Lindsey Kuper - Mark Bittman's simplistic "Simple Fix for Farming" [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Lindsey Kuper

[ website | composition.al ]
[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

Mark Bittman's simplistic "Simple Fix for Farming" [Oct. 25th, 2012|12:47 am]
Previous Entry Share Next Entry

Last week Mark Bittman wrote an online-only column called "A Simple Fix for Farming" for the New York Times. You might be familiar with Bittman from his well-received cookbooks and food journalism. The column is about how a recent (open-access!) study at Iowa State found that land with three- and four-crop rotations, fertilized with manure from an adjacent livestock operation, was more productive than land with a typical-for-Iowa two-crop corn/soybean rotation. The three- and four-crop rotations with manure fertilizer didn't require the nitrogen and pesticide sprays -- also typical for Iowa, and resulting in groundwater pollution and contaminated runoff -- that the two-crop rotation did, and the profits were about the same in each case.

Surprise! Biodiversity is good! What a revelation! Someone should tell all those poor, foolish farmers about this!

Okay, seriously, Bittman makes some good points. But his column is an oversimplification of the study's results, and it's easy to misunderstand. My husband Alex oniugnip emailed my parents, who've been farming in Iowa for much of their lives, a couple days ago to ask what they thought of the column. I was going to paraphrase their responses, but they're so good that I'm just going to quote them in full, emphasis mine.

My dad:

It's not all that simple. They downplay the increased labor requirements for the alternative system. If you can make as much money with the alternative system but it takes more time and management to do it, then you've actually lost ground.

I don't mean to pooh-pooh benefits of diverse farming systems. A highly diversified crop and livestock farm that efficiently recycles nutrients and also produces meat, milk or eggs, will be more profitable than a conventional crop-only farm, including labor costs, but the economics of attendant livestock enterprises, implied by the use of diverse rotations, were not considered in this study. Such a farm would also require more skill to operate well. Very importantly, the externalized costs, the costs borne by society in the form of pollution, would be much less in the alternative farm. But conventional farmers are allowed to pass those costs of industrialized farming onto society. This could and should be addressed by policy (e.g. carbon tax) but there is little appetite for that.

My mom:

Labor can also be difficult to get, although higher pay will attract more workers and higher skill levels. Particularly with the average age of full-time farmers in their 50s, finding additional labor is key.

Compare a crop-only farm with a crop-plus-livestock farm. The animals must be fed and watered, have room to exercise, have protection from inclement weather, and in some cases protection from predators. The animals may require the attention of a veterinarian at times. For their manure to be used as fertilizer, the manure needs to be regularly collected and transported (though that issue is solved on some farms with rotational grazing systems requiring significant management expertise and a lot of fencing and attention to fence repair/maintenance). There's a reason why our grandfathers who owned and operated highly diversified crop/livestock farms rarely were able to get away for even a few days' vacation unless they had a trusted, reliable neighbor with whom they could make an arrangement to take care of the animals while they were away. All this is definitely do-able, but it takes a good deal of planning, expertise and management--in addition to labor--to make it all work.

Bittman wonders, "Why wouldn't a farmer go this route? One answer is that first he or she has to hear about it." Not likely. As one of the authors of the study quoted in the article said, "These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations." It's a little insulting of Bittman to suggest that farmers don't know about rotating crops and spreading manure. These aren't exactly new ideas, and the results of the study are not exactly surprising. The bigger problem, as my mom alludes to, is that farm country has been losing population for decades (hi, I'm part of that problem), and it's hard to say where all the skilled labor to implement Bittman's "simple fix" would come from. And the really big problem, as my dad points out, is that our policy -- not just the free market -- rewards conventional farming by letting farmers externalize its costs.

LinkReply

Comments:
[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-10-25 06:29 am (UTC)

(Link)

Cool post. And haha, your parents sound just like Michael Pollan's description of the Polyface Farm. More productive but more labor and more skilled labor.

A comment says most farmland is rented. Another wonders about switching harvest machinery among 4 different crop types. And several mention the lack of vacation or even weekends off.
[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2012-10-26 12:21 am (UTC)

(Link)

I saw the comment about machinery. It's probably not as bad as the commenter thinks. Combines have removable heads for harvesting different crops. In Iowa you'd typically have both a corn head for harvesting corn and a grain head for harvesting soybeans. You could probably use the grain head for oats, too. Alfalfa is a little different, having to be cut and baled, but neighbors could jointly own equipment and trade off so it's in use every year. The larger point, though, about how more diverse farms need more sophisticated infrastructure, is true.
[User Picture]From: sonetka
2012-10-25 07:08 am (UTC)

(Link)

I gained 99% of my knowledge of farming from reading "Farmer Boy" but if anything was clear in that book, it was that managing crops and animals is a neverending job which required about 150% of your time, and that even so you need a LOT of skilled help if things are going to run well. And of course even then there was the issue of young people who found other work less exhausting and more enjoyable than farming (Royal leaves the farm to become a storekeeper and whoosh, off go his lifetime's worth of skills at breaking calves, raising horses, milking, sowing, etc). Your parents' letters are great; are they sending them to the NYT? I mean, if anyone's opinion is worth printing on that subject it would be that of actual farmers in Iowa.

