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     The host of the awards banquet wore shorts and a tie-dyed shirt, and his wavy hair hung to his shoulders. He talked about love, respect, and community.

     A few hours earlier, in a building nearby, a different-looking group had gathered. They were neat and trim, with long pants and button-down shirts. They talked business.

     These groups were both attending the 2001 Ecological Farming Conference near Monterey, California. The first group were bread-and-butter organic farmers and activists. The second were wholesalers of organic food who held their own private reception. When one old-school organic farmer crashed their party, someone recognized her and asked, “What are you doing here?”

     The organic farming movement had met its business partners, and it was pretty awkward.

      Just as some people in the organic movement now look more like businessmen than hippies, many organic farms now resemble conventional farms more than 1960’s communes. Like all organic farms, they still don’t use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, but they’ve started to get larger, plant a smaller variety of crops, and mass market their products rather than selling them at farmers’ markets. National standards for the organic food industry, passed in December by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, promise to hasten that trend, and expand the market for organic food, officials say.

     “The organic movement has changed into a little bit more of a business and an industry perspective,” said Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm in California’s Capay Valley, about two hours northeast of San Francisco. “Many parts of the organic industry are marching straight down the same road as conventional agriculture.” Redmond wants the movement to continue its work on social and environmental aspects of farming. Her goal is not just to eliminate a few chemicals, but to “refashion the whole paradigm of agriculture.”

     The conventional and organic paradigms are like apples and oranges. One is large-scale, based on technology and low production costs; the other is intimate, based on the harmonious, young science of “agroecology.” But the economic forces that threaten them are cut from the same cotton. Conventional farms are failing because they cannot compete with farms in developing countries, where labor costs a fraction of what it does in the U.S. And simply expanding organic onto larger acreage may undermine prices, making organic farming unsustainable. The two camps will have to find middle ground, or soon their ground may not be worth farming.

A World Apart

     J.G. Boswell Co. of the San Joaquin Valley—California’s largest farming company, with more than $100 million in annual sales of dairy, cotton, and other crops—epitomizes large-scale farming. Before planting, its roughly 80,000 acres (125 square miles) of cotton are bare, kept clean of weeds by chemicals and whirring blades. In some of its fields, each tractor drives a full mile, planting 20 rows at once, before turning around. Every three inches it plants exactly one cotton seed exactly one inch below the surface. The valley is so flat that the elevation change over the average mile-long row is only six inches. During the summer, nothing is visible but identical cotton plants from horizon to horizon, evenly spaced and bred to develop in lockstep so their fiber can be harvested all at once.

     Boswell’s large size is part of the conventional farmer’s strategy to reduce labor costs, and technology is the farmer’s main tool. The most notorious new technology is genetic engineering, which creates previously unimagined crops by bombarding or infecting a plant’s DNA with genes from unrelated organisms. The Midwest leads the nation in these crops, but California is starting to plant transgenic cotton.

     A less controversial, but no less powerful approach to cost cutting is called “precision agriculture.” Boswell is already one of the most precise operations anywhere, but its field managers may soon have the option of mapping the fertility, soil density and average yield of every square yard of their fields. They could then use satellite guidance and the resulting map to apply exactly the right amount of fertilizer and other soil treatments. They already use satellites to steer their driverless tractors in perfectly straight rows (see “The Plow and the Satellite” in SN 2000). Agricultural engineers are developing a system that will determine the depth at which the soil starts to dry out, and plant each seed just below that depth. Satellite-based infrared photography can measure field temperature, helping the farmer decide how much water to use.

     This is surely the type of operation that inspired the derogatory term “factory farm.” But it is also enormously efficient in terms of labor and materials; farmers apply water, fertilizer and other soil treatments in the exact amounts necessary.

     Camp Joy, an organic farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains of northern California, is like another planet. It has dozens of fruit and vegetable crops growing at once, providing produce to 25 families from a parcel the size of three football fields. Crop rotations include vegetables with different root structures, growing seasons, and flowering times. This ensures both a diverse biological community for beneficial insects and soil organisms and a diverse product for its customers. Frequent cover crops, not for sale but to be plowed under or eaten by goats, build “soil organic matter.” This substance, a chemical hairball of organic acids, enhances the soil’s tendency to hold nutrients and form a “crumb” texture provides the perfect home for roots to grow and gather nutrients. It builds fertility and holds the soil in place on the steep terrain of Camp Joy, which rises as far in 10 feet as Boswell’s land rises in a mile.

   The discipline of “agroecology” has grown up to study the relationships between agriculture and the creatures—from goats down to bacteria—that populate such farms. Conventional crop science feeds the crop with fertilizers, whereas agroecology aims to feed the system, replacing fertilizers with the natural recycling ability of soil organic matter.

     Jim Nelson, owner of Camp Joy, says he tries to make his farm mimic the nearby redwoods. “The forest always has these grazing animals, which are chewing and pooping, chewing and pooping,” he said. So he uses goats to recycle nutrients, and they give cheese and milk in return for generous helpings of grass and tree bark.

     Cultivating a diverse set of organisms also contributes to pest control. “More often than not, you don’t need to eradicate a pest,” he said, “you need to bring it into balance and manage it.” Whereas conventional farms often try to minimize the presence of any organism but the crop, Nelson tolerates most pests. “The pests are actually strengthening the biological systems,” he says. Some studies found that a small amount of insect attack could make crops grow more vigorously.

     Bruce Roberts, farm advisor for Kings County in the San Joaquin Valley, says the real environmentalists are conventional farmers. Organic farming’s obsessive focus on eliminating chemicals obscures the environmental advances made by conventional farmers, such as precision farming. “Going backward to strictly relying on organic,” he argues, “prevents us from utilizing creative technologies and new solutions.” Solutions like precision farming, which is proven to reduce the use of water, chemicals, and cropland.

