Good Fences Make Good Farms

September 9, 2018
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It’s easy to spot the negative parts of the current agricultural system. Ever larger machines churn across ever larger acreages, farmers mostly see themselves as business owners operating on razor thin margins rather than stewards of the land, and multinational corporations increasingly dictate the precise way seeds, herbicides, and fertilizers should be used. A century ago small family farms worked by draft animals dominated agriculture, while now 500 horsepower tractors with GPS guidance systems tilling huge tracts of land are the norm. From this perspective the marriage of agriculture and technological advances have been overwhelmingly bad.

Stephen Pinker would say that such a view is extremely myopic, since these advances have facilitated the productivity increases necessary to support a growing population and a diversifying economy. This is a powerful line of argument, one worthy of discussion and humility, but it’s a much larger topic than I want to tackle here.

What I’ve been thinking about is the role of technology in a narrower sense. My old neighbor Don told me a story about accidentally grabbing hold of an early type of electric fence. It sent out a constant charge, which meant he couldn’t unclench his fist, so he had to throw his body to the side to break his grip. Such fences were notorious for starting grass fires, scorching farmers and livestock, and generally being more trouble than they were worth.

Modern fence energizers, with their intermittent shocks and computer controlled output levels, have none of these problems. The fences they send a charge through are durable, quick and relatively inexpensive to build, and they do an excellent job of keeping livestock where they should be. Combined with portable posts and lines they make up a system that lets a farmer manage stock with a level of ease and precision that would have been impossible just a few decades ago.

There are numerous areas where a little bit of research might go a long way - identifying which particular pasture blends are most productive in a climate and what approaches to mineralization and fertilizing yield the best results for the lowest cost. Neglected perennials like Jerusalem artichokes and ground nuts could be experimented with. There are more high tech tools that could help pasture based farms. An app that could use a phone’s camera to accurately assess the amount of forage in a particular area would be hugely useful.

My point is that technology may advance in a more or less linear fashion, but the direction it moves is dictated by human choice. Modern agriculture has mostly been aimed towards bigger, faster, simpler, and more uniform. But in its shadow there have been real advances in a type of farming that tries to balance production with respect for the larger ecosystem. I would love to see what might be dreamed up if a bit more human ingenuity, money, and effort went into developing this sort of approach.

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