GENE LOGSDON: What Truly Is Progress In Farming

The Contrary Farmer

Now that glyphosate (Roundup) doesn’t work so well, the chemical industry is using the old Agent Orange in various new herbicide admixtures. When the general public learns about this, there is going to be an uproar. But what if the only other alternative is for farms to “go back” to mechanical cultivation to control weeds. Big farms probably couldn’t do that because cultivating weeds is so slow compared to chemical weed control. But if big farms become obsolete, the world would end according to current economic theory. Is that true?

It is amazing what happens to your mental calculations if you start thinking about a future based on the assumption that smaller farms are inevitable. Without the striving to get bigger in order to get profitable, agriculture suddenly becomes a very promising way for more people to live and work, akin to gardening. Instead of glorying in how many acres big machines can prepare and plant in a day, we could take pride in figuring out how many people can be employed profitably in farming smaller units. Instead of counting how many jobs that factories create while make those machines, we could concentrate on how many jobs farming could provide at less energy and carbon cost. It is practical to control weeds with cultivation and hand labor on small farms and so the lack of herbicides would be only good news. Hoeing and plowing out weeds may not be the nicest work in the world but there have surely been more cases of clinical depression since we quit doing it.

I keep thinking about that new one-horse plow I described here two weeks ago. It was so light and simple that I could push it easily with one hand over a hard surface. I keep thinking how much better it lends itself to sustainable farming than the huge, heavy vertical tillage machines that have taken its place. And the small plow encourages good farming, something the soil conservation experts missed in their well-intentioned efforts to reduce erosion by replacing it with so-called minimum tillage. A light, small plow used properly to plow sod in a three year rotation with cultivated crops does not have to cause erosion at all. I have seen steep hills on small Amish farms, plowed in strips on the contour, where not enough erosion was occurring to fill the dead furrows in a year. Much of the really bad erosion comes on large fields even with gentle slopes because the water can flow long distances without interruption, gaining speed that really gullies out the land. Nor has minimum tillage stopped that kind of erosion. Also while small plows and even horse hooves can cause compaction, plowing deep-rooted clover sod every third year avoids the problem almost completely, while it is only compounded by heavy machines, minimum tillage or no minimum tillage, especially the deep down kind caused by heavy tractors, harvesters, and trucks.

The masters of large scale farming tell me I’m all wrong about the energy consumption of small vs. large. A 200 hp tractor pulling a big vertical tillage machine can get over an acre in a minute or two, while it takes an hour for a two or three horses and a plow to do the same. So, they say, per acre, the big machinery is more efficient. I can fidget around with numbers too, and while that calculation is true depending on how one defines efficient, the cost of manufacturing and owning those two hundred horses and big machines, plus the cost of the herbicides necessary to make that kind of tillage work, is more than horses, small plows and harrows even if you never take the big machines out of the barn.

But when the mind comes to bear on a kind of agriculture where getting bigger would no longer be profitable or even possible, the concern about time also becomes obsolete. Who cares about breakneck speed if it no longer results in the possibility of any economic reward? Then the farmer is going to tend his garden farm with deliberate skill and the timeliness or timelessness of the changing weather and if he needs more income, he will find it off the farm, perhaps working in a factory that makes horse harness, harrows, hoes, and hammocks.