Agriculture schools sprucing up their image

Agriculture schools in California and throughout the nation are hoping fresh slogans will cultivate interest among high school graduates who don’t know wheat from Wheaties.

The same universities that a generation ago churned out legions of agriculture professionals today largely struggle to woo students. And many students who are studying agriculture are clamoring for cheese class and wine-making seminars, shunning traditional fields such as soil science and crop production. Even the Midwestern states have felt the pinch.

Many schools are wrestling with declining enrollment, as a large portion of the agricultural workforce is nearing retirement.

In California, one-third of the public and private plant doctors who monitor the health of the state’s $32-billion agriculture industry will retire in 10 years or less. One-third of the state’s county agricultural commissioners, whose inspections help keep out foreign pests like the Mediterranean fruit fly, will retire in the next five years. Yet enrollment in horticulture programs at the state’s top agriculture schools has dropped as much as 40% in the last five years.

“Behind every farmer in the field, there’s a whole line of merchants and scientists that support that farmer,” said Fred Roth, a professor of plant pathology at Cal Poly Pomona. “But we’re aging out, and there isn’t a group of people coming up to take our places.”

The looming workforce gap has industry experts and agriculture school officials hiring marketing companies to spruce up their image. It’s a tall order: How do you make farming hip?

University administrators peg the problem to agriculture’s outdated “cows and plows” public image. Urbanization of many of California’s historic farming plains has slashed the ranks of high school graduates exposed to horticulture or husbandry.

Many colleges have changed their names to broaden their appeal, de-emphasizing agriculture and tacking on terms such as “environmental sciences” or “natural resources.”

In June, Iowa State University officials broke with nearly 50 years of tradition and added “life sciences” to their agriculture school’s name — a move designed to attract more students after enrollment dipped from 2,807 in 2001 to 2,448 in 2005.

Even the flagship organization of youth in agriculture, the Future Farmers of America, dropped the word “farmers” in 1988, preferring instead to be known as the National FFA Organization. Other universities have hired marketing firms to boost their profiles.

Purdue University in Indiana spent $60,000 in 2003 on slick mailers and recruiting visits to high schools to show prospective applicants the range of job opportunities available to agriculture majors.

At Cal Poly Pomona, a 20% decline in plant sciences majors over the last five years spurred administrators earlier this year to hire a marketing firm to give the agriculture school an image makeover.

A glossy mock-up advertisement dares students to “Get a Job as a Superhero,” fighting a fierce crop-destroying black bug, or “Delve Into DNA” to breed world-class Arabian horses.

Even U.S. Department of Agriculture boosters are reaching for catchy slogans. At local fairs, volunteers hand out bright red book covers with cows wearing sunglasses under the words “Agricultural Research is UDDERLY Awesome.”

About 47% of the agency’s workforce is over 50 years old, said Gilbert Smith, deputy assistant secretary for departmental administration at the USDA.

At a recent career night at Cal Poly Pomona, a dozen recruiters competed for the attention of about 30 students, offering jobs, internships and scholarships.

“It’s sad standing there and only having one potential job candidate in the room, when I’m looking for at least three or four people,” said Bert Lopez, a recruiter for Univar USA, a large fertilizer and pesticide distributor.

In California, entry-level county agricultural inspectors make $32,000 annually. But with at least two years of extra study, they could become certified as senior inspectors and earn $70,000, said Earl McPhail, president of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Assn.

When Patrick Dosier, 22, tells friends back home in Placentia that he’s majoring in agronomy at Cal Poly Pomona, they assume he wants to be a gardener. But Dosier plans to become a crop advisor and help growers find more efficient ways to use their water and their land.

“I think you get to enjoy plants more when you eat them,” said Dosier, who helps run the student farm at the university. “I do farmers markets too, and it’s fun to pitch people on the food.”

He likes working with his hands and being outdoors. After watching his father and grandfather’s circuit manufacturing company lose business to China, Dosier chose an industry that won’t get outsourced — he hopes — any time soon.

Points Worth Pondering While Choosing Agricultural Machines

 When it comes to assembling perfect agricultural machines, the process is not easy. A machine that works well one year might not work the same in the following year also, due to certain reasons. Improving the design might make older equipments obsolete. The figure of acres being farmed as well as the labor available is likely to fluctuate.

Since majority of these variables are hard to predict, it is vital for the managers of a machines manufacturing industry to have a flexible system that can successfully adapt to varied crop and weather conditions while trimming down the product risks and long-run costs. In order to accomplish these goals, it is vital to answer the below mentioned questions.

