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Earth Science


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Ancient Agriculture: Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming by Gabriel Alonso De Herrera (Ancient City Press) is the first English translation of the book that carried traditional farming techniques from the Old World of Europe to the New World of the Americas. The original book, Obra de Agricultura by Gabriel Alonso de Herrera, was initially published in 1513 as an instruction manual for the farmers of Talavera de la Reina in central Spain. It was revised several times as the author learned increasingly more about land use and sophisticated irrigation techniques beyond the Iberian Peninsula, which Moorish farmers of the day had blanketed in exotic fruits and vegetables.

Historically, Herrera's agricultural classic has been especially relevant in arid regions of the world, where crops are irrigated by means of ditches such as acequias, sangrias, and arroyos, which also crisscrossed the landscape of Spain at the start of the sixteenth century. Many of Herrera's planting, harvesting, and seed-saving tips have, in fact, been successfully integrated into Indo-hispanic farming practices in the southwestern United States, where drought conditions and the need for water conservation typically prevail. The present edition, Ancient Agriculture, has been meticulously translated, illustrated, and compiled for contemporary use. Areas of focus include working the land in harmony with nature and producing more food through soil improvement, cultivation of vineyards, and awareness of astrological influences. The interweave of ancient farming traditions and modern realities of global warming makes this treasure trove of the past a seedbed for a whole new generation of farmers and gardeners striving for agricultural sustainability. GABRIEL ALONSO DE HERRERA, considered the father of modern-day Spanish agriculture, lived in central Spain from the time of his birth, in the 1470s, until his death, around 1540. He learned about agriculture from working in the fields of Talavera de la Reina with his father, in Granada with the Moors, studying Spanish Arabic and classical Roman texts on the subject, and traveling extensively throughout Europe. JUAN ESTEVAN ARELLANO, a journalist and farmer native to northern New Mexico, has roots reaching back to the 1725 settlement of the Embudo Valley. A poet and novelist as well, he is the 1994 recipient of Mexico's Premio Nacional de Literatura Jose Fuentes Mares prize.

The Changing Scale of American Agriculture by John Fraser Hart ( University of Virginia Press ) Few Americans know much about contemporary farming, which has evolved dramatically over the past few decades. In The Changing Scale of American Agriculture, the award-winning geographer and landscape historian John Fraser Hart, professor of geography at the University of Minnesota, describes the transformation of farming from the mid-twentieth century, when small family farms were still viable, to the present, when a farm must sell at least $250,000 of farm products each year to provide an acceptable level of living for a family.

The increased scale of agriculture has outmoded the Jeffersonian ideal of small, self-sufficient farms. In the past, farmers kept a variety of livestock and grew several crops, but modern family farms have become highly specialized in producing a single type of livestock or one or two crops. As farms have become larger and more specialized, their number has declined.

Hart contends that modern family farms need to become integrated into tightly orchestrated food-supply chains in order to thrive, and these complex new organizations of large-scale production require managerial skills of the highest order. According to Hart, this trend is not only inevitable, but it is beneficial, because it produces the food American consumers want to buy at prices they can afford.

Although Hart provides the statistics and clear analysis such a study requires, his book focuses on interviews with farmers: those who have shifted from mixed crop-and-livestock farming to cash-grain farming in the Midwest agricultural heartland; beef, dairy, chicken, egg, turkey, and hog producers around the periphery of the heartland; and specialty crop producers on the East and West Coasts . These invaluable case studies bring the reader into direct personal contact with the entrepreneurs who are changing American agriculture. Hart believes that modern large-scale farmers have been criticized unfairly, and The Changing Scale of American Agriculture, the result of decades of research, is his attempt to tell their side of the story.

Marketing Grain and Livestock (Second Edition) by Gary F. Stasko (Iowa State Press, Blackwell) Marketing is an essential part of any business and the business of agriculture is no exception. Written by an experienced educator with expertise in futures markets, hedging, and technical price analysis, Marketing Grain and Livestock teaches the basics of commodities marketing by farmers, ranchers, grain elevators, packers, and processors.

Building upon what made the first edition so appealing – user-friendly, understandable writing – Gary Stasko, registered commodity-trading advisor and instructor of economics and finance at Des Moines Area Community College , Boone , Iowa , writes for his audience in clear-cut concise vernacular. In his revamped second edition, he has included updated figures, charts, and diagrams to illustrate major points. Stasko’s book emphasizes through explanations and applications while providing practical examples in every chapter.

Contents include: 1) Introduction, 2) The Mindset for Marketing, 3) The Futures Market, 4) Hedging, 5) Options, 6) Selecting a Brokerage Firm, 7) Advanced Pricing Strategies, 8) Cash Contracting, 9) Electronic Marketing, 10) Fundamental Price Analysis, and 11) Technical Price Analysis.

