By George Boody (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Land Stewardship Project
2200 4th St.
White Bear Lake, MN 55110
Phone: (612) 653-0618
Sometimes people confuse one prescription for an overall cure. In the case of
agriculture, best management practices (BMPs) such as reduced- or no-till crop
production, contour strips, terraces, manure lagoons and planned grazing are
prescriptions, or tools, that could be a valuable component of a larger strategy
for curing what ails farming. That larger strategy must take into account the
whole environmental, social and economic picture, something that cannot be
accomplished by adopting a few select BMPs.
But whole farm planning methods such as Holistic Resource Management (HRM) do
take into account the pig picture. HRM is a goal-based decision-making process
that allows a farmer to look at his or her operation as a whole, rather than as
a series of problems to be solved in isolation of each other. BMPs can be a part
of a whole farm strategy such as HRM, but they can't replace it.
Here in Minnesota, the need for understanding the distinction between a single
prescription and an overall cure is becoming clear as we debate the future of
the Minnesota River, the biggest contributor of pollution to the upper
Mississippi and the dirtiest major waterway in this state.
A report by the Minnesota River Citizen's Advisory Committee graphically
illsutrates the environmental problems caused by monocultural row-crop
farming.The report attempts to address ways we can end the sad cycle of
degradation a watershed experiences when industrial agriculture and its emphasis
on all-out maximum production takes over. In the Minnesota River valley, soil
erosion from mono-cropped fields contributes nutrient-laden sediment to the
watershed at an alarming rate. As a result, fish, wildlife and plant habitat is
depleted, reducing the biodiversity of the area.
Mono-cropping has degraded the Minnesota River valley's human environment as
well. Relying on the thin profit margins offered by, for example, corn-soybean
farming, producers have been forced to get big, or get out. The result of an
economy based on too few crops is a situation where entire rural communities can
be devastated by a bad weather or market year. Just as the biodiversity of the
natural environment is diminished, so too industrial agriculture has reduced the
numbers of farms and towns in the region.
Some see BMPs as the answer.
Since the onslaught of fencerow-to-fencerow cropping, scientists and government
officials have attempted to use various forms of environmentally-friendly BMPs
to modify farming practices focused on maximizing production. These BMPs are
part and parcel of the conservation compliance program implemented by the
Some of these recipe-book BMPs may have narrow, positive impacts on local
ecosystems. The trouble is, they are often implemented under the assumption that
maximum productivity of the existing crops should always be the bottom-line
goal. Alternatives that shift that emphasis are not likely to be prescribed.
What about net profitability for the individual farmer? Quality of life for the
farm family? Community impacts? Wider environmental influences?
One popular BMP being promoted to mitigate soil erosion is crop residue
management. When applied to row-cropland, this means using reduced or no
tillage. Reduced tillage and high residue levels on top of the soil will likely
reduce excesive losses of soil in the Minnesota River valley. But will it reduce
the amount of chemicals used in that soil? Not necessarily. In fact, some
reduced-tillage practices increase chemical use to make up for lack of
mechanical weed control.
And would widespread application of these and other singular technologies
address longer term goals of having a thriving agricultural community? Probably
not. A community that relies on one or two crops is still at risk, regardless of
how little erosion those crops cause.
Even Paul Johnson, chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service,
recognizes the limitations of singular BMPs in attaining a truly sustainable
farming system overall.
"There's been fantastic progress within the past 10 years in reducing soil
erosion," he told the Land Stewardship Letter. "But soil erosion is not the only
issue and sometimes in trying to solve one problem we cause other problems. I
think we need to take a look at things much more holistically."
Just changing the tools won't cut it if they're being wielded by the same old
narrowly-focused attitudes. The Citizen's Advisory Committee identified
"cultural factors involving attitudes, behaviors and perceptions of rural and
urban landowners" as being fundamental barriers to achieving the kind of change
necessary to help the river become swimmable and fishable.
The need to change behaviors goes beyond the adoption of a singular technology
such as reduced tillage. It requires developing a holistic, long-range vision
that integrates high quality of life, profitability for farms and rural
communities as well as long-term health of the ecosystem.
That in turn requires farming systems that are based on decision-making that
takes into account everything from what's best for the ecosystem to what's best
for the family. It will require, as Donald Worster says, "thinking like a
river." In other words, the impact of farming Ð- or any land uses, for that
matter -- on our rivers and the watershed in which we live must become part of
our consciousness and evaluation of what is appropriate.
The Citizen's Advisory Committee wisely calls for increasing financial
assistance for whole-farm planning and for innovative partnerships that help
farmers and other resource managers participate in total resource planning and
The Land Stewardship Project wholeheartedly supports whole-farm planning and
thus is providing courses in HRM. This decision-making system creates goals and
then selects tools to help achieve them, rather than vice-versa.
When put in that context, BMPs become presciptions for achieving the goals of an
overall farming system, not the end in itself. That's not merely a band-aid, but
rather a comprehensive cure we can all live with.