Thursday, February 26, 2009
Cuts to U.S. farm payments will be directed at farmers and ranchers with large incomes and big sales, and could affect 3 percent of farmers in the United States, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Thursday.Good news for small(er) farmers everywhere, but it seems unlikely that Obama can get this through the Congress.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
|Median Farm Size Category|
|Average Gross Output|
|Average Net Output|
Since I briefly mentioned it a couple of weeks ago, I've been trying to get a handle on the inverse relationship between farm size and output. The effect has been observed in all regions of the world, and is consistent across all farm sizes (page 8, in the .pdf).*
Looking through the 2007 US Agriculture Census, I found that the effect still exists, though the difference in output seems to be smaller than in the table above (perhaps due to a difference in methodology?).
Data from Table 58. Summary by Size of Farm: 2007 (.pdf)
According to the Food First policy brief, the high productivity on small farms in the developing world is due to:
- Multiple cropping
- Land use intensity
- Output composition
- Labor quality
- Labor intensity
- Input use
- Resource use
On the other hand, larger farms are typically cultivated as monocultures, usually yield a single crop per year, use heavy machinery and significant chemical inputs, and produce low value commodities. The environmental costs of large mechanized agriculture is a different issue altogether!
Since in the developing world the vast majority of farms are small, and the availability of farm labor is high, it makes sense to improve the efficiency and profitability of these farms by switching gradually to natural farming methods which are even more profitable due to
- near zero input costs
- low labor requirement
- a diversity of high value (and organic) crops
* Browsing through current academic literature, I got the impression that among economists, this effect is viewed as somewhat of an artifact; i.e. economics research papers tend to explain the effect on the basis of inequalities (in labor etc.) between small and large farms, rather than as a real farm productivity difference. I have tried to get some clarification from professional economists, but haven't heard anything yet. If you have any opinions one way or another, please let me know.
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
I've just created a presentation about sustainable farming. You can view and download the presentation here (.pdf, 4.13 MB). You can also download a version with smaller file size (.pdf, 2.73 MB, sans fancy background!). Let me know if you have any comments, suggestions, corrections, or questions. I'll be happy to share original presentation in .keynote or .ppt format, just drop me a line.
Also see: This presentation [.pdf] created by Himanshu Khatri of Udai, and this presentation [.ppt] created by Erin Runnels for Kansas State University. (Both of these explain Natural Farming techniques, whereas I have explored both Natural Farming and Permaculture.)
Finally putting my money where my mouth has been for quite a while, I have registered for a Permaculture course. Anybody want to join me in Hawaii this April? :) While I have already read The One-Straw Revolution, The Natural Way of Farming, and Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, learning sustainable agriculture techniques directly from the experts and by working on the land itself should be a much more educational experience.
I'm also planning to work with some friends in their organic garden soon, as well as volunteer in an organic community farm. Stay tuned for more announcements about activities.
Saturday, February 21, 2009
"When you get right down to it, there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary," says FUKUOKA. He does not plow his fields, nor weed them by tillage or herbicides. He does not plant seeds in tidy rows but casts them randomly upon the ground. He uses no machines, no insecticides, and no chemical fertilizers or prepared compost; he strews his rice and barley fields with straw instead.
In FUKUOKA's rice and barley fields, sturdy grains share their habitat with white clover, insects, birds, and small animals. In his orchards, unpruned orange trees rise prolifically above a profusion of grasses, herbs, and vegetables. They all thrive together naturally.
FUKUOKA points out that his "do nothing" farming completely contradicts modern agricultural techniques. Yet his untidy farm yields grain and fruits just as abundantly as high-technology farms, often more so, and a rich mix of hearty vegetables besides. His method offers farmers extra leisure. It requires no expensive inputs. It creates no pollution. Moreover, it is profitable: FUKUOKA's chemical-free produce is highly prized by health-conscious consumers.
