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.
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.
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.