Monday, August 23, 2010

Agricultural experimentation

On my drive cross-country this week, I have enjoyed seeing a great diversity of agricultural research fields. 

For example, on Wednesday, I visited the Rodale Institute's experiment station near Kutztown, which has the longest running scientific experiment directly comparing organic to conventional production strategies on side-by-side plots.

Organically grown soybeans (just past the white post) and corn (behind) in the Farming Systems Trial at the Rodale Institute's experiment station near Kutztown, PA
Organic production preserves soil fertility naturally, without petroleum-intensive fertilizer, and it provides a great product for consumers worried about pesticide residue.  It has been especially successful in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, now reaching mainstream markets across the country and the world.

At the same time, organic production is not costless.  The Rodale experiment acknowledges that the organic production strategy for corn and soybeans must accept some sacrifices, both agronomic (tolerating weed competition) and economic (planting the most lucrative cash crops in just selected years of a multi-year rotation).   Nevertheless, in addition to the other environmental and consumer benefits, the Rodale investigators argue that the organic strategy is economically competitive, overall, in part because of reduced chemical input costs.

For a contrast, on Thursday, I saw the historic Morrow plots at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, while visiting to give a seminar at the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics.

The historic Morrow plots, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  Here, the soybean fields maintain a more weedless aesthetic.

The Morrow plots (detail)
I crossed Iowa and eastern Nebraska Saturday on small rural highways, avoiding the interstate, marvelling at the oceans of cropland.

Farmland in western Iowa, August 2010
If it were true that these thousands of corn and soybean farmers could have profited equally well with certifiably organic production, but are too misguided by input suppliers realize their own economic interest, this truth would imply one of the greatest collective delusions in all of agricultural history.  I know organic advocates who believe this delusion has in fact happened, but I think that account somewhat misses the mark in describing where American agriculture goes most awry.

On Sunday, I climbed the stairs on a big combine with a large-scale corn and soybean farmer in southern Nebraska.  He explained how he plans his planting strategy on a laptop in his kitchen, including space for test plots of various seed varieties.  He downloads the plan to the GPS-linked "auto-steer" computer on his planter, which then lays down the seed destined for each row of field.  At harvest time, the combine, equipped with the same data, steers itself around the field with the farmer looking on from high in the cab, recording the productivity of each field and test plot.  Similarly, he carefully monitors water use for irrigation and allows part of his farm to be used for an agricultural experiment with low-irrigation corn.

To say that this farmer could have earned an equal profit from certifiably organic production is to say that he has misunderstood the economic incentives that are internal to his business.  I doubt it.  To me, the most interesting questions about his business relate to environmental consequences that an economist would call externalities, because the farmer's profits come in part at the expense of other people external to his business.  Would a different production strategy better protect the Ogallala aquifer, from which this Nebraska farmer draws his irrigation water?  (Farmers like the one I visited have greatly reduced their impact on water supplies, but withdrawals from the aquifer still exceed renewal from rainwater and snow runoff).  Would organic production of his consumer-grade and animal-feed-grade corn better protect consumers from pesticide residue, as proponents say?  Would higher fuel prices lead this farmer to lower fertilizer inputs and alter his capital-labor substitution in ways that reduced petroleum use and reduced his impact on climate change?  Would reform of federal ethanol policies alter prices of farm commodities and change the optimal use of his land from intensive corn production to more sustainable uses?  It is difficult to expect farmers themselves to sponsor research across this spectrum of questions, which could provide results both helpful and contrary to the farmers' own economic interests.

The impressive amount and variety of agricultural experimentation is one of the most striking things I have seen on this journey.  Reflecting on the Rodale experiment in particular, I am grateful that somebody other than input suppliers, and even other than farmers themselves, is carrying out this type of investigation.  To address externalities, it is essential to have research that, like Rodale's, is motivated by curiosity about consumer health and environmental protection.  To preserve blunt realism in research, it is essential to have experimentation by farmers themselves.  It has been fun to see both.

Update Aug 24, 2010.  The Nebraska grower with whom I visited adds by email:

"One comment about under groundwater. Rain, runoff, and snow melt replenish the underground water levels. Cylindrical rainfall and snow melt recharge underground levels, and over many years, the water levels have hardly changed over the past 40 years. We in production Ag do not want to be labeled as depleting underground water levels. We are conservationists that are protecting the natural resources we use for future generations.

"As for organic farming, that is a speciality market. I am feeding over 125 people as a producer, and that number continues to increase. Yields with organic farming are lower, so decisions to grow organic are not for all producers.

"I am very passionate about what I do and how I do it."

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Beginning with the bees

Nobody knows exactly what is wrong with the bees.

Since 2006, beekeepers have been reporting the loss of 30% - 90% of bees in many hives, with no clear cause.  The syndrome has been labeled Colony Collapse Disorder. 

My father-in-law, who has raised honey for many years in Carlisle, MA, had several recent years with no honey production. 

The book A Spring Without Bees (Lyons Press, 2009) focuses on harm from pesticides.  The USDA's Agricultural Research Service lists a wide variety of possible causes, but it too worries considerably about pesticides as a possible cause: "Pesticides may be having unexpected negative effects on honey bees."

Because bees provide essential pollination services to U.S. agriculture, ARS sounds very concerned about consequences:
While CCD has created a very serious problem for beekeepers and could threaten the pollination industry if it becomes more widespread, fortunately there were enough bees to supply all the needed pollination this past spring. But we cannot wait to see if CCD becomes an agricultural crisis to do the needed research into the cause and treatment for CCD.
This year, happily, my father-in-law at last has two hives in production (the two on the right in the photograph above), still far below his best years.  I asked him if this meant things were looking up for U.S. beekeeping.  He responded dryly, "I haven't heard that they are."

Note: I'm moving to California for a sabbatical year at UC Davis.  This morning, I took my family to the airport and then departed from my wife's parents home for the drive west.  Along the way, for the next ten days, I will visit and occasionally report on sights and people relevant to U.S. food policy.  A beekeeper in Carlisle is a beginning.

My Conestoga wagon.