*A week ago, I posted abut P. Sainath, also a Magsaysay awardee.
Friday, February 20, 2009
From the New York Times article - Crop Scientists Say Biotechnology Seed Companies Are Thwarting Research
The growers’ agreement from Syngenta not only prohibits research in general but specifically says a seed buyer cannot compare Syngenta’s product with any rival crop.This unprecedented level of openness and honesty will certainly reassure everyone that GM crops are
Thursday, February 19, 2009
Permaculture is a popular method of sustainable agriculture management. In this method, the agricultural potential of an area is maximized by
- completely utilizing the resources - sun, water, and land
- by making small modifications to the landscape
- and introducing a large variety of productive and interdependent plant and animal species to occupy all niches, creating a high biodiversity environment
Bill Mollison, the founder of the permaculture movement, gives an overview of the set-up sequence of a typical food forest in this blog post:
Thus the phases of abundance in tropical – subtropical systems of from 1-2 acres upwards in wet seasons could be:* You can buy the DVD here.
- Season 1. Establishment of an abundant richness of species for trial.
- Season 2. An abundant source of propagation material is produced.
- Season 3. Several species are sufficiently numerous to provide an abundance of yield.
- Season 4. Yield is excellent, propagation material “unlimited”, and slower species start to produce. Absolute abundance is achieved.
- Season 5 on. Abundant yield from as many as 30 perennials and the same number of annuals is achieved, and can be made to persist for as long as is needed.
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Michael Pollan (Professor of Science and Environmental Journalism at UC Berkeley) talks about* the need to change agricultural practices in the context of changing energy and environmental realities. Highlights:
- After automobiles, agriculture is the largest carbon emitter in the US
- Policy changes in the '70s took the closed nutrient loop solution to farming - small multicrop farms with animals on them - and divided it into two enormous problems - giant fossil fuel fed farms, and cattle feedlots that are animal waste producing factories.
- In the coming expensive-energy era, this industrial farming model is going to be unfeasible, and more people are going to have to return to farming in the US. For this to happen, the status of agriculture needs to be elevated.
On a similar note, watch this TED Talk by Mark Bittman:
Compared to US agriculture practices, developing world farming is far more sustainable and at the right scale. However, to improve the long term survival of small farming, we need to act now. Improving the profitability by reducing material and labor costs, and improving stability by enhancing biodiversity will prove to be the key factors.
* Hat-tip to Rachel Nisselson bringing the Michael Pollan interview to my attention.
Monday, February 16, 2009
We created this plan in response to Google's Project 10100. However, the crisis on small farms in the developing world is far more important than this competition, and far bigger than a single organization can handle. Improving the profitability and sustainability of small agriculture is at the heart of stability and prosperity of all developing countries. (Not to mention - Project 10100 funding is completely uncertain/unlikely!)
What actions can we take to ensure that sustainable farming spreads widely and rapidly?
- Spread the word: By now, many people are aware of farmers' suicides, the most obvious symptom of the small farms crisis. However, awareness about the low-input high-output agriculture is still low. Tell everyone you know about natural farming. Feel free to use material from this blog.
- Contribute your time and money: Contribute to the efforts of organizations (such as Navadanya, Deccan Development Society or AID) that are active in popularizing sustainable agriculture. Convince other people to donate their time and money.
- Help start new projects: There are probably a few organizations in your city that are active in rural development. Do they promote natural farming practices? If not, tell them about these solutions. Offer to help them raise funds for a natural farming initiative.
Do you have any suggestions about what we should do?
Saturday, February 14, 2009
P. Sainath has been a clear and rational voice for India's rural poor, farmers, and lower cast population, . He was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award (considered Asia's Nobel Prize) for Journalism in 2007 (as well as many other awards). His numerous articles (including a series of articles on farmer's suicides) provide an illuminating and sobering overview of issues including small and medium farming, inequities in global trade, government corruption and inaction, etc.
