Anyone who is even slightly aware of the news realizes that the world is afflicted by problems.  From our personal lives to international relations to the environment, there are challenges and difficulties.  And it is fair to say that many them are human-caused in some way.

Agriculture is by its nature a risky endeavor, with the variability and uncertainty of weather, pests and diseases, and markets.  Problems or downright catastrophe can strike overnight. The family-based small-to-medium farm is almost an “endangered species.”  Consider some recent statistics:

–          In 2002, an average of 330 farms went out of business every week.  A little over one-half of today’s farmers are 45 – 64 years old, and only 6% are under 35.  Only 7% of family farms have totally on-farm incomes.

–          The farmer only receives about 10 cents of the consumer’s food dollar. About 39 cents goes for off-farm labor, 8.5 cents for packaging, 4 cents for profits, 4 cents for advertising, 3.5 cents for energy, and the rest for several minor categories.

Why do so many problems that impact the food supply keep occurring?  Although some agricultural problems are largely caused by the environment (such as bad weather; floods and drought; and attack by pests, parasites and disease), problems due to human mistakes, bad judgment, unintended consequences, greed and arrogance can be just as devastating.  And in fact, even environmental problems are often partly caused by human activities.  For example, extreme deforestation can  lead to local drought.

How should one go about attacking and solving problems?  Unfortunately, all too often we go about it the wrong way, by trying to eliminate or cover up the symptoms of the problem.

Just as a doctor may first treat a patient with a severe headache by prescribing a pain-killing drug, agricultural experts may fight a crop pest outbreak – perhaps aphids – by spraying a toxic chemical to kill the aphids, rather than seeking to trace the real cause of the aphids and correcting that cause, and thus preventing the pest attack.  Perhaps the real cause of the crop’s aphids was a week of cold, cloudy weather, which put the crop plants under stress.  Or maybe the farmer’s soil was deficient in one or more plant nutrients, perhaps calcium or the trace element zinc.  Much research has found that attacks by pests or diseases are clearly due to crop stress from such environmental factors as those.  Stressed plants are more susceptible to pest and disease attack than are healthy, vigorous plants, just as our bodies more readily succumb to disease germs when we are short of sleep, or depressed, or not eating good food.  And just as our bodies have an immune system that can fight off disease, plants also have various ways to resist or kill pests and diseases.

 Solving problems

The best way to attack and solve problems is (1) first recognize that a problem exists, (2) carefully analyze the problem, noting its symptoms, but also finding its real cause or causes, (3) educate yourself about the problem, its cause(s) and ways to prevent or overcome the cause(s), and (4) attack the real cause(s), not just the symptoms.

When you go about analyzing a problem, be careful about your source of information.  Some “experts” may not tell you the whole story (or they may not even know it all themselves), and they may be promoting a certain methodology or peddling certain products.  Solutions to difficult problems must make sense, and they should not create still other problems in time.  It is best to check out suggestions from several points of view, including other farmers who are having success.

It is possible that a certain company or product can be very helpful, but it is also important to educate yourself about how the soil, plants and animals function.  The better you understand the agricultural ecosystem, the better you can logically figure out how to attack problems.  Other links in this website can get you started, including (1) those on the agricultural ecosystem and soils, which illuminate the complex activities and relationships which are necessary to grow truly healthy crops; (2) those on fertilizers, soil improvement and composting, which show ways to improve soil conditions and nourish crops better; and (3) those on controlling weeds and pests, which give non-toxic approaches to those problems.

Similarly, if a farmer’s animals are sick or not growing properly, there are a number of possible causes, such as an unbalanced diet, toxins or microbial contamination of the food or water, or uncomfortable housing conditions.  Again, besides treatment of illness with drugs, try to find out what factors actually caused the problem, and correct them.

The environmental causes of agricultural problems are mostly beyond the farmer’s control, but many other problem-causing factors can definitely be controlled, and even some environmental effects can be lessened, such as soil erosion from heavy rains, since a good soil with sufficient organic matter and soil that is protected by a cover crop have low erosion.

Some of the problem-causing factors that a farmer can control include the genetic strains and breeding of crops and animals, soil tillage and planting methods (and the timing of these operations), fertilizers used, methods of weed and pest control, crop rotation, harvesting and crop storage and/or marketing, and how much land to buy or rent.

 Get your own system

Since the farmer can make so many choices, the best way to approach possible problems is to develop a farming system that can prevent as many problems as possible, and one that allows those problems that do occur to be overcome relatively easily and inexpensively, as well as a system that can reduce your expenses and increase profits.

Every farm is different, so rather than slavishly following the same farming methods as your cousin in the next county, use your basic knowledge, plus your experience from each year, to begin practicing whatever modifications and innovations seem likely to improve your operation.

There are many variables to consider, not only the treatment of your soil, choice of crops and rotations, management of weeds and pests, but also available machinery, labor sources and finances, to name a few.  Sit down (along with your spouse and any partners, financiers or managers) and assess your situation.  Have a brainstorming session; don’t be afraid to dream, to imagine some pretty wild ideas.  Think of goals and new ways to use a resource you already have, or to fill a market need.  Then get more realistic and consider one or two of the best ideas.  Consider their practicality, evaluate the plusses and minuses, and balance the need for cash-flow with probable expenses.  Check into any legal requirements or pitfalls, such as zoning laws, food safety laws, pollution control ordinances, insurance, and tax laws.  Make out a detailed business plan and projected budget for five or ten years.

The possibilities for a tailor-made farming system are many.  Perhaps you can just fine-tune your current operations, reducing expensive inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.  Maybe by improving your soil and/or becoming organic, you can grow higher quality crops or animals that will command a higher market price.  You may want to eliminate the middleman by processing and/or packaging your own brand of, say, popcorn, or yogurt, and even sell your products at a roadside stand or through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation.

In many cases, it is not wise to make sudden, drastic changes to the entire farm.  If you are changing your fertilizing methods, or adding a new crop, only change one field, or at most one-quarter of the farm at a time.  That way, you have something to fall back on in case something goes wrong.  Also, any additional start-up expenses will be lower.  Expect to take several years to change your system.  If difficulties arise along the way, be flexible and make needed modifications.

Farming does not have to rely on borrowed money and fickle markets.  You can be profitable and feel good that you are producing truly healthful food.