Machine Performance

Primarily, each machine must be able to perform well under diverse field conditions or else it would make a wrong investment irrespective of its cost.

An appropriate seedbed must be prepared by tillage implements that helps minimize weed control, reducing erosion potential and conserving soil moisture. Planters as well as seeders should proffer consistent seed placement and apply pesticides as well as fertilizers. Additionally, tractors suppliers should ensure that their machines harvest clean and undamaged grain while reducing field losses.

Machinery Costs

After you are backed by a right kind of tillage, weed control, planting or harvesting machine, the question that needs to be addressed is how to cut down machinery costs. An agricultural machine that is too large for a specific farming solution might take a large chunk out of the pocket of its owner in the long run. Conversely, a machine that is too small might lead to lower crop yield or reduced quality.

Operating Costs

Money spent on fuel, repairs and lubricants is included in the operating costs. Although larger machinery consumes more lubricants and fuel per hour, the area that is covered by such machines in an hour is also large. The same is true for repair costs as well. Thus, operating costs do not make a major consideration when deciding whether or not particular machinery is suitable for farming operation.

Timeliness Costs

Plantation dates and harvesting are a few factors that affect the quality and crop yields. This represents the hidden, but one of the important costs linked to farm machinery. The value of such yield losses is known as timeliness costs.

Labor cost

With the increase in machinery capacity, the number of hours needed to complete farming operations over a specific area obviously decreases. If part-time labors or those working on hourly basis operate the machinery, it is viable to use the wage rate paid along with other benefits that are offered, as the labor cost. On the contrary, if a person who is given fixed wage operates the machinery, it is precise to value labor at estimated return.

The Pros And Cons Of Modern Farming

By Indur M. Goklany

Technology, and in particular agricultural technology, is the environmentalists’ bête noire. Agricultural technology, more than anything else, raises the dreaded specter of a silent spring.

Worldwide, agriculture accounts for 38 percent of land use, 66 percent of water withdrawals, and 85 percent of water consumption (Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] 2001; Shiklomanov 2000). It is responsible for most of the habitat loss and fragmentation that threaten the world’s forests, biodiversity, and terrestrial carbon stores and sinks. Water diversions for agriculture combined with agriculture-related water quality problems—oxygen depletion, pesticide and fertilizer runoff, and soil erosion—are the major threats to aquatic and avian species not only inland but, possibly, also in coastal and nearshore areas. In addition, land clearance and other agricultural practices contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

But, paradoxically, agricultural technology is also responsible for forestalling any silent springs—at least, so far. Had technology—and therefore yields—been frozen at 1961 levels, then producing as much food as was actually produced in 1998 would have required more than a doubling of land devoted to agriculture. Such land would have increased from 12.2 billion acres to at least 26.3 billion acres, that is, from 38 to 82 percent of global land area. (And this optimistically assumes that productivity in the added acreage would be as high as in the other areas). Cropland alone would have had to more than double, from 3.7 to 7.9 billion acres.(1) An additional area the size of South America minus Chile would have to be plowed under.

Those figures assume that this much unused cropland would be available. Potential cropland is estimated at about 8.5 billion acres worldwide.(2) But since the best agricultural land is probably already being cultivated, new cropland is unlikely to be as productive. Moreover, at least 45 percent of this cultivable- but-uncultivated area is forested, and 12 percent is protected. In sum, there simply isn’t enough productive land worldwide to support today’s world population using yesterday’s technology.

Imagine the devastation that would have occurred had agricultural technology been frozen at 1961 levels, while mortality rates continued to drop, pushing up population. Massive deforestation, soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, and losses of biodiversity would occur with the more-than-doubling of land and water diverted to agriculture, but hunger and starvation would not decline. The additional pressure on the land would have increased land prices, making it more difficult to reserve land for conservation (except, possibly, in the deserts, the frozen polar regions, and the peaks of mountain ranges).

Such tragic results did not happen, thanks to improvements in productivity at each step of the food and agricultural system. To begin with, science-based varieties of seeds helped increase global yields for all cereals, the grains that are grown on 45 percent of the world’s cropland. Cereal yields went up by 126 percent between 1961 and 1998 (FAO 2001). To more fully exploit these high-yielding crop varieties, farmers implemented a set of complementary technologies. Yes, these caused environmental problems. Yet they also increased productivity, reducing the amount of land devoted to agriculture.

