Saturday, February 28, 2015

Chemical Agriculture 201: Farming is a Verb

Farmers will tell you that one of the benefits of farming is a sense of place to have their family rooted in the land. Wikipedia says, "A farm is an area that is devoted primarily to  agricultural processes in order to produce such commodities as fiber, grain, livestock or fuel. A farm is the basic production facility in food production.:" I have a few problems with this definition but let's just accept it for face value for now.

I totally agree with the "sense of place". We feel very grounded in our community because of our farming activites. Many families depend on us and we have gotten to know them at a much deeper level than if we were just casual acquaintances at school, church or neighbors down the street. Growing someone's food is an intimate act of friendship and community.

Farming is a verb. The discussion so far has focused on the "noun" definition of farm. Farming is a set of actions, it is those actions that make the differenced between a chemical farmer and an organic farmer.

Let's take a look.

Farming is very diverse. Certainly corn, soybeans, wheat, hay, livestock and vegetables come to mind when you think of farming. But also fruit, fish, nuts, cotton, coffee, herbs, and forestry fit the definition. Even the sprouts I'm growing on my widow sill are a form of farming the verb.

But the one thing that all these have in common is that there are farmers who are manipulating the creative potential of biology to produce things we want or need. This is similar to how engineers take raw materials to make products or systems to better society. Only in the case of farming we are always working with biological systems, which are not just inanimate raw materials and react to our stewardship (or mainpulation) in different ways than engineering systems. If we aren't careful we can get some unintended consequences that are very negative.

For example, the Army Corp of Engineers used anhydrous ammonia in WWII to quickly burn out all the organic matter in the forest floor of tropical islands to make runways for aircraft to land and take off. It was necessary to damage a small area of the ecosystem for the greater good. Today we use anhydous ammonia as a delivery system for a large percentage of our agricultural nitrogen for corn. We don't want to haul around alot of water, so we liquify the nitrogen without water (anhydrous) in tanks and when we knife it into the soil it recombines with the water in the soil to provide nitrogen fertilizer for the crop. Unfortunately it also kills (freezes) the biology in a band around the knife and it burns up part of the organic mater in the soil, just like we did in the jungle during WWII. Year after year we apply nitrogen this way and year after year we have to get bigger and bigger tractors to perform our tillage because our soil is hard and lifeless. Then we wonder why we have so much erosion and many tons of soil per acre are eroded each year when there is no soil biology to hold it together. This farming (the verb) is very common but long term is damaging our soils.

Another example is the excessive focus on high yeilds. Farmers are taught to fully utilize the crops potential that they need a level of fertility that exceeds the carrying capacity of their soils and what the crop can utilize. The excess chemical fertilizers then contaminate our ground water. This will never happen in an organic system because it is the biology that converts the nutrients into the form the plants will use.

1 comment:

  1. Don't forget that farmers say they are "stewards of the land" but in actuality leave no habit for wildlife and destroy any wild parcels that remain for an extra crop acreage. Where do they ever show how care about nature and our environment when they are the most destructive with chemicals, our waterways and wildlife?