"Yes, and" in Production Agriculture
How farmers and agribusinesses can help each other succeed instead of tearing each other down.
Sometimes in agriculture, we become a little too attached to our dichotomies. We love to think that our solution is the solution, that our practices are the practices, and that anyone who chooses different solutions or practices is a threat to us and our way of thinking.
What if we're not thinking big enough? What if different practices and holistic farming systems could coexist—from the field level to the global agricultural landscape?
Growing up on a farm with certified organic row crops and non-organic cattle, I felt like I wouldn’t be accepted in any of the ag circles. I felt like most organic farmers were hostile, sometimes even vitriolic, towards any kinds of conventional practices while many conventional farmers looked down on organic practices, poking fun at those farmers who chose different methods of growing food and fiber. I got the vibes that you either were an organic true believer or you believed in every single element of the average conventional set of practices.
Then, I started spending more time at field days with groups like Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), a non-profit that seeks to help all types of farming operations—from small backyard gardens to thousands of acres of corn and soybeans—become more resilient and successful. At their annual conference I attended a few years ago, the sessions were less about bashing certain practices and more about empowering farmers to make the kinds of decisions that were economically, socially, and environmentally beneficial. Whether it was how to optimize cereal rye as a cover crop leading into no-till organic beans or how to better utilize precision ag technologies to reduce fertilizer costs and field run-off, this group of farmers, researchers, agribusinesses, and other innovators cared about building better systems for all growers, not just those who thought exactly like they did.
PFI gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, there was a substantial group of farmers who recognized and embraced the complexity of production agriculture in a way that brought about true progress instead of propping up every element of the status quo. They took shared values—less negative environmental impacts, more positive outcomes for both their own profitability and their consumers' preferences—and allowed their differences to sharpen everyone's ideas instead of precluding collaboration.
Building resilient systems
One of the important elements of a resilient system is effective risk management; in a financial context, reducing investment risk might look like investing in a variety of shares from different companies or sectors instead of placing all our faith in just one. In agriculture and food production on a large scale, I think we can look at a similar strategy; that is, it's good if we don't all do the same thing. There are some relatively objective and largely agreed-upon truths (although those are often updated as research advances, such as the realization over the last few decades that many of the short-term benefits of major soil tillage are more than overtaken by the long-term detriments) that give us parameters for producing healthy food in a safe way; beyond those, there are an infinite number of ways that each farmer can innovate and achieve optimal outcomes across many domains. Some of these innovations may overlap, while others will only work in one precise field or farm. We should not seek to be different simply to be so, but to achieve the best possible results in our unique area/position/situation/location. Variance in production methods will prove beneficial when negative disruptions disturb one particular method. Small livestock farms may not be able to consistently produce sufficient calories for the entire population, yet large confinement operations may be entirely wiped out in one stroke of disease, such as African Swine Fever. Resilient systems don't rely on one solution.
Scaling down the "yes, and..." of farming practices to the individual farm level is at least as fascinating as the big picture, and we'll discuss some of those ideas in future weeks. For now, I'd like us to leave with these questions in our minds. If we were raised or currently work in production agriculture, how are we seeking to build up our neighbors, regardless of what production system they use? For all of us, farmers and others alike, how are we seeking out meaningful conversations about agriculture where we embrace the complexity of the industry?
My solutions might not be your solutions, and that’s okay. At the same time, all of us can improve on our ideas. Let’s help each other do that, in farming and beyond.