Monday, March 28, 2011

Who Let The Cows Out?

(Originally posted on Sustainablog, 3/28/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites click here)
If you watch a movie like "Food Inc" you get the impression that most cows spend their lives in huge, crowded feedlots.   That is part of the story, but not an accurate picture of the North American bovine industry.  It turns out that there is a US Census for cows (conducted every five years by the USDA, not the Census Bureau).  This "Census of Agriculture" counts the cows by farm for every county in the US.  It is a more accurate view of what our animal farming system actually entails.

What Does The Data Say?

I used the handy data search tool that USDA-NASS provides and pulled down the data on "Farm Inventory of Cows and Calves."  The first striking think is that cows are being raised in 3,077 different counties of the US (virtually all of the non-urban counties).  There are also a lot of cows! - 96 million on more than 960,000 different farms.  The next striking thing is that on average there are only ~100 cows per farm.  This means that a great many cows are living much of their life in a pasture rather than in a feedlot or CAFO (confined animal feeding operation).
The graph below is based on the average cows/farm at the county level and it shows that many cows are living on rather small farms.  One percent (1%) live on farms with less than 25 cows.  Twelve percent (12%) live on farms with 25 to 50 cows.  Seventeen percent (17%) live on farms with  50 to 100 cows.   Overall, 42% live on farms with less than 100 cows/farm. Eighty four (84%) live on farms with less than 500 cows.  Only 7.4% are on farms with more than 1000 cows.

The map below shows that most areas of the US have farms with relatively few cows while the giant cattle operations are only in certain Western states.

What Does This Have To Do With Sustainability?

Lots.  Many have pointed out that animal protein requires more land/fertilizer/energy/water than plant protein and have argued for less meat in our diets.  The counter-current trend is that as people in the developing world see some economic development, they logically want to eat more meat and dairy.  Meat and dairy, particularly that produced in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), consumes a great deal of the grain crops that are grown in the developed world.  These crops represent a huge part of the US and South American grain going to big, net-importers like the EU, Japan and China.  But what this data shows is that at any given time, many US cows are on rangeland and pasture.  The US also grew 61 million acres of hay on 870,000 farms and much of that went to cattle.  US meat and dairy production are not all about the negative images presented by their critics.  Our meat and milk production isn't all about grain feeding.

Cows Are Magic (but only because of bacteria)

One great thing about cows (and other ruminants like sheep, yaks...) is that they can eat cellulose, probably the most abundant terrestrial food source.  Humans can't get any energy out of cellulose because we don't have the extra stomachs and special bacteria which allow the cows to convert this huge food source into meat/milk.  It is this ability which has allowed herding societies to live off of grasslands for millennia.  The point is that a substantial part of the feed for US cows is still coming from the relatively more sustainable sources of cellulose.

Variations On The CAFO Model

Most of the cows in this census probably ended up being taken off of these smaller farms and "grain finished" in the last months of their lives.  In this situation, cows in large numbers are fed grain-based diets in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).  This is done for efficiency of weight gain and for meat quality.  But not all CAFOs are the same.  For instance, some CAFOs or large dairies put the manure through an anaerobic digester to generate methane as a biofuel for electricity generation or other uses, thus greatly lowering the "carbon footprint" of that meat or milk.

New Finishing Alternatives Are Being Tested

Researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a different system where cows are fed corn earlier in their life while their consumption is lower and then finished on a variety of non-starch feed sources (grass, hay, DDGS, soy hulls...) and yet still achieve the same meat quality.  The total grain demand in that system is lower and that is particularly attractive with today's high commodity prices.
A group at the USDA has been promoting a "Pasture-finishing" system where corn is made available in feeders out in the pasture so that the cows make their own choice of how much grass and how much grain to eat.  It turns out that the "finishing" process can be every bit as efficient and give good quality meat with much less total grain consumption.  They call this a "grain-on-grass" system and it can be more profitable for the farmer because of lower grain expense.  If it catches on, there will be even more cows "let out."
I would like to see labeling of meat produced in some of these lower grain systems because it could be a moderate cost alternative to purist alternatives like "range-fed."

