With the change to the new administration comes a change to the cabinet. In particular I am interested in how the new Secretary of Agriculture will fill their positions. I am concerned about the appointment of Vilsack to the position, for various reasons I will discuss at a later date. I am pleased with the appointment of Dr. Bronaugh to the appointment of Deputy Secretary and am especially interested in how she plans to address the increasing suicide rate and mental health concerns among farmers, which is a topic she placed high on her priority list during her time in Virginia. What I am especially excited about, however, is the appointment of a new Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics. This position is typically in charge of the sustainable farming initiative, which is a topic very dear to my heart.
The sustainable farming initiative proposed and promoted by the previous Under Secretary is one that, if you follow the current research, does not actually promote comprehensive agricultural sustainability. In a recent episode of Field, Lab, Earth podcast the previous Under Secretary, Dr. Scott Hutchins, went into great detail on what the initiative looked like under the past administration and how programs in the EU tacking the same issues are inferior to his plan. His plan was to focus on increasing sustainable technology, in the way of better monitoring systems in big farm tech products, like tractors and better GMO seeds. While these programs have been shown to decrease the usage of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides they do not tackle the economic issues facing farmers today. When 70% of farms do not make a profit and must sustain their farming by holding off farm jobs, when suicide rates among farmers is nearly twice that of the general public, when the average farm income is $-1,500- I believe it is irresponsible to insist on promoting sustainability efforts that rely on farmers spending more money on large, unreasonably priced farm equipment that they don’t necessarily need. Meanwhile he goes on to denigrate the Farm to Fork sustainability programs in the EU which focus on research driven methods of sustainable agriculture that rely on reducing the amount of technological input in favor of promoting ecological methods of fertilization and pest and weed management. He seems to think that without inputs, like artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, that farmers will be handing over their crop yield. For someone who is supposed to be an expert in agricultural research he seems to be completely ignorant as to how ecology actually works.
In fact, these agricultural ecological management techniques have been shown both in academic settings and in real life farms, to decrease inputs yet increase the soil, plant, and ecosystem health. Some of these techniques include minimal or no till, cover crop usage, effective crop rotation, intercropping (which is one of my favorites, and integrated livestock methods that use livestock to fertilize fields not currently in use. Those farmers that practice these methods have significantly less inputs (meaning less cost per acre of goods). They do show less yield in terms of things like bushels of corn per acre, but the difference in cost still shows an increase in profit, plus many have other items they sell along with the previous mono-farmed good, most notably the addition of livestock they sell. By denouncing these methods without even considering the actual research being done it is quite clear that Dr. Hutchins is not interested in actual sustainable farming, just in increasing the profits of large agricultural innovations regardless of how it effects the everyday farmer.
My hope for the Biden administration is that a new Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics will be not only willing, but eager utilize the same methods encouraged in the Farm to Fork program, and even work with the EU. The one downside I have found to these forms of sustainable farming is that while there is a ton of research on which methods work there I very little research on how switching to these methods effects the farmers financially. We have antidotes, but no real solid evidence in terms of economic research. I would like to see this change in the next four years, because switching to these low input methods could make a huge difference in the health, well being, and financial stability of American Farmers.