For a quick overview of the issues he has covered, read this interview conducted after he won the Magsaysay award:
environmentally and socially destructive industrial agriculture, and the only way to do that is to nurture
...We need to move away from
Q: One hears a lot of people arguing that small and medium farms are simply unviable in the global agricultural scenario. Do you agree? Is there really a model that can work for the small farmer in India, or are we going to see family farms go the way they did in the US?
A: First off, I think they're wrong to question viability in such simplistic terms. If you consciously develop something, and nurture it, then it becomes viable. What we have is a situation where agriculture in India is being made unviable by imposition. Is American agriculture really viable? You have a situation where cotton crop worth 3.9 billion dollars receives 4.7 billion in subsidies. The Europeans are throwing billions of euros worth of crops into the sea. Whose farming is really unviable? In reality, developed world farming is hugely wasteful, not to forget destructive of soils. And yet, the question is asked if Third World farming, especially small and medium farms, can last in the long run.
high output small agriculture by reducing the high input costs and the market distorting subsidies in the developed world.Eliminating small farmers' dependence on big-industry inputs, including on all fertilizers, pesticides and machines will prove to be the critical issue of the next few decades.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
The reduction in rainfall due to climate change, and the concomitant increasing population, are projected to cause tremendous water scarcity in Asia and Africa in the next 20-50 years, slowing down development and increasing poverty and armed conflict. The Water Wars are already beginning.
At the heart of both natural farming and permaculture is the efficient use of local resources including rainfall. Harvesting rainfall efficiently by improving ground cover as well as by creating small low cost structures to trap water and percolate it into the ground will improve the water availability in most areas of the world.
Large infrastructure projects may be necessary in a small number of extreme cases, but especially in the developing world, they cause massive mismanagement of resources, human displacement, and ineffective alleviation of the water scarcity purportedly being addressed. Drowned Out is an excellent case study of the mismanagement of India's Narmada Dam Project, and also shows how local water harvesting can solve water scarcity in Gujrat.
The video below shows how permaculture transformed of a barren wasteland near Hyderabad (a chronically drought prone area) to a lush tree covered farm in just a couple of years:
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Seed balls are the essence of natural farming.
These marble sized spheres are made easily by mixing together a variety of seeds with soil, compost, and water. Disperse by merely tossing them on ground, seed balls lie dormant in the wild, protecting the seeds within. After sufficient rainfall, when conditions are just right for the seeds to sprout, the soil mixture crumbles, and new plants take root.
Seed balls are an cheap and easy tool on many scales - you could create a new garden painlessly, introduce vegetation on empty plot of land, restore trees in and around your city, or stop the spread of deserts!
Take minimal action, promote mutually beneficial biodiversity, and let nature take its own course. What could be simpler?
Here's a short documentary on making and using seed balls:
In traditional and modern farming, pesticides and herbicides or manual weeding are a given. This is fighting life with death, and in a real world farm, practically the definition of a Sisyphean struggle.
In a conventional farm, the soil is tilled and fertilized, and between the plants and crop rows, left bare! It is only inevitable that whatever seeds that fall on this ground will germinate and grow vigorously. Inevitably, these will be seeds of non-crop plants. Pulling out weeds by the root only creates habitats for more weeds.
Insect infestations are also invited due to the monoculture on most farms - insects proliferate rapidly in the presence of the abundant food supply, and the variety of natural predators is also low due to the artificially non-diverse ecosystem. The use of insecticides kills all insects and spiders, creating an ecological vacuum where insect population explosion down the line in inevitable.
These toxic chemicals inevitably enter the food supply, persisting and accumulating in the human body over time. And of course, the monetary, energy, and labor costs of these chemicals are enormous.
