Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sharing Farms

Iowa farmer Dick Thompson, 81, has farmed 300 acres for decades using sustainable (but not organic) methods. As described in today's Star Tribune, Thompson rotates corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and oats over five years, and fertilizes with manure from animals he raises, plus biowaste from a nearby town.

The results: the same or better profitability as high-input, much-larger neighbor farms; better soil health; and almost no water pollution.

Thompson's methods, worked out over years by trial and error, are being studied and documented so  they can be replicated by more farmers, and rightly so. But there was one part of the story that particularly caught my attention:

[Thompson's methods] also requires a lot more time and daily management, plus livestock to eat the oats and alfalfa, for which there isn't much of a market anymore.

Which makes some question how many farmers would adopt Thompson's methods.

"That's the way my dad farmed in the 1950s and '60s," said Robert Plathe, a corn and soybean farmer west of Mason City. "If I have a market, that makes sense," he said. It would also help revive agricultural communities because farms would be smaller and more families could live off the land.

But, he pointed out, it's a lot harder, and few people want to farm like that anymore. Animals require daily care, winter and summer.

"Farmers like their free time in the winter," he said.
My solution: Why is it a single family on each farm? Why not have two families per farm (perhaps with more acres, shared) so that they can take turns taking care of the animals during the winter months? This especially makes sense as part of the process of apprenticing farmers to learn the methods.

The idea of the individualistic farmer is one of the things that has to go as we find sustainable solutions to feeding this warming world.

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