Answering a request in this thread.
To provide some background; my experience is primarily in irrigated crop farming or horticultural farming in the arid western U.S. Farming is a diverse business; if I were suddenly dropped onto a dryland wheat farm in Kansas or a sheep station in the Australian outback, I would not be entirely helpless, but would face a very steep learning curve. I am not terribly knowledgable about livestock raising, aside from having grown up on a small family-operated dairy.
In addition to having operated my own small spread for about 20 years I’ve worked as a “field man” (sort of a tech rep) for a couple of seed companies that produced flower and hybrid vegetable seeds, and more recently as a technician/farm manager for a crop research outfit that dealt with vineyard & orchard crops. I suppose it is safe to say now (thank you, statute of limitations) that for a few years one of my cash crops was cannabis. I discovered that it is just as difficult to turn a profit at that as at any other type of farming. More recently I’ve been doing some consulting work for startup “legal grow” operations under Oregon’s new medical cannabis law. I hold a chemical applicator’s license and have had some fairly advanced coursework in water management.
Do you have any experience/opinion on hydroponics? I volunteer at a small community organic garden, and there is discussion about doing hydroponics. Its touted as a way to increase yield over a small area, but is criticized for chemical use.
on a practical, day-to-day basis, what do you like about the farming you do? What don’t you like?
is it possible these days to have the “connection to the land” that farming has represented for centuries, or is it simply different now?
what is your perspective on the general quality of food production that you see? There have been a lot of scares lately - are those the exceptions that get hyped into fear, or do you see systemic issues?
how do you feel about the whole “Eat Food. Not too Much. Mostly Plants”/Locavore movement?
Speaking as a former and for northeastern PA - fix the tractor and various related machines, hunt, make knives on the forge to sell down the farmers market in the spring, hunt, fix school buses for the local districts, hunt, do repairs to the house, hunt, read, hunt. And if the lakes didn’t ice over or iced over thick there could be some fishing involved. Lots of the guys will take winter jobs from working in the mines to helping various greenhouses. Some (since a lot of what we grow didn’t take hands on and we didn’t irrigate) did that during the “high summer” as well.
Regarding the legal startup growth of medical cannabis, is it all “organic” marijuana in the sense that consumers have come to understand organic to be or are any pesticides, herbicides or non-natural fertilizers used?
On the Canadian Prairies they attend to all the equipment stuff they never got around to during the busy summer, figure out their taxes and budget for next year, take care of any livestock and animals they may have, then guilt trip their adult children to watch the farm while they go on the yearly Caribbean vacation paid for by the CO-OP member subsidy check. Oh, and moonlight as school bus drivers.
Could you survive only on the income from your farm? A lot of the additional jobs you’ve spoken of are the sort of thing the farmers I know would get into because they need additional income.
How’s the distribution of farms in your area? A lot of corporate farms, or large family run farms, or many small farms? The problem we’re having here in Saskatchewan is that the older generation is hitting their 70s and 80s and their kids don’t want to take over the farm. This has led to the few families that do stay in the farming business becoming land barons. My uncle just buys or rents all the property that comes up as his fellow farmers retire, but my cousin has already committed to taking over.
I asked my mom, who grow up on a farm and who’s family still works the same place, “what do guys like uncle Bill do all winter?” She made a sour face and said only, “Hunt.” I didn’t think it was a good idea to enquire further.
The organic question is worthy of its own thread…or an essay…or a book. But I’ll try to be brief. For a consumer, organic produce is worth buying - if you can afford it. Since it generally has a shorter shelf life, it is likely to be fresher. It may be locally grown, hand tended, selectively harvested and therefore tastier. It has no synthetic chemical residue so it is arguably safer and healthier. And if it has truely been grown by sustainable means, it carries a certain moral cachet.
From a producer’s point of view however, things are not quite so clear-cut. From a strictly commercial point of view organic production is far less efficient…yields are low and inputs are high, especially labor. A producer’s risk is greater in the absence of certain tools to use against, say, insects or disease, or insufficient soil nutrients. To give just one example; an organic producer typically uses tillage to combat weeds. An ordinary tractor-mounted tiller may take 5-10 gallons of fuel to plow under the weeds on one acre…and repeated tillage is damaging to the structure of the topsoil. A tractor-mounted sprayer on the other hand, with $10 worth of a safe commercial herbicide like 2,4D or roundup can cover that same acre in 1/4 of the time on less than half the fuel and leave the topsoil intact. Which one is really more earth-friendly?
This kind of conundrum turns up all the time, and I freely admit I don’t have the answer. Everyone, especially the farmer realizes that the current mega-farm model with its mass production water-guzzling chemical-dependent design is obviously not sustainable in the long run. But for the now it’s pretty darned efficient at feeding & clothing an ever-growing population from an ever-diminishing land base.
I think the best possible route to take - as usual - is some sort of middle ground. Strive for best management practices across the board. Divert some water to irrigate the crops, but find ways to use it efficiently so there’s some left over to feed the rivers, float the fish and nourish the riparian habitat. Use animal waste and green manuring to feed the soil whenever possible, but keep the option of digging a little phosphate out of a hillside somewhere and spreading it on your field if the soil is depleted. Hoe the weeds if you can, but keep a little 2,4-D handy to kill 'em of they get out of control. Nourish a population of predators to keep the insects down, but keep a tank of insecticide handy in case of infestation.
Large-scale commercial agriculture as currently practiced is unsustainable…pure organics is a hopelessly utopian ideal. There’s gotta be a better way…