Walking The Mechanization Tightrope In Farming

Producing plants and animals for human consumption was once a very clean process. Hunter-gatherers of the early world simply sought out and harvested what they needed. However, the world’s burgeoning population is an unavoidable barrier to this process. In order to feed the billions inhabiting the globe, farming is necessary. And as land has been consumed for other purposes, the productivity needed from each acre of farm has pushed ever higher. As a result, intensive practices involving chemicals and fuel-hungry equipment have become standard.

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The Future of Cultivating Food

But many consumers are working toward a better way. The desire to source one’s own food through a greener process is gaining momentum. The initial quest to eliminate all chemicals and fuel has been redirected to some extent, though. These consumers are realizing there is a place for judicious, limited use of mechanized equipment. Sometimes there is just no way around it. The fact is that if everyone were as willing to utilize alternatives, we wouldn’t have the carbon and chemical problems we have now.

This pragmatic approach to restrained use of mechanization follows several key issues.

Utilization of Animal Waste
One other major area where manual labor can’t cut it is in handling of bulk materials, most particularly livestock waste. While it’s ideal to avoid having animals in concentrated areas where manure can accumulate, there are certain situations such as winter feeding where at least a limited amount of this must take place.

In order to avoid overloading those areas with the resulting nutrients (and subsequently starving other areas of them), it is best to load it into a spreader and redistribute it across the farm. The equipment need not be massive; just find a Bobcat skid steer at Fastline and use this maneuverable implement to thoroughly clear areas of waste. The modest investment of this fuel and time not only eliminates runoff and soil pollution at the source of the manure, it also places those valuable nutrients in areas where it can supplant chemical fertilizers.

Chemical Reduction
Weeds are one of the greatest enemies of agriculture. Two of the main strategies for eradicating weeds are cultivation and chemicals. While cultivation does require considerable fuel, it is still preferable to applications of chemicals that require roughly the same fuel use in addition to the introduction of chemicals with deleterious environmental and health effects.

Certainly a manual process of removing weeds with hoes or other hand tools is the cleanest, but that is impractical for a farm of any size. This can also lead to issues with migrant labor and the costs associated with their movement from farm to farm for work. Again, the thinking has moved away from never using fuel, toward a measured utilization of power equipment to avoid other, more pollutive options.

Transportation To Market
The first reaction of many green consumers is that the ideal marketing system is for customers to come to you and purchase goods right on the farm. That way the farm doesn’t expend any fuel in transportation.

But examining this more closely, we see that it’s highly inefficient. Dozens of cars trekking many miles to the farm for a small purchase adds up to far more carbon impact than a few larger trucks efficiently taking the products to a market closer to the homes of the buyers. Perhaps somewhere in the middle might be a carpooling process whereby many consumers travel together, but by and large, big trucks are a more efficient solution.

The thought process that has led to this gentle acceptance of limited mechanization can be a slippery slope. The most important criterion in determining whether use of machinery is worthwhile is its ability to substitute for a more problematic alternative. It should never be only about simplicity, speed, or cost. As long as this balancing act is carefully executed, mechanization can continue a limited role even in greener agriculture.