You are invited to comment here or to email me at
Cows image from jrubinc

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Surprising Reason We Don't Farm As Sustainably As We Could

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 3/22/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites click here)
I recently posted a description of a highly sustainable form of row crop farming that combines high productivity with low environmental impact.  This is not just a theoretical vision but something which is actually being practiced on a significant commercial scale (e.g. non-tillagecover croppingcontrolled wheel trafficvariable rate fertilization...).  It is difficult to know exactly how much American farmland is being farmed this way because the only agency that tracked things like tillage practices (CTIC) lost funding for that activity during the Bush administration.  Knowledgeable observers that my business partners and I have interviewed estimate that something like 5-6% of our major crops are farmed with the full suite of sustainable practices. Still, to solve an issue like the Dead Zone in the Gulf, to sequester a great deal of carbon in soils, and to effectively "drought-proof" our land to deal with climate change, one would like to see a much higher percent of optimized farming practices.

Why Aren't These Practices More Common?

A key reason that farmers don't farm as sustainably as they could is that they rent most of the land they farm.  It doesn't belong to them. The map above shows the prevalence of leased land for farming in the US. Much of the land in the most productive regions is rented.   This is simply an historical artifact.  Over the last century there has been a steady migration of the population away from farming to cities.  The families that once farmed still own the land, but they lease it to the few who have continued to farm.
It takes several years (4-6 typically) to realize the "pay-off" of improved soil quality that results from using the most sustainable practices.  In the process there is added cost and  risk.  It definitely requires a long-term view to make the transition.  Long-term commitment is simply incompatible with year-to-year leasing.  A grower cannot afford to take these risks if it is uncertain whether they will be the one to lease that field in the future.  In the past farmers often rented from someone they knew and therefore they had more confidence in the stability of their lease.  Increasingly, those personal relationships are lacking, and the landowner rents to whomever will pay the most on a year-to-year basis.

Long-Term Thinking is Needed From Both the Farmer and the Landowner

Ironically, it is in the long-term interest of the land owners to work with farmers to improve their particular property because they will ultimately be able to rent for a higher price in the future.  Cash rents (the amount charged to rent a given piece of land) are the most sensitive measure of the productivity of a given piece of land.  Farmers are well aware of which properties have the most potential, and they compete with one another to be able to rent the best mix of land.

How Can This Barrier Be Overcome?

Transitioning a given field to the sustainable ideal is a non-trivial exercise that takes both dedication and expertise in addition to technology and money. Realistically there are a sub-set of growers who would be the best candidates for the first few years.  If a way could be devised for those growers to participate in the up-side, there are many other growers who would be able to maintain that land quality while the "transition experts" moved on to other fields.
What is needed is a fundamental change in the structure of farm leases.  There is the need for an enlightened base of land owners who see both the economic and environmental benefits of such an arrangement.  I believe that there is the need for major environmental groups to partner with grower organizations to champion this cause with the broader public.  There may also be a role for the federal or state government in encouraging this change.
We could definitely expand the amount of highly sustainable farming in the US and we need to do so to meet growing demand for food and to do so in the best possible environmental scenario.  The barriers are not really technical or philosophical.  They are structural, educational and economic.
You are invited to comment here or on my website or by email at
Map of Leased Land from the USDA

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Five Greatest Limitations of Organic

No-till Soybeans following Wheat (NRCS)
(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 3/17/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites, click here)

Yesterday I posted about what I believe to be the five best things about Organic farming.  These are attributes that I seriously believe are good ideas for how we should farm, and ideas that make sense to increasingly bring into mainstream agriculture (more cover cropping, more diverse rotations, more focus on building the quality of soils...).   But I don't believe that Organic or even Conventional farming influenced by the best of Organic will be all we actually need.  

