Families, careers, whole lives take turns that are completely unpredictable. I mean, one minute you’re looking out the window of your third-floor college dorm room in sleepy boredom and the next minute you can’t breathe because, on the sidewalk below, is the lovely, curly-haired creature you absolutely must meet and marry.
Hey, it happens.
Then, all too quickly, it’s 40 years, six houses, two children and one kayak later and you’re again looking out a window, but this time you’re writing your 905th column on farmers and farming. Wow, didn’t see all that coming, did you?
Nor can you — or anyone else — see where farmers and farming will be 40 years from now. For all we know, we’ll be farming the moon. Well, maybe not the moon, but it’s a certain bet we will be farming quite differently than today.
Forty years ago, no one foresaw 24-row corn planters, genetically modified seed and 200,000-head cattle feedlots. Forty years in the future will see… what?
According to E. Ann Clark, a now-retired professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph in Ontario, farming’s future will be mostly organic. Oh, oh. There’s that big, bad word again with all its big, bad baggage like, oh my, Michael Pollan, the EPA and — shudder, shiver, shake — vegans.
OK, so turn the page. We’ll wait.
After all, you know organic farming won’t dominate agriculture 40 years from now just like you knew 40 years ago that there’d never be a telephone in your shirt pocket from which you’d e-mail your granddaughter a picture of 200-bushel corn as you pull a 1,500-bushel grain cart with a $250,000 tractor through a field of genetically modified ethanol, right?
So, back to the future and back to Prof. Clark. The strongest argument that “the future is organic,” writes Clark in a January 2010 paper, is “because the design drivers that have shaped and molded the current agri-food system are changing, demanding a wholly new, and largely organic, approach to agriculture.”
The two biggest drivers she cites — and most farmers would agree — are: a food system (where 40 percent of every farm’s energy budget is spent on synthetic nitrogen for grain production) “that burns up million of years of accumulated solar energy to grow, process, transport, store, package, and sell a few hundred years of food” and — increasing external costs, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and growing environmental concerns, that the public will no longer tolerate or pay for.
Moreover, Clark says in a March 9 telephone interview, it’s all but certain that today’s farmers will encounter unforeseen events that “will threaten our entire food system. Remember, there are countless examples throughout history — ancient Mesopotamia to the Anasazi — of cultures that simply farmed themselves into oblivion. Farming doesn’t come with a guarantee.”
Clark doesn’t advocate sustainability because little in today’s food system is designed to be sustainable. By design, most of agriculture requires enormous outside forces — money, tankers of fossil fuels, fertilizer, people, government. Sustainable it is not.
Which brings her to that which is definably sustainable: organic production.
But it is not the organic you think of when recalling grandpa’s farm.
Oh, tomorrow’s organic will depend on what grandpa knew in his bones: that the amount and quality of organic matter in the soil is key to its productivity and his future. That means crop rotations, not monocultures; far more perennials, far fewer annuals; and pastures and forage crops and livestock. Lots and lots of livestock. (Vegans beware.)
What’s to come
Is this your farm’s future? Who knows? I’m looking out my window right now and I can’t even see tomorrow, let alone 2050.
Clark’s treatise, The Future is Organic, is posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com. Take a peek; maybe her crystal ball is better than mine. And yours.