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Old-Fashioned Crop Rotation Better for Earth and Bottom Line

My neighbor Charlie Johnson forwards me this column from Alan Guebert, who cites a new study that finds three- and four-year crop rotations producing better yields than two-year rotation schemes with half the energy inputs:

...[Three- and four-year rotations] each used less than half the BTUs-calculated by totaling fuel, fertilizer, grain drying, “field operations” and pesticides-than the two-year rotation. When put in terms of gallons of fuel used across the rotations, the two-year system “uses the equivalent of 25.43 gallons of diesel fuel per acre (while the)... three- and four-year rotations are both just over 10 gallons per acre.”

So, what's the catch?

You already know it; you have to farm like your father and grandfather. Longer rotations; use of livestock manure; hay baling; moldboard plow the alfalfa; and, yep, retrieve that cultivator from behind the barn [Alan Guebert, "Wise Old Grandpa and Dad," Farm Forum, 2012.11.16].

Wendell Berry has long recognized the need for us to return to less energy-intenseive farming methods. He advocates the "50-Year Farm Bill," which would focus on ecological sustainability and human health over the corporate profit model.

Don't expect Rep. Kristi Noem to advocate any such deep thinking on farm policy. She's too busy cudgeling her brains to write Happy Thanksgiving wishes on the taxpayers' dime. Gobble gobble.


  1. Bill Dithmr 2012.11.19

    In 1965, Berry moved to a farm he had purchased, Lane's Landing, and began growing corn and small grains on what eventually became a 125-acre homestead.

    Boys if he wasn't writing he couldn't make a living on that much land let alone send kids to college or even pay the bills to keep the farm going. I notice that none of his awards were in ag and yet he is willing to give advice on a fifty year farm plan.

    In this part of the country no till is still the best use of time and money. It leaves the ground healthier then before and gives the best return on investment. Just walk out in a no till field out here and kick over some of the dirt. What you will see is worms worms and more worms. Now that is the sign of a healthy soil. And by the way the rotation that is mentioned doesn't have a market. How do you make money on something like that?

    Sure we are loosing farmers from the little farms. They couldn't make it out there on those little acreages so they had to leave or starve along with their kids and wives.

    You can get by with the use of very little chemicals and have good crops but you have to farm smart. Remember that those chems cost money and that is something that is always in short supply when you have to pay the bills that buy the machines that make life easier.

    Now lets talk about erosion. The only plant that is known to stop erosion in its tracks is hemp. There is no other plant that can be used for so many things as hemp and you don't have to developed a market for hemp it is already here right now.

    Yup money is what drives farmers to farm they way they farm. If it was possible to get by with less land and get the same amount of money per acre they would be doing it but it just cant be done.

    The Blindman

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.20

    I'm all about industrial hemp, Bill! Bring it on!

    But note: there are some market-garden folks who would contend you can make a living on a Berry-sized plot.

  3. Bill Dithmr 2012.11.21

    Cory farm market would work in some places and not in others. Take here for example. We live in a relatively arid part of the country. To get a well that would stand the kind of water pumping that would be required to adequately insure a crop would be almost impossible.

    Next you have the population thing. Our biggest town would be Martin almost forty miles away. So you think that a town of eight hundred people could pay enough money to make someone a living?

    How about workers? For a truck farm that size it would take ten people working at least ten hours a day making ten dollars an hour to keep it up. That’s over a thousand dollars a day just for labor. Lets say that between planting, growing and picking season it might be ninety days, $90,000 just for labor. Did I read that right? Yup. And where are you going to get ten people to work their butts off like that around here?

    I'm all in favor of animal fertilizer but the handling of that source is also expensive. You say why not raise your own animals? How many would it take to service the plants on your farm? Where are you going to get the feed for those animals if you need that much land to truck farm? You cant count on other farmers being generous and just giving you their animal crap because they are already using it for the hillsides of their farms.

    You are talking about more work for fewer gains, that’s called a hobby farm. I don’t know to many people that want to live that way in this day and age. Would you be willing to teach French for sixteen hours a day for free?Well that’s what it would be like. How would your wife like you doing that kind of work?

    The Blindman

  4. larry kurtz 2012.11.21

    Extreme fire Wx for east slope of Black Hills into your area, Bill: keep an eye out.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.11.22

    Bill, indeed, we're in an arid climate west of the river... but does that make small-scale farming any less sustainable than large-scale farming?

    I agree that population is a problem. A truck farm needs a sufficiently large market. Here in Spearfish, we have enough people that the natural proportion of those willing and able to pay extra for fresh local food appears to be large enough to support some small outfits (including our local raw milk dealer!).

    But check the scale again: do we really need that much land and hired labor to make the truck farm work? Don't we get advantages from not having to mortgage ourselves to death on 2000 acres and the giant equipment required to manage it? Recently my friend Rebecca Terk made a quarter of her income on one acre. This is quick math, but that would tell me a family could make a go of it on four acres. Lot smaller mortgage, no combine necessary, and they wouldn't have to hire ten people to do the work.

    True, there are limits to the model. And maybe in our vast open spaces, we can't sustain that model. Maybe the wide opens are just for massive monoculture and grazing. But maybe the small-farm model can work for a majority of rural folks, those who live within an hour or so of a decent-sized town that can form its own agri-region (maybe Wendell Berry's concept, perhaps Kirkpatrick Sale?), meeting its own food needs with more sustainable agricultural practices.

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