Actively increasing the plant biodiversity on the farm with a large variety and types of plants, including nitrogen fixing ground cover, takes care of both of these problems. With a beneficial cover crop, the weeds are naturally out-competed, and the few that may to take hold serve to increase biodiversity. It is important to remember that weeds occupy completely different ecological niches from crops, and so don't usually compete with them for resources. Due to the diversity of plants and absence of poisonous chemicals, frogs, lizards, spiders, etc. thrive, and naturally control the insect population.
Thus, expensive, harmful, and labor intensive interventions are not necessary for controlling pests, and life can be controlled with life far more easily. In his own words, here is Fukuoka explaining why pesticides and weeding are unnecessary.
For small farmers in developing countries, the high cost of fertilizers and and uncertain price supports in the market result in increasing debt and poverty. Furthermore, chemical fertilizers are one of the most energy intensive inputs to modern agriculture. Extensive and inefficient use of fertilizers creates nutrient runoffs, with disastrous consequences for aquatic ecosystems. Ironically, while these chemicals are pumped into the farm, the natural waste products of a crop are removed and destroyed, taking away the essential nutrients accumulated in the biomass!
However, chemical fertilizers and even prepared compost are completely unnecessary. On a natural farm, a ground cover of white clover or other leguminous plants efficiently fixes nitrogen in the soil. Leguminous nitrogen fixing crops can also be taken concurrently with main grain crops, or once every few seasons. All the plant material except for produce is either left in the field or returned to the field after harvest, to decomposes naturally and return all the essential nutrients to the soil. This is supplemented with manure from chickens, ducks, humans etc, which provides essential nutrients and speeds up the decomposition of the plant matter.
Taking full advantage of natural systems, it is easy to get yields equal to those achievable through artificial fertilizers. Here is Fukuoka in his own words on the ill effects of artificial fertilizers and the natural way of fertilizing soil.
Sowing is one of the most labor, time, and equimpent intensive steps in agriculture, and particularly so for rice due to the transplanting practice. In natural farming, the costs of sowing are almost completely eliminated.
Seeds are sown underground mainly to protect them from birds and other pests. In the case of rice, the high density, submerged germination is meant to prevent weeds from out-competing the rice. However, this requires transplanting the young rice plants manually - an extremely labor and time intensive step.
On a natural farm, the presence of the continuous plant cover and straw holds weeds in check and hides the seeds from pests. For even more protection, seeds can be enclosed in clay pellets (similar to seed balls - more on this later). The seeds or clay pellets are simply broadcast by hand on to the field, resulting in tremendous labor and time savings, and requiring no equipments. Using this system, even rice has been grown successfully, without the need for transplanting.
In traditional and modern farming, the life-cycle of a crop requires many labor and/or energy intensive steps in the field, including tilling, sowing, spreading fertilizers, spraying pesticides, weeding multiple times, and finally harvesting. Labor requirements are even worse for rice due to the transplanting step, which requires many days of backbreaking labor.
In natural farming, all of these steps are virtually eliminated. Let's take a look at how tilling is replaced:
Tilling is done to for loosening the soil, mixing nutrients, and destroying weeds. In fact, tilled soil becomes compacted more easily, nutrients, and the top soil itself, are more likely to runoff in subsequent rains, and weeds get a better start in the newly tilled barren ground. Furthermore, as the organic material in the soil is exposed to air, it oxidizes rapidly, and releases large amounts of carbon dioxide.
In natural farming, since the soil is left completely undisturbed, these problems are avoided. Instead, the soil is loosened, aerated and mixed by worms and other creatures. The roots of crops and the few weeds are left in the ground, which also keep the soil loose, and increases the nutrient content of the soil. A permanent ground cover (usually of white clover), and the straw returned to the field suppresses the weeds, which in any case can not take hold as vigorously as when the soil is disturbed.
Thus, the no-tilling approach in natural farming eliminates the labor, equipment, and time costs of tilling, and continually increases soil fertility, reduces erosion, and holds weeds in check. Here's some more information about the reasoning behind no-till, and the benefits, in Fukuoka's own words.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
This is the idea we submitted to Project 10100:
Your idea's name:
What one sentence best describes your idea?
