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Sustainable agriculture must be profitable

I may have mentioned this before, but I have no animosity toward anyone who wants to grow organic crops. In fact, if I had the acreage, the energy and the know-how, I think operating an organic truck farm near a decent-size city would be a good way to make a living.

But I have had a bit of experience with small truck farms. We always planted a big garden when I was a kid. Just about everyone did. We raised and canned tomatoes, beans of all kinds, sweet corn and a few fruit crops. And my dad raised the best sweet potatoes I’ve ever eaten; Georgia reds, I think they were.

We had some free range chickens, occasionally a hog or two and I raised a calf one time. I spent more than a few hours in the summer hoeing bermudagrass out of watermelon and cantaloupe patches, picking butterbeans and okra and chasing cows out of the sweet corn and back into the pasture. We spent a lot of evenings shelling peas, snapping beans and shucking corn.

Keeping a garden was hard work. At the time, we had no herbicides to keep grass out of the vegetables, thus the hoes. We sometimes used sevin dust to kill insects on some of the vegetables and would pull those big, ugly green worms off tomato vines and smush them on a rock. That was our integrated pest management system.

Dad had a small Farmall Cub tractor we used to break land, cultivate and haul stuff behind, so we weren’t dependent on a mule as he was when he was growing up — a blessing.

We often used manure (when we had livestock available) for fertilizer. We used commercial products when no animals were on the place. We farmed about as green and about as economically as we knew how.

But we didn’t grow large quantities of food. We tended the garden mostly for our own consumption. Had we expanded to commercial size, the labor force (us) would have been stretched. Dad worked in the cotton mill, usually five or six days a week, 51 weeks a year. And mom and dad insisted we go to school, and we played sports and studied occasionally so our time was limited, too. Hiring labor would have been out of the question to remain economically viable.

And that, it seems to me, is what limits organic agriculture today. It’s hard enough for farmers to find competent labor to work on conventional farm operations. With organic farms, the labor demand would go up significantly.

I read two articles recently that made that point. One was about a movement called the Crop Mob, a group of people interested in learning about agriculture and willing to do volunteer labor on nearby farms to gain the experience. The farmer feeds them and directs their efforts.

One person that was quoted said organic farming requires so much labor that owner/operators have little time to do anything else. Having the Crop Mob come in gives them a head start on some of the more labor intensive projects and frees them to do other things — like spend time with their families.

Another article noted that sustainable agriculture is a worthwhile goal, that conserving natural resources is essential to maintain productivity. The piece also expressed the idea, however, that for any farm to be sustainable it also has to be profitable. In some cases, growers can do that with organics; in others, they need all the technology available, including biotech seeds and approved chemicals.

It’s encouraging to see those sentiments in print. It’s also encouraging to realize that farmers of all sizes, philosophies and abilities remain willing to invest the labor necessary to provide food and fiber for the rest of us.

And I am thankful that I don’t get up every day knowing that I have to spend hours with a hoe handle putting blisters on my hands.


TAGS: Management
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