GENE LOGSDON: Farming Controversies Are So Complicated



The Contrary Farmer

​I read an article on the DTN/Progressive Farming website that once again shows how difficult it is to resolve differences of opinion in farming disagreements. The article was an even-sided discussion of possible overproduction of organic crops, (which I plan to write about soon) but a respondent took the occasion to launch into a rather vitriolic attack on organic farming. He was irritated about the organic stand against herbicides. How could organic farmers consider their methods to be environmentally correct, he wrote, when they use cultivation to control weeds in row crops and shun herbicides. Cultivation increases the severity of erosion and uses more fossil fuel than herbicide applications. That’s true as far as I know. Cultivation also releases CO2 to the atmosphere, disturbs soil life negatively, and breaks up soil particles too much, he argued. He concluded by opining that those of us who cultivate row crops, or use flame throwers instead of herbicides to kill weeds, are stupid.

​But herbicide farmers cultivate the soil quite a bit too, during fall and spring when erosion is more severe. At least here in my neck of the woods, fields are cultivated in the fall, so as to be ready for planting as soon as possible in spring, and then cultivated again in the spring ahead of planting. If a no-till planter is involved, the operation is called “no-till.” Beats me. The big trend now is cover crops overwinter, surely a good idea, but that means either more herbicides in spring to get rid of the cover or more cultivation of some kind to smack down the cover crop.

​It leads me to a dismal conclusion. As soon as mankind reaches a population level where agriculture, as opposed the hunting and gathering, is necessary to provide enough food, collapse of the civilization is inevitable.

​But wait. In the online discussion about herbicides vs. cultivation, no mention was made about other alternatives— as if they did not exist. How about pasture farming. Organic farmers who let their farm animals graze instead of feeding them cultivated grains, would not be so stupid, right? Or how about Wes Jackson and his Land Institute in Kansas, working hard to develop perennial grains that would make yearly cultivation unnecessary and reduce herbicides?

​Or how about the traditional kind of farming common before herbicides, where rotations of corn, wheat and three years of hay and pasture crops (or something similar) is followed? In this situation, cultivation or herbicides for weed control is necessary only for the corn, or one year out of five. I know this kind of farming works because I lived it from childhood until early manhood. In that rotation regimen, the corn stalks could be shredded in the fall for ground cover. Or the field could be fall-sown to wheat (to be harvested the next year and to act as cover crop over winter) and even grazed a bit in early spring. In spring red clover was sown to grow up in the wheat. After wheat harvest the clover would grow back to provide a seed crop worth about $80 a bushel right now or could be used as pasture or hay and then becoming cover crop over winter again. The next two years the clover makes a hay crop and when it grows back, another cutting or a seed crop or pasture. A fifth year it would still make hay or pasture, especially if in the fall preceding, it is winter pastured. The livestock eat the fading forage and the mature seed heads, trample some of the seeds into the soil to grow the next year, or defecated with the livestock manure to sprout that way. Rancher friend Oren Long in Kansas told me how he did that successfully years ago. All this cutting and pasturing for three years controls weeds quite well. Then the field can be plowed for corn again, or sprayed and planted for truly no-till corn.

​Why has this kind of farming been abandoned on so many farms? Because farmers decided that they could make as much or more money just growing grains and not mess with livestock or making hay. Their rotation was corn, beans and three years of bitching about grain prices.

​So whose stupid? Maybe we all are nuts for increasing and multiplying and making any kind of farming necessary.