SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE

Karen L. Rieger
1992 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


Rationale:

The plight of the American farm family has received extensive media attention in the past few years. This module is designed to give students an opportunity to develop their understanding of one of the many conflicts existing within the agricultural community today.

Intended Audiences:

Grades 6-adult; biology, agriculture, technology, social sciences

Objectives:

At the end of this module, students will
  1. be able to give examples of methods utilized in traditional agricultural practices.

  2. be able to give examples of methods utilized in sustainable agricultural practices.

  3. be aware of the impact of the agricultural industry on their lives.

  4. be able to suggest alternative solutions to the problem presented.

  5. be able to draw conclusions from information that may be presented to them.

Materials:

  • Case Study: Sustainable Agriculture: To legislate or not?
  • Presenters and their positions sheet
  • Questions to consider sheet
  • Various sources including but not limited to newspapers, magazines, journals, SIRS, and other related sources.

Procedures:

Read the following case study and work through the given questions according to the directions given by your teacher.


CASE STUDY

SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE: TO LEGISLATE OR NOT?

The state legislature is considering mandating that alternative agricultural practices be used on all farms in the state by 1996. Alternative farming encompasses, but is not limited to, farming systems referred to as biological, low-input, organic, regenerative, or sustainable. It includes a range of practices such as integrated pest management (IPM); low-intensity animal production systems; crop rotations designed to reduce pest damage, improve crop health, decrease soil erosion, and in the case of legumes, fix nitrogen in the soil; and tillage and planting practices that reduce soil erosion and help control weeds. Sustainable agriculture is an effort to curb erosion by modifying plowing techniques and to protect water supplies by minimizing, if not eliminating, artificial fertilizers and pest controls. The legislature has set up a committee to review the alternative agriculture issue and has charged them with reporting back to the entire legislative body. In order to insure that the committee is able to make the best possible recommendation to the legislative body of the state, they have agreed to hear from several experts in the field of agriculture. The experts presenting information to the committee will be a Soil Conservation Service District Representative, a State Department of Agriculture Representative, a successful farmer using sustainable agricultural methods, a successful farmer using conventional methods, an environmentalist, and an economist. The expert positions are included on a separate page that you may obtain from your teacher.

What options would you recommend that the committee consider investigating? What options would you recommend to the legislative body if you were a member of the committee?


PRESENTERS AND THEIR POSITIONS

The Soil Conservation Service District Representative favors the use of sustainable agricultural usage. The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) currently lends equipment and support to farmers wishing to try the techniques used in low-input sustainable agriculture. It is the theory of the SCS that sustainable agricultural practices replace energy and chemicals with diversity and informa-tion. The SCS endorses the use of low-input sustainable agriculture as the best method to control erosion. The SCS District Representative cited a report on the 100 year study of Sanborn Field, on the edge of the campus of the University of Missouri. In this study, where alternative agricultural practices were used, soil erosion was significantly less than in areas where conventional methods were used.

The State Department of Agriculture Representative informed the committee that multiple cropping already accounts for 20% of the world food production. She felt that it was the responsibility of her organization to regulate the agricultural industry and to consider what was the best for all involved. She stated that the primary areas of concern for her department would be that safe, quality products are being placed on the market for the consumer, protecting those who work the land, and in safeguarding the soil and water.

Farmer Abel utilizes no-till farming. He switched from conventional methods four years ago. Currently, he farms 300 acres with the help of two men. Last year his corn yield netted $120.00 per acre. He believes in the potential for this type of agriculture and has had increasingly better yields each of the four years that he has been involved in low-input agriculture. Farmer Abel does not believe that this method is less expensive, but that it creates less contamination.

Farmer Wate uses conventional methods to farm his 1000 acres. He employs the help of three other men. He does not believe that low-input methods allow the farmer to maintain an adequate income and that the sustain-able agriculture movement is "returning to the dark ages". Last year his corn yield netted $100.00 per acre (a good year). It is Farmer Wate's belief that he can make up any monetary loss per acre by farming more acreage, and that would not be an alternative if he utilized the low-input methods.

The environmentalist stated that low-input agriculture will help with the erosion problem, ground water contamination problems, and is a more efficient use of energy. He warned that if society does not deal with the problems addressing the world quickly, then we may not have an earth to worry about. He feels that the present global agricultural practices are placing unnecessary pressures on the sustainability of the earth's resources, therefore it is absolutely necessary to mandate a change.

The economist informed the committee that farmers will not save any money using the low-input methods, but that the money is simply spent on different inputs. She indicates that farmers making the switch to low-input agriculture will not witness benefits for three to five years as they are still recouping their initial investments into new equipment needed to employ the sustainable methods. She expressed the need for the state to expand opportunities for new and existing farmers to prosper using sustainable systems should they legislate mandatory methods usage. She stated that reliable information, training and apprenticeship programs, tax incentives, subsidies, grants, and loans would need to be readily available to farmers, extension agents, bankers, and others.

Questions To Consider In Your Decision Making:

Please do not limit your discussions to the listed questions!

  1. What are the values in question with this particular case study?

  2. Give five to ten issues at stake in this case study. Of the issues you have identified, which do you believe is the key issue to be addressed?

  3. Identify the stakeholders in this case study. What does each of the stakeholders have at stake?

  4. List five to seven alternative solutions that the committee might consider recommending to the state legislature. In other words, what options are available to the committee?

  5. Rank your solutions in accordance with the values identified from question number one. What appears to be the better solution? Why?


Teacher Notes/Suggestions:

  1. Several methods may be employed with this module, but the suggested approach is some form of role-playing.

  2. Allow students ample research time (i.e. individual research, assigned articles, etc.), as this will more than likely be a new topic for most of them. You may wish to present the case study one day and present the additional sheets at another time after he students have performed their own research.

  3. Contact your local County Extension Service and the Soil Conservation Service for information on alternative agriculture (or have students do this).


References:

Brown, Lester R. et al., State of the World 1992. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 1992.

Hurst, B., "Field of Dreams". Policy Review 55: 76-8 (Winter 1991).

Nash, J. M., "It's Ugly But It Works". Time 135: 29-30 (May 21, 1990).

Nilson, R., "Cold Turkey on the Farm". Whole Earth Review 67:34 (Summer 1990).

Rosmann, R. L., "This Land Is Your Land". Newsweek 119:18:17 (May 4, 1992).

Walter, J., "Having a Field Day." Successful Farming 89:24-5 (March 1991).


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