Aconventional Agriculture

The dichotomy between “conventional” and “organic” agriculture is deeply embedded in our national conversation about food. (Am I being too charitable by calling it a “conversation?”)  This polarization has numerous downsides, but a very practical one for farmers like me is this: Which am I?

 I adhere to the “organic” philosophy that the soil of a farm is a living ecosystem. I want my ecosystem to include several species of plants, and dozens of life-forms from fungi and bacteria, to insects to birds. I’ve experimented with goats grazing the orchard covercrop.

Despite mimicking natural systems, my ecosystem’s purpose is un-natural. It exists to support a primary crop. But when that crop, or its supporting ecosystem , is threatened, I will use “conventional” means to restore balance. Too many gophers, not enough potassium, invasive weed species… not welcome scenarios. I will do what I need to put things back into balance.

 So what does that make me? Being neither a round peg or a square hole can be lonely. I’m certainly not “industrial organic”… the in-between category introduced to the world by Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I have toyed with “artisanal conventional”, but that sounds slightly pretentious, and “artisanal” is getting used much too much these days. I meet my own definition of “sustainable”, but not everybody shares my definition. “Unconventional” suggests somebody who defies convention. That’s better, but I think my practices reflect an indifference to convention, rather than a rejection

“Aconventional?” Yes… I think I like that.


Dilemma or Delusion?

 I have followed with interest a debate which has been bouncing around between Facebook, Grist and the American regarding organic versus conventional agriculture.

Links to the relevant articles here and here.

At the risk of being attacked from both sides, I would posit that neither is quite right, and yet both are correct. Does that sound like a political BS non-answer? Let me dig my hole deeper…

 “Conventional” farmers and those on that side of the debate often claim that “organic farming can’t feed the world.” To date that is correct. But that does not mean that it may not be true at some point in the future. But first organic/sustainable food systems will have to overcome some very serious obstacles about scale, efficiency and distribution models.

Organic advocates often point out that agriculture as practiced today will be untenable for the next 100 years. This is also correct. But they miss the point that farming is no more likely to remain static in the coming century than it was in the last. The usage of no-till practices, covercrops, and highly efficient means of irrigation are on the rise, and these innovations are coming from the ag community.

It is my belief that we are in a period of convergence between the two. In Omnivore’s Dilemma, the book at the center of this particular exchange, Michael Pollan examines one transitional model: the so called “Industrial Organic.” I think that this a good example of the blurring of the line between the two camps. I also believe that there is another possibility… Let’s call it “Artisanal Conventional.” What of a farm that sells produce both into mainstream channels as well as to local consumers and food artisans, yet will still use a little conventional fertilizer when called for? (Disclosure to those who may not know me: this is my model.)

There are an awful lot of farms that fall into a gray area between the two poles, and at the further risk of seeming self-serving, I do believe that it is in the middle, and not at the extremes, that we will see the future. And I do believe it is one we will be happy with.

A final anecdote: Yesterday I was at a meeting of sustainable food systems types in Los Angeles. It was mentioned in passing that another member of the circle who was not present at the time was going to be attending a $1000 a plate fundraiser. This was accepted as proof that his organic business model must be working. Indeed it seems to be. But from my small semi-conventional farmer perspective it seemed to me that his ability to do this had more to do with an operation that is roughly 50 times my size, than the fact that his produce is organic. I don’t bring this up to complain: I cite it as evidence that the usual big/small, conventional/organic dichotomies that we so quickly embrace in these debates are not always that well reflected in reality.

You Can Farm

I just finished reading (truthfully I was re-reading) You Can Farm, by Joel Salatin. Subtitled The Entrepeneur’s Guide to Start and $ucceed in a Farming Enterprise, this 1998 book looks at the economics of small-scale agriculture.

For those not familiar with Joel Salatin from his profile in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, he is a Shenendoah Valley  “grass farmer”, raising beef, pork, poultry and rabbits using rotational grazing techniques. Everything he grows is sold locally, and he employs natural, organic methods. (I should point out that I am not aware of him being certified as an organic farmer… given the strong libertarian streak evident in his writing, I suspect he places no value in a certificate from some third party.)

I always enjoy reading about his truly relentless commitment to thrift. Joel seems to be extraordinarily gifted at finding ways to get farm infrastructure built in ways that are cheap, yet functional and sturdy. Most particularly, I am intrigued by the focus on creating a nearly closed ecological loop within the farm. He is not the pioneer of this practice, known variously as Management Intensive Grazing, Rotational Grazing or Holistic Management. (OK, there are meaningful semantic differences between these three, but not to the layman.) But he is perhaps the best known evangelist to the non-livestock oriented world, again thanks to his role in Omnivore’s Dilemma, and the upcoming documentary film, Food, Inc.

I am attempting to apply some of these methods and concepts to my operation, but of course a California avocado and citrus orchard is a very different proposition than a Virginia grass farm. I’m not saying it is better: in fact I’m sure Joel would think this insane. But on a very small scale I am using a herd of goats to graze a rocky hillside that I have been plying with mulch and covercrop seeds build enough soil to make it suitable for something other than ground squirrels and tumbleweeds. We are applying a combination of mulch, covercrop, and earthworms to kick start a corner of the home ranch back into better production. Unlike members of the organic movement, I have not forsworn any use of chemical pest management, weed control, or soil amendment. But I do not make the chemical approach my preferred remedy. I liken this to eating meat in moderation, rather than going vegan: I am not convinced the more extreme approach is either ecologically or just plain logically necessary.

My biggest concern with replicating his approach to change the whole system, as much as I admire it, is whether you could convince enough people to commit to it. You see, this is a people intensive way to farm, and we don’t have a lot of farmers left. Clearly the Salatin family and a steady crop of eager interns love this life. In pursuit of this goal, Joel is willing to sacrifice many sacred objects of contemporary American culture: TV, second cars, “boughten lumber”, and meals at restaurants. More precisely, I don’t think he views it as a sacrifice at all, being firmly committed to “opting-out” of the mainstream. But if American agriculture needs 30 million people back on the farms (compared to about 6 million today) will they be willing to do it, if it means leaving our consumer comforts behind? Can you get that many?

A year or two ago, I would have said the answer was a resounding “no.” Has our confidence in a highly-leveraged, highly consumable, short-term lifestyle been shaken enough to cause that many people to reconsider? Probably not yet. But maybe.