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The problem with commercial agriculture

 
elle sagenev
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Location: Zone 5 Wyoming
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It's been super windy here lately. More so than usual, for the time of year. Blew the peachicks off their feet, literally. They rolled until I got them back into the barn.

Anyway, so the sky has been brown. It's not smog either, it's topsoil. The farmers around us have tilled recently and that top soil is on the move, most likely to Nebraska.
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wayne fajkus
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Tell your farmers thanks from us texans. We will put it to good use when it gets here.
 
Mike Turner
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Location: Upstate SC
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Mini dust bowl. When will they ever learn?
 
Kyrt Ryder
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Location: Graham, Washington [Zone 7b, 47.041 Latitude] 41inches average annual rainfall, cool summer drought
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Mike Turner wrote:Mini dust bowl. When will they ever learn?

When one of two things happens:

A- we prove our methods are more profitable for earth and humanity [farmer included.]

B- they run out of resources [including additional arable plots to pillage.]
 
elle sagenev
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wayne fajkus wrote:Tell your farmers thanks from us texans. We will put it to good use when it gets here.


Ha! I'm using a wee bit myself. The bottom of my Kraters have a nice sprinkling of their dirt.
 
Mickey Kleinhenz
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Location: Houston, TX
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This might be thread stealing, but the title of your post struck a chord and makes me want to bring up a conversation topic for the permie community.

I had an "a-ha" moment a week or so ago and realized that(to me) the problem is not "with" commercial agriculture, but rather, the problem "IS" commercial agriculture.

I came to this conclusion after protracted observation and interaction with the "sustainability" movement, and I guess the "patterns to details" principle was fresh on my mind as well.

Basically what I'm trying to say is that I think "fixing" commercial agriculture is a type 1 error of sorts.
It is concluding that "commercial agriculture can be sustainable". when it fundamentally can't.
I'm really talking about commercial/industrial "anything", but let's focus on agriculture for the sake of the conversation.

The core reason for commercial agriculture's "sustainability failure" is it's connection to the dollar. I'm sure many here are aware that it is just "funny money".
But are we taking actions and drawing conclusions that recognize that reality?

If we are thinking holistically then the recognition that the dollar is fiat and is therefore the embodiment and tool for the control of people is kinda important.

It is the unsustainable engine behind the system of our society.
Any notion of creating "sustainability" on an unsustainable foundation is no different that trying to fix the mast on a sinking ship.

And I don't want to get into monetary policy. That information is out there if people are willing to look and think critically.

What I want to get to is the recognition that there is a clear pattern behind why the sustainability movement is not creating sustainability.
Why "organic agriculture" failed to solve environmental problems, and why "agro-ecology" will fail to solve them as well.
It's because all of these "solutions" are failing to recognize the destructive pattern that is an industrial(ie. commercial) system.

Don't get me wrong agro-ecology is noble and closes loops(part of me loves it), but it is just tools from the closed loop principles of connectivity(ie. ecology) designed to feed into the industrial system of agriculture. Hence "agro-ecology".  As I see it we are needing to move away from the "agro" and toward the "ecology" rather than just bringing in more of the "ecology" to "pretty up" the "agro"(ie. agriculture). 
Even if the tomato comes from the freakin "Garden of Eden" if it gets sold to a packing plant or to a supermarket distributor then it is feeding the beast.
Production on an industrial scale IS the problem. Production on an industrial scale IS agriculture.

This is the failure of systems like Mark Shepard's and Joel Salatins. They didn't quite go far enough. Trying to "save the world" by feeding as many people as possible is just "getting an addict its next fix". Even if you are growing perennials and the calories come cheaper and cheaper year after year. Even if your "factory" farmed chicken lived on grass instead of cement.  You are still pumping into a dying(ie. destructive) system of waste, scarcity, and externalized costs. Even if you grow trees to re-forest half the continent you are still endorsing the dollar system, the clear-cutting of forests, and all things industrial.

I'm not suggesting anarcho-primitivism. I am just suggesting that the trend toward "sustainability" is logically to "scale down" rather than to "scale up"
Resiliency(and sustainability) lie in more farmers, and smaller farms.


And since this isn't a "black and white" issue I will qualify, that for me you are crossing into the (unsustainable)"industrial"/"agricultural" zone once you start trying to produce a single product for more than 50-150 people.
Basically, let's keep "Permaculture" and "agriculture" separate. Permaculture is a tool to REPLACE agriculture, not a tool to "fix" it. I believe that was the intention behind the work of Holmgren and Mollison(especially if you get into chapter 14)


Love to hear your thoughts
 
Tyler Ludens
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Mickey Kleinhenz wrote:
Don't get me wrong agro-ecology is noble and closes loops(part of me loves it), but it is just tools from the closed loop principles of connectivity(ie. ecology) designed to feed into the industrial system of agriculture.