Irrigation. Water diversions for agriculture are a major problem for many aquatic species. But irrigating the land, on average, triples its productivity (Goklany 1998). Currently, 18 percent of global cropland is irrigated (FAO 2001). If all irrigation were halted, then at least an extra 1.31 billion acres of land would be needed to compensate for the lost production.
Fertilizers. The use—and abuse—of fertilizers is the major source of nutrient loading in the world’s waters. But fertilizer use has, in some cases, doubled yields.
Mechanization. Tractor usage increased 2.3-fold between 1961 and 1998 (FAO 2001). While increasing society’s dependence on fossil fuels, it reduced the need for human and animal labor on the farm. This helped reduce food costs and lessened the need to cultivate additional land to feed work animals. In 1910 about one-third of all U.S. cropland was used to feed working horses and mules (Goklany and Sprague 1991). Mechanization also reduced an incentive for a higher birth rate.
Pest Control Systems. In the absence of pesticides and other pest controls, an estimated 70 percent of the world’s crop might be lost, instead of the current 42 percent (Oerke et al. 1994, 750). Thus, without them, at least 90 percent more cropland would be required to offset the loss in production. It is true that as much as 99(+) percent of pesticides are wasted and end up in the environment (Goklany 1998). Even so, a number of cost-benefit analyses indicate that aggregate economic, public health, and environmental benefits of pesticide use may outweigh the aggregate costs (Pimentel 1997; Pimentel and Greiner 1997). These studies do not take into account the environmental benefits that come from reduced habitat conversion.

Other factors also contributed to farm productivity. These include (a) innovations in animal husbandry, (b) technologies for storage, handling and processing (e.g., plastic bags, refrigeration, canning and preservation), and (c) a wider—largely fossil fuel driven—global infrastructure for the efficient transportation, storage, distribution and trade of agricultural inputs and outputs (which also helped reduce wastage and spoilage) (Goklany and Sprague 1991).

Recognizing the benefits of these technologies does not mean that we should ignore the tendency to overuse inputs such as water, fertilizers, pesticides and energy, in part because of subsidies and, in the case of water, lack of property rights. So although total benefits of various technologies probably exceed total costs, marginal costs may not always exceed marginal benefits.

To put a long-term focus on the environmental pros and cons of agricultural technologies, many effects of agricultural pollutants seem reversible, although not always rapidly and sometimes at substantial cost. In the richer nations, new laws and large investments in new and clean technologies have helped many freshwater systems and aquatic and avian species recover from decades, if not generations, of abuse (Goklany 1996).

Soil erosion has declined; the Rhine, Thames, and Hudson Rivers are cleaner—and support more species —now than in past decades; and DDT and other pesticide residues in freshwater fish and human adipose tissue have dropped by an order of magnitude or more in North America and Europe. Thus, the direct effects of agricultural pollutants seem no more long-lived or irreversible than the indirect ecological and biodiversity effects of additional land clearance that would have occurred without those technologies.

Some have argued that agricultural technology, by making more food available, merely postponed the Malthusian day of reckoning, leading to a larger population which, in turn, increased net conversion of wildlife habitat. In response to this claim, I would first argue that agricultural technology, by reducing starvation and hunger, helped reduce maternal and infant mortality rates. Not only has this reduced misery worldwide, but it has also directly improved human wellbeing.

Second, failure to produce enough food would not necessarily have led to protection of habitat for the rest of nature. Consider the statistics about India. In 1961, daily food supplies per capita in India were 2,073 Calories (2,073 kilocalories, more accurately). At that time, 398 million acres of India’s total land area of 734 million acres (or 54 percent) was devoted to crop production.

Between 1961 and 1998, population increased by 117 percent, food supplies per capita grew 19 percent, and India became, at least temporarily, a net grain exporter. Yet cropland increased by only 5 percent (to 420 million acres). Forest and woodland area expanded 21 percent between 1961 and 1994 (from 141 to 170 million acres) (FAO 2001).

Assuming no improvement in agricultural production since 1961 or any change in the 1998 population level, available daily food supplies per capita would have slid to 955 Calories—well below even the minimum energy an adult needs to keep basic metabolic activities functioning at rest in a supine position! The Food and Agricultural Organization (1996) estimates that minimal level of existence as requiring 1,300 to 1,700 Calories/day. Mass starvation and death would have been inevitable.

