Farming Then and Now
Abraham Lincoln created the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862. At that time about 90 out of every 100 Americans were farmers. Today, that number has shrunk to just 2 out of every 100 Americans.
Still the motto of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is the same today as it was nearly 150 years ago. Across the bottom of the official USDA seal, are the words
"Agriculture is the foundation of manufacture and commerce."
Today it doesn't take as many people to work on farms as it once did. In the 1830s, 40s and 50s when pioneers first settled Iowa's rich prairie lands, most farms were just 80 acres. That was as much land as most pioneer farmers could take care of. By 1900 many Iowa farms were larger than 80 acres, and most farming was done with simple machines and horses.
In the early 20th century, farms were more diverse than today. Most farmers raised lots of different crops and cared for many varied animals. Farmers planted corn, oats, wheat and barley, and raised cattle and hogs. Women planted large gardens of potatoes, carrots, lettuce, pumpkins, beans and radishes. They also cared for chickens and sold eggs.
Throughout the 20th century, as machinery developed, farms began to grow bigger. As they got bigger, they also tended to become less diverse. Many Iowa farmers raised just corn and soybeans. Others raised hogs or cattle with some field crops.
As farms grew larger, many farmers moved off the farms their grandparents once occupied. Today, the Iowa countryside is dotted with abandoned farm buildings that once held crops and provided shelter for animals. Where farmhouses once stood, the land is now cultivated for crops.
Being a successful farmer today requires knowledge of advanced technology, educational preparation and business skills. Many farmers learn about the business and practice of agriculture through a training program at a college or university.
Meet Two Farmers and Learn about Life on the Farm
Farm Life - Meet the Condons
Farm Life - Meet the Pendletons
Email questions and find out more about farm life.
View the following 4-H Virtual Farm video presentations.
Meet a Cattle Farmer
Meet Alan Graybeal, cattle producer, and learn what he does on his cow/calf farm to produce the kind of cattle that provide steaks and hamburger for you to eat.
Meet a Dairy Farmer
Visit Donna Kerr's dairy farm as she describes a typical day.
Meet a Poultry Farmer
Neal Martin, poultry producer, shows how his operation produces baby chicks that become egg type laying chickens.
Meet a Horse Farmer
Visit Mark Dean's horse farm and watch videos describing a typical day.
Find out about Fish Farming
Tour an aquaculture farm with Albert Reid, research specialist.
Iowa Farmer Today's Corn Cam
A Day in the Life of a Dairy Farmer
Your favorite ice cream in the grocery store freezer begins with milk from a dairy farm. A typical day in the life of a dairy farmer involves a lot of hard work. The day usually starts early and ends late. Dairy farmers work both indoors and outdoors.
A Day in the Life of a Farmer Continued
Photos used by permission from the USDA Online Photography Center.
Sustainable agriculture is farming in sustainable ways based on an understanding of ecosystem services, the study of relationships between organisms and their environment. It has been defined as "an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will last over the long term", for example to:
- Satisfy human food and fiber needs
- Enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
- Make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
- Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
- Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole
History of the term
The phrase 'sustainable agriculture' was reportedly coined by the Australian agricultural scientist Gordon McClymont. Wes Jackson is credited with the first publication of the expression in his 1980 book New Roots for Agriculture. The term became popular in the late 1980s.
Farming and natural resources
Sustainable agriculture can be understood as an ecosystem approach to agriculture. Practices that can cause long-term damage to soil include excessive tilling of the soil (leading to erosion) and irrigation without adequate drainage (leading to salinization). Long-term experiments have provided some of the best data on how various practices affect soil properties essential to sustainability. In the United States a federal agency, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, specializes in providing technical and financial assistance for those interested in pursuing natural resource conservation and production agriculture as compatible goals.
The most important factors for an individual site are sun, air, soil, nutrients, and water. Of the five, water and soil quality and quantity are most amenable to human intervention through time and labor.
