers of fresh, nutritious and tasty food, we are educators. We teach our customers about our approach to growing their food. Typically, I like to look at the positive side of the issue, but for a few short weeks we are going to look at "what we are not" in hopes that this provides clarity or lucidity to the discussion.

Generally I have resisted using highly technical jargon in favor of pain English. Not because our customers can't understand the technical debate, they can and they do. Many of our customers are brilliant doctors, lawyer and educators. I prefer to have the discussion at the "street level" where more of our growers, customers and families can participate in the understanding and the dialog. Through simiplicity we make things clearer.

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