The Great Food Challenge

Somehow, by mid century we need to increase the amount of food that we produce by 50-100%.  We really need to do that without adding much new farmed land.  We need to do that in a way that actually has less environmental impact than what we do today.
I actually think that is possible. I've posted a description of what solutions are well supported by science and which also have been demonstrated at substantial commercial scale.  In this post I'll describe why a farmer working within the USDA Organic rules would not be able to be part of that optimum solution.  I'm not saying this to argue that Organic should be changed.  I don't think that is possible given the politics.  I'm saying this to explain why the answer for the 99.5% of non-Organic agriculture needs to be something different.
These 5 key limits of Organic are:

1. Limited access to safe, effective, pest control options

Organic growers use pesticides, but from a list based on whether they are natural.  This includes  some very effective chemicals made by the fermentation of microbes such as Dow AgroScience’s Spinosad.  It includes live biologicals like AgraQuest’s Serenade®, and plant extracts like Marrone Bio-Innovations' Regalia.  These are all very safe products which do control pests. The approved Organic list also includes various forms of copper (copper sulfate, copper hydroxide…) as fungicides.  These products are quite a bit more toxic and environmentally damaging than many non-organic fungicides options (and also less effective).  There are many  very safe and effective pesticide options available to conventional growers.  If the Organic rules were modified to allow the use of “Reduced Risk” and/or “Category IV” synthetic options, Organic yields could be much higher as they would need to be to be part of the big "solution."

2. Reliance on Tillage

One category of pesticide that is almost completely lacking for Organic is a herbicide.  This means that for many crops grown as Organic, the only way to control weeds is mechanically (plowing, harrowing, hoeing…) or by “flame weeding” with LPG.  It turns out that the best way to build soil health (my #1 good thing about Organic) is to never disturb it.  This is accomplished through a practice called “No-till,” or variations on that method.   That combined with cover cropping and “controlled wheel traffic” is a way to  build soil quality as well as Organic methods, but without the need to import large quantities of Organic matter to the field.  This is a truly scalable way to get all the benefits of soil health.  The Rodale Institute recognizes this and has tried to develop an Organic no-till system, but this is only practical on a small scale.

3. Dependency on Animal Agriculture

Even though Organic farmers supply a significant part of their nitrogen via legume crops, it is still necessary to apply more nitrogen for many other crops.  This principly comes from animal sources (manure, composted manure or other materials, fish meal, blood meal, bone meal…) .  Ironically, the manure/compost frequently comes from a CAFO or large dairy because that is where one can collected enough manure.  There is only enough collectable manure to fertilize 5% of US crops.  The other Organic sources are more expensive and also limited. Our sustainable crop future cannot be dependent on these animal sources.

4. Inability to Fully Use Precision Fertilization

Fertilizers are far and away the biggest environmental issue for agriculture.  It is very difficult to supply a plant with nutrients only during the times when it is withdrawing it from the soil for growth.  When some nutrients (mainly nitrogen and phosphorus) are present in the soil before or after those periods of demand, they can move into ground or surface waters and/or they can be converted into the potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.  The no-till+cover crop scenario above does a great deal to minimize these issues, but there is still room for improvement.
For an irrigated crop it is actually possible to “spoon feed” fertilizers at very close to the exact crop need by delivering through the irrigation water as a soluble fertilizer.  To do this with Organic approved sources of soluable fertilizer is extremely expensive, and there have been two recent major incidents of fraud where the marketer of an Organic option was actually spiking it with “synthetic nitrogen” to reduce cost.  For non-irrigated crops there are ways to place the fertilizer exactly where it is needed and to apply different amounts to different parts of the field to better match need and supply.  This is not practical to do with something like a manure or compost that are applied at multiple tons/acre.  Once again, the Organic rules limit a farmer's ability to optimize both yield and environmental impact.

5.  Inability to Use Genetically Modified Crops

There are a great many crops that will never be GMO because they are too small to justify the research and regulatory investment.  This includes most fruits and vegetables, and so this point is only an issue for the major row crops.  The Organic community rejected the use of biotech traits long before there were any commercial GMO crops.  The rejection was based on purely philosophical grounds, not on any scientific evidence generated before or after.  UC Davis geneticist Pam Ronald and her husband Raul Adamchack  who is an Organic specialist, have argued that Biotech traits should be part of Organic systems because of their demonstrated environmental benefits (see Tomorrow's Table).  I agree with what they are saying, but I can't imagine Organic advocacy groups ever agreeing to such a change.  Genetically engineered crops can only deal with certain of the challenges that face agriculture today and in the future, but their complete exclusion from Organic limits what that system could ever achieve.
I'm not a defender of the status quo in Agriculture, nor do I believe that it is a static system anyway.  My hope is that the future of agriculture will entail a major shift to the sort of optimal practices that I have described at Applied Mythology.  I'm sure Organic will continue as a niche, but because of its philosophical constraints, it will not be a significant part of the solution.