All new features of the second edition include:

  • A chapter devoted to electronic trading
  • Detailed explanation of the most common used cash contracts
  • Seasonal fluctuations of commodity prices
  • New statistics, charts, graphs, and tables illustrating main points
  • New “questions and problems” segments at the end of each chapter to help readers retain information
  • Information about revolutionary electronic marketing technologies

Marketing Grain and Livestock is aimed at agri-business and farm production students and their instructors, but experienced farmers, ranchers, and agri-business professionals will find the book valuable as an introduction or refresher.

Ecological Agrarian: Agriculture's First Evolution in 10,000 Years by J. Bishop Grewell, Clay J. Landry (Purdue University Press) details how agriculture is moving from feeding a growing planet to feeding a planet with environmental concerns. Explains how agriculture shaped history, and argues that we are entering an unprecedented era where the demands on, and the focus of, agriculture are changing.
Further declines in the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and other inputs are no doubt on the way. Improvements will not only make agriculture more efficient and productive, but also help the environment. Advancements in the use of computers and global positioning satellite (GPS) systems are being used to measure how much seed, fertilizer, or pesticide are placed on a spot of land and how much in turn is harvested. This "precision farming" increases yields while decreasing inputs. In addition, using cheap equipment such as rain gages and barometers connected to com­puters helps farmers know when to apply pesticides and what kind to apply so as to minimize environmental harm and maximize output.

For instance, Rick Hartley runs a spraying business near Attleborough, Norfolk in the United Kingdom. Before crops are up, Hartley identifies patches of thistles that can be seen when he drives by with his sprayer. When he reaches a patch of thistles, he douses it with herbicide and then turns his sprayer off until arriving at a new patch. Applying the herbicide only where needed lowers expenditure of the chemical. When interviewed by a U.K farm weekly, Hartley explained, "While it is easy enough to do that the first time through the crop, the second dose of the split treatment goes on when the beets are up and the thistles largely hidden. As a result, you can not be as selective without the risk of misses.

Before precision farming, Hartley's second trip through the beets re­quired him to spray everywhere to make sure he got all of the thistles. Today, Hartley marks the locale of thistles his first time through with a GPS system. When he returns for the second spraying, the GPS directs where and when the sprayer should be turned on and where and when it should be shut off. This saves on herbicide and lowers cost. Such patch spraying has the potential to lower herbicide costs by up to 50 percent.'

Other precision farming techniques employ infrared systems to moni­tor yields. By scanning a field, infrared provides information on plant density. Computers using geospatial information systems (GIS) turn this data into digital maps. In places where growth is low, farmers can change their mix of inputs to try for a better result. Linking soil samples taken in a field with GPS mapping can identify where farmers and their equip­ment should apply more or less fertilizer. This leads to more efficient and cost-effective fertilizer application. In his book Agriculture and Modern Technology: A Defense, Thomas DeGregori observes, "Farmers generally do not wish to use inputs, such as seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides need­lessly, since they cost money."81 By using information as a substitute input, the other inputs can be lowered. DeGregori goes on to note that precision farming technologies are currently only practical for use by large farms in the developed world. The challenge is to make them more af­fordable for poorer farmers in less developed areas.

Being dynamic and responsive, agriculture is not only changing in the demands that it is meeting and the problems that it is solving, it is under­going change in its structure. In the period from 1940 to 1998, the num­ber of farms in the U.S. dropped from over 6 million farms to just over 2 million farms.' From 1970 to 1990, the number of farms dropped 27 percent.'

Meanwhile, average farm size rose from 174 acres in 1940 to 435 acres in 1998.5 Whereas 92.6 percent of the farms in 1970 were taking in less than $40,000 per year in cash receipts, by 1990 that number had dropped to 70.7 percent. Farms are consolidating into larger, bigger in­come operations.'

Contrary to popular thought, this emphasis shift to larger, more inten­sive farms is nothing new in agriculture. In 1925, N.S.B. Gras wrote of agriculture:

The agricultural contest may be expressed in many different ways with varying shades of emphasis. It is generally the small farm against the large farm, the homestead against the plantation, and the new and improved system against the old. It is the new system that wins. And this new sys­tem generally grows up in old lands competing with the old system. The victor is almost invariably a more intensive form of agriculture.' Compare those words to Samuel Staley writing at the end of the twenti­eth century:
... agriculture is changing. Farms are getting larger, and small family farms are increasingly less financially viable. Most family farms, in fact are supported by income from off the farm. Nationally, 49.7 percent of farm­ers report an off-farm source as their primary income, and 37.1 percent said they worked 200 or more days off the farm. Slightly more than 25 percent of the nation's 1.9 million farms earn more than $50,000 per year in sales, while the average net-cash return is just $22,260 per farm. As land becomes less and less important as a source of productivity, farms are becoming even more vulnerable to competitive pressures to expand their operations to capture larger economies of scale or to shift uses into nona­gricultural activities such as housing, offices, recreation or open space.'