Edited at 2012-10-25 07:08 am (UTC)
[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2012-11-03 01:08 pm (UTC)

(Link)

Yeah, managing animals in particular is a full-time job. My parents have been raising a few (like, fewer than ten) grass-fed beef cattle every year as a side project, and even that is a fair amount of work.

I don't think my parents sent letters. Since it was an online-only column, I think it's unlikely that the letters would be printed (although maybe there exist online-only letters to the editor, as well? Or maybe the word for those is "comments").
[User Picture]From: chrisamaphone
2012-10-25 02:46 pm (UTC)

(Link)

your mom's comments really make me want to go work on a farm!
[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2012-10-25 06:25 pm (UTC)

(Link)

True story: One of Amal's former students left academia to work on a farm. I've lost touch with him completely, but apparently he spent some time learning about permaculture at Maya Mountain Research Farm in Belize.
[User Picture]From: zacharyzsparks
2012-10-26 01:14 am (UTC)

(Link)

Kyle something? We were just talking about him at dinner! According to Andy he is actually no longer working on a farm and is on the west coast somewhere.
[User Picture]From: sajith
2012-10-27 01:54 am (UTC)

(Link)

Kyle would be Amr's former student. So this must be someone else? Curiosity is piqued. :)
[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2012-10-29 02:10 am (UTC)

(Link)

Nah, this was him. He worked with both Amr and Amal, I think.
[User Picture]From: spinnerin_ftw
2012-10-25 05:12 pm (UTC)

(Link)

The "if only the farmers knew about this brilliant technique that would solve all their problems!" thing is something that comes up a lot in international development, too. Usually it's not that simple.
[User Picture]From: spinnerin_ftw
2012-10-25 06:48 pm (UTC)

(Link)

Of course, I commented without reading the Bittman piece, and now I'm staring at "But seeing organic as the only alternative to industrial agriculture, or veganism as the only alternative to supersize me, is a bit like saying that the only alternative to the ravages of capitalism is Stalinism; there are other ways." and trying to figure out what he's smoking.
[User Picture]From: winterkoninkje
2012-10-25 09:02 pm (UTC)

(Link)

Uh, isn't using manure in lieu of nitrogen and pesticides part of "organic" farming? O_o

Honestly none of this surprises me. That older ways were more efficient (what with millennia of practice). That older ways were more labor-intensive. That the reduction of farmer populations renders the older ways harder to implement. That the ability to externalize pollution costs rewards those who pollute over those who do not. That the complexity of farming is overlooked by non-farmers. None of this should be surprising; except perhaps the first point, which seems to be what the original study was investigating.
[User Picture]From: mindstalk
2012-10-26 05:17 am (UTC)

(Link)

To be more precise: the older ways were more efficient in land and energy use, and environment use (soil erosion, chemical runoff.) They weren't labor efficient, and in the 20th century labor has been the expensive input.
[User Picture]From: winterkoninkje
2012-10-27 08:22 pm (UTC)

(Link)

Right. Well, the environmental costs have been extreme, it's just that people weren't paying attention to it.
[User Picture]From: winterkoninkje
2012-10-25 09:02 pm (UTC)

(Link)

Yay parents!
[User Picture]From: livejournal
2012-10-26 04:45 am (UTC)

Culture stuff

(Link)

User mindstalk referenced to your post from Culture stuff saying: [...] Article and comments on more productive farming [...]
[User Picture]From: sajith
2012-10-26 06:33 pm (UTC)

(Link)

I this post.

Bittman had me at "it's becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, and profitably, with far fewer chemicals." I'm coming from a country of 1.21 billion people, and our population growth seems to show now let up. It's alarming, and if anything it's not increasingly clear to me how we can grow all the food we need.

Where I come from, we also have instances of farmers moving from low-margin, labor-intensive food crops (such as rice) to high-margin, low-labor crops (such as rubber) or export-oriented food farming (such as prawn) -- and this is the norm rather than exception. Crop rotation is a natural victim here, and it is certainly not because farmers haven't heard about the idea.
[User Picture]From: sajith
2012-10-26 06:34 pm (UTC)

(Link)

Err, "no let up", and not "now let up".