Kirschenmann Explores Farm Size and Sustainability

by Chuck Francis, UNL Center for Sustainable Agricultural Systems

Farm size is not necessarily an indicator of sustainability in today's agriculture. North Dakota organic farmer and livestock producer Fred Kirschenmann explored the impacts of farm scale during a keynote speech at the NSAS Annual Meeting in Columbus. He then described ways we can learn to farm economically and still follow an ecological standard.

Kirschenmann first presented four clues to the answers of size, efficiency, and sustainability in farming:

1. Smaller is not necessarily better. New generation pesticides provide a technology that uses drastically lower amounts of active ingredient, leaving residues so minute that they are barely detectable; this does not mean they are harmless. A certain level of scale is necessary to create biological diversity in time (rotations) and space (multiple species in field).

2. Bigger is not always worse, but at some scale it can be. Livestock concentration converts a valuable resource (manure) into a waste product that causes an expensive disposal problem. Another example is the vast acreage of monocropped wheat. An estimated 450 trillion stalks of wheat in 1994 would suggest this crop is far from endangered, yet the opposite is true as we move to greater genetic uniformity.

3. While economies of scale do play a role, bigness does not assure efficiency or productivity. Green revolution technology gave higher yielding varieties, but when health costs are factored in, many of the gains are canceled out. Punjabi wheat production has helped to feed India, but it has depleted the groundwater, replaced grain legume crops, and reduced efficiency of use of scarce production inputs.

4. The issue is not bigness or smallness, but the appropriateness of technology. To farm ecologically, we need to think like a biotic community. What is used from nature must be returned to nature without harming living organisms. Three principles apply: we must use current energy, all waste must become food in the cycle, and diversity is essential for stability and system integrity.

The nationally known sustainable agriculture advocate then gave some guidelines on how to farm economically by an ecological standard. He cited the dependence of industrial agriculture on fossil energy, and a narrow focus on 15 plant species to provide more than 90% of our crop-based production; neither is sustainable. We need a conversion from old economies of mass produced food at a cheap price, to niche products and flexible crops with multiple uses. We must learn to adapt, unlike the Vikings who settled Greenland about 900 years ago and then disappeared, unable to sustain a transplanted system they were unwilling to change. The First Peoples survived very well in that same place.

Kirschenmann concluded that organic agriculture must not fall into the trap of pursuing success based on the industrial model, simply substituting "natural" inputs for synthetic ones. If organic agriculture mirrors itself after the industrial food system, rather than enhancing its differentiation by developing diverse and ecologically designed systems and focusing on developing local foodshed, it will lose its market advantage.

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