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Future of Food: Farming in the age of climate change

I’ve kind of accepted my fate, in a way, of being, sort of, the guy that’s alarmed about this before everybody else is. “One slice of New York cheesecake.” Why is it, in so many of the sci-fi movies, “Breakfast of champions.” food of the future comes out of a gadget? “Hydrate level four, please.” But if you really want to understand the future of food, it’s probably not gadgets you should be paying attention to. People who make raising food their business say the biggest challenges coming involve how food is grown. We’re kind of a throwback to a different era. This South Dakota farm looks old-school, but the Ortman family has designed it around their vision for the future. Better to embrace change on your own terms than wait until it embraces you by force. Several years ago, the Ortmans began rebuilding their operation from the dirt up, after realizing that they were barely breaking even, focusing on a conventional crop of, mainly, corn.

My conclusion, after pushing the numbers on this, was that going organic was going to work better, economically, because of the organic price premiums. This wasn’t rooted in some kind of dream, or wish, or some philosophy. It really did start with economics. Switching from conventional farming to organic was a huge change. Instead of plowing and spraying to kill weeds, the Ortmans make multiple trips through fields to carefully scrape them out. Instead of fertilizing with chemicals, they spend months preparing one of the oldest tools in agriculture.

Our operation is really built around compost. We’re talking about manure here. For these farmers, all that effort is worth it. Because, for them, the future of food has a lot to do with the future of dirt. If you boil down food production into its most basic form, everything that we eat comes off of the soil, originally. And the soil is a living organism. We tend to take the soil for granted.

That’s the ultimate source of most of our food. History holds lessons for societies that fail to keep soil in mind. You look at the history of the spread of western civilization, it’s, in many regards, a story of people moving on after degrading the land. Individual droughts, or political events, or war with the neighbors; those kind of events are the kinds of things that will actually take down civilizations. But the table is set, if you will, by the state of the land. One of the reasons this is so important? Climate change. Farmers will feel the impacts in their fields long before we feel the impacts in the grocery stores. The trends are all towards extremes.

Rain doesn’t come gradually throughout the year anymore. It comes in fewer, but larger doses, that the land is just not able to soak up. Will says he’s found that minimally-tilled land, enriched with organic material like compost, tends to soak up more rain and stay moist through dry spells. Other growers have found still more dramatic solutions. This indoor vegetable farm in New Jersey has eliminated dirt entirely, and recreated climate from scratch. We grow in warehouses, without sun or soil. Independent of the seasons. Independent of the weather. And this is how we can take back what’s becoming more and more challenging with climate change. Another vulnerability could be the conventional farming model practiced across the United States. It tends to favor large operations that specialize in just a few crops or animals. This monoculture agriculture, which we tend to have had, is so vulnerable to weather changes, and climate, and pests.

If a disease were to wipe out the wheat crop worldwide, it would have potentially devastating, catastrophic impacts, globally. Everywhere. I’m not saying it’s going to happen tomorrow. I’m just saying that a good farmer has got to be a good risk manager. The Ortmans manage their risk by spreading it out. They grow a variety of crops, like corn, rye, black beans, soy, and strawberries. And they also raise cattle, and chickens that lay eggs. It’s exactly like a stock portfolio. Not very many people have all of their holdings in one stock. Small organic farms may be one part of the solution to the challenges the future holds.

But in a world whose population is heading north of 9 billion people, it’s probably not the only solution. That’s because the human race will consume more food in the next 50 years than it has in the past 10,000 years combined. It’s a complicated problem. But it is a problem that the human race can deal with. We’re going to need everything from traditional agriculture to exotic agriculture. Everything from industrial agriculture to locally scaled agriculture. And we’ve got to remember that overlying it all is the consumer. And the consumer is king and queen. And they, ultimately, will decide what they’re going to eat and, therefore, what the future of agriculture is going to look like. Feeding the future will require us to grow a lot more food. But it’ll probably also require us to waste a lot less.

We throw away about 35% of all food that we produce. That’s both here, in the United States, and elsewhere. That is low-hanging fruit. That is almost enough, if we could figure out a way to deal with that problem, to feed people over the next couple of decades. So, in our little corner of the world, we’re doing what we can to enrich our soil, to diversify. I hope people can see that that the land is responding to what we’re doing.

I hope people can see that we’re not starving, that we’re doing okay, financially. Knock on wood. And the Ortmans believe their operation could hold affordable lessons for improving resiliency in the developing-world countries where farms are small, and populations are large. It’s not going to be a gadget that’ll do it. There’s a constant exchange of ideas and of experiences. I don’t want my kids to say, there were all these warning signs, when I was a kid, and my dad just looked the other way, and now look at what we have to deal with. This is the ark we’re building before the rain. .

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