Moving Away from Mechanized Agriculture and Getting Back to the Soil
The 15th annual Northern Michigan Small Farm Conference was filled with inspiration. The common theme of the day was the fundamental differences between industrial farming and real farming. This was evident in the keynote speaker’s words that resonated through the largest ballroom of Grand Traverse Resort in Traverse City, Michigan.
John Ikerd is the author of Small Farms are Real Farms, and he was introduced by a man who admitted to being a recovering industrial farmer. Ikerd prefaced his speech by telling the audience that some people will not agree with him. He told the crowd he would speak his truth with conviction, and encouraged others to do the same. Ikerd’s message was that through collaboration and explanation of why each of us believe in our individual truths, we can get closer to THE truth.
Ikerd expressed a need for the nature of farming to change from a purely economic practice to one that considers the health of the land, environmental sustainability and promotes healthy eating. Small farms are the only real farms, which is defined by the farmer’s mindset rather than the size of the yield or the annual profits.
Economic growth has limits in a finite world
The systems of industrial farming are dependent on the overuse of fossil fuels, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and GMO seeds which only serve to benefit the economic gains for the industrial farmers themselves. Ikerd made it very clear that a change of agricultural practices is necessary for life to be sustained, but he does not blame the people who have made a career from farming that has become mechanized and based purely on economic growth. Ikerd is 75 years old, and he spent the first thirty years of his career as an industrial farmer, because he was told that this was the farming of the future. He has spent the last 30 years fighting for a change in these practices that are destroying the earth.
Industrial farming has given the people of the United States a wide array of food options throughout the year, regardless of the time of year or where the food is grown. This food is also very cheap compared to countries all around the world. What is not to like? Ikerd attributed the increase of heart disease, obesity, high cholesterol and other health related issues to the American diet. This diet includes highly processed foods high in calories. These foods lack essential nutrients. This nutrient deficiency has caused us to still be hungry after eating, because our bodies are asking for these nutrients. Ikerd connected the USDA data that shows Americans are eating 25 percent more food than they did in the 1960s to the current obesity problem.
Ikerd’s speech moved beyond the negative aspects of the industrial agriculture to provide a message of hope. Interest and sales of organic food has been increasing for the last 20 years, along with community supported agriculture programs. Another primary point of the message was small farms allow the farmers to know their land and connect directly with the people who are eating their food. Industrial farmers have too large of a market to know their customers and don’t particularly care for the health of the so-called consumers. The model of industrial farming is to simplify, standardize and consolidate power.
The monoculture systems of industrial farms till the large fields and grow one single crop, like corn or soy. Tilling the fields kills the habitats of the insects that live in the soil, which gives them nowhere to go but in the plants, which is then solved by spraying large amounts of harmful insecticides. Each type of plant has different nutrients that it is looking to obtain from the soil. With a whole field of one crop, each plant is vying for the same thing, which can’t be provided on a large scale. This results in a lack of real nutritional value. The industrial farmers work to increase yield and profit without consideration for health and sustainability.
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The goal of the small farm conference is to instill hope and inspire existing and aspiring farmers to continue to grow with sustainable agricultural practices. The agricultural revolution is necessary for the people of this world to regain control of the food supply. How can you help? Buy local, organic foods. Create relationships with your local farmers and ask them about their agricultural practices. The only way to know your food is safe is to know where it comes from.
Most of all, vote with your dollar. Buy products from farmers markets and stores that you know employ ecologically responsible practices with concern for the health and well-being of its clientele. Saving money on cheap food is not going to equate to the astounding medical costs that result from fatty, nutrient-empty foods.