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More Farmers Hoofing It… But Organic Farming Will Starve Us?

Hey, Charlie! How about converting the organic farm to organic power?

Now, as diesel prices skyrocket, some farmers who have rejected many of the past century's advances in agriculture have found a renewed logic in draft power. Partisans argue that animals can be cheaper to board and feed than any tractor. They also run on the ultimate renewable resource: grass.

"Ox don't need spare parts, and they don't run on fossil fuels," Mr. Ciotola said.

Animals are literally lighter on the land than machines.

"A tractor would have left ruts a foot deep in this road," Mr. Ciotola noted.

In contrast, oxen or horses aerate the soil with their hooves as they go, preserving its fertile microbial layers. And as an added benefit, animals leave behind free fertilizer [Tess Taylor, "On Small Farms, Hoof Power Returns," New York Times via Center for Rural Affairs, 2011.05.03].

Most farmers probably aren't ready to leap into the post-oil world made by hand and hoof. But as fuel prices head north (and as Big Oil ships more fuel south), maybe we can stretch our energy and land resources by putting our old friends Ox and Mule back to work.

But now to ruin Charlie and Allan's breakfast: this Marketplace report says organic farming can't feed the world:

Mark Rosegrant is with the International Food Policy Research Institute, an organization focused on sustainable ways to end hunger. He says going all organic would require a whole lot more land. Organic farming is, Rosegrant says, a niche market. It's not bad, per se, but...

Rosegrant: It's not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.

The Economist recently had a special issue on global food supplies. One piece ended with the thought that the reaction against commercial farming -- with it's dependence on chemicals -- is "a luxury of the rich" [Adriene Hill, "The Non-Organic Future," Marketplace, 2011.05.04].

Readers, your links and arguments are welcome!


  1. Erin 2011.05.05

    I did see a study recently that said just the opposite. I'll dig it up (no pun intended) and post it here later.

  2. Roger Elgersma 2011.05.05

    When I was a kid on the farm I was told that the horses ate one third of the oats so tractors were much more efficient since they only needed gas on days they were used and did not keep eating all year. It takes about two gallons of diesel fuel to farm the old way, now days they have minimum tillage which does not include plowing which took the most fuel. One bushel of corn produces two and a half gallons of alcohol. So it takes about a bushel and a half to produce the BTU to farm an acre of land. Those who say alcohol is inefficient to produce energy count the energy to make the chemicals, fertilizer and process the alcohol.
    In the eighties when I farmed, lasted all the way through the farm crisis while all neighbors went broke but I eventually did also, the Amish still had the tallest corn and the highest yeilds.
    In the sixties when I was a kid average yeilds in our area was eighty bushels corn per acre. We had one neighbor who would walk through the corn in August getting the very last weed. My dad thought that was a waste of time since the corn was much taller than the weeds by then and the weeds would not do well at that point anyways. But Marv got the last weed. I always wondered why his field had no weeds in the spring before he cultivated and most looked like grass till the cultivator went through. But he had no weeds and no weed seed. Dad asked him how much corn he got. Marv said he does not tell since everyone tells him he is a liar anyways. But he finally said, one hundred fourty bushels an acre. Of course Dad did not believe him. But he did and now those yeilds are typical since the chemicals kill all the weeds. The Amish knew this a long time ago. That is why they thought it not possible to do a good job on more than eighty acres.
    So all our technology does not really do much better than the old man and a hoe. We can just farm much more acres now with one person so the rest of us can build cars, computers and all the other necessities we now need.

  3. mike 2011.05.05

    Erin, Cool blog!

    I don't see why the big farms are so against raising food the organic way.

  4. Aaron 2011.05.05

    An organic farming shift being more labor intensive would require many more knowledgeable farmers with secure land tenure to carry out the longer crop rotations organics generally require. If you want to know more about where a conventional farmer is coming from a blog by John Phipps, an Illinois cash grain farmer and host of US Farm Report, has many informative posts.

  5. Mark 2011.05.05

    There are so many examples of non-industrial agriculture producing more -- and better -- food than today's chemicalized agri-mining.
    ---Will Allen is growing a million pounds of food on a single acre near Milwaukee:
    ---Jean-Paul of Roxbury Farm is growing all the meat and veggies for 1200 families on less than 40 farmed acres a year in his CSA:
    ---Read Farmers of Forty Centuries... the Japanese and Chinese have been growing much more food on less space long before the word "industrial" was even coined:

  6. Eve Fisher 2011.05.06

    Two points: (1) for those who say, well, organic farming (especially using draft animals not tractors) can't feed the world, my response is we're letting a lot of the world starve right now, so that argument doesn't fly. (2) organic farming, especially using draft animals not tractors, would provide a heck of a lot of jobs. Yes, it would be largely manual labor jobs - and you know, there was a time when that wasn't a dirty word.

  7. tonyamert 2011.05.06


    The counter arguments are obviously:

    1.) Sure, but decreased food production will increase the price of foods and there in must lead to more hunger. (your point though is non sequitur, the whole world isn't fed for political/economic reasons right now. Not a lack of production. A large shift to organic farming would lead to more hunger through strictly economic problems.)

    2.) Sure, but we could also just pay people to dig holes and then fill them. Neither are good ideas.

    Organic farming is and always will remain a boutique industry. Its per unit cost production are substantially larger than industrial farming. Until that barrier is overcome it will remain a boutique.

  8. larry kurtz 2011.05.06

    Nothing the Yellowstone supervolcano won't fix, Tony.

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