     Organic and conventional farmers are worlds apart in both their farming techniques and their views on how farming should fit with the rest of nature. But they have one thing in common: the threat of extinction.

The Big Squeeze

     Farming is more expensive now than it was at mid-century, but food is cheaper. Farmers are caught in the jaws of this economic vise, which forced 17 percent of farmland into nonagricultural use, and almost half of all farms into sale or retirement since 1959.

     Conventional farms like Boswell have responded by increasing productivity (which is up 18 percent nationwide since 1989). For now, agricultural scientists say they are near a biological limit on how much they can grow on an acre. So farmers can boost productivity only by getting bigger. A farmer needs far less equipment for a single 1,000-acre farm than for ten 100-acre farms.

     Productivity gains have succeeded in pushing the cost of farming to rock bottom. But if agriculture is a race to the bottom, technology won’t save U.S. farmers. Countries with prevailing wages around 50 cents an hour will always be able to offer a lower price, even if without cutting edge technology.

     Economist Steven Blank summed this up in the title of his 1998 book The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio. He predicts a large percentage of land and labor will leave farming to go where the money is. “It’s not that agriculture is all that unprofitable, but it’s people that want to use land for alternate uses,” he said. At the same time, “technological advances have made us better and better producers,” so food prices stagnate. As long as farmers produce a uniform product that can be grown more cheaply elsewhere, they are at the mercy of an unfavorable market.

The Race for Quality

     “If there is a way to improve the profit margin of agriculture,” Blank said, it is to “add value to the commodity in some way.” California’s world-famous wines prove his point. “The wine industry is probably the best example,” he said. “Consumers can detect a difference, and are willing to pay maybe a little more for one type of wine than another.”

     “A little more” may be an understatement. With good wines available for $10-$20, Al Brounstein of the Napa Valley sells his Lake Vineyard Cabernet for $250. And, as Wine Spectator reports, “every time he raises the price, the wine sells faster.”

     The trend extends beyond that spectacular example. Despite the drop in U.S. farm acreage since 1959, acreage of higher-priced fruits and vegetables is up (by 8 percent for vegetables and 25 percent for fruit). A large part of the increase in such “high-value” crops happened in California.

     Organic farming has an oddball way to command higher prices. “When you’re talking about organic,” Blank said, “all you’re really talking about is a different production system. But there won’t be any significant differences in the product unless the consumer thinks there are differences.” Many organic farmers swear their food tastes better, too. But they also acknowledge that consumer support for their practices is essential to industry profitability. In 1998, prices for organic produce were 40 percent to 175 percent higher than their conventional equivalents, according to the USDA.

     Many in the organic movement worry that large farms will try to cash in on these higher prices by obeying the letter of the organic law. “We’re starting to see the emergence of a term like ‘true organic,’” said Carol Shennan, director of the University of California, Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology. “True organic” denotes small farms that still hold to the social and ecological principles of organic farming’s pioneers.

     The alternative is “input substitution.” “The emphasis is still on inputs, just changing the kinds of input,” Shennan said. For example, the farmer can simply swap ammonium nitrate fertilizer for organically acceptable replacements such as blood meal or fish meal, which may be no better for the environment than synthetics, Shennan said.

Bridging the Gap

     The Bunn farm, a 2,000 acre spread near Salinas, is an old farm that’s new to organic. “We grow the organic produce because there is growing interest in the marketplace,” said fourth-generation farmer David Bunn. Describing organic food as just another market upsets the organic old guard. But Bunn says money isn’t his only motivation.

     “We also hope we can learn more about farming,” he said. Judging from their farm, they’ve already started. “Now we use compost on the organic and the conventional fields,” he said. Compost is a popular method among organic farmers for recycling farm waste into fertilizer. “Organic farming has also confirmed that cover cropping is very good for the soil.”

     Jim Nelson, of Camp Joy, said he hopes such learning experiences will become more common. “Conventional farmers just cranking out organic crops is kind of Nowheresville,” he said. “But it’s one little step in the right direction.”

     Roberts, the conventional farm advisor, says it’s an unnecessary step. “It’s being locked into a system that doesn’t allow you to think ahead,” he said. If agriculture is to undergo what organic growers call a “paradigm shift,” it has to take advantage of both ecological and technological innovations. And it must start with a farming method capable of producing a significant portion of the country’s food. The only method that can do that, Roberts says, is large-scale conventional agriculture.

     The fight over how to build truly sustainable agriculture may be won on battleground like David Bunn’s farm. “We’re kind of pulled in both directions,” he said. “There are movements or sentiments in both camps that we’re suspicious of.” On the one hand, he said, “I’m concerned that the conventional farming mindset does run too quickly to what promises a quick buck.” On the other, “the organic industry has to be very honest about what it’s achieved and what it hasn’t.”

     The real conflict might not be organic versus conventional, but intransigence versus cooperation. Bunn sees some hope that compromise will win out. “Conventional farmers have come to respect organic as they’ve seen their neighbors be able to make it work,” he said. Until farmers find this mutual respect, they may spend too much energy digging trenches instead of plowing fields.


WRITER Ben Shouse
B.A., biology, Brown University; M.S., ecology, University of California, Davis
Internship: Science magazine—European office, Cambridge, England
ILLUSTRATOR Kyra Kopestonsky
B.A., biology, Hiram College
Internship: pending

Text © 2001 Ben Shouse
Illustrations © 2001 Kyra Kopestonsky
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