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Discussion Forum: Modern Farming

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Even if you live in the city and don’t know any farmers, you’ve seen the news: the rain this year has prevented many farmers from getting into their fields in time, land remains unplanted, and people are anticipating debt or failure as a result. One “solution” that is suggested by those in power is a bail-out, but the farmers themselves know that a bail-out won’t be enough. Other people are going further, claiming that we need to rethink and reform the foundations of modern farming, with its monocultures, heavy applications of herbicides and pesticides, and reliance on global markets and cheap transportation to keep solvent.

So that’s the big issue. Here’s a smaller one. I live on a three-acre patch surrounded by typical modern farmland. Our house and land were the homestead of a farm 120 years ago, but now everything in the area is farmed by a neighbor who works several thousand acres. This spring, oddly symmetrical patches of winter wheat came up around us, separated by bare strips. We’ve never been able to figure out this farmer's methods, but this seemed stranger than usual. Instead of harvesting the wheat, a few weeks ago he sprayed it with herbicide. I don’t know if the herbicide killed the wheat or only the weeds, but the vehicle applying the spray crushed it to the point it couldn’t be harvested. Soybeans were sown among the wreckage.

Anyway, that’s baffling but not the point I want to make. This farmer chose the windiest day of the year to spray the pesticide. I was outside hanging laundry and got enough of a faceful of the spray that I could taste it and had to go inside to wash and spit. I also brought in the laundry – a shame when there had been so few sunny days to this point. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I saw what had happened to my garden: the leaves of tomatoes, peppers, and sunflowers are twisted into tortured shapes, and the green bean leaves are discolored in a mosaic pattern. It remains to be seen if the plants can produce a decent harvest this year, and it’s too late – and too expensive – to try to replace them, nor do I know if there is enough herbicide residue in the soil to affect new transplants. Here are the pictures.

Pepper plants with distorted veins. Photo: Andy Zehner

Twisted tomato leaves. Photo: Andy Zehner

Discolored bean leaves. Photo: Andy Zehner

I understand that, although I do grow and preserve a lot of the food we eat, nonetheless my gardening is a “hobby,” while the farmer around me relies on his land for his yearly income. But may I point out that what I grow is actual food, and what he grows – field corn and soybeans – is a commodity for exchange and export? The systems he relies on to produce commodities on thousands of acres that he only ever drives over, never sets foot on, are harming the production of stuff that people eat – and the insects and soil that make food production possible.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and learning about food production and land use in the last decade or so. I have upcoming posts about the topics, but before we get into them, I’d like to see what other people think. Post comments on your thoughts, opinions, experience, and research on modern farming, pros and cons. (I'm deliberately leaving the term undefined, so be sure to describe what you mean when you talk about modern farming.) Some of the issues to consider are monocultures (growing huge fields of only one species), use of artificial herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer, water and topsoil, ecological impact, sustainability, economics and government involvement, and diet – but chime in on others as well. I hope that a wide variety of viewpoints is included, but keep things polite and based on fact, not stereotypes.

Go for it!

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awilliam and hrthoman: There's a book on the Resources page of the blog called Hollowing Out the Middle, about the sociological aspects of the rural exodus. The authors don't really have a solution; like some many of our current issues, I am looking to nature's restoration of balance despite us as the only solution.



alzehner77: """I doubt it was our neighbor who sprayed pesticide on a windy day ... it was probably an agro-chemical solutions contractor, """

Almost certainly correct. Complex systems are less adaptable. :(

alzehner77: """A different law on the books here in Indiana says slow-moving farm machinery ...Highway back ups of up to 40 cars and trucks are common during planting season and again in harvesting season. Each spring, our legislators send out a cheerful reminder to "share the road" with the farmers."""

Yep. :) Which loops back to my point that modern Commercial Agrictulture and Residential have an inherently incompatible scale. Little to nothing can be done where they already experience interference from each other; further entanglement should be somethi…



Very interesting post and a very good discussion, and so far I am learning a lot I didn't know about how modern farming works. I agree with your intuitions that a bailout won't work as a long term solution. We know this, because we already bail out farmers in this country to an extravagant degree every single year even when the rain comes in as it should. Any system that requires significant subsidies every year to stay afloat can not really be said to be afloat. My own theory is that without our agricultural subsidies, the value of the land would decrease and the value of grain would increase to such a level where a local sustainable farmer or homesteader…



Thanks for sharing your experience and posing such a thought provoking question. When it comes to agriculture, our economy has grown at such an unprecedented rate to such a previously unimaginable level of complexity that it is hard to think where to begin when diving into a topic like modern farming. However, the negative impact on small town America is one dimension that is truly worth considering. As meaningful work is lost in rural areas there is a wide spread cultural breakdown and exodus. Wendell Berry echoes your excellent concept of the "human shaped economy" in his essay, What are People For?. He agrees with you in this essay that first we must strive to establish the essential elements…



jelliott65: Thank you for bringing up the moral dimension. It is fundamental to the whole question, not just an inconvenient side note brushed off with a shrug and a sigh. Business, agriculture, even ecology are not sustainable if they aren't built on both internal and external morality. But we are terribly short-sighted and content ourselves with momentary gain while sacrificing our futures. How is it that so many people nowadays, when confronted with issues like climate change, just say, "Well, I won't be around to see it, so it doesn't matter to me"?

And to awilliam and the exchange about family farms: yes, the discussion is always derailed by nostalgia on the one hand and by the worship of "efficiency…

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