By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
I spent a few days listening to non-farming researchers and scientists decry the way many farmers currently farm as unsustainable, contributing to climate change and harmful to the soil. This was during the Arrell Food Summit’s “Future of Farming” summit and The Globe and Mail’s Future of Farming Event.
I felt insulted, at first. I truly believe farmers are committed to being good stewards of the soil. If not, economics will ensure it because improved soil increases yields.
Yet the older I get, the more I cringe whenever the sprayer rolls onto the fields to pelt destructive insects and invasive weeds with spray, i.e. poison. When I think about the food I put in my kid’s mouths, do I want it to have been sprayed with pesticides, grown in soil enriched with mined fertilizers and then packaged in plastic before it makes it onto our table?
And yet, I totally get how difficult it is to change a large ship once it’s plowing towards its destination and commercial farming is a huge ship. We farm the way we learned it, as sons and daughters learned from fathers and mothers with some education thrown in. All the equipment they need to farm that way is bought and being paid for. The image in their heads of clean fields with straight lines has been ingrained in the visual psyche. And it’s hard to change.
And it works. But at what price? That’s the discussion being had at these food summits.
Farming isn’t static and farmers are smart so they listen, learn and react. I do see farmers making big changes. Cover crops are probably the biggest adaptation I’ve seen on my county roads and it just makes so much sense. Cover crops break the cycle of pests and disease, protect the soil with living plants, allow the roots to feed the mitochondria and fungal mycelium, then can be harvested or incorporated into the soil for fertilizer. Brilliant!
Still, it’s all reliant on large tractors using copious amounts of fuel and the need for fertilizer goes way beyond what composted cover crops can provide (at least as far as I understand it.)
I’m not a crop expert but I do want to speak to what is being said on platforms online where hundreds of foodies watch and start to wonder, “Do farmers really know what they are doing?”
Thing is, they do. They innovate, create, learn and adapt as needed.
For some, it’s using technology and precision agriculture to save on inputs and passes on the field (reducing fuel usage).
For other farmers, it’s about going organic or implementing regenerative farming practices. Regenerative agriculture was touted at these Future of Farming summits as the next model of sustainable farming. It makes sense. While the definition of “regenerative” is under debate, the concept of growing a crop or raising an animal in sync with the land and ecosystem strikes me as an obvious choice to save a stressed planet.
Why feed cows in a barn when as they graze perennial pastures, they fertilize it with their manure? Their waste provides nourishment to soil microbes. These untilled pastures store carbon and the grasslands themselves become an ecosystem where pollinators, naive birds and mammals grow and thrive. The cows eat as they go, not requiring fuel-using machines to harvest, bring and deliver feed to troughs inside barns.
It’s just that pesky season called winter. In Canada, we have to house animals and store feed for survival.
But it seems, right, yes? To take old-fashioned farming and make it modern?
That will be a huge challenge. Would that mean farmers with 10,000 acres would have to sublet land, or create tenant farmers? I only have 120 acres but 10 of those acres are a gorgeous hay field that would be ideal for a market gardening situation. Could I rent or (gasp) GIVE land to young farmers so they have a chance to grow vegetables and start their own dreams of a farm managed with regenerative principles?
Because on top of it all, farming is turning into a social situation. It’s about equity and planet health and creating community that is being lost. There are more animals and less farmers every year and that seems the wrong ratio to pursue.
And yet (another yet) even though I love gardening and raising livestock, I do not want to spend a full day at my income-creating jobs and then come home and try to grow and harvest enough food to feed my family through the winter. That takes a lot of muscle and time when done on a small-scale. I depend on commercial farms and their massive productivity to feed me.
As do all the billions of people who don’t have land to even consider growing their own food as an option.
The future of farming as I see it should be a merging of commercial and regenerative agriculture with each learning from the other to make it ecologistically sustainable and scaleable.
What a simple statement written down. Doing it is far more complex.
But it all starts with ideas and conversations because they lead to creative solutions ... and that’s exciting stuff. ◊