Current ag just isn’t sustainable


Every fence or barn built by a rancher, every tractor purchased by a farmer is an act of faith in the future because that fence, barn or tractor is an investment in 20, 30, maybe even 50 years of tomorrows.
Where will America’s – and the world’s – farmers and ranchers be in 20 or 50 years? Nowhere where they are today because our present petroleum-based, climate changing, water-sucking system of food production cannot economically and agronomically survive without enormous changes.
It’s time. As such, it’s time – past time, really – to research, design and implement new food production systems that will continue to provide healthy, adequate supplies of food and fiber within our building global constraints, believes Fred Kirschenmann, distinguished fellow at Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
Kirschenmann, a long-time, always-welcome guest in this space, recently described those constraints in a speech to the Snohomish County (Wash.) Focus on Farming IV conference.
His message was simple: There’s little doubt that massive change will rock agriculture in less than a generation and there is even less doubt that we’re doing nothing to prepare for it.
“Everything we do in agriculture today,” Kirschenmann relates in a follow-up interview, “from fertilizer to planting to harvesting to irrigation to marketing is tied to fossil fuel. That’s a knife’s edge input; one minor change could easily double today’s already high food production costs. I can’t imagine a system like ours that works with doubling today’s skyrocketing fuel costs.”
Change. Climate, too, is changing.
“Yes, there remain a few doubters,” Kirschenmann concedes, “but 95 percent of all climatologists agree: change, in the form of new extremes, is already here and they will grow.”
Several studies, he noted, strongly suggest annual precipitation in America’s crucial grain belt will rise 20 percent by 2040. That seemingly good news turns to bad, however, as the experts also predict most of the additional rainfall will come in violent, Katrina-like storms.
“That means,” said Kirschenmann, who also manages his family’s 3,500-acre, certified organic farm in North Dakota, “that surface run-off will increase by 50 percent. No present cropping system, not even no-till, can take that kind of pounding without long-term harm to the soil.”
Moreover, when it’s not pouring on us, he continued, we’ll likely be baking through droughts. And how do farmers hedge against drought? They punch holes in the ground to irrigate thirsty, already high-cost crops they can’t afford to lose.
That, too, is a running-in-circles game with little or no happy ending already apparent, explained Kirschenmann.
Pressure. “As our agricultural resources come under increasing pressure from global demand and climate change, our current solution is to simply use more energy – pump more water, use more fossil-based inputs. Oil drives our technology today; it’s doubtful that can continue if oil is $200 a barrel.”
What’s needed, Kirschenmann suggested, is a move away from today’s “therapeutic intervention” – broad brush, oil-derived solutions for production problems: chemicals for weeds, gas-powered center pivots for drought and the like – to “ecosystem management.”
“Individual farms need to be viewed as a collection of diversified, biological systems where unique management will create diverse, unique production systems that will work within the coming constraints.”
As such, Land Grant Universities must move fast to meet the challenge.
“Most of what we’re doing now is putting money into new technologies to keep the current system going,” Kirschenmann surmised.
Going nowhere. Going where? Nowhere where we’ll be in less than a tractor or barn’s lifetime.
“The issue isn’t whether change is coming,” said Kirschenmann, “because it’s already coming. The issue is how it comes: in a peaceful, anticipated manner or a violent, threatening manner. And by action or inaction, we’re deciding that right now.”
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.