The 50-Year Farm Bill

The author of a landmark 1991 Atlantic piece on sustainability looks at American agriculture's current land "emergency" and how to solve it.

(John Sommers II/Reuters)

The uplands of my home country in north central Kentucky are sloping and easily eroded, dependent for safekeeping upon year-round cover of perennial plants. Their best agricultural use is for the production of grazing animals, with most of the land in pastures and hayfields, and perhaps 5 to 10 percent plowed and row-cropped in any year. This was the practice of the best farmers of that country 50 or 60 years ago.

The land husbandry there, as elsewhere, has been in decline since the end of World War II, as agriculture has become more and more industrial, and more and more of the farming people have taken urban jobs or moved away.

But recently and almost suddenly, as ethanol production has driven up the price of grain, our fragile uplands have been invaded by corn and soybeans. Whole farms, with sloping fields that have been in grass as long as I can remember, have been herbicided and planted to annual crops that, because of the drastic reduction of the number of farmers, will not be protected in winter by full-sown cover crops.

This is agriculture determined entirely by the market, and limited only by the capacities of machines and chemicals. The entirely predictable ruination of land and people is the result of degenerate science and the collapse of local farming cultures.

Industrial agriculture characteristically proceeds by single solutions to single problems: If you want the most money from your land this year, grow the crops for which the market price is highest. Though the ground is sloping, kill the standing vegetation and use a no-till planter. For weed control, plant an herbicide-resistant crop variety and use more herbicide.

But even officially approved industrial technologies do not alter reality. The supposed soil saving of no-till farming applies to annual crops during the growing season, but the weather continues through the fall and winter and early spring. Rain continues. Snow falls. The ground freezes and thaws. A dead sod or dead weeds or the dead residue of annual crops is not an adequate ground cover. If this usage continues year after year on sloping land, and especially following soybeans, the soil will erode; it will do so increasingly. And this will be erosion of ground already poisoned with herbicides and other chemicals. Moreover, even with the use of no-till and minimum-till technologies, an estimated half of the applied nitrogen fertilizer runs off into the Mississippi River and finally the dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico. Thus an enormous economic loss to farmers becomes an enormous ecological loss as well.

The industrial providers of single solutions assume that the agricultural structure of a country, a region, or a farm can be built piecemeal of disparate single parts -- parts that do not necessarily, or even probably, fit the other parts of the farm or local ecosystem, and yet will ultimately resolve into a coherent, sensible, even sustainable pattern determined by the disposition of the market. This obviously is nonsense.

A good or a sustainable farm cannot be made in this way. Its parts, even its industrial parts, can be made coherent and lasting only in obedience to the natural laws that order and sustain the local forest or prairie ecosystem. This obedience is not just an option. It is a necessity. By ignoring it, we have condemned our land to continuous waste and pollution, and our cultures of husbandry to extinction.

You can't run a landscape, any more than you can run your life, indefinitely in a state of emergency.

If we hope to correct the consequent disorder, which is both human and natural, we have to begin by recognizing the fundamental incompatibility between industrial systems and natural systems, machines and creatures.

This recognition is not new. The problem was closely studied and made clear by such reputable people as J. Russell Smith, Albert Howard, and Also Leopold, whose publications were available, and were ignored, in the mid-20th century, when the all-out industrialization of farming got underway.

I have described the need for a farm bill that makes sense of and for agriculture -- not the fiscal and political sense of agriculture, as in the customary five-year farm bills, but the ecological sense without which agricultural sense cannot be made, and without which agriculture cannot be made sustainable.

"A 50-Year Farm Bill," which has been in circulation now for more than three years, is a proposal by The Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, with the concurrence of numerous allied groups and individuals. This bill addresses the most urgent problems of our dominant way of agriculture: soil erosion, toxic pollution of soil and water, loss of biodiversity, the destruction of farming communities and cultures. It addresses these problems by invoking nature's primary law, in default of which her other laws are of no avail: Keep the ground covered, and keep it covered whenever possible with perennial plants.

At present, 80 percent of our farmable acreage is planted in annual crops, only 20 percent having the beneficent coverage of perennials. This, by the standard of any healthy ecosystem, is absurdly disproportionate. Annual plants are nature's emergency medical service, seeded in sounds and scars to hold the land until the perennial cover is re-established. By this rule, our present agriculture, which gives 80 percent of our farmland to annuals, is in a state of emergency.

You can't run a landscape, any more than you can run your life, indefinitely in a state of emergency. To live your life, to live in your place, you have got to bring about a settlement that does not involve you continuously in worry, loss, and grief. And so "A 50-Year Farm Bill" proposes a 50-year schedule by which the present ratio of 80 percent annual to 20 percent perennial would be exactly reversed. The ratio then would be 20 percent annual to 80 percent perennial. And perhaps I need to say plainly here that the perennial crops would be forages and grains. Nobody at present is talking about the possibility of breeding and raising perennial table vegetables, though they should.

By reversing this ratio, reducing annual plowing by four-fifths, and making it possible to plow in any year only the least vulnerable land, soil erosion would be radically reduced. So would chemical pollution, because perennials grown in mixtures such as grasses with legumes, as they are in most pastures and many hayfields, are more self-sustaining and less chemical-dependent than annual monocultures.

This proposed great change would involve many smaller changes, not all of which can be foreseen. I would like to enlarge upon just one of these implications.

The perennial plant cover we are talking about would be of several kinds: permanent pastures, pastures in rotation with row crops, perennial crops grown for hay or silage -- and, starting perhaps within 10 years, perennial grain crops grown with grasses, mixtures that at times can, and probably should, be used for grazing.

And so one of the most important results of the perennialization of agriculture would be the movement of farm animals out of their wretched confinement factories where they don't, and can never, belong, and back into the pastures and into the open air where they do belong.

Besides an immense kindness, this movement would be a return to ecological health. It would transfer vast tonnages of so-called "animal waste" from the water courses, where it is a pollutant, to our actual food-producing acreage, where it is an indispensable fertilizer. This, I hope, will also start us thinking again about the disposal of so-called "human waste."

One of our great needs now is for human eaters to understand their eating as just one event within the fertility cycle, the "Wheel of Life," by which, in the fullest state of health, food is carried from the soil to the stomach, and then, as so-called "waste," is carried back again to fertilize the soil. If we keep faith with this cycle, we humans can continue to eat indefinitely. Otherwise, we cannot.

If the "waste" of farm animals, as of farm-dependent humans, actually is wasted, then we are eating finite quantities that we will finally eat up entirely, at which point we will cease to eat.

The fertility cycle is a cycle entirely of living creatures passing again and again through birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay. Industrial technologies may shortcut the cycle for a while. But such shortcuts also interrupt it, bringing it, and us, into danger.