Would that have translated into more wildlife habitat? Not likely. Faced with such hunger, it seems unlikely that India’s population and policy makers would have been more willing to set land aside for conservation. India would have been fortunate not to have lost much of its remaining forests, let alone “reserve” as much as the 35 million acres currently in partially or fully protected areas (World Resources Institute 2000).

By reducing hunger, agricultural technology has not only improved human welfare and reduced habitat loss but has made it easier to view the rest of nature as a source of wonder and not merely as one’s next meal or the fire to cook it with. It also decreased the socioeconomic cost of conservation.

These factors helped create the conditions necessary for support of conservation within the body politic. Finally, in the absence of technological progress, would the World Conservation Union’s Red List, which classifies about a quarter of all mammalian species as threatened (World Conservation Union 2000), been larger, because more species would be threatened—or smaller, because more species were extinct?

1. These calculations assume that the increase in food production between 1961 and 1998 is equivalent to the increase in global population times the increase in globally averaged food supplies per capita, using data from FAO (2001).
2. Goklany (1998). Assumes 0.3 billion acres of potential cropland in China.

Checking All the Boxes at Singing Frogs Farm

“Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple.” These words from permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison rang in my ears recently as I toured Singing Frogs Farm near my home in Sebastopol, California. Owners Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser may have found solutions for some of the planet’s most urgent and intractable problems on their eight-acre, beyond-organic, permaculture-inspired no-till farm. In just over four years, they’ve increased their soil’s organic matter content almost 400%, boosted biodiversity on their land, are grossing $100,000 per year on each of three acres of vegetables, and have won numerous awards for conservation and stewardship.

What’s their secret? “You have to have a system,” Paul says. This system starts with generous amounts of compost—about 60 tons per acre per year—which is far more than organic standards recommend. In fact, it’s so much more that some USDA Extension agents told Paul that because of it, he must be polluting the water table with nitrates and phosphates. So Kaiser did the science: He measured the nitrate and other contaminant levels in the rain and soil water entering their farm, in the soil itself, and in the water leaving the farm. It turned out that the water exiting the farm was cleaner than the water coming in. So with their methods, we can put a check in the box labeled “creates clean water.”

All that organic matter holds water in the soil, too. Kaiser says that every increase in organic matter of one percent lets each acre of soil hold 16,500 gallons more water. His soil has leapt from less than two percent organic matter to more than eight percent, which means each acre can store about 100,000 gallons more water than before. Thus the farm is far more drought-proof than a typical operation. On our tour, in the heat of early September and after months of no rain, I saw that the grass in the paths and roadways was still green. “We don’t irrigate our roads, obviously,” Paul reminded us. Another point for their methods: drought is much less of a problem for them.

All that compost stimulates tremendous growth in their crops, helping them out-compete weeds that are not as well adapted to such high fertility levels. Thus, weeding costs are low. Another checkmark for their techniques.

The Kaisers have also added over 3000 native plants to their farm, in hedgerows and edge plantings. This, plus the immense range of vegetables and flowers at the site, has stimulated incredible biodiversity: roughly double the number of bird species have been counted on the farm than in a comparable nearby area of native plants. I’ve often been tempted to say, in spite of the hubris this may hint at, that good design can help us do “better than nature.” Singing Frogs Farm suggests that this can be true.

The biggest triumph of the farm to my mind is carbon sequestering. The Kaisers do this very permaculturally: in multiple ways, with multiple benefits. First is composting, done by recycling farm waste and by importing material from the county composting program. The second is by not tilling. Paul is adamantly against tilling, which he likens to blasting the soil life with an earthquake, forest fire, hurricane, and tornado all at once. Tilling burns up organic matter, dries the soil and ruins its texture, kills soil life, and lets soil blow away, among other evils. In their system, rather than till they keep plants in the soil continuously. Here they are blessed by Sonoma County’s year-round growing climate but, in their microclimate, they get serious hard frosts. Paul explains that the rich organic matter and soil life protect their plants from the cold. “My neighbors have a milder microclimate,” Paul says, “But their plants turn to mush in cold weather that mine survive with no problems.”

To keep the soil constantly filled with plants, most of their vegetables are transplanted from starts. This is the heart of the “system” that Paul talks about—a meticulously planned seeding and planting schedule for thousands of plants. As one crop matures the farm workers poke young starts underneath. When the plants are spent, they cut them off at the stem, leaving the roots to rot in the soil. This adds still more carbon (and suppresses weeds, too). Data from Rattan Lal, professor of soil physics at Ohio State and a well-known expert on carbon sequestering, suggests that if the carbon content of most of the world’s farmland could be raised by two percentage points, we could sequester all the carbon pumped into the atmosphere during the industrial era. The Kaisers have raised their SOM not by two but by six percent. Imagine if half the world’s farmers used their methods! So we can add “mitigates anthropogenic global warming” to the benefits of the Kaisers’ methods.

