When I was 18, I had a life-altering spiritual experience: I watched Field of Dreams for the first time. (Epic!) In addition to making me even more of a baseball nut, the film did something else for me. It made me want to be a farmer. Really I just wanted to be as cool as Kevin Costner.
It turns out farming wasn't for me. I lacked organizational ability, management skills, business acumen, patience, handyman aptitude, general practical know-how, a tolerance for sun, and even the most rudimentary understanding of nature. Other than all that stuff, I was a perfect fit.
Costner made farming look easy. Who wouldn't want this life? You live simply, saunter through capacious fields of corn all day, visit the feed store once in a while, and then one day you're pitching to Ray Liotta. Easy-peasy.
But farming is anything but easy. And due to the job's demands, farmers are the most amazing, multifaceted people I know.
Consider Chuck Wooster, a grower at Sunrise Farm in White River Junction, Vt. Sunrise is a new Co-op supplier. To do his job, Chuck is a combination of grower, businessman, manager, accountant, carpenter, meteorologist, mechanic, chemist, biologist, veterinarian, graphic designer, artist, writer, and marketer, among other things. Such is the skill set of the farmer.
To add to the complexity of farming, there's the terminology. Today, consumers encounter many labels to describe various farming practices, and it can all get a little confusing.
Need a primer? Here's a few popular concepts, explained:
Touted as helping to reverse climate change, regenerative agriculture describes farming that can help rebuild and restore organic matter in soil. Key concepts are low tillage, ecosystem diversity, soil fertility, and carefully managed grazing practices.
Organic simply means living matter. The definition of organic agriculture is more complex, particularly when it comes to organic standards, which vary worldwide. My favorite definition comes from my colleague Emily Rogers: "Organic farmers must maintain or enhance soil and water quality and conserve natural lands and wildlife without the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, sewage sludge, irradiation, or genetic engineering." For a farm to be certified in the United States as organic, the process can be long, labor intensive, and expensive.
One might think of conventional as the opposite of organic, but like everything else, the reality is a bit more complicated. Conventional farms may employ non-organic methods, such as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but not necessarily. Some conventional farmers use primarily organic methods, but cannot afford the expense of converting their operations to those that meet organic certification. Many fabulous, local, small-family farms, including those that supply our Co-op, are conventional.
Integrated Pest Management
Pesticides are a huge issue in farming. (See our story on chlorpyrifos.) There are many definitions for integrated pest management (IPM), but most IPM systems share a similar philosophy: manage pests through biological control and habitat manipulation while minimizing the use of chemicals and pesticides. However, consumers should know IPM is used loosely with many different methods of implementation. According to Beyond Pesticides, "IPM can mean virtually anything the practitioner wants it to mean." Chemical, highly toxic pest-management solutions can be labeled as an IPM.
Biodynamic agriculture is a holistic approach to farming that views the farm as a diversified, balanced ecosystem. Many biodynamic farmers practice regenerative agriculture and view their farm as a living organism. The goal is to create a farm system that uses few imported materials and meets its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself, similar to a robust ecoystem found in nature.
The term permaculture was coined by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in the late 1970s. Mollison has described it as, "a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system." The three tenets of permaculture are care for the earth, care for the people, and return of surplus.
Hydroponic agriculture basically removes soil from the farming equation. Plant roots are bathed in a nutrient-rich water solution, and the plants can be housed in many environments, from greenhouses to shipping containers. It's an ideal farming solution for many areas of the world, but it's not without controversy. USDA organic regulations do not currently prohibit hydroponics, but some farmers believe only crops grown in soil should be considered organic. (Check out our fabulous upcoming organic and hydroponics discussion here.)
Industrial Agriculture ("Big Ag")
Industrial agriculture dominates the U.S. food system. At its core is the concept of monoculture, the practice of growing single crops on a monolithic scale. Most corn, rice, wheat, and soybeans in the U.S. are grown by monoculture farming. This type of farming relies heavily on industrial equipment and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Critics accuse industrial agriculture, or "Big Ag," of putting profits over social and environmental considerations, and that cheap food produced on a grand scale does more harm than good.
Confined Animal Feeding Operations
Possibly the most controversial aspect of industrial farming is meat production. Most meat animals spend their entire lives in confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. In CAFOs, mobility is restricted and animals are fed a high-calorie, grain-based, antibiotics- and hormone-infused diet to maximize weight gain. Animal waste is concentrated in massive toxic pits that may pose a threat to the environment and surrounding communities.
The opposite of CAFOs, free-range operations ensure that farm animals spend at least part, if not all, of their days roaming freely outdoors. Animals are exposed to sunshine and fresh air and water, similar to natural conditions. Like many of the concepts listed here, free-range can be controversial. Not all free-range farms adhere to the same standards, and undercover videos have found free-range farms with practices much closer to CAFOs. If in doubt, ask your co-op or the farm.
Keep in mind that the summaries above are insanely simplified. One could write a book on any of these topics, and many people have. Want to learn more? We'd love to get you started. Contact our Outreach and Member Services Department. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos provided by our friends at Sunrise Farm.