| In the following
article, Ann Clark and Jacinda Fairholm outline their vision
of the future of farming, and consider how this vision necessarily
redefines both the occupation of ‘farmer’ and the
institutions which serve farmers. They share some of the highlights
of a fascinating survey of 25 schools and 10 farm-based programs
in North America, which aimed to learn both ‘who’
is seeking instruction in organics now, and ‘what’
is currently being done both institutionally and experientially
(practically) to teach organics. They conclude with a synthesis
of what will be needed to educate the farmer of the future,
drawing inspiration from the medical model for educating physicians
I. So, What is Our Vision?
In their brilliant new book, “Cradle to Cradle,”
William McDonough and Michael Braungart say that ‘design
is the first sign of intention’. Although they
are an architect and a chemist, talking about the design of
buildings and cities, the analogy to farming is unmistakable.
The design of a wel-managed organic farm clearly reveals the
intentions of the farmer. So, taking our cue from this entirely
sensible approach, we have chosen to envision or ‘design’
future agriculture not as a trajectory from the present, but
rather, as we intend it to be -- as indeed, it must be.
Why do we reject the present as a template for the
future? Because agriculture as we know it is self-destructing.
Many indicators - whether the rapidly declining integrity
of the farm community, or the mounting evidence of environmental
degradation and adverse human health impacts - speak of outright
and impending design failure. Rather than sticking
stubbornly to a fundamentally flawed design, we will take
it as a given that the agriculture of the future:
- Has learned the lessons of the past, and further,
- Has designed both to avoid these problems and to achieve
the intentions we discuss below.
We will call our future vision ‘new agriculture,’
to distinguish it from the ‘organic agriculture’
of today. While sharing the same ecological foundation and
production practices as organic agriculture, ‘new agriculture’
will avoid some of the structural problems which threaten
organics today, namely:
- The specialization and input dependence,
- Consolidation and loss of local control,
- Capitalization and large-scale dominance,
- Long-distance transportation and other practices which
can be economically justified only by
- Externalizing costs of production, and
- The dominance of export-oriented market thinking.
These forces have already decimated the conventional farm
community, and indeed, are challenging the viability of contemporary
We choose instead to design new agriculture to foster site-specific
design and self-reliance, local control, scale-appropriate
technology, and systems which retain value on the farm --
all laudable goals, but increasingly out of reach of today’s
What brings about this profound
The pivotal difference which distinguishes contemporary farmers
from those we propose to educate is that in the future, industry
-- including farming and indeed the entire food system --
will be obliged to fully absorb their costs of production.
In our future, food prices will reflect not simply those costs
we consider today, but also those currently externalized involuntarily
to society and the environment at large.
Society is already moving in that direction -- as in the
retail chain which declines to sell flown-in products, or
the imposition of manure management zones in Holland and nutrient
management planning in Ontario. In effect, obliging the entire
food industry -- including farming -- to reflect all costs
of production in the price of foodstuffs reduces the apparent
economic attraction of centralized, consolidated food production
and processing -- for organic as well as conventional
food -- and favors local production/consumption cycles.
Changing the structural features of the food system to comply
with societal demands for safe, nutritious, and diverse food
produced within a vibrant and self-regenerating environment
in effect reframes the questions facing farmers - eliminating
some, but raising others.
What is the ‘new farmer’?
Let us now consider what it will take to be a ‘new
farmer’. The demands of farming in ‘new agriculture’
will fundamentally redefine what it means to be a ‘farmer’,
and correspondingly, what it will take to educate the new
How will s/he be different? In addition to mastering
the intricacies of organic farming, we suggest that the new
farmer will need to develop a range of critical thinking skills,
such as observation, experimentation, interpretation, and
Why are these skills needed? The wide recommendation
domains which predominate today remove or relax these responsibilities
for farmers. Yet broad regional recommendations for management
and breeding are founded upon the ready availability of exogenous
energy subsidies to homogenize growing conditions, the better
to support bulk production of undifferentiated commodities.
This premise will become unworkable when farmers and consumers
realize that the real cost of homogeneity exceeds the resultant
However, replacing these energy subsidies with a strategically
designed enterprise mix and tailored management requires site-specific
knowledge accessible only to individual farmers. Without large
energy subsidies to suppress local environmental heterogeneity,
what works on one farm may not work on another. Thus, new
farmers will effectively need to become their own researchers
-- even more so than today. They will have
to be trained in critical thinking, in discerning and addressing
problems, and in designing and managing complex systems. New
farmers will have to recapture their roots as self-directed,
independent, and self-reliant information-seekers and decision-makers
-- rather than being dependent upon paid consultants and distant
It is equally important to recognize the likelihood of differential
access to land, labour, capital and training within the new
farmer population. Age, socio-economic status, educational
levels, exposure to organics, community support, access to
information, mobility, career stage, transferable skills,
family commitments and time availability are likely to be
more variable in the New Farm® community than they are today
(see below). Thus, approaches to educating the new farmer
will require multiple mechanisms of entry, support and resources.
Redefining the institutions.
To support the skills and expectations of the new farmer,
educational institutions will likewise need redesign. Research
and teaching, particularly at agricultural schools, are currently
driven by several implicit -- although unstated – assumptions
- Capital- and resource-intensive agriculture is the only
viable way to produce food commercially.
- The best way to advance agriculture is through proprietary
- What is good for industry is good for society.
Future institutions will view these assumptions as relics
of an era where the emphasis on homogeneity and bulk commodity
production allowed input suppliers and processors/retailers
to extract most of the dollar value of food, to the detriment
of farmers. As a result, the institutions supporting new agriculture
will be reconfigured, and funded, to serve the broader needs
of society and the environment, specifically emphasizing decentralized,
local production and consumption.