You are invited to comment here or to email me at

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Five Best Things About Organic Farming

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 3/16/11.  
For links to all my posts on various sites click here)

I have posted a number of blogs and documents over the past two years that address some of the common myths about Organic farming.  From that, one might conclude that I am “anti-Organic,” which I am not.  There are many things about Organic that I have appreciated ever since my grandfather first taught me about it in his Organic garden in the 1960s.   I appreciate them more as an agricultural scientist.  I would like to address five positive features in this post, and then tomorrow I will talk about the 5 things that I see as most limiting for Organic.

1. Focus on Building Soil Quality

One often hears the argument that the world was always fed by Organic until the early 20th century.  That is not at all true.  Pre-industrial agriculture in the US and elsewhere was degrading the soil through tillage and depleting its nutrient stores.  It only “worked” because the population was small, and there was new, “virgin land” to exploit.  The greatest contribution of the Organic movement of the early 20th century was its recognition of the importance of building soil quality in terms of organic matter content and the complex aggregate structure and biological activity that come with that.  Neither pre-industrial farming or early industrial farming had that soil health focus.  The importance of soil health is much more widely appreciated today, but it started with Organic.

2. The Use of Cover-Cropping and Biological Nitrogen Fixation

Cover cropping is the practice of planting a single or mixed stand to grow after an annual crop is harvested so that it grows until winter sets in and then again in the early spring before planting of the next crop.  This cover crop is not harvested and serves instead as a way to “feed” the soil ecosystem and build up organic matter.  The cover crop can include legumes which have the ability to “fix” nitrogen from the air (with the help of a bacterial symbionts) and reduce the amount  of nitrogen fertilizer that is needed for the following crop.  This practice in not unique to Organic but is more common on Organic farms.  Annual crops followed by cover crops are a reasonable imitation of the perennial prairie biome that created such fertile soils prior to cultivation.

3. Rotational Diversity

Crop rotation is a good idea for any kind of farming.  It breaks pest cycles.  It spreads out risk. When legumes are in the rotation it reduces nitrogen fertilizer needs.  The USDA Organic rules don’t specify any specific degree of rotation, but diverse rotations have been a long tradition of Organic farming.  Conventional farmers cancertainly rotate crops, but since they are using leased land and since they get no “Organic price premium,” it can be economically difficult to justify planting anything other than the 1-2 most profitable crop options.

4. Fostering Biocontrol of Pests Where Possible

Some broad spectrum insecticides used in Conventional farming kill off the other "good bugs" that could otherwise suppress the population of pest insects.  Organic growers can use pesticides that qualify as “natural” and these are generally not disruptive to natural biocontrol.  Some Organic growers also release biocontrol insects.  Conventional growers who employ Integrated Pest Management practices (IPM) are also fostering biocontrols.

5. Opportunities for Marketing Quality Options under the Organic Brand

Because Organic has become a widely recognized consumer brand, and since customers are used to the idea of paying premium prices for Organic, it makes it easier for growers to find markets for specialty items like heirloom tomatoes, purple fingerling potatoes, certain specific sweet corn hybrids, unusual grains…  This is a nice addition to the diversity of our diets.
These are five significant and good features of Organic.  They are also increasingly characteristics of progressive, conventional farming.
You are invited to comment here and/or to email me at

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What I Hope Will Be The Future Of Sustainable Farming

It has been estimated that between increasing standards of living and increasing population, there will be 1.5 to 2 times as much demand for food as there is today by mid century.  To meet that demand without adding more farmed land, the current farms must achieve greater productivity per acre or hectare.  The challenge is to do that without increased, and hopefully decreased, environmental impact.  As challenging as that sounds, I actually believe that this is possible because of a number of agricultural advances that have been made over the past few decades.  I'm not saying it is obvious that we will get there, just that it is possible.