Although air and sunlight are available everywhere on Earth, crops also depend on soil nutrients and the availability of water. When farmers grow and harvest crops, they remove some of these nutrients from the soil. Without replenishment, land suffers from nutrient depletion and becomes either unusable or suffers from reduced yields. Sustainable agriculture depends on replenishing the soil while minimizing the use or need of non-renewable resources, such as natural gas (used in converting atmospheric nitrogen into synthetic fertilizer), or mineral ores (e.g., phosphate). Possible sources of nitrogen that would, in principle, be available indefinitely, include:
- recycling crop waste and livestock or treated human manure
- growing legume crops and forages such as peanuts or alfalfa that form symbioses with nitrogen-fixingbacteria called rhizobia
- industrial production of nitrogen by the Haber process uses hydrogen, which is currently derived from natural gas (but this hydrogen could instead be made by electrolysis of water using electricity (perhaps from solar cells or windmills)) or
- genetically engineering (non-legume) crops to form nitrogen-fixing symbioses or fix nitrogen without microbial symbionts.
The last option was proposed in the 1970s, but is only gradually becoming feasible. Sustainable options for replacing other nutrient inputs such as phosphorus and potassium are more limited.
More realistic, and often overlooked, options include long-term crop rotations, returning to natural cycles that annually flood cultivated lands (returning lost nutrients indefinitely) such as the flooding of the Nile, the long-term use of biochar, and use of crop and livestock landraces that are adapted to less than ideal conditions such as pests, drought, or lack of nutrients. Crops that require high levels of soil nutrients can be cultivated in a more sustainable manner with appropriate fertilizer management practices.
In some areas sufficient rainfall is available for crop growth, but many other areas require irrigation. For irrigation systems to be sustainable, they require proper management (to avoid salinization) and must not use more water from their source than is naturally replenishable. Otherwise, the water source effectively becomes a non-renewable resource. Improvements in water well drilling technology and submersible pumps, combined with the development of drip irrigation and low-pressure pivots, have made it possible to regularly achieve high crop yields in areas where reliance on rainfall alone had previously made successful agriculture unpredictable. However, this progress has come at a price. In many areas, such as the Ogallala Aquifer, the water is being used faster than it can be replenished.
Several steps must be taken to develop drought-resistant farming systems even in "normal" years with average rainfall. These measures include both policy and management actions:
- improving water conservation and storage measures,
- providing incentives for selection of drought-tolerant crop species,
- using reduced-volume irrigation systems,
- managing crops to reduce water loss, and
- not planting crops at all.
Indicators for sustainable water resource development are:
- Internal renewable water resources. This is the average annual flow of rivers and groundwater generated from endogenous precipitation, after ensuring that there is no double counting. It represents the maximum amount of water resource produced within the boundaries of a country. This value, which is expressed as an average on a yearly basis, is invariant in time (except in the case of proved climate change). The indicator can be expressed in three different units: in absolute terms (km³/yr), in mm/yr (it is a measure of the humidity of the country), and as a function of population (m³/person per year).
- Global renewable water resources. This is the sum of internal renewable water resources and incoming flow originating outside the country. Unlike internal resources, this value can vary with time if upstream development reduces water availability at the border. Treaties ensuring a specific flow to be reserved from upstream to downstream countries may be taken into account in the computation of global water resources in both countries.
- Dependency ratio. This is the proportion of the global renewable water resources originating outside the country, expressed in percentage. It is an expression of the level to which the water resources of a country depend on neighbouring countries.
- Water withdrawal. In view of the limitations described above, only gross water withdrawal can be computed systematically on a country basis as a measure of water use. Absolute or per-person value of yearly water withdrawal gives a measure of the importance of water in the country's economy. When expressed in percentage of water resources, it shows the degree of pressure on water resources. A rough estimate shows that if water withdrawal exceeds a quarter of global renewable water resources of a country, water can be considered a limiting factor to development and, reciprocally, the pressure on water resources can affect all sectors, from agriculture to environment and fisheries.
Soil erosion is fast becoming one of the world's severe problems. It is estimated that "more than a thousand million tonnes of southern Africa's soil are eroded every year. Experts predict that crop yields will be halved within thirty to fifty years if erosion continues at present rates." Soil erosion is not unique to Africa but is occurring worldwide. The phenomenon is being called peak soil as present large-scale factory farming techniques are jeopardizing humanity's ability to grow food in the present and in the future. Without efforts to improve soil management practices, the availability of arable soil will become increasingly problematic.
Soil management techniques include no-till farming, keyline design, windbreaks to reduce wind erosion, incorporating organic matter back into fields, reducing chemical fertilizers, and protecting soil from water run-off.
