Monday, August 23, 2010

Agricultural experimentation

On my drive cross-country this week, I have enjoyed seeing a great diversity of agricultural research fields. 

For example, on Wednesday, I visited the Rodale Institute's experiment station near Kutztown, which has the longest running scientific experiment directly comparing organic to conventional production strategies on side-by-side plots.

Organically grown soybeans (just past the white post) and corn (behind) in the Farming Systems Trial at the Rodale Institute's experiment station near Kutztown, PA
Organic production preserves soil fertility naturally, without petroleum-intensive fertilizer, and it provides a great product for consumers worried about pesticide residue.  It has been especially successful in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, now reaching mainstream markets across the country and the world.

At the same time, organic production is not costless.  The Rodale experiment acknowledges that the organic production strategy for corn and soybeans must accept some sacrifices, both agronomic (tolerating weed competition) and economic (planting the most lucrative cash crops in just selected years of a multi-year rotation).   Nevertheless, in addition to the other environmental and consumer benefits, the Rodale investigators argue that the organic strategy is economically competitive, overall, in part because of reduced chemical input costs.

For a contrast, on Thursday, I saw the historic Morrow plots at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while visiting to give a seminar at the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics.

The historic Morrow plots, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  Here, the soybean fields maintain a more weedless aesthetic.

The Morrow plots (detail)
I crossed Iowa and eastern Nebraska Saturday on small rural highways, avoiding the interstate, marvelling at the oceans of cropland.

Farmland in western Iowa, August 2010
If it were true that these thousands of corn and soybean farmers could have profited equally well with certifiably organic production, but are too misguided by input suppliers realize their own economic interest, this truth would imply one of the greatest collective delusions in all of agricultural history.  I know organic advocates who believe this delusion has in fact happened, but I think that account somewhat misses the mark in describing where American agriculture goes most awry.

On Sunday, I climbed the stairs on a big combine with a large-scale corn and soybean farmer in southern Nebraska.  He explained how he plans his planting strategy on a laptop in his kitchen, including space for test plots of various seed varieties.  He downloads the plan to the GPS-linked "auto-steer" computer on his planter, which then lays down the seed destined for each row of field.  At harvest time, the combine, equipped with the same data, steers itself around the field with the farmer looking on from high in the cab, recording the productivity of each field and test plot.  Similarly, he carefully monitors water use for irrigation and allows part of his farm to be used for an agricultural experiment with low-irrigation corn.

To say that this farmer could have earned an equal profit from certifiably organic production is to say that he has misunderstood the economic incentives that are internal to his business.  I doubt it.  To me, the most interesting questions about his business relate to environmental consequences that an economist would call externalities, because the farmer's profits come in part at the expense of other people external to his business.  Would a different production strategy better protect the Ogallala aquifer, from which this Nebraska farmer draws his irrigation water?  (Farmers like the one I visited have greatly reduced their impact on water supplies, but withdrawals from the aquifer still exceed renewal from rainwater and snow runoff).  Would organic production of his consumer-grade and animal-feed-grade corn better protect consumers from pesticide residue, as proponents say?  Would higher fuel prices lead this farmer to lower fertilizer inputs and alter his capital-labor substitution in ways that reduced petroleum use and reduced his impact on climate change?  Would reform of federal ethanol policies alter prices of farm commodities and change the optimal use of his land from intensive corn production to more sustainable uses?  It is difficult to expect farmers themselves to sponsor research across this spectrum of questions, which could provide results both helpful and contrary to the farmers' own economic interests.

The impressive amount and variety of agricultural experimentation is one of the most striking things I have seen on this journey.  Reflecting on the Rodale experiment in particular, I am grateful that somebody other than input suppliers, and even other than farmers themselves, is carrying out this type of investigation.  To address externalities, it is essential to have research that, like Rodale's, is motivated by curiosity about consumer health and environmental protection.  To preserve blunt realism in research, it is essential to have experimentation by farmers themselves.  It has been fun to see both.

Update Aug 24, 2010.  The Nebraska grower with whom I visited adds by email:

"One comment about under groundwater. Rain, runoff, and snow melt replenish the underground water levels. Cylindrical rainfall and snow melt recharge underground levels, and over many years, the water levels have hardly changed over the past 40 years. We in production Ag do not want to be labeled as depleting underground water levels. We are conservationists that are protecting the natural resources we use for future generations.

"As for organic farming, that is a speciality market. I am feeding over 125 people as a producer, and that number continues to increase. Yields with organic farming are lower, so decisions to grow organic are not for all producers.

"I am very passionate about what I do and how I do it."


Amelia said...

I spent July driving across the country, and while much of the land we passed was covered with huge corn farms, it was so refreshing to see some small family farms growing a wide range of crops. I feel very hopeful that the country's 'food movement' toward more sustainable farming practices and purchasing is really growing!

Greg said...

The term "specialty market" as describing organics is right, but not in the dismissive way that many non-organic commodity interests now use it. They are no longer unable deny the long-term ecological impacts of dependence upon annual synthetic fertility and pesticide inputs, thanks to research from the two locations the author visited, and others.
Yes, organics is special: it is the solid ag sector made of up of people who chose to trade in an economy that includes many of the real scientific dynamics that remain "externalities" only because of perverted economic incentives driven by the need for cheap inputs (to benefit grain processors) and increasing use of inputs (to benefit their manufacturers).
Organic production systems, adapted locally through farmer and landgrant research, focus on optimizing the benefits of healthy soil and biodiversity. The best of them are the pioneers to the way forward into a post-cheap-oil food & fiber production system.
Living within the limits of well-stewarded biological resources is the only sustainable way forward. Farmers who do this are indeed "special." Many who do not admit they are trapped by the "convenience" of chemical no-till, using chemical and genetic products against their better judgment--and long-term self interest.
Research can help with transitions to organics, but it's also a matter of choosing to embrace the impacts of one's practices -- on the health to people, land and climate -- and finding buyers willing to pioneer with them..

Mike said...

125 people? How is this number determined?

With the amount of food waste, excess calories, and novel uses for corn such as compostable packaging made from corn not grown with compost, I might expect that a reduced yield might not have an effect on how many people are fed.

Kalpa said...

This is a nice post with nice photos.

I like to get both sides of the story too, but being from a farm in Nebraska and watching their news closely for many years I can tell you that the Ogallala aquifer is not replenishing itself equal to the amount of irrigation being extracted to produce, mostly, corn ethanol which is now being exported abroad.

"Would reform of federal ethanol policies alter prices of farm commodities and change the optimal use of his land from intensive corn production to more sustainable uses?"

These sterile fields have stripped most of the wildlife from them as well as native botanics. The corn being produced is overproduction. He is "feeding" large pickups and SUV's.

David said...

@Mike - the number comes from the National Ag Statistics Survey. Farmers comprise 2% of the population. They provide some/most food for 100% of the population. Some food is imported (Chilean grapes, Australian citrus, Columbian coffee, etc.). The report can be found at

@Greg - Yes I agree organics are a specialty market. But before the allusion that conventional ag farmers mislead the public, remember that the organic producers do the same as well. The general public believes that organic means "no pesticides applied." We all know that this is not true, but I have never heard any organic grower association/market board try to properly inform people on actual organic grower practices.

Andrea Wilson said...

The farm may be feeding 125 people, but which people? What type of food? Is the corn and soybeans even used for food?

I'm not being sarcastic or antagonistic. Those are my questions. Let's remember that the farmer is not the bad guy. He is doing what he loves the best way he knows how, while supporting a family.