Agriculture's Environmental Evolution

As we set out at the beginning, agriculture is evolving for the first time in its history. Its purpose is no longer only to feed people. This book focuses on that evolution toward meeting new demands from consumers. It asks how the agrarian sector is dealing with the new problems created by the solutions of yesterday and what frameworks can help it succeed.

The answers to agriculture's next stage are already out there. In part, it relies upon the old path of continuing to increase yields through tech­nology. If it isn't broke, don't fix it. Biotechnology and precision farming are but two of the answers being researched for the purpose of increased yields. But there is also the shift toward meeting other demands beyond the simple scope of a frill belly. This part of the answer is where agricul­ture's evolution lies.

Supplying the environmental amenities for a new generation of de­mands offers a chance for agriculture to expand its revenue. For many farmers and ranchers, the only way of staying in business is turning to­ward green options. These options rely on a new revenue source, more ef­ficient use of available resources, or capturing a premium price for their current products by employing production methods that have a philo­sophical appeal to consumers. It is not ecological leanings on the part of agricultural producers turning them green, but rather the financial re­wards for doing so.

In the next chapter, "The Color of Money," we explore two of the methods mentioned. By using markets for green products, producers im­prove their business through new revenue opportunities. They also achieve premium prices for products certified green in their production. The chap­ter discusses the efforts of ecological agrarians to gain new revenue op­portunities from producing green products and how premium prices and market share can be captured through green brand names and labeling.

In chapter three, "Waste Not, Want Not," we write about more efficient resource use. Farmers and ranchers take in the waste of other industries and one another as they produce their own products. Applying the same idea in reverse, industries take in waste leaving the agricultural sector.

This lowers the costs of disposal for agriculture, cleans the environment, and in some cases, the agricultural producer often receives pay­ment for the waste materials. Marketplace recycling turns one business's trash into another business's treasure.

Chapter four unearths the efforts of landowners and land trusts to manage the environment for the environment's sake. Unlike the other chapters, some of the landowners in this chapter are less motivated by profit and more influenced by their own sense of environmental value. Some operations in the chapter do, however, capitalize on a growing de­mand for agricultural tourism and fee recreation to cover their costs and generate revenue.

Chapter five turns to the habitat that agriculture provides for the na­tion's wildlife. In return for habitat provision, many landowners are find­ing revenue opportunities by providing prime hunting for a fee. In addition, environmental organizations are willing to pay landowners to leave some of their irrigation water in stream to help struggling fish pop­ulations. The chapter looks at how such new opportunities are arising and how institutional changes at the state level are helping them flourish.

In chapter six, Greg Conko documents the advances made via bio­technology to improve resource use by the agricultural sector. From plants that can live on saltwater to bug-resistant varieties that reduce the need for pesticides, biotech is turning agriculture on its toes and benefiting the environment. At the same time, it is creating a second "Green Revolution" to feed growing numbers of people without increasing the need for more land.

After demonstrating agriculture's evolution in each chapter, the book concludes with a look at where we go from here in the final two chapters. Chapter seven lists environmental harms that have arisen in agriculture's fight to feed the planet and explores institutions that have exacerbated such harms. Chapter eight synthesizes the lessons learned throughout the book to ask what institutions entice agriculture into evolving for the sake of improved environmental quality and what institutions fail. It provides a framework for nurturing agriculture forward.

Agriculture's greatest triumph in the environmental arena was feeding the world with increasing yields that protected much of our wildlife habi­tat from agricultural conversion. But that success was in many ways an unintentional side effect of trying to feed the world. It is now embarking on protecting the environment as an explicit goal demanded by its customers. For the first time in 10,000 years, it has a purpose beyond food production. The fresh challenge lies in maintaining the success of the past while working toward achieving new environmental endeavors. Capturing the dynamic ingenuity of agrarian entrepreneurs, agriculture's evolu­tion says we can have our cake and eat it, too.

The stories of those carrying agriculture into its new evolution are the ones we capture in this book. We hope the eco-entrepreneurs discussed here will inspire others to plant the environmental seed through imitation or original ideas of their own. We also hope this work encourages the development of the institutions necessary for agriculture's evolution to be successful. By encouraging experimentation and rewarding those who do well, agriculture can enter into the next millennium as an important part of civilization, just as it was over the last ten thousand years. It can be more dynamic than ever. And it can do so, knowing that not only is it feeding the world's population, but it is also nurturing the planet.

The stories provided here are but a glimpse of agriculture's future. In time, their solutions may prove obsolete as the environmental problems of today become problems of the past. No doubt when they are solved, a new set of dilemmas will arise, and agriculture will evolve again. We will leave finding the answers to that next stage for the thinkers of tomorrow.

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