Phosphate is a primary component in the chemical fertilizer which is applied in modern agricultural production. However, rock phosphate reserves will be depleted in 50–100 years; peak phosphorus will occur in about 2030. The phenomenon of peak phosphorus is expected to increase food prices as fertilizer costs increase as rock phosphate reserves become more difficult to extract. In the long term, phosphate will therefore have to be recovered and recycled from human and animal waste in order to maintain food production.
See also: Peak farmland
As the global population increases and demand for food increases, there is pressure on land resources. In land use planning and management, considering the impacts of land use changes on factors such as soil erosion can support long-term agricultural sustainability, as shown by a study of Wadi Ziqlab, a dry area in the Middle East where farmers graze livestock and grow olives, vegetables, and grains.
Looking back over the 20th century shows that for people in poverty, following environmentally sound land practices has not always been a viable option due to many complex and challenging life circumstances. Currently, increased land degradation in developing countries may be connected with rural poverty among smallholder farmers when forced into unsustainable agricultural practices out of necessity.
Land is a finite resource on Earth. And although expansion of agricultural land can decrease biodiversity and contribute to deforestation, the picture is complex; for instance, a study examining the introduction of sheep by Norse settlers (Vikings) to the Faroe Islands of the North Atlantic concluded that, over time, the fine partitioning of land plots contributed more to soil erosion and degradation than grazing itself.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that in coming decades, cropland will continue to be lost to industrial and urban development, along with reclamation of wetlands, and conversion of forest to cultivation, resulting in the loss of biodiversity and increased soil erosion. Many tools will be called upon to offset these projections. In Europe, one such tool is a geo-spatial data system called SoilConsWeb which is being developed to inform soil conservation minded decision making within agricultural sectors and other areas of land management.
Energy is used all the way down the food chain from farm to fork. In industrial agriculture, energy is used in on-farm mechanisation, food processing, storage, and transportation processes. It has therefore been found that energy prices are closely linked to food prices. Oil is also used as an input in agricultural chemicals. the International Energy Agency projects higher prices of non-renewable energy resources as a result of fossil fuel resources being depleted. It may therefore decrease global food security unless action is taken to 'decouple' fossil fuel energy from food production, with a move towards 'energy-smart' agricultural systems including renewable energy. The use of solar powered irrigation in Pakistan has come to be recognized as a leading example of energy use in creating a closed system for water irrigation in agricultural activity.
Socioeconomic aspects of sustainability are also partly understood. Regarding less concentrated farming, the best known analysis is Netting's study on smallholder systems through history. The Oxford Sustainable Group defines sustainability in this context in a much broader form, considering effect on all stakeholders in a 360 degree approach.
Given the finite supply of natural resources at any specific cost and location, agriculture that is inefficient or damaging to needed resources may eventually exhaust the available resources or the ability to afford and acquire them. It may also generate negative externality, such as pollution as well as financial and production costs. There are several studies incorporating these negative externalities in an economic analysis concerning ecosystem services, biodiversity, land degradation and sustainable land management. These include The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study led by Pavan Sukhdev and the Economics of Land Degradation Initiative which seeks to establish an economic cost benefit analysis on the practice of sustainable land management and sustainable agriculture.
The way that crops are sold must be accounted for in the sustainability equation. Food sold locally does not require additional energy for transportation (including consumers). Food sold at a remote location, whether at a farmers' market or the supermarket, incurs a different set of energy cost for materials, labour, and transport.
Pursuing sustainable agriculture results in many localized benefits. Having the opportunities to sell products directly to consumers, rather than at wholesale or commodity prices, allows farmers to bring in optimal profit.
What grows where and how it is grown are a matter of choice. Two of the many possible practices of sustainable agriculture are crop rotation and soil amendment, both designed to ensure that crops being cultivated can obtain the necessary nutrients for healthy growth. Soil amendments would include using locally available compost from community recycling centers. These community recycling centers help produce the compost needed by the local organic farms.
