Back-to-Nature Farming Finds a Place
Advocates of 'sustainable' agriculture make strides with pollution-free growing methods
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Though still the exception to the norm, stories like this one are increasingly common. Around the country, small "community supported" farms are cropping up, serving locals who pay membership fees in return for produce deliveries. Organic seed banks, along with books and magazines on self-sufficient country life, are also proliferating.Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, conventional agriculture has taken some tips from the sustainability crowd. Take, for example, the increasing use of "no-till" farming. By reducing the amount of soil turned over by plows, no-till farming limits erosion, water loss, and fertilizer use.
Research bears fruit
Some 37 percent of American farmlands use some form of "conservation-tillage," according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Other practices, such as integrated pest management, which uses a mix of pesticides and nonchemical management practices, are now commonplace.
Such research may be seen as less glamorous because it stresses management, not technological solutions. But Dr. Jan van Schilfgaarde, research director for USDA's Agricultural Research Service, says there's greater interest in sustainable farming because it bears fruit.
In just two cases, he notes, USDA scientists are working with tomato growers in the Southeast and vintners on the West Coast who are planting vetch (a low-growing legume sown between rows) to reduce erosion, replace nitrogen in the soil, and keep weeds down. The results, says Dr. Schilfgaarde, are less money spent on herbicides and more profits made on enhanced yields.
But while the USDA has studied sustainable farming for nearly a decade, advocates say more must be done.
Recent reports show only 1 percent of government agriculture research projects directly study sustainable systems. Groups such as The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., for example, say more research might further validate some of their findings that diverse crop plantings inhibit insect migration and maintain soil quality, and that perennial grains can be bred to produce higher yields.
With more research, farmers may no longer have to plow each season, or purchase high-yielding annual seeds and fertilizers, says the group's director, Wes Jackson. "With more support," he says, "it's possible that by 2015 we'll have an agriculture system that mimics the way ecosystems work."
But advocates for the petrochemical firms that make fertilizers and pesticides say the high-tech approach will reap greater environmental benefits. Monsanto, for example, is working on crop varieties that are resistant to environmentally friendly herbicides. That means farmers can use smaller doses of better weed-killers, supporters note.
Still others blame the alternative agriculture community for exaggerating the problems of industrial agriculture while promoting a rosy and unrealistic view of farming.
Fertilizers use only a small amount of petroleum, they note, adding that predictions of oil supplies drying up are unrealistic.
"In the next 25 years, the world's population is going to double, so there's a serious question of how we're going to clothe and feed [this population] on the same amount of arable land," says Chris Klose, vice president of communications for the American Crop Protection Association, a membership group of leading fertilizer and pesticide makers. "The way to do it is scientific agriculture. You can't do it by going back to 40 acres and mule."