Does the New York Times know more about your farm than you do?

Posted on December 19, 2012


IMG_9943In recent weeks, two New York Times columnists have criticized American farmers and suggested that the way folks used to work their land is superior to current techniques.

In his article, “Did Farmers of the Past Know More Than We Do?” rural columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg claimed a four-crop rotation is better for the land and soil. He wrote:

The way we farm now undervalues and undermines good soil. Our idea of agricultural productivity and efficiency must include the ecological benefits of healthy soil. The surest way to improve the soil is to remember what industrial agriculture has chosen to forget.

And food writer Mark Bittman’s somewhat presumptuously-titled piece “A Simple Fix for Farming” said one of the reasons farmers don’t employ his suggested combination of “crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming” is, quite simply, ignorance.

Why wouldn’t a farmer go this route? One answer is that first he or she has to hear about it…

Sadly, it seems there isn’t a government agency up to the task of encouraging things to move that way, even in the face of convincing evidence.

Both of these articles were based on a 2003-2011 study by the Iowa State University which found better yields for corn and soy in longer crop rotations, along with a decreased need for chemical treatments.

Mr. Bittman admitted the study was ignored by two major science journals and even the Department of Agriculture before finally being published in a less prominent online journal. He criticized the USDA for disregarding these findings, and suggested it may be because they are reluctant to promote a study that encourages decreased use of chemicals.

What’s up with this? Are American farmers so clueless when it comes to their own line of work that they need writers in Manhattan to set them straight?

In an article for AgChallenge2050 addressing these columns, writer and professor Robert Paarlberg challenged the study and the NYT writers for promoting it. He said the columns mislead readers by insinuating that chemical use is getting higher, while failing to mention that production on American farms has increased over the last 30 years while chemical treatments have simultaneously diminished.
He calls the University of Iowa study “artificial” and points to the fact that half the acreage was devoted to corn and soy making total production far less–an aspect that casts doubt on the findings.
In summary, Mr. Paarlberg writes:

The New York Times wants its readers to believe sustainable farming will require going back to the past, always combining crops with livestock and using more land to produce lower-value crops. Farmers have moved away from this model not because they “know less” than farmers in the past, but because this earlier model produced much less food overall while taking up more land and using much more labor. The way we farmed 30 years ago also demanded far more water, energy and chemicals for each bushel of production.

Looks like this might be another example of the media getting it wrong when it comes to rural America.