Describe your idea in more depth.
In this project, small farmers who are experimenting with alternative methods of agriculture will be invited to train in the best practices from high yield sustainable agriculture approaches such as Fukuoka farming and permaculture. Leveraging the expertise and infrastructure of current leaders in the field, the trainees will be educated in sustainable agriculture methods adapted for their local environmental, economic, and cultural conditions.
The trainee leaders will attend an intensive course at regional training centers and then start implementing the natural farming methods on their own farms. With ongoing training, guidance, and support, they will optimize the methods for local conditions. As these farms are established, they will be encouraged and supported to function as local centers of demonstration and training, accelerating the adoption of sustainable farming in their vicinity.
The number of people trained by this project will depend on the funding received. One new sustainable agricultural center for each five to ten thousand square miles may be an appropriate stretch goal. For the developing regions of Asia, Africa and South America, this translates into a goal of creating about two to four thousand sustainable farming leaders in the first training cycle.
What problem or issue does your idea address?
These pressures have manifested themselves in dramatic local price fluctuations, global rise in food prices, and in India, large scale farmer suicides. Small farmers are also migrating to urban areas more than ever before, with all the consequent problems for the migrants as well as the urban areas. Ongoing deterioration of small farm productivity is hurting the livelihood of farmers, food security and national security of a large majority of the human population, and is accelerating global environmental degradation.
If your idea were to become a reality, who would benefit the most and how?
Due to the significantly reduced input costs and increased yields, small farmers will achieve financial stability and security as their return on investment increases. High yields and diversity in local food production will create local food security. The lower labor requirements will free human resources for improving local economic and environmental conditions.
What are the initial steps required to get this idea off the ground?
- Obtain funding and determine size and region focus of the project.
- Build a coalition of experts and leaders in the field of high yield sustainable small-farm agriculture.
- Identify the methods of sustainable agriculture that are best suited for environmental, cultural, and economic conditions in each region.
- Identify existing regional training centers, and organize training programs.
- Identify trainees in local regions - ideally, small farmers who are actively experimenting with alternative methods of farming.
- Arrange financial support and other resources for trainees to attend training sessions and to implement sustainable agriculture practices on their farms.
Describe the optimal outcome should your idea be selected and successfully implemented. How would you measure it?
- Number of small farmers identifying themselves as sustainable farming practitioners.
- Small farm area switched from conventionally to sustainably farmed.
- Reduction in input costs (pesticide, chemical fertilizers, labor, irrigation, etc.) on sustainable farms.
- Improvement in local environmental conditions, including air quality, ground cover, and water table.
- Increase in yield and diversity of farm produce, as well as biodiversity in and around the farm.
- Improvement in rural health and child mortality rates due to improvements in nutrition.
- Reduction in small farmer debt and increase in net worth.
- Reduction in rural medical costs.
Aware of the problems on small farms as well as the accelerating ecological deterioration in the developing world, I had been thinking about various solutions, and talking about them with a few people including Satlaj, who is a developmental economist. Sustainable agriculture appeared to be one of the cornerstones of any such solution. When Sameer informed me about Google's Project 10100, it was immediately clear that promoting sustainable farming would be an excellent idea for this initiative.
The project will ultimately select five ideas based on the following criteria, and a total of USD 10 Million will fund the implementation of all five. The money goes to organizations that implement the idea - we will get just good karma (and perhaps a lousy t-shirt? ;).
- Reach: How many people would this idea affect?
- Depth: How deeply are people impacted? How urgent is the need?
- Attainability: Can this idea be implemented within a year or two?
- Efficiency: How simple and cost-effective is your idea?
- Longevity: How long will the idea's impact last?
- train a few thousand people,
- help them establish their own training centers,
- and then let the program run on its own.
