Let's admit it, farm chemicals do a reasonably good job (at least for
awhile) of buffering the wild swings of "problem" organisms. I
prefer to call them "symptom" organisms, but that's another
discussion. A healthy, natural, and diverse farm system is *also*
pretty good at buffering wild swings in the populations of pest
My experience in the field suggests that most farmers would shift
from the chemical buffer to the natural buffer given two conditions:
a) they were confident the natural buffer would work and b) they
could figure out some way to get across the gap between the two
This second point is usually (by far) the scarier, because it is
largely (though not totally, as Guy Ames illustrates) necessary to
let go of the chemical buffer in order to establish the natural one.
Most farmers correctly perceive this gap as a large moat, filled with
sharks, alligators, and pirhannas.
These threatening creatures are, in essence, the market, banking, and
regulatory environment (described by Rex Dufour and others) that
imposes significant constraints on farmers attempting to cross the
gap. The prospect of a margin-call on your mortgage from the bank
(because implementing a soil-building rotation decreased USDA program
corn 'base,' lowering the land's value and pushing the bank's loan-
to-value ratio beyond the bank's acceptable limit) certainly has a
chilling effect on a farmer's willingness to stretch into a new
approach to production.
Most current organic food marketing structures involve such modest
rewards to the farmer (in proportion to the risk involved) that
farmers are understandably reluctant to undertake the transition.
My sense is that most of what we would define as sustainable *also*
lies across the same gator-infested moat, but that under the present
market system, these 'sustainable' farmers are offered even fewer
economic incentives than the certified organic farmer, who at least
receives *some* premium for the crop, provided the buyer ever pays
for the load.
Slow-pay and no-pay are rampant in the organic processing business,
and the farmer contemplating a transition has to compare this to
hauling to Pioneer, getting a check in five days, and knowing that
the check is good.
How, then, can we help farmers across this rather frightening moat?
How can we as agronomists, teachers, Extension, consultants, and
what-not facilitate the process under fairly difficult conditions?
What, in the final analysis, do we in sustainable agriculture have to
offer to the ordinary farmer who (contemplating the risk, the
uncertainty, and the fact that intermediaries will take most of the
potential short-term financial rewards) hesitates and balks at the
edge of the moat because of legitimate and heartfelt concern for the
financial well-being of the family...??