We often hear proponents of industrialized agriculture dismissively say that organic farming would take us back to the 19th century. What they overlook is that all farming in the 19th century was “conventional.” That was before widespread adoption of agricultural chemicals created the distinction between “organic” and “conventional” farming, after the middle of the 20th century. Many innovations and much new knowledge have contributed to the efficiency and productivity of both organic and conventional farming since then.
Innovations in farm equipment over the years have benefited both organic and conventional farmers. For example, in the 1960’s when my brother and I would cut hay using a tractor on a converted horse mower, it took two of us about an hour to cut one acre. Today–on my organic farm–I can easily cut, condition and windrow 10 acres of hay per hour. In the 1960’s it took our crew of four a long hard day to bale 50 tons of hay; today I can bale 50 tons in two hours, by myself. Also, today’s organic farmers use mechanical weeders and guidance systems on cultivators to control weeds efficiently and precisely.
But the greatest advancement for today’s organic farmers has been an increased understanding of ecology, and how to design and manage organic farms to efficiently utilize the energy and organizing power of nature’s ecology. For example, on my grass-based organic dairy farm, I have 130 acres split into 60 small pasture cells (called paddocks) that allow me to give my milking cows a new, ungrazed, section of pasture after each milking, twice a day. Then, the cows move to the next paddock and the grazed paddock is able to regrow in preparation for the next round of grazing. This type of animal management mimics the bison/prairie-grass ecology that built Iowa’s highly productive prairie soils. New scientific understandings of grassland ecology help grass-based farmers better manage grazing in order to increase biodiversity and productivity.
Also, new scientific advancements in understanding the ecology of insects, plant diseases, and weeds are helping organic farmers manage pests through the use of crop rotations, beneficial insects, and other cultural practices that circumvent the need for chemical pest controls.
Industrial agriculture’s methods rely on monocultures and fossil-fuel-based inputs to overpower ecology, in contrast to organic farming’s approach of harnessing the energy and organizing power of nature’s ecology. A farming system designed and managed in the image of nature’s ecology can enhance the farm’s natural resource base, rather than compromise natural resources, as is common for industrial agricultural systems.
The Industrial Revolution began over 200 years ago. Today’s industrial agriculture has brought us to a pinnacle of industrialization of control over nature. Keep in mind, however, that pundits pronounced that the Industrial Age was superseded by the Information Age sometime in the late 20th century. The industrial approach to agriculture is already obsolete. What the Information Age means to agriculture is knowledge of ecology, and the application of ecological principles to agricultural production. It is only a matter of time before fossil-fuel energy costs and the need to rein in externalized costs of industrial agriculture catalyze widespread conversion to ecological agricultural systems.