Before proposing a solution to the small farms crisis, let's explore some long term trends and projections, and examine their implications for how we manage our food supply:
- Population Growth: From 2000 to 2050, the global population will increase about 50%, with the highest rate of population growth in Africa.
- Labor Requirements: Currently, people displaced from unproductive small farms are often employed as unskilled laborers, particularly in factories located for access to cheap labor. However, this is not a long term sustainable source of income. Mass production based industries always replace unskilled labor with automation.
- Climate Change: It is now almost certain that climate change is irreversible (at least in the geological short term). The implications are that rainfall will be reduced in large areas of the world, and seasonal variations and unpredictability will increase. Increasing the biodiversity and resource efficiency of small farms will make them far more resilient in the face of these fluctuations.
- Farming Efficiency: While mechanization improves industrial productivity, the most efficient forms of agriculture - multi-crop, biodiverse, all season agriculture - appear to be un-mechanizable. Particularly when carbon costs of fertilizers, pesticides and fuel essential for mechanized agriculture are factored in, the superior energy efficiency of natural farming is undeniable.
Sunday, February 8, 2009
In Asia, Africa and South America, approximately 2.5 Billion people depend directly on small farms for subsistence and/or income. The entire population of the developing world - about 5.5 Billion people - depends on produce from small farms for majority of their food. However, small farmers in the developing world face a bleak future, which jeopardizes the long term health, economic, and security scenarios of the majority of the human race.
Traditional agriculture on these small farms is extremely labor and time intensive, and the products are usually of low commercial value. The few farmers who try to adopt modern methods often depend on usurious loans from local moneylenders to buy expensive fertilizers, pesticides, and hybrid or genetically modified seeds.
In India, these situations have trapped a majority of small farmers in abject poverty for the past few decades, despite the Green Revolution. The impractically large debt burdens have pushed thousands of farmers to commit suicide over the past decade. In sub-Saharan Africa, the high prevalence of HIV and other diseases has decimated the work-force, making traditional labor-intensive agriculture extremely difficult, and reducing the area under cultivation.
Ironically, it is well known that high biodiversity, multi-crop small farms produce significantly higher total income per unit area than mechanized monoculture. While there is increasing interest in sustainable agriculture practices in the developing world, the adverse trends described above will continue unless sustainable agriculture practices are adopted widely and rapidly.
We need to create community training centers and programs to popularize these practices.
Saturday, February 7, 2009
Natural Farming was developed in Japan by Masanobu Fukuoka between 1945-1975. A trained microbiologist and soil scientist, Fukuoka gave up his research job following increasing doubts about the wisdom of modern scientific method. Returning to the family farm, he set out to develop a minimalist farming system.
In it's final form, Fukuoka's approach consistently achieved yields equal to or better than modern farms by following four simple principles -
- No Cultivation: The soil is not disturbed at any stage by ploughing or tilling.
- No Fertilizer: Neither chemical fertilizers nor prepared compost is used.
- No Weeding: Non-crop plants are not pulled out of the ground.
- No Pesticides: Insects are controlled by natural predators.
For more information about natural farming, read this 1982 interview with Fukuoka, which also acts as an excellent summary of his book The One-Straw Revolution.
* "Do-Nothing" is the literal translation of 'Wu-wei', the Taoist concept of the acting in the natural manner; of appropriate, unforced action.
A natural farm is:
- a complex, self-regulating, designed ecosystem
- where a large variety of plants, animals, insects, birds and microorganisms are nurtured
- with minimal physical intervention
- and no chemical inputs
- to produce abundant food and other resources for human consumption
- while enriching the local natural resources.
Does the high efficiency of natural farming sound like a fantasy? In fact, over the past few decades, natural farming approaches have been independently developed and demonstrated numerous times in many different environments. Fukuoka Farming and Permaculture are the most popular and best systematized.
On this blog, I will explore the small farm and ecosystem crises in the developing world, and how natural farming can provide solutions.
The time to act is now.