Though I could go on extolling the virtues of Singing Frogs Farm for pages more, I’ll add just one more important point: Because their system generates $100,000 per acre per year, they pay their workers nearly double the average farm wage for the county. Also, unlike nearly every other CSA in the county, they grow year round, allowing them to keep most of their staff employed all year. So we can check the box “social justice” along with all the others.

The solutions to the world’s problems really are embarrassingly simple. The Kaisers’ no-till system boosts biodiversity; mitigates drought; cleans groundwater; protects plants from frost, disease, and bugs; sequesters staggering amounts of carbon; and pays a fair wage. If most farms used the Kaisers’ methods, we’d go a long way toward solving some of the most urgent challenges facing humanity. Imagine that.

Organic agriculture is helping save bees from extinction

(NaturalNews) Conventional farming has become a reckless institution that pays no heed to soil nutrition, soil microbes, wildflowers and the natural habitat of pollinators. Under today’s conventional farming systems, insects and herbs are expendable. Farming now works against nature instead of working with it. The health of the earth is sacrificed as conventional farming systems disconnect from the ecosystem they should be preserving. One of the most important components of agriculture – pollinators – is suffering more than ever before.

The Organic Center released a report titled The Role of Organic in Supporting Pollinator Health, which details the current threats to pollinators. The report reveals several organic farming practices that support the health of honeybees and other pollinators while encouraging an agricultural system that respects the balance of nature. These pollinator-friendly farming techniques can be used on both organic farms and conventional farms to save the bees and the butterflies from extinction.

“Our paper takes an in-depth look at the challenges faced by honey bees and other pollinators, and we look at organic as a model for supporting pollinator populations,” said Dr. Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs for The Organic Center. “We hope this report acts as a tool to educate policymakers, growers and consumers. Bee-friendly practices being used by organic farmers can be adopted by all producers to foster healthy pollinators.”

Conventional pesticide-dependent farming systems are committing agricultural suicide
Pollination is how agriculture sustains itself; it’s how it survives. When farming practices disregard the health of nature’s pollinators, then farming starts defeating its own purpose, committing agricultural suicide over time. Honeybee populations have dropped by over a third since 2006. This is a significant concern, especially when three-quarters of all food crops rely on pollinators. The US produces $16 billion annually in pollinator crops like berries, apples, carrots, onions and other vegetables. If the honey bee population continues to dwindle, the most healthy grocery store foods could one day cease to exist. One day, all the diversity could be replaced by rolling fields of select corporation-owned genetically modified crops.

Organic farming practices respect the health of pollinators, sustain agriculture and environmental health
It’s easy to see why pollinators are dying off. Their natural habitat of wildflowers and herbs is being replaced by sweeping fields of pesticide-saturated GMO crops. These pesticide chemicals are affecting the bees’ nervous and immune systems, making them more susceptible to parasitic infections.

Dr. Jessica Shade of The Organic Center said, “Organic farming supports all of agriculture by maintaining and nourishing healthier pollinator communities, through practices such as crop rotations, hedgerow planting and the use of integrated pest management techniques. Our goal is to gain recognition for these important organic practices.”

Industrial agriculture uses insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides liberally without investigating the scientific impact that these chemicals have on soil microbes, water quality, pollinator health or entire ecosystem shifts. For example, an insecticide class known as neonicotinoids is used as both a spray and as a seed coating. These pervasive applications transfer into the crops and end up in the plant’s nectar, poisoning the bees. Instead of poisoning the plant, the bee and the soil microbes, farmers can use organic integrated pest management techniques that control pests while also considering the health of ecosystem in the process.

Organic farming techniques also exclude herbicides. Less herbicide means more wildflowers. These wild flowering plants provide a diverse habitat for pollinators to thrive. Organic farming improves these natural resources, protecting the bees’ native habitat. The biodiversity provides sufficient pollen for the bees to build stronger and more robust hives.

“One of the simplest ways to conserve our pollinator populations in an agriculturally reliant world is through organic farming. Consumers can rest assured that every time they purchase an organic product, they are supporting pollinator health,” said Shade.