Although scientific evidence indicates the urge to farm is an inherited drive called the agrarian imperative, how the urge is carried out consists mostly of learned methods of farming.
The agrarian imperative that motivates agricultural producers to provide food and materials for clothing, shelter and fuel goes hand in hand with stewardship practices that leave the land in as good or better shape for future generations.
“Taking care of the land is the most important method of sustainable farming,” says distinguished Iowa State University professor and North Dakota farmer, Fred Kirschenmann. He’s right, good resource stewardship has survival advantages for the human species.
How resources were used by the earliest people engaged in agriculture consisted mostly of behaviors learned through observation of the effects of their farming practices.
Some were provident and some not so much. Ancient Chinese who farmed steep mountainsides improved their soil through terracing and using animal, human and fish wastes to replace nutrients removed by the crops that fed the vertebral species.
Presently however, some of these ongoing practices are endangered by the use of modern machinery, artificial fertilizers, GMOs, herbicides and insecticides.
In the western hemisphere the first farmers about 60 centuries ago used replenishment techniques. They periodically relocated their communities when soil fertility diminished from annual use; sometimes they returned to the same sites after soil nutrients had regenerated somewhat through natural methods.
The Inca in Peru, the Anasazi in North America and the native Indians who helped the first Europeans to settle in what is now the eastern US discovered the benefits of purposefully using fish and manure as fertilizer, as well as crop rotation and mulching with unconsumed plant materials, like stalks and foliage. They were able to use the same plots continuously.
Still others, like today’s few remaining native Amazon tribes, find that regularly rotating habitation of village sites and food plots capitalizes best on the composted detritus of previous communities.
Some of the most spectacular failures to learn sustainable farming methods occurred in Europe after agriculture was first undertaken there. In his 2007 book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David Montgomery offered a plausible explanation for the decline of the Roman Empire.
Many aristocratic Roman land-holders were poor farm stewards in what is now Italy and nearby territories. They relied on slaves who had little personal investment in their work; the land-owners did what was easiest.
They did not fertilize crops adequately. The soil gradually became depleted of its essential nutrients and herbaceous protections like trees and grasses.
As the once-fertile soil blew or washed away, the Roman land-holders had to depend on sources of food and fiber from previously-conquered outlying territories whose residents the Romans could not predictably count on. Realizing their strategic advantage, the foreign ethnic groups withheld necessary sustenance from their captors until they could rebel successfully to become independent.
Other agrarian civilizations have also dissipated, notably in the Fertile Crescent of Southwest Asia, where the first agricultural methods of cropping and raising livestock were developed 13-15,000 years ago. To this day, much of the region’s terrain is marginal for farming because of erosion and the failure of its earlier occupants to replenish the soil’s essential biota through fertilization with animal and plant matter and other sustainable practices.
Diversity in farming practices is key to sustainability. Sustainability can be as simple as raising livestock and crops on the same farm so that livestock excrements are recycled back onto the land or alternating leguminous crops to increase nitrogen for grass plants, which in turn increase the soil phosphate and potassium that legumes need.
Sustainability means working in harmony with natural systems that developed through multiple centuries of adaptation. Natural systems include plants, animals, insects and microbes of all sorts that flourish together by mutual dependence on each other for essential materials for their replenishment.
Introducing a genetically modified organism, insecticide or herbicide into the farming ecosystem is foreign to a method of sustenance that has taken many centuries to develop.
It upsets a balance that favors long-term maximum production in favor of an artificial boost that may temporarily sustain itself until the biota that renew themselves automatically are snuffed out or alternative competitors develop that have a capacity for adaptation, like glyphosate-resistant weeds. Natural adaptation of flora and fauna occurs more slowly than artificial manipulations.
There is an understandable tendency for many producers to do what is most rewarding in the short run. There is also a tendency to rely on governments and markets to set ethical standards for farming practices.
However, neither government nor merchants should be fully charged with setting ethical standards for farming. Their economic and political interests fuel their stands.
Active farmers who are directly engaged in carrying out their agrarian urges should have the most significant say, while taking into account thoughtful input from consumers. Stewardship, not short-term economic gain, should dictate long-term survival of agriculture and its methods.
Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife. Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.