I'm not convinced that is the goal of agroecology.

"agroecology is

The application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.

A whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experiences.

Linking ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments, and viable food and farming communities."

http://www.agroecology.org/index.html

http://www.groundswellinternational.org/sustainable-development/agroecology/
 
John Weiland
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@Mickey K:  "I will qualify, that for me you are crossing into the (unsustainable)"industrial"/"agricultural" zone once you start trying to produce a single product for more than 50-150 people."

Just curious how you came up with that number range.....it does seem consistent with tribe size.

"A British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar figured the same principle ought to apply to all primates – human and non-human alike. In 1992, using the predictive value of neocortex size, he was able to accurately predict average group size for thirty-six species of monkeys and apes. He then followed suit (abstract) for human primates and came up with a human maximum “mean group size” of 150 and an “intimate circle size” of 12. Hypothesis in hand, he then compared his prediction with observed human group sizes, paying special attention to the anthropological literature and reports from hunter-gatherer societies. The homo sapien brain developed around 250,000 years ago, so looking at hunter-gatherers was his best bet for approximating the social behaviors of Paleolithic ancestors.

For the most part, his predictions held true. The upper limit for human social cohesiveness was groups of about 150, and this tended to occur in situations involving intense environmental or economic pressure – like war (Roman maniples contained around 160 men) or early agriculture (Neolithic farming villages ran about 150 deep, and 150 members marked the point at which Hutterite settlements typically split apart). Any higher, and it’d be too costly and require too much social “grooming” to maintain the group.

The hunter-gatherer existence self-regulates tribal size, really. Too few members make hunting unfeasible (as fit as he was, Grok wasn’t taking down a buffalo by himself, let alone lugging it back to camp), and foraging becomes more effective the more hands you commit to the task. A HG group had to be mobile and lean, able to follow the game when it moved. It had to be socially cohesive; people had to coordinate hunts, forage outings, and divvy up food. A large, ranging, sloppy group would mean more weak links, and in a social framework where every member was integral to the success of the whole, it simply wouldn’t work out. As we see with the Hutterites, a hunter-gatherer tribe that got too big for its britches would simply become two hunter-gatherer tribes rather than languish and fail."

From:  http://www.marksdailyapple.com/dunbars-number-group-size/#axzz4FHAeMsWH
 
Mickey Kleinhenz
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Tyler, It's in the third definition that you wrote.

"Linking ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments, and viable food and farming communities."


Like all things this is not black and white. I hope I didn't come across that way. I just think it is a valuable conversation.

 
Tyler Ludens
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I have a problem with the word "agricultural" because I don't think agriculture is sustainable.   http://kennysideshow.blogspot.com/2008/05/agriculture-or-permaculture-why-words.html

I agree with you about "commercial" being problematic.
 
Mickey Kleinhenz
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great article
This is a favorite,
"To call horticulture or permaculture a subspecies of agriculture is one symptom of this, a semantically Freudian slip that evinces and reinforces a much deeper cultural conviction, and a much deeper cultural narrative. By transforming the living world into nothing more than a unit of production, agriculture trains us to see all cultivation not in terms of ecological relationship, but as an economic equation of energy in and energy out. It makes our scale one of how much we modify the ecology, rather than the kind of modifications we make. Intrinsic to this view is our mythology of humans vs. nature"
 
John Weiland
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From linked article, through Mickey K: "To call horticulture or permaculture a subspecies of agriculture is one symptom of this, a semantically Freudian slip that evinces and reinforces a much deeper cultural conviction, and a much deeper cultural narrative. By transforming the living world into nothing more than a unit of production, agriculture trains us to see all cultivation not in terms of ecological relationship, but as an economic equation of energy in and energy out."

Yeah....I agree with this.  It came up here before and I heard it again recently from a colleague....that notion that the environment is a subset of the economy.  I was stunned when I heard that some economists actually believe this, but I can also imagine it depends on one's point of reference.  My own view is that permaculture *can* be a discipline or study, but feels more like an all-encompassing way of life.  To me, Agroecology is one of the "-ologies"...like bi-ology or ge-ology.  It seems first and foremost to be a field of study.  If someone tells me "I am a farmer...", I take this as a mixture of lifestyle and profession.  If they tell me "I am an agriculturalist...", I probably will think they are someway involved in agricultural research or ag systems.  I suspect there are many agroecologists who may, for example, live a rather standard urban lifestyle not so very 'permaculturally'.....and study and research agroecology as their chosen discipline.  If someone tells me "I'm a permie....", then immediately in my mind, I'm envisioning someone who views all aspects of their livelihood as something with impact on the present and future environment.

