For most people a “conventional farmer” is another way of saying “a farmer who is willing to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides”. That doesn’t really do conventional farmers justice, but for a thumbnail description on a busy Thursday morning, it’ll do.
As anyone who’s ever tried to maintain a garden knows, the hardest thing about bringing up a food crop is preventing other forms of life from horning in on a hard-earned meal (insert in-law joke of your choice here). Those party crashers can include insects like aphids, beetles and mites, but also microbes like fungi and rusts. And then there are the weeds. It’s a lot to contend with, but conventional farmers have a variety of means at their disposal for dealing with them.
Among the simplest is tilling. Which is to say, applying a disc to the land and turning weeds under in the springtime. More aggressive measures like herbicides are of course common. For the bugs like corn borer and root worm, there are applications of pesticides, and for the disease-causing microbes, further applications of fungicides (which are often applied by plane).
That all adds up to a lot of activity in the field (especially when you consider that’s all in addition to the normal seeding, fertilizing and harvesting), and working land like that has its drawbacks. For one, it’s expensive. Equipment consumes fuel, and the chemicals certainly aren’t free. Multiple passes with machinery also causes “compaction”, which prevents the land from absorbing water, fertilizer and oxygen, and cuts down on yield. Also, because rain water tends to run off compacted soil instead of soaking in, it contributes to soil erosion.
And there are other problems. The simple act of tilling soil releases huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, where it bonds with atmospheric oxygen to create CO2, a greenhouse gas. It also leaves land highly susceptible to erosion, since water will simply wash it away.
The good news is that over the last fifteen or so years great strides have been made in so-called “no-till” farming, whereby farmland is left undisturbed to limit carbon release, erosion, expense and labor. But where you don’t till, of course, you invite weeds. That’s why no-till farming is typically conventional (you need the chemicals to stop the weeds you didn’t kill by turning them under). Currently the trend in tilling is toward “limited tilling”, whereby farmers run a disc or harrow over the land in the springtime to open it up to moisture, air and early season warmth.
Gad, I’m taking up a lot of space and time and I really need to get back in the car and get moving (what made me think taking on a topic like this during a travel week was a good idea?). Sadly, I’ve only scratched the surface (no pun intended) of what conventional farming is all about. But suffice to say for all its drawbacks it has been the way American farmers have achieved maximum gain from the land while at the same time doing everything possible to preserve and protect it. Is it a perfect system? Certainly not. But then no form or farming is perfect — even organic — as we’ll soon see.