Specialization has a future in ag, and in unexpected ways

Two models of farming currently dominate North American agriculture: An industrial model of production which describes most conventional farming methods, and an alternative model of production which encompasses both organic and sustainable farmin...

Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D.
Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D., FarmersÕ Forum columnist

Two models of farming currently dominate North American agriculture: An industrial model of production which describes most conventional farming methods, and an alternative model of production which encompasses both organic and sustainable farming methods. Both models of farming are changing rapidly.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture definition of conventional farming notes that this method relies heavily on genetically modified seeds and other forms of biotechnology, synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides such as herbicides and insecticides that usually require GM crops, production of livestock in concentrated animal feeding operations and the use of hormones and antibiotics to promote livestock growth and efficiency.

Agricultural statisticians often add two more descriptors: 1) Conventional farmers generally specialize in the production of one or a few crops and one or a few species of livestock or poultry, and 2) They operate their farms mainly as businesses, rather than as a way of life.

What is conventional these days was anything but conventional 60 years ago. Older farmers remember a conventional farm as one on which nearly every farmer produced several different crops, like corn, oats, wheat and hay, and raised pigs, beef cattle, a vegetable garden and kept a few milk cows and often chickens, geese or other fowl.

Alternative farming, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, entails a range of practices that eliminate or minimize reliance on manufactured pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, CAFOs and which reduce adverse environmental consequences of agricultural production, such as fertilizer runoff. Alternative agriculture incorporates both organic and sustainable methods, but they are quite different.


Certified organic agricultural production, according to the National Organics Program, requires no use of GM seeds, synthetic, non-natural or unapproved fertilizers, pesticides or animal medications, and encourages livestock production methods that allow animals to live in natural environments such as free ranges as much as possible.

The USDA has adopted the National Organic Program standards. To become a certified organic farm requires a detailed history of farming practices, three years of compliance with organic standards unless the land was fallow and otherwise complied with requirements, regular inspections and testing of products for unapproved substances.

Sustainable farming practices, such as filter strips along waterways, are often carried out by both conventional and alternative farmers. Sustainable usually means there is something about how the product is grown or processed that growers and marketers want to signify, such as "grass-fed beef," or "non-bovine somatotropin milk." Sustainable is not necessarily organic.

Many conventional farmers say they would like to farm organically, but they don't want to take the risks that are necessary.

Plant pollen, herbicide and insecticide drift from nonorganic farming operations and contaminated water flowage from conventional farms are common problems for organic farmers. Financial assistance, limited to $750 per certification, is available through the USDA Farm Service Agency for application fees and inspection costs.

Organic farming operations constituted 1 percent of all U.S. farms and farmed acreage in 2016. The number of certified organic farms and acreage increased 13 percent during 2016, the most recent year for which data exist. The number of conventional farms is declining and their acreage as well. Production per acre is increasing for both approaches.

Conventional farms incorporate ever larger machinery, technological advances and GM tactics to enhance production of crops and livestock. For their successors to take over the operation requires considerable land, buildings, farming equipment, crop storage and working capital.

In contrast, organic and other alternative farmers usually start small and favor local farmers' markets, cooperative food delivery systems, community-supported agriculture enterprises and other innovative methods of producing organic food efficiently, such as hydroponics. There are some very large alternative agriculture operations that rival the largest conventional farms, but most organic farms are smaller operations.


Children of organic farmers are more likely to carry on the farming operations eventually than the children of conventional farmers. Organic producers also like that they enhance a culture which integrates them with consumers.

Can organic production methods yield sufficient food and other essentials? Contrary to a popular contention that only biotechnological advances will feed a growing world population, research comparisons show that high technology favors some crops (e.g., corn) while organic farming favors others (e.g., soybeans).

Production costs are about equal. Higher costs of seed, fertilizer, and pesticides for conventional producers are offset by higher costs for mechanical cultivation and labor for organic producers.

Market prices favor organic production methods for most commodities in the U.S. and around the modern world. For example, feed-grade organic soybeans currently earn twice as much net income as conventional soybeans. Organic meat, milk and eggs also command superior prices.

Both approaches have a similar aim: To feed the world. Consumer preferences drive the current gradual conversion of farming approaches from conventional to organic.

In the foreseeable future, agriculture will become more urbanized. Both high-tech and organic approaches have their places in feeding a growing population and to preserve farm culture.

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