Using community recycling from yard and kitchen waste utilizes a local area's commonly available resources. These resources in the past were thrown away into large waste disposal sites, are now used to produce low cost organic compost for organic farming. Other practices includes growing a diverse number of perennial crops in a single field, each of which would grow in separate season so as not to compete with each other for natural resources. This system would result in increased resistance to diseases and decreased effects of erosion and loss of nutrients in soil. Nitrogen fixation from legumes, for example, used in conjunction with plants that rely on nitrate from soil for growth, helps to allow the land to be reused annually. Legumes will grow for a season and replenish the soil with ammonium and nitrate, and the next season other plants can be seeded and grown in the field in preparation for harvest.
Monoculture, a method of growing only one crop at a time in a given field, is a very widespread practice, but there are questions about its sustainability, especially if the same crop is grown every year. Today it is realized to get around this problem local cities and farms can work together to produce the needed compost for the farmers around them. This combined with growing a mixture of crops (polyculture) sometimes reduces disease or pest problems but polyculture has rarely, if ever, been compared to the more widespread practice of growing different crops in successive years (crop rotation) with the same overall crop diversity. Such methods may also support sustainable weed management in that the development of herbicide-resistant weeds is reduced. Cropping systems that include a variety of crops (polyculture and/or rotation) may also replenish nitrogen (if legumes are included) and may also use resources such as sunlight, water, or nutrients more efficiently (Field Crops Res. 34:239).
Replacing a natural ecosystem with a few specifically chosen plant varieties reduces the genetic diversity found in wildlife and makes the organisms susceptible to widespread disease. The Great Irish Famine (1845–1849) is a well-known example of the dangers of monoculture. In practice, there is no single approach to sustainable agriculture, as the precise goals and methods must be adapted to each individual case. There may be some techniques of farming that are inherently in conflict with the concept of sustainability, but there is widespread misunderstanding on effects of some practices. Today the growth of local farmers' markets offer small farms the ability to sell the products that they have grown back to the cities that they got the recycled compost from. This will help move people away from the slash-and-burn or slash-and-char techniques that are the characteristic feature of shifting cultivation. These are often cited as inherently destructive, yet slash-and-burn cultivation has been practiced in the Amazon for at least 6000 years. Serious deforestation did not begin until the 1970s, largely as the result of Brazilian government programs and policies.
There are also many ways to practice sustainable animal husbandry. Some of the key tools to grazing management include fencing off the grazing area into smaller areas called paddocks, lowering stock density, and moving the stock between paddocks frequently.
Main article: Intensive farming § Sustainable intensive farming
In light of concerns about food security, human population growth and dwindling land suitable for agriculture, sustainable intensive farming practises are needed to maintain high crop yields, while maintaining soil health and ecosystem services. The capacity for ecosystem services to be strong enough to allow a reduction in use of synthetic, non renewable inputs whilst maintaining or even boosting yields has been the subject of much debate. Recent work in the globally important irrigated rice production system of east Asia has suggested that - in relation to pest management at least - promoting the ecosystem service of biological control using nectar plants can reduce the need for insecticides by 70% whilst delivering a 5% yield advantage compared with standard practice.
Soil steaming can be used as an ecological alternative to chemicals for soil sterilization. Different methods are available to induce steam into the soil in order to kill pests and increase soil health.
Solarizing is based on the same principle, used to increase the temperature of the soil to kill pathogens and pests.
Certain crops act as natural biofumigants, releasing pest suppressing compounds. Mustard, radishes, and other plants in the brassica family are best known for this effect. There exist varieties of mustard shown to be almost as effective as synthetic fumigants at a similar or lesser cost.
A farm that is able to "produce perpetually", yet has negative effects on environmental quality elsewhere is not sustainable agriculture. An example of a case in which a global view may be warranted is over-application of synthetic fertilizer or animal manures, which can improve productivity of a farm but can pollute nearby rivers and coastal waters (eutrophication). The other extreme can also be undesirable, as the problem of low crop yields due to exhaustion of nutrients in the soil has been related to rainforest destruction, as in the case of slash and burn farming for livestock feed.In Asia, specific land for sustainable farming is about 12.5 acres which includes land for animal fodder, cereals productions lands for some cash crops and even recycling of related food crops.In some cases even a small unit of aquaculture is also included in this number (AARI-1996)
Sustainability affects overall production, which must increase to meet the increasing food and fiber requirements as the world's human population expands to a projected 9.3 billion people by 2050. Increased production may come from creating new farmland, which may ameliorate carbon dioxide emissions if done through reclamation of desert as in Israel and Palestine, or may worsen emissions if done through slash and burn farming, as in Brazil.
