By Jeff Semler
WE HEAR a great deal these days about natural, organic and sustainable agriculture.
The problem is these words mean many different things to many different people.
- Organic is the only word that is certified in any way and even that certification is not without its critics.
- Natural is a very difficult one to codify. Almost everything is natural in some state. Even products resulting from processing can contain 100 percent natural components.
- Sustainable also means many things to many people. Once when asked what was sustainable agriculture, a farmer replied, “Whatever practices keep this farm going.”
To confuse the issue even further, a great deal of people will use these words interchangeably. The average consumer, however, doesn’t know the difference and a great many of them don’t care. Just keep food cheap, that is their bottom-line.
I would like to suggest folks in agriculture need to start looking back to the days when we used words like stewardship and husbandry rather than science. While I am not suggesting we abandon technology, I am suggesting we don’t make it our master. Far too often today, science does things because we can and not because we need to or should.
Agrarians are first and foremost stewards of the land. The word steward means a person who manages the property or affairs for another. That implies we don’t own it, we just care for it and that is certainly the case for our land.
Sure, you may hold title to it but it was here before you and will still be here after you leave.
The land is a living organism. In addition to the plants growing above the ground, the soil below is teeming with life. In addition to the most famous inhabitant, the earthworm, there are billions of micro organisms. Most reside in the organic matter and while feeding on it, release plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. It is extremely important we shoot for organic matter levels above 4 percent. This will not only aid in fertility but will enhance soil tilth.
I am not advocating any particular method of crop production. No-till, minimum till and conventional till can all produce excellent crops and increase soil organic matter if good stewardship practices are employed.
I possess a B.S. and M.S. in Animal Science but wish they contained the older language which was Animal Husbandry. What does husbandry mean? It means to care for a household; the judicious use of resources; management of a branch of farming and especially of domestic animals.
The emphasis is on the object being cared for. Which proves my point: farmers are stewards of the land, husbandmen of their livestock. Many people nowadays profess to be environmentalists but have little invested in the game.
Farmers are and have been the first environmentalists and they have a huge stake in the game, their livelihood. If their soil and animals are not healthy, they are not productive and, by extension, are unprofitable. So the next time someone starts to talk about our world, be it global warming or the Chesapeake Bay, you can say I live amongst a number of talented environmentalists.
But we just call them neighbors while