With regard to Elle S's photos at the start of the thread, there is some farming that is done with concern for sustainability, but it's hard to separate most large scale farming from strip mining.
 
Tyler Ludens
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I think you might be selling agroecology short, the way some people do with permaculture, because of a lack of context.  I encourage you to watch this film about agroecology in the Global South:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rK0HFCQeyvo

I don't see agroecology in conflict with permaculture, I think they are parallel tracks on the same path.


Neil Layton posted about it:  http://www.permies.com/t/57831/books/Agroecology-Ecology-Sustainable-Food-Systems
 
Mickey Kleinhenz
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I watched the film. It only furthered my disbelief in the agro-ecology movement. Especially when the example of "agroecology" was gridding out barren earth only to chip in holes, mix in manure, and force a yield. All monoculture. With a backdrop of monoculture sorghum.
And then the first half? Changing villagers lives by selling them electricity(solar) instead of selling them kerosene. It may be burning less fossil fuels, but it is hardly a paradigm shifter.

Don't you remember when "organic agriculture" was gonna save the world? It was gonna change the system and rebuild the soils, stop climate change, and make everything "sustainable".
Watching that video just reinforced the recognition that it is the same pattern repeating itself. Trying to fix a broken paradigm by working from within a broken paradigm.
Like with weeds. Instead of looking toward what to "do" the sustainable answer lay in what to "not do". "Don't cultivate so much", "Don't expose bare soil", ect
Before trying to add things like "soil regeneration" and "water conservation" we should look at what we can leave behind. Mainly the authoritarian, industrial, exploitative, hierarchical, yield driven, linear system of rigid control, aka agriculture.
Leaving behind agriculture means changing the structure of society as we know it. It's a big deal and it's scary to consider, but it is the sustainable solution.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Did you look over more of the agroecology websites?  I think you're getting a narrow view, exactly the way people get about permaculture.  I'm not seeing the conflict with permaculture.  And as far as people planting monocultures, it's really difficult to change traditional diets overnight.  It's a good bet most people here on permies still get the majority of their diet from agriculture, not permaculture, but we demand some poor folks somewhere do something we aren't capable of doing ourselves?  And how is people using PV in their village different from permaculturists using PV?  People talk about and promote the use of PV here on permies all the time, but people don't complain about it not being a paradigm shifter.

"An Ecological Definition of Sustainable Agriculture
       By Professor Stephen R. Gliessman

Sustainable agriculture:
A whole-systems approach to food, feed, and fiber production that balances environmental soundness, social equity, and economic viability among all sectors of the public, including international and intergenerational peoples. Inherent in this definition is the idea that sustainability must be extended not only globally but indefinitely in time, and to all living organisms including humans.


Sustainable Agroecosystems:

Maintain their natural resource base.
Rely on minimum artificial inputs from outside the farm system.
Manage pests and diseases through internal regulating mechanisms.
Recover from the disturbances caused by cultivation and harvest."

http://www.agroecology.org/Principles_Def.html

(I still have a problem with the use of the word "agriculture" in this context)
 
Tyler Ludens
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Here's a presentation about urban agroforestry combining permaculture and agroecology:  https://www.extension.iastate.edu/forestry/tri_state/2015%20agro/Talks/Mann_Urban%20Forestry.pdf

It touches on a point I've made a bunch of times, that most people live in cities so it would be most beneficial to focus permaculture efforts in cities, not in broad scale agriculture.

Paper about the importance of trees in agroecology:  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24821184

 
Lynne Smith
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They may not learn for a LONG long time. They haven't so far.
They tear up the land, destroy it, take the nutrients from it. Some do not even rotate crops. And then expect it to work well.
Then they use the nasty poisons on it.
People have become lazy. They no longer know how to grow.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Mickey Kleinhenz wrote: Especially when the example of "agroecology" was gridding out barren earth only to chip in holes, mix in manure, and force a yield....It was gonna change the system and rebuild the soils


I'm not seeing how adding manure to the soil and stopping erosion with rock dams isn't building the soil.

