Were the good old days really so good?

by Patricia Grotenhuis

When people think of the farms of the past – small, diverse and all work being done by a small handful of people, they often comment that it is better for the environment than the farms of today.  The pastoral views of 50 or 100 years ago conjure up many “warm, fuzzy” feelings about caring for the land and animals.  Today’s farms, with their modern equipment and technologies, are often regarded as less environmentally friendly in their approach.
As someone who lives and works on farms, and who has also worked in the crop protection and livestock research sector during my studies for my agricultural science degree at university, I see it a little differently.  This excerpt, from “The Real Dirt on Farming II” helps explain the environmental benefits of today’s farms.
A common misconception is that early agriculture functioned in harmony with nature, and that environmental degradation is a phenomenon of “modern” farming.  Historical records reveal a different story.

For example, the farming systems adopted by settlers prior to 1850 was wheat monoculture coupled with biennial summer fallow – meaning the production of one crop every second year, with the soil being intensively cultivated but not cropped during alternate years.  This system was wasteful of land and ruined soil health and organic matter levels.
Many of the early methods of crop protection involved either excessive tillage or inorganic chemicals, such as sulphur, mercury, and arsenic compounds.  Many of these older chemicals are no longer used because of their toxicity or inability to be broken down in the environment.
Between the 1960s and 1980s, monoculture corn was common, leading to pest problems and soil degradation in many areas. Today, we’re learning from our past shortcomings.  Crop rotation is the norm, we’re much better at looking after our soil’s health and crop protection products are safer and highly regulated.
As farmers with families whose livelihood and way of life are very close to the land, we understand more than most the importance of healthy soil, water and air.  We live on our farms with our families and depend on the environment to create a healthy place to live, as well as the right conditions to grow crops and raise livestock. Through farm groups, we invest in environmental research and help develop programs to disseminate the latest findings to our members.  In fact, Canada is a world leader in on-farm environmental programs.”
Farms today use modern technology and equipment to protect the environment as much as possible.  Yes, there will always be farms which have room for improvement, but part of the reason for that is technology changes so quickly today that it’s impossible for farmers to use only the newest technology on their farms.  Whether a farmer has all new equipment and uses the latest in crop protection, or they are like most farmers with a mix of new and old, they are adjusting their practices regularly to protect the environment as much as they can with the means they have available.
For a full copy of “The Real Dirt on Farming II” visit: http://www.farmfoodcare.org/index.php/farm-a-food-resources/2-farm-food-care/37-dirt-on-farming

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