A New Look At The American "Food Dollar"

(This post was originally published at Red Green and Blue on 3/15/11.  For a list of all my blog posts click here).  Patrick Canning of  the Economic Research Service of the USDA just released a new report on food prices.  My friend, John, sent it to me knowing that I can never resist a new set of interesting data.  I made some graphs to try to unpack the story here.  The title of the report is "A Revised and Expanded Food Dollar Series: A better understanding of our food costs."  This is a new way to present the data and it allows for a more detailed analysis of how our food dollars are spent.The graph above shows that when you buy food for preparation at home, 18-20 cents of each dollar spent actually goes to the farm and that has been a relatively stable percentage from 1993-2008 (the period of the study).  If you look at a dollar spent away from home at a restaurant, currently only about 5 cents is going to the farm sector and that value dropped since 1993.    The data I plotted includes beverages (sodas, alcohol...).  If you just look at food without the beverages, the "at home" percentage in 2008 was 24.3% to the farm and the the "away from home" share was 4.6%.  In any case, this data shows why even in a period of high commodity prices, our food expense is only slightly increased.  If you feel that food costs are high, don't blame the farmer!

This new USDA-ERS analysis breaks out the components of the food dollar in a more logical way.  The graph above looks at just the food component (without beverages).  Not surprisingly, when we eat out, most of our money is going to the restaurant for labor, overhead etc.  The comparison is a little unfair because this study does not cover the grocery trip fuel, or the cost of running the refrigerator and stove for the "at home" meal.  The "at home" food dollar actually includes much food processing expense because much of the food we buy is processed or otherwise made easier to prepare (e.g. if you buy the frozen fries vs the bag of potatoes, the can of beans vs dry, the frozen complete dinner etc.  I think it is interesting how small the values are for packaging, transportation and energy in both the at home and away scenarios.

This last graph is a little confusing.  It is the percent change of each of the food dollar components looking at two different, three year windows.  A value of 100 means that the component didn't change as a relative part of the food dollar.  Values below 100 mean that the component has gotten smaller over time.  Values above 100 mean that the component has gotten larger over time.  Not surprisingly, the energy component has increased for both the "at home" and "away from home" food dollar.  Advertising is a small part of the food dollar, but it has grown quite a bit for restaurants and declined for grocery stores.  Legal and accounting costs, also small, have increased.  The proportion of the away from home food dollar going to farms or food processing have dropped.  Packaging and transportation have both become slightly smaller components of either food dollar.
I would encourage anyone interested in this information to download the reportbecause I've only scratched the surface here.  Lots of debates about our food system would be more useful if based on hard data like this.

You are invited to comment here or to email me at

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Yet Another Organic Fertilizer Fraud. Should You Care?

(This post originally appeared at Red Green and Blue on 3/12/11.  For links to all my posts on various blogs click here)
The short answer is "no."  Here is the longer answer:
Last Thursday the president of Port Organic Products Ltd was indicted on 28 counts of mail fraud for marketing an "Organic" fertilizer that was spiked with aqueous ammonia - a "synthetic" source of nitrogen which is not allowed under the Organic rules.  Nelson had represented the fertilizer as only getting it's nitrogen from fish meal, bird guano, blood and bone meal etc - the natural sources of nitrogen that are approved  for Organic and which are suitable for making a liquid fertilizer.  This fertilizer was sold to many Organic farms for many years.  In 2007 the USDA stopped sales of a similar product fromCalifornia Liquid Fertilizer and that company's president, Peter Townsley was arrested and is awaiting trial.  So what is going on?

The Reason This Fraud Is So Tempting

When any farmer, Organic or not, is growing a high value fruit or vegetable crop with irrigation, the very best way to deliver the fertilizer (particularly the nitrogen fertilizer) is through the drip irrigation system.  This is called "spoon feeding."  A careful grower can monitor the crop and only deliver the fertilizer during the periods of the growing season when the plant really needs it, and not before or after.  That not only saves money on fertilizer, it is far-and-away the best way to avoid water pollution or the emission of the potent greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.  Spoon feeding like this is a laudable, sustainable practice for any grower, Organic or conventional.
There are many cost-effective liquid fertilizers that conventional growers can use for "spoon feeding" (UAN32 is probably the most common - urea ammonium nitrate).  Organic growers have many cheap sources of fertilizer based on manures and composts, but those are not suitable for liquid delivery and "spoon feeding."  To supply enough nitrogen from compost etc. they have to apply tons of material per acre.  Those sources have soil quality advantages, but they also have greenhouse gas issues.  In any case, a cost effective, liquid fertilizer is a very attractive product for Organic growers.  Unfortunately, that offering is a little bit too attractive for an enterprising Organic fertilizer company without scruples.

