Smarter Food: Does big farming mean bad farming?


Tony Thompson grows his corn plants on raised ridges. This allows him to till less and use less fertilizer, which leads to less fertilizer runoff. (Tony Thompson)
August 27, 2013

In high summer, fields of wildflowers bloom at Tony Thompson’s Minnesota farm: gray-headed coneflowers, phlox and white prairie clover. Those plants are designed to do more than just beautify. They prevent water runoff and block nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from spilling into and polluting the Mississippi River.

It’s just the kind of farming that inspires the kind of folks who shop at Whole Foods. That is, until you tell them that Thompson grows 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans from genetically modified seed. That classifies Thompson as an “industrial” farmer — and in today’s debates on agriculture, big usually equals bad.

Size, as they say, isn’t everything. As shorthand, the big-equals-bad equation is convenient. But it obscures an inconvenient truth: Plenty of small farmers do not embrace sustainable practices — the Amish farmers I know, for example, love their pesticides — and some big farmers are creative, responsible stewards of the land. “Tony’s is a fantastic operation,” says Helene Murray, executive director of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. “And he just happens to grow a lot of corn and soybeans.”

Thompson, 57, is a fifth-generation farmer. His family came to the town of Windom in southwestern Minnesota after the Civil War in search of economic and political stability. The family’s Willow Lake Farm was always big. Until the late 20th century, it was diversified, too. The Thompsons raised cattle for beef and dairy, as well as turkeys, sheep and hogs. But in the 1970s, global politics, federal incentives and a growing appetite for grains made corn and soybeans the most profitable crops to grow.

As a young man, Thompson was, as so many of us were, an idealist. He describes challenging his father’s patience with his big plans to transition the farm to organic growing practices. But when he took over, he began to understand that success in agriculture is about finding a balance between economic and environmental sustainability.

“I know I am sending corn into a commodity stream that I have very little control of and very little knowledge of,” Thompson admits. “But I have spent my life trying to understand the margins, trying to slow down the next raindrop and help that raindrop produce a little flower for a bird. It is, maybe, less exciting to talk about. My only opportunity to make change is with the tools I have on the farm.”

Thompson’s farm is not organic as he once dreamed it would be. Indeed, after studying the scientific literature, he finds himself mostly comfortable using genetically modified seeds. The rewards inherent in herbicide-tolerant soybeans outweigh the risks, he says. While he does have some concerns about GM corn, he says, “the prevailing technology is a good path, maybe the best available at the moment. This will change. We will learn.”

Still, Thompson has many tools to improve his farm’s environmental sustainability.