Farms Need People, Not Machines

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Nicolette Hahn Niman
The Atlantic

Mechanization and automation have reduced the difficult physical labor of food production, but they’ve also rendered agriculture dependent on non-renewable, polluting substitutes

Machines have their place on farms and ranches. Researchers have calculated how the tractor’s plowing, planting, and harvesting has saved tens of millions of people and draft animals from backbreaking toil. And personal experience has taught me the indispensability of a tractor for lifting and moving heavy objects on a ranch. But broadly adopting an industrial model in agriculture — especially for raising animals – has been disastrous.

In the Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry builds perhaps the most compelling case that technology has been misapplied to agriculture. Industrialization, he argues, is the primary cause of our depopulated farms and rural towns. In 1790, 90 percent of our people were engaged in agriculture. Today, technology and decades of federal policy that deliberately reduced agricultural jobs have shrunk the farm community to less than 1 percent of our population, and our rural population to 17 percent. Our physical separation from natural settings may well be exacerbating an alienation from nature fraught with trouble for our collective health and psyche.


Department of Agriculture research in the 1930s and ’40s documented the importance of farming practices based on human skill and hand work – crop diversification and rotations, integration of animals, and using grass to guard against erosion, manage pests, and maintain soil fertility. But, as Berry notes, at mid-century the American approach to producing food veered sharply away from farming founded on human stewardship, natural cycling, and recycling. It abandoned grass and embraced chemicals and machines.

As World War II munitions plants were converted to manufacturing agricultural chemicals, U.S. use of manmade fertilizers quickly doubled. Government policy subsidized and encouraged maximum grain output, while discouraging permanent pastures, crop rotations and diversity, and grass buffers.

Berry notes that from 1950 to 1970 “farms became larger and more specialized, handling either crops or livestock instead of both,” while chemicals and machinery skyrocketed. Artificial fertilizer use in those years, for instance, increased by nearly 300 percent.

These trends have persisted. Farming now uses four times more energy than in 1950, about 40 percent of which goes into producing fertilizers and pesticides. Some 20 million tons of chemical fertilizer and 1.1 billion pounds of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides are used on U.S. farms every year. Diversity of farm crops has disappeared. While in 1900 U.S. farms averaged five different crops, farms today average just one. Genetic diversity on farms was reduced by 75 percent during the 20th century, according to a United Nations report.

All of this has taken a heavy environmental toll. Repeated application of agricultural chemicals renders soils brittle and lifeless, prone to blowing and washing away. Eighty percent of U.S. agricultural lands show severe to moderate erosion, which is occurring at a rate seventeen times faster than nature can re-generate soil. Groundwater, lakes, and streams are increasingly contaminated by pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.


Although automation and mechanization have reduced the difficult physical labor of food production, they have contributed to our national obesity epidemic, and rendered agriculture utterly dependent on such non-renewable, polluting substitutes for human labor. In today’s specialized, segmented, and mechanized agriculture, chemicals are the answer to fertility, pest control, and weed suppression. The farmer’s hands, knowledge, and husbandry have been replaced by machines, capital goods, pharmaceuticals, and fossil fuels, used directly to power farm equipment and indirectly to manufacture chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

Mechanization has reduced conventional animal farming to production and eliminated true animal husbandry. Laboratory-produced vitamin D and antibiotics now make it feasible to restrict animals to the indoors round the clock. Feed and water are delivered mechanically; manure removal systems are automated. Humans have ceased providing individual animals attention. As I noted in Righteous Porkchop, Department of Agriculture studies show that at a typical confinement facility, a pig is in the company of a human for 8 seconds of each day. Such an approach cannot provide appropriate care.

U.S. agricultural policies that foster industrialization persist. And they continue to nudge the remaining farm-related jobs in fields, animal operations, and slaughterhouses in an ever-more unappealing direction — one that is more machine-based, chemical-intensive, and less connected to natural seasons and cycles. It is increasingly difficult to attract people to those jobs. This is foolhardy — particularly in our current economy, which we are desperately striving to revitalize.

Ecologically based farming is entirely different. A recent academic paper on the burgeoning agro-ecology movement in Latin America notes that there is “a new ‘agrarian revolution’ worldwide” and argues that “agroecology-based production systems are biodiverse, resilient, energetically efficient, socially just and comprise the basis of an energy, productive and food sovereignty strategy.”

A 2011 report to the United Nations by Olivier de Schutter, its Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, concludes that ecologically based farming requires both greater knowledge and more human labor. But that can be an economic advantage: “Creation of employment in rural areas in developing countries, where underemployment is currently massive, and demographic growth remains high may constitute an advantage rather than a liability and may slow down rural-urban migration.”

Here in the United States, a recent Rodale Institute report on a 30-year field research project highlights the overwhelming benefits of sustainable farming. The report concludes that organic crop yields match conventional; that organic crops perform better in draughts; that organic farming uses 45 percent less energy; and that organic farming systems are far more profitable for farmers.

As Americans increasingly seek local food raised without drugs and chemicals, ecologically based food systems should become an overarching goal. Rather than further entrenching the industrial farming model, federal subsidies should be geared toward farming that sustains natural resources. The shift would employ more people while providing better, more appealing jobs. It would also create safer, tastier, more nutritious food, something that would benefit us all.

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