Do The Plants Care?

A plant can only absorb nitrogen into its roots in two forms - nitrate (NO3-) or ammonia (NH3).  An Organic nitrogen fertilizer like composted manure contains some of both of these chemicals as well as other more complex chemicals that eventually get broken down into those same two materials over time.  Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are composed of nitrate and/or ammonia and often urea (which rapidly converts to nitrate in the soil).  There are also "slow release" synthetic nitrogen fertilizers of various types.  Ultimately, all these sources, Organic of Synthetic, enter the plant as the exact same molecules.  In the case of "spoon feeding," there is no real advantage of the Organic forms from either a plant growth or an environmental perspective.  But, the allowed Organic sources of nitrogen are far more expensive.  Hence the temptation to spike the Organic product with some ammonia etc.

Should You Care?

Yes we should care that someone is making higher profits by lying about what is in their product.  The Organic grower is paying more and so is the Organic consumer.  It also undermines the Organic brand.  Technically, any Organic farm that used fertilizer from either of these sources should have to go through another three year "transition" period before the produce from their fields can once again be sold as "USDA Organic."  The use of these fertilizers has been sufficiently widespread that this would mean that a huge slice of Organic production would have been hit with this either in 2008 or now.

Reason Prevails

In the case of the California Liquid Fertilizer fraud, the USDA Organic authorities decided that since the Organic farmers had no "intent" to use disallowed fertilizers, there would be no penalty or de-certification.  It is almost certain that this would be the case again.  A few Organic purists may be outraged, but few others will care and science is on their side.

This Does Raise Some Questions

  • Now that we have seen this as a pattern, does something need to change in the process of certifying Organic fertilizer manufacturers?  Do Organic growers need to become more skeptical about fertilizer offerings?
  • Considering the scientific fact that there is no difference to the plant (in the spoon feeding scenario), does this part of the Organic rules make any sense or does it just add cost?
  • There is a similar exemption for unintended synthetic chemical residues on Organic crops.  Why wouldn't there be an exemption for any "unintended" cross-pollination with GMO crops (e.g. in the Alfalfa case)?
You are invited to comment here and/or to email me at

Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Monoculture" May Not Mean What You Think It Means

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 3/10/11.  For links to my posts on various sites click here)
In one of my favorite movies, "The Princess Bride," the character Inigo Montoya challenges Vizzini about his use of the word inconceivable:  "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."  I feel the same way about the term "monoculture."

I've been noticing the increasingly frequent use of the term "monoculture" by people who are being critical of mainstream farming.  The term is thrown around as an epithet, particularly in comment streams, but I also see it being used by others in ways that suggest that it is becoming a part of the broader, negative, mythical narrative about agriculture.  I think it is worth considering what this term really means and how it corresponds to real world agriculture.

What Isn't "Monoculture"

In the most extreme case, "monoculture" is a contrast with "polyculture."  "Polyculture" describes systems where a given agricultural field is intentionally planted to more than one crop species.  Such systems actually exist, but almost only in subsistence farming systems that are extremely small scale and highly labor intensive.   This sort of inter-planting just makes no sense for first world agriculture for a host of reasons (equipment, harvest timing, nutrient needs, pest control...).

The History of "Monoculture"

"Monoculture" is not new.  The ancient Hebrew scriptures specifically prohibit planting fields with more than one crop (Leviticus 19:19).  Ancient farmers from the Fertile Crescent to China have always tried to limit a given field or paddy to one crop. The picture at the top of this post is from a 700+ year-old farming system in China that would qualify as a "monoculture."   "Monoculture" is the wrong term for what the Food Movement wants to critique.