Zai holes are a technique perfectly compatible with permaculture, these concepts being explained and depicted in the Designers Manual (p 374) 

http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/the-man-who-stopped-the-desert-what-yacouba-did-next/

Many articles seem to define permaculture as similar to agroecology.  https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=agroecology+and+permaculture&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiZ15S-y47OAhVIKiYKHVK-BwsQgQMIGjAA

 
Wes Hunter
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Maybe I'm being dense, but to my way of thinking "commercial agriculture" is producing food/fiber/fuel for sale, and nothing more.  The term has nothing to do with scale, or method, or skill, or effects.  Many people do it well, and many people do it poorly.  As a small commercial farm, we produce things for sale and, miracle of miracles, we do it without sending massive dirt vortices into the heavens, without monocropping, without animal confinement, without depleting the soil, etc. etc. etc. 

"Permaculture" always amuses me a little, because by and large its principles are simply the way farming ("agriculture") used to be done.  Now it has just been codified.

The question of scale is an interesting one.  Polyface Farm produces food for a lot of people (though not, I think, with the intention of "feeding the world"), but they also employ a lot of folks.  Putting a magical limit of 50-150 folks fed probably doesn't account for that.  A farm is not a static, rigidly defined entity.  What's more--and I don't say this as any kind of self-appointed Salatin apologist--they (and all of us) are farming in the real world, not some lovey-dovey koombaya-singing peaceful money-and-status-free utopia.  They scale up to produce good food that heals the land, because apparently nobody else will.  I suppose they could leave a lot of that land to be managed per the status quo, but it strikes me that their way is preferable, even if it isn't perfect.

I would love it if land was still priced according to productive capacity, where a few good crop years could pay for a farm.  I would love it if I didn't have to make a few hundred dollars per year just to pay real estate and personal property taxes.  I would love it if I could make my mortgage payment with eggs and pork and tomatoes and kale.  I would love it if we still had thriving small communities that had the necessary support industries for the surrounding small farms, and enough small farms to support the local communities.  But that isn't the world we live in anymore.
 
John Weiland
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@Wes H. : "....by and large its principles are simply the way farming ("agriculture") used to be done."

Although you use of "by and large" buys you some wiggle room, I don't really agree with this statement.  Granted there was a proportion of farming across the globe that not only tried to minimize loss and waste, but in some cases even rejuvinate the environment which sustained the farm, there was probably much that fell under the realm of farming that was mostly 'extractive'.  The cultural sentiments that mine the earth for riches, the seas for fish and other commodities, and the forests and prairies for animal and timber booty are and were likely to be at play on many farmsteads as well.  Permaculture seems to have a target of sustainable society, including rural and what might constitute urban under that title.  Sustainable small-scale farming per se does not (to me) seem to address the sustainability of urban existence.

"....they (and all of us) are farming in the real world"

And I always like to modify this to say "the current *real* human-constructed world", because of course the "real world" is not only a human one.  But more to your point, yes,....they are making a living within the cultural and socio-economic situation in which they find themselves.  Nevertheless, we can thank Wakan Tanka for the fact that "A farm is not a static, rigidly defined entity."  ...... that change brought us into industrialized, extractive practices and change will be needed to get us out, either under some sort of human guidance or otherwise.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Wes Hunter wrote:
"Permaculture" always amuses me a little, because by and large its principles are simply the way farming ("agriculture") used to be done.


I disagree.  Permaculture shares some techniques with traditional farming, but permaculture is a system of design, not a set of techniques.  Bill Mollison mentions this in the Designers Manual when he says "there's nothing new in permaculture."  What is new is the selection of techniques to increase rather than decrease the biological productivity of the land and the placement of those techniques in relationship to each other within a design which mimics the functions of  an ecosystem.

 
Wes Hunter
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[quote]I disagree.  Permaculture shares some techniques with traditional farming, but permaculture is a system of design, not a set of techniques.  Bill Mollison mentions this in the [i]Designers Manual[/i] when he says "there's nothing new in permaculture."  What is new is the selection of techniques to increase rather than decrease the biological productivity of the land and the placement of those techniques in relationship to each other within a design which mimics the functions of  an ecosystem.[/quote]

I'm referring to this concept that "agriculture" is inherently destructive while "permaculture" is inherently productive.  Yes, much historical farming was destructive, but much of it was well ordered and managed and was productive while building soil and fertility.  It's not as though "farming" as an act was this terrible monster until permaculture came along and saved the day.

Much, if not all, of what permaculture does today is what good farms did anyway.

Edit: To be clear, I say all this in the context of a simplistic "Agriculture is bad, permaculture is good" type of mentality, when, in practice, "agriculture" can take many forms, some of them remarkably similar to permaculture in regards to methodology and ultimate effects.  I guess I'm just suggesting we don't throw the baby out with the bath water, and that we don't get too hung up on labels.
 
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