By Mariah Casmey
I was really struck by something was said at a dairy farm that we were visiting this Friday. Now this happens several times throughout everyday on this program, but what this farmer said really struck me. One of my peers asked him why he kept on farming even though the market for dairy has been down for several years, and he said something along the lines of “well, we’ve just got to hope for the best”.
And that got me thinking, much of the media we consume on a daily basis is fairly pessimistic. These issues range from devasting wild fires to a struggling farm economy, yet I think these reports miss out on all the improvements and innovations in this world. Throughout this program we have seen lots of cases for hope for the future of agriculture due to the hard work and passion of dozens of people. When I first started this program, I was frightened for the future of agriculture and its ability to sustain the environment. However, after seeing so many people working to overcome these challenges I think we have a good reason to be hopeful for a future sustainable agriculture system. We just need to understand it will take some time and effort to change the current one.
We have seen sustainable practices in all fields of agriculture. At conventional large corn and soybean farms, a newer practice called strip tilling is starting to gain popularity. From a sustainability lens, strip tilling is an exciting practice as it disturbs the soil far less than other more involved methods. Which means that the soil will hold water better; less likely to weather and erode; and is less prone to weeds (so less pesticides!). All these factors also mean that the chemicals applied to this soil are less likely to leech into nearby rivers and lakes, meaning a better ecosystem all around. There are also exciting ideas in the applications of robotics to allow farmers more precise control over the amount of fertilizers applied to plants. From this I think it is hopeful that these chemicals that can be so hard on the environment can be used more efficiently in the future so that they will do what they need to do for farmers, without affecting waterways and surrounding ecosystems.
The organic side has different challenges. Not using these chemicals that are so hard on the environment creates its own challenges, mostly in the form of weeds. And the best way to deal with these weeds at a large scale is to mow down the weeds with a tiller. Which means disturbing the soil. Meaning that while organic farming does have its sustainable features, it too still has its challenges. And while one can in theory do all hand-weeding and be less disruptive, that is hard to do on a 10+ acre farm. Yet people are innovating to overcome these challenges. Techniques such as crop rotations that break up weeds and cover crops that prevent weeds from going to seed both help improve soil health from tilling and reduce the need to till by breaking up weed growth cycles. Despite these and many other challenges in the world of organic farming, people are working hard to protect the land and the environment they love all while providing food for their communities.
Looking at these two very different farm systems in this way shows that maybe they are more similar than we usually assume. They both have to be sustainable, yet they both have challenges in achieving this goal. I hope that this can be recognized and that these groups can realize that they both have the same goal. They both want to have a successful and sustainable business, which means taking care of the things that farming depends the most on: soil and water. After seeing so many innovations to protect these things, I’m hopeful that this promising work will continue, and also that maybe some day these two seemingly different interests can work together to create a healthier food system.