By MITCH LIES
PORTLAND -- While serving as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa in the early 2000s, Fred Kirschenmann said he told Midwest farmers they could reduce pesticide and fertilizer use by 90 percent by expanding from a two- to a four-crop rotation.
Instead of jumping at the prospect, Kirschenmann said, farmers balked and said: "What am I going to do with alfalfa? There's no elevator to dump it."
The incident, Kirschenmann said, taught him that farmers need infrastructure to provide them choices that can aid a farm's sustainability.
Kirschenmann was the opening speaker at a conference Dec. 4 in Portland titled Strengthening Agriculture's Infrastructure.
The conference was produced by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a USDA initiative that has provided more than 5,000 competitive research and education grants since it was formed in the late 1980s.
Contrary to common beliefs, Kirschenmann said the world's food system has been growing less sustainable over time.
Hunter-gatherers, the first known food system, invested 1 calorie for every 20 calories of food generated. The agrarian system, used before the industrial age, conversely, generated 10 calories for every 1 calorie invested. Today's system generates 1 calorie for every 10 calories invested, he said.
Also, Kirschenmann said, with fuel prices rising and water availability shrinking, it is only a matter of time until the current system proves to be not only inefficient but unworkable.
Kirschenmann said the arc can be changed by adapting new developments in ecology and evolutionary biology to agriculture.
Also, he said, creative researchers are working on developing sustainable systems, and creative farmers have adopted sustainable production systems, but on a smaller scale than needed.
"Those are the models we should be looking at," he said. "How do we scale those up?"
Among keys Kirschenmann identified for converting existing farming systems to more sustainable models is "perennializing" annual crops through seed selections. Sixty percent of annual crops could be perennials, he said, which could be very important when crude oil prices hit $350 a barrel -- a price Kirschenmann foresees in the near future.
Among opportunities Kirschenmann identified that could facilitate sustainable production is a changing consumer. People are more engaged with where their food originates, how it is produced and other facets of food production, he said, which may allow producers to obtain higher prices for food.
"They want to have a say, so they can begin to have a voice in the food availability in their communities," he said.
Among the challenges he identified to changing the existing commodity system is an aging farming community. The average age of the U.S. farmer is just under 60 right now, he said, and with farmland in Iowa running $21,900 an acre, it is difficult for young farmers to enter the field.
"It's no surprise we don't have a lot of young farmers coming into agriculture," he said.
Also, he said, most of U.S. agriculture is in the hands of a few farmers: According to the 2007 Ag Census, less than 200,000 farmers produced 75 percent of U.S. farm sales. At the same time, more than 1.5 million farms produce 7 percent of U.S. farm sales.
Among future options, he said, farms can get bigger, convert to specialty crops or create new opportunities by adding value to crops.
"It seems to me (adding value) is one of the better options," he said.
Sustainable production must be designed for "maximum adaptability" and assume "complex system behavior," he said, as opposed to "old-school" production models designed for maximum production for short-term returns.