Crop Rotation

One of the most wise and basic farming practices is to "rotate crops."  If a farmer plants a grass crop one year, a broadleaf crop the next, a different grass the next, etc. it tends to break pest cycles and to put different nutritional pressures on the soil. Actually, most of what people imagine as "Big Ag" or "Industrial Farming" actually involves rotated crops on family farms.  The rotation differs by geography.  In the heart of the Corn Belt there is usually a soybean/corn rotation with winter wheat in some areas.  In the Southeast, cotton, peanuts and wheat tend to be mixed in with the corn and soy rotation.  North and West of the Corn Belt wheat, sunflowers, sugar beets, canola are common rotation options.  These traditional rotations are employed on hundreds of millions of acres of US farmland.

Where Mono-culture Actually Makes Sense

When a farmer plants a vineyard or an orchard it only makes sense for it all to be the same crop.  There will also be many other plant species in the "row middles," but for 20+ years, that land will be devoted to a single crop species.  There are other areas where only a single crop makes much sense.  That is true for wheat planted in low rainfall areas.  There are large areas of "continuous wheat" in Western North Datoka, Montana, Alberta or Eastern Washington where not much else could be grown.  Over time, those soils can actually become "suppressive" to some of the wheat pathogens in the soil. Even in these systems, farmers plant several different varieties of wheat to spread out their risk from diseases like Fusarium Head Scab.

A Better Term to Use

If someone is serious about a critique of modern agriculture, "monoculture" is not the best term to use - particularly if you want to communicate with farmers.  The real issue is the difference between "diverse rotations" and "non-diverse rotations."

Where are "Non-Diverse Rotations" Common?

There are some areas in US agriculture where crop rotation is not being practiced to a degree that would be seemingly the right thing to do.  In the heart of the Corn Belt it would actually be good to mix more crops like wheat or oats or barley  into the corn/soybean rotation.  There are some areas where corn or soybeans tend to be planted nearly continuously in the same fields.  As an agricultural scientist it would be easy for me to join the "Food Movement" folks that demonize the growers that do this.  The difference is that I have met a lot of these growers and I understand the economic reasons behind their cropping decisions.

You Can't Buy The Farm, But You Can Rent It

(an allusion to the musical, "Rent")  If you look at the nature of farms in the areas that tend to have "non-diverse rotations" and periods of "continuous cropping," the  farmers who still work there have expanded their farming operations primarily by renting land from the families that have historically left for non-farming jobs and/or the cities.  What was once a 100-640 acre family-owned farm has often become a 2-15,000 acre family farm with the new land rented from previous neighbors.  I've met with many of these growers over the years and their "office" is the kitchen table or an old desk in the corner of the tractor barn.  These are still absolutely "family farms" but they farm large areas under a new economic paradigm.

From a long-term economic point of view, diverse crop rotation is a great thing to do.  If you are a typical farmer in the heart of the Corn Belt, you rent land with no guarantee that you will be the one who rents it the next year.  You really can't afford to plant wheat or barley or oats because your income/acre won't cover the rent price that is based on what you could get from a corn or soybean crop.  So, if you are a rational business-person (which any long-term farmer must be), you have to plant only the crop(s) that make the most money in a given year and farm them in a way which optimizes single year income.  This is not ideal from a long-term perspective, but is economic reality.

So it turns out that the "limited rotational diversity" that is so widely critiqued by the "food movement" is more of an economic/structural issue.   "Monoculture" is not the best term to use here.  Neither is it rational to ignore the economic drivers involved or to lay the "blame" on farmers when thousands of non-farming land owners are part of the equation.  An enlightened land owner that took a long-term view would actually want their renter's to do more diverse rotations and to make other investments in building up soil quality, but to make that happen the nature of leases would have to change and the landowner would have to participate in the risks and the investments to improve their asset.

"Dragon's Back" image from Ben Savage
Please comment here or Email me at  My website is applied mythology

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Small Farms: A Drop in the Organic Bucket

(This post was originally published on Sustainablog on 3/8/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites, click here)
For people in the "Food Movement," the ideal sort of farm would be a small, Organic farm that is "local" by at least some definition of that term.  This is most likely to happen in California, so it is interesting to look at a detailed report that came out last week from the University of California with statistics about Organic agriculture in the Golden State from 2005 to 2009.  On page 12 of the document there is an interesting table that breaks down the Organic market by the magnitude of sales.  It goes from Organic farms that have $5,000 or less in sales a year to those that sell more than $1 million.  It lists what percent of all the Organic farms and what percent of all the Organic sales fall into each "scale" category.
A summary of these data is shown in the graph and table above.  Indeed, 29% of California Organic farms fall into the <$10,000/acre/year range which corresponds to what can be produced on 0-2 acres.  There were 676 such farms in 2009.  Together they produced so little of the Organic sales that they show up as zero percent in the UC document.  If you go to the slightly larger farms (sales of up to $100,000 and probably in the 2-20 acre range), you add another 35% of Organic farms and the combined 64% of this definition of "small" Organic farms produce 4% of sales of Organic in California.  In California we have a lot of small Organic farms (~1,491 out of 2,330 in 2009), but they don't produce much of the total Organic production that is sold.

What Is Small? What is Large?

There is no consensus agreement on what constitutes a "small farm" or what makes something an "industrial farm."  The next category of Organic farms have sales between $100,000 and $1 million/year.  Are those large or small?  It all depends on your definition.  These are farms in the 20-200 acre range if they are producing fruits or vegetables, and they account for 25% of California Organic sales.
According to this UC study, the vast majority of Organic products come from the 8% of Organic farms with at least $1 million in annual sales (72%  of total sales in 2009, up from 68% in 2005).  These are farms with average sales of $3.6MM which would correspond to something like 700 acres in the case of fruit or vegetable crops.  There are ~186 Organic farms of this scale in California.  In many cases, these are the Organic divisions of much larger farms or grower/shipper organizations which also provide the bulk of conventional produce. I'm confident that if you had a chance to visit these farms you would be impressed with their operations in terms of environmental stewardship, labor practices and food safety practices.  This is true for both their Organic and Conventional production.

So, What Does This Mean?

It means that if you are getting your Organic food from small farms, you are part of a tiny, elite, sub-section of the Organic market which is already a small percentage of the overall market, even in California.  The "small farm, Organic" sector is not a meaningful contribution to the food supply.  That is not a value judgement, it is just a mathematical fact.  We are talking about 0-4% of  Organic which represents only around 5% of even fruit and vegetable crops even in California. 4% times 5% means 0.2%.
The Food Movement tells us that "small-scale, Organic farming" is the ideal.  They don't tell us that an absurdly tiny fraction of our food supply fits their criterion.  They don't explain how that could realistically change.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Global Food Prices Continued to Rise In February

(This post originally appeared on Red Green and Blue on 3/4/11.  For links to all my blog posts on various sites, click here)
Each month the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) releases an update on the global prices for food in trade channels. The chart above is based on this data and it shows that we are continuing into a price spike much like the one in 2008.  This does not tell you what food prices are doing in any particular country because that depends on how much domestic food production each country has and whether they stockpile grains etc.  For big food exporters like the US, Canada, Australia... food will only get marginally more expensive.  In net importing regions like the EU, prices for things like bread, pasta and meat/milk will get noticeably more expensive, but most Europeans will have no trouble affording them.  The biggest impact will be on countries that are highly dependent on imported food with very limited domestic production.  That is the case for many countries in Northern Africa and the Middle East and some places in Asia.

What Is Driving This?

What is extraordinary about this trend is that for more than two decades before 2008, there were no spikes of this magnitude.  To be entering a second such spike within three years suggests that something has fundamentally changed in the global food situation.  It may well be that the current trend is simply a resumption of the 2008 phenomenon which was merely interrupted by the global recession.  It is important to avoid oversimplification or alarmism here, but the most likely factors behind this phenomenon include:
  • Rising overall population levels (likely to continue until ~2050-60)
  • Rising standard of living in places like India and China
  • Increased energy costs
  • Increased biofuel demand
  • Crop losses associated with weather extremes that are increasing because of Climate Change
Farmers will respond to the higher prices for their crops and will likely produce enough to dampen these trends, but they can only do so to the extent that the weather allows.  This should be an interesting year.  I plan to continue posting updates each month as the new FAO estimates are released.

You are welcome to comment here or to email me at