In 2007, the United Nations reported on "Organic Agriculture and Food Security", stating that using organic and sustainable agriculture could be used as a tool to reach global food security without expanding land usage and reducing environmental impacts. Another way to define sustainable agriculture is to give attention to the "human and environmental aspects," because of the turn to a more unsustainable way of farming in U.S. agriculture. During the Great Depression in the United States many farming families were living in subhuman and hungry conditions and treated "sustainability as a resource-input and food-output equation." Though conditions have improved, the farming has not as much done so. There has been evidence provided by developing nations from the early 2000s stating that when people in their communities are not factored into the agricultural process that serious harm is done. Although global food security would most likely not drastically fall, these practices would impact, first hand, local, rural farming communities, making them unable to feed themselves and their families. The social scientist Charles Kellogg has stated that, "In a final effort, exploited people pass their suffering to the land." This turn to more unsustainable farming has seen suffering for many people. For if something is sustainable, it should be that way in all aspects of it, not just the crop yield or soil health. It has been seen in the developing country of Bangladesh, the starving of rural farming communities due to their unsustainable farming methods. Sustainable agriculture mean the ability to permanently and continuously "feed its constituent populations."
In the past 30 years (1978-2007) in the United States the number of women farm operators has tripled. Today, women operate 14 percent of farms, compared to five percent in 1978. Much of the growth is due to women farming outside the "male dominated field of conventional agriculture". In community supported agriculture women represent 40 percent of farm operators, and 21 percent of organic farmers. With the change of laws in land ownership over the past century, women are now allowed all the same freedom of land ownership that men have.
Sustainable agriculture has become a topic of interest in the international policy arena, especially with regards to its potential to reduce the risks associated with a changing climate and growing human population.
The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change, as part of its recommendations for policy makers on achieving food security in the face of climate change, urged that sustainable agriculture must be integrated into national and international policy. The Commission stressed that increasing weather variability and climate shocks will negatively affect agricultural yields, necessitating early action to drive change in agricultural production systems towards increasing resilience. It also called for dramatically increased investments in sustainable agriculture in the next decade, including in national research and development budgets, land rehabilitation, economic incentives, and infrastructure improvement.
Most agricultural professionals agree that there is a "moral obligation to pursue [the] goal [of] sustainability." The major debate comes from what system will provide a path to that goal. Because if an unsustainable method is used on a large scale it will have a massive negative effect on the environment and human population. The best way to create policy for agriculture is to be free of any bias. A good review would be done with "practical wisdom," a virtue identified by Aristotle, distinguishing practical wisdom from scientific knowledge, this coming from Nichomachean Ethics. The science of agriculture is called "agronomy", the root of this word relating to scientific law. Although agriculture may not fit well under scientific law, and may not be designed to be treated as an Aristotelian scientific knowledge, but more practical wisdom. Practical wisdom requires recognition of past failures in agriculture to better attain a more sustainable agricultural system.
The use of available city space (e.g., rooftop gardens, community gardens, garden sharing, and other forms of urban agriculture) for cooperative food production may be able to contribute to sustainability. A recent idea (2014) is to create large, urban, technical facilities for Vertical farming. Potential advantages include year-round production, isolation from pests and diseases, controllable resource recycling, and reduced transportation costs.
Since World War II, dominant models of agriculture in the United States and the entire national food system have been characterized by a focus on monetary profitability at the expense of social and environmental integrity.
In sustainable agriculture, changes in lower rates of soil and nutrient loss, improved soil structure, and higher levels of beneficial microorganisms are not quick. The changes are not immediately evident to the operate when using sustainable agriculture. In conventional agriculture the benefits are easily visible with no weeds, pests, etc. and the "process of externalization" hides the costs to soil and ecosystems around it. A major barrier to sustainable agriculture is the lack of knowledge of its benefits. Many benefits are not visible, so they are often unknown.
Efforts toward more sustainable agriculture are supported in the sustainability community, however, these are often viewed only as incremental steps and not as an end. Some foresee a true sustainable steady state economy that may be very different from today's: greatly reduced energy usage, minimal ecological footprint, fewer consumer packaged goods, local purchasing with short food supply chains, little processed foods, more home and community gardens, etc.
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