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The Key to Saving Family Farms Is in the Soil

Originally published at http://www.commondreams.org/views/2019/10/20/key-saving-family-farms-soil


Thank you for the research and story. I’m wondering though, in my experience, farmers use a potent mix of herbicides to burn down cover crops or weeds when doing no-till planting of corn and soybeans. Isn’t this still standard practice?

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I can’t speak to the economies of scale, which I put out there out front. However, having worked studying the drainage practices of numerous farms ranging from large industrial in character down to small and organic in nature, I can state that the former resemble moonscapes when not in production. They are truly scary places to be in. The latter, by contrast, have a natural structure owing to the true soil they maintain to grow the crops in lieu of fertilizer/pesticide dumping of the former. I remain suspicious that subsidies are behind a lot of the idiocy, but have never taken the time to investigate the matter. I always grabbed produce right from the stem on the organic farms and chewed away and the farmers always smiled.


cheaper seed is not true.
Family farm is not true.
In 1943, white house determined to support large acre farms. During the korean war, the traditional family farm in Ohio could no longer support a family… The children had to move to a large city and get a job. Toledo, for example. The large acre farms in Illinois are incorporated even if owned by a farmer and his wife. This is to avoid inheritance taxes.and permits super rapid tax deductions of equipment purchased. including the super duper four door king cab pick up truck !!

otherwise, a very good article to have.

While I agree with the article, I have always been hesitant to change over because in not owing the actual land that I farm, I have never been able to figure out how to stay solvent while making the transition. It’s not like the organic matter immediately returns; it takes years to build it back up to the point a farm can compete with what I call " dead dirt" farming.

Well, folly, but not all that of farmers. A lot of human error is created by groups of people working together and making mistakes that none of the individuals would dream of working alone.

A lot of those mistakes are created by economic relationships. A wise farmer must measure success by the building soil, for all the reasons mentioned here and many more. But a farmer who is bled to pay financiers through interest has reasons to measure his results in not only in dollars, but in dollars, but in secure dollars by some certain date.

That is foolish, but it may not be the individual farmer’s foolishness. Soil takes a bit of time to grow. You have to have plants photosynthesizing, and you have to have the re-used bodies of those plants fall on the field and decompose by being consumed–by large vertebrates, by many small creatures, by fungi, by microbes. If you do that, you have soil. But you can’t farm the land the bank took back yesterday, and the bank’s schedule has nothing to do with anything natural. What we call “the market” wants plants and animals and soil to conform to the artifices of its rhythms rather than the other way around.

In terms of sales, a vegetable will be most common in the marketplace during the season that it grows well. Of course, that will also make its price fall. Therefore, there is a high motivation to either ship produce from where it is grown or to invest in artificial conditions for growth. The produce is tastier and more nutritious in season, but it is held to be “more valuable” out of season. Sometimes farmers work out interventions that accomplish both (like Eliot Coleman at Four Seasons Farm in Maine, who sells fresh local vegetables through the winter). Very often though, this is not accomplished. Rather than working out the polycultures that properly nurture the soil that they work, farmers are apt to be rolling a lot of mental dice worrying about which vegetable will fetch a premium in sixty or ninety or one hundred twenty days, when the next planting gets ripe. They are likely to be wondering what one or another jobber with whom they have successfully done business is likely to want.

It may not be that the farmer does not put his or her hands in the soil and feel the gain or loss over months and years, but that he or she puts off good actions for market-commanded responses once and again and again and more drastically as growing becomes more difficult.

When conditions have become damaged, waves of ads and supposed science and commercial practice beckon farmers down an eventual dead end. But they can get more produce for a few seasons, while the product of living soil has still not leached away and the product of the money market is there. They may be foolish enough to measure then, and at that moment the biocide cocktail looks pretty good.

  • The food is poisoned, but buyer beware, right?
  • Poisons for vertebrates will reduce losses to rodents and birds, for a bit
  • Pesticides will reduce losses to insects
  • Fungicides will reduce losses to certain sorts of fungus that can infect roots or stems or leaves
  • Herbicides and GMO products will reduce the presence of other plants in the soil

Of course, after all of these are present, most microbial life is as dead as anything else in the soil. The soil has ceased to aerate well. It does not retain water easily, and the nutrients leach away quickly. The farmer has killed the organisms that had been managing nutrients to feed the crop. So the farmer invests in synthetic NPK fertilizer. It must be replaced each season because it washes away: there’s nothing to keep it.

The chemical companies have money for ads, and they publish studies that are cherry picked and poorly representative fo results. Specifically, the studies follow results in the first few seasons and do not document the loss of fertility and the loss of production in the land thereafter.

People walk into big grocery stores to buy food that has been shipped in. They do so because the economies of scale on mechanical planting and harvest, bulk shipping, and immigrant and often homeless immigrant labor make their produce pennies cheaper for the pound–and because they are very truly separated from the resources and cooperation of their society by all that interaction of dollars and cents. No one walks into the store and tests the produce for a BRIX count. They look and see large, regular, unmarked produce, and they imagine that it must be good produce. When they pay more, they pay more for what ships well because it has more inert fiber content or because some artifice of hormones has produced quicker growth, or because it has been picked green.

The people in the store pay more for this food not mostly because of the price at the store, but mostly because they pay for the way it gets there and the results it brings:

  • Petrochemical transport of goods for the farmer
  • Petrochemical transport of produce to market
  • Medical fallout from pesticides and herbicides
  • Medical fallout from reduced nutrition
  • Medical fallout from the ruining of water downstream and in the ocean
  • Political fallout from the desertification of large swathes of the globe
  • Climate-related problems from much of the above
  • Progressive loss of the Earth’s capacity to sustain life (itemize that who will)

So these sorts of things become part of the resistance of farmers when we–when I–go to them and talk about permaculture and regenerative farming. As a group, they know quite well and in detail a considerable amount of what they are up against. We need a lot from them, and it is not the sort of thing that one can do from an armchair. The minority that are actively implementing these changes and farming regeneratively would be a wonderful place for this society to put its support or the support of a Green New Deal or something of that sort.

But in part because that sort of change does not appear reliable if it is even on any sort of horizon, a lot of us ought to be starting in with herbs and vegetables and backyard chickens and worm farms under the kitchen sink as well. It is not all that difficult, but being productive and efficient does take a bit of practice, and it will be much nicer to work out implementation while one has other support and can experiment and err and rebuild.


This pretty well how my father and grandfather farmed when I was growing up. It was not until the late 60s and early 70s that those fertilizers were used in bulk on farms. It was a lazy mans way of farming intended to extract as much crop off the land each and every year with the “cheat” of chemical fertilizers used to allow those crops to grow.

It was the same thing with pesticides. Mono crops lead to more pests and greater vulnerability to an outbreak of the same so farmers relying on one crop were more reliant on pesticides.

That cattle put on pasture and converting land to pasture is also a way of replenishing soil. Mixed fams were the norm post ww2 right until about 1976 when the “new way of farming” took hold, this pushed by bankers and credit companies which encouraged the farmer to put everything they could into what was deemed “useful production” each and every year. Farmers forgot they were farmers and started to focus on maximizing profits over the shortest period of time like some wall street broker.


It’s getting to be kinda academic? Without water, unpolluted with agrecultural, industrial, fracking & sewerage toxins; cross pollination from GE crops, with multinational conglomerates gavaging extractive GE monoculture, CAFO waste and ALEC legislation favoring industrial agriculture? What we need, pretty desperately, is a sustainable food policy that the DNC’s about to stomp out, along with the GND. Fracking return irrigating “organic” crops, dessication of grain, legumes, root vegetables by dousing with herbicides, 97% of our cereal and legumes GMO… doesn’t look good for microorganisms, tilth, drought resistance? Vote and the choice is… Just KIDDING!

And a the documentary “Biggest Little Farm” shows soil loss, erosion, and downstream flooding are very greatly reduced from land with dense deep rooted groundcover. The midwest’s flooding is of its own making.


Regenerative soil management is a conservative policy I can live with. What is the soil sustainability in your county? Bet my county is healthier than your county.

Re-learning and re-discovering Marx. “The property in the soil is the original source of all wealth”

  • “Capitalist production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-greater preponderance. This has two results. On the one hand it concentrates the historical motive force of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e. it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil…. But by destroying the circumstances surrounding this metabolism…it compels its systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production, and in a form adequate to the full development of the human race…. All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility…. Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.” * Marx

“The abolition of the antithesis between town and country is no more and no less utopian than the abolition of the antithesis between capitalists and wage-workers. From day to day it is becoming more and more a practical demand of both industrial and agricultural production. No one has demanded this more energetically than Liebig in his writings on the chemistry of agriculture, in which his first demand has always been that man shall give back to the land what he receives from it, and in which he proves that only the existence of the towns, and in particular the big towns, prevents this. When one observes how here in London alone a greater quantity of manure than is produced in the whole kingdom of Saxony is poured away every day into the sea with an expenditure of enormous sums, and what colossal structures are necessary in order to prevent this manure from poisoning the whole of London, then the utopia of abolishing the distinction between town and country is given a remarkably practical basis.” Engels

As Marx says,

“the soil as eternal communal property, an inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of a chain of successive generations of the human race.”

In practical terms Marx talks about the sewage and pollution of London and the inability of capitalism to transform this into fertiliser.

“In London…they can do nothing better with the excrement produced by 4.5 million people than pollute the Thames with it, at monstrous expense". Capital vol 3

Marx also pointed out that “The development of civilisation and industry in general has always shown itself so active in the destruction of forests that everything that has been done for their conservation and production is completely insignificant in comparison.”

And people only think Marx was concerned with just the industrial proletariat…bah

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There wouldn’t be much life without soil. I can’t say how much I appreciate it when I read about
people that value and understand it as a living process. Cheers.

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I recently watched a documentary called THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM. Absolutely amazing.shows how soil and nature can be regenerated on a small or large scale. I recommend this film it is incredibly interesting. It can still be rented at redbox. I have purchased several copies and have given them to friends. Everyone loves this film.
It is truly fun to Watch.


I loved that movie I bought copies to give to friends. It is so amazing.

Abolish the anti-thesis between town and country. That’s Karl Marx writing about the contradictions and destructiveness to the soil of capitalist agriculture.

The chemicals used in agriculture have also deemed responsible for increased allergies in children. This is mostly seen in industrialized nations as poorer nations are not able to afford as much use of these chemicals.
Additionally, chemical runoff from farms that make their way into rivers and ultimately into the worlds oceans, have also been deemed responsible for increasing algae blooms, which are often referred to as red tides.

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It’s been a TRIP, working in rural PA, AL, AR, LA & living in NYC. We Deplorables knew bovine somatotropins, rascopomine, NTA, GE monoculture crops/feed & ubiquitous grain/legume/ root dessication with herbicides, was responsible for auto immune symptoms in kids; before fracking brine irrigation (including “organic” crops) became topic of such self deluded specious obliviousness by the “Creative Class” cognoscenti… NO/ONOO & Pro-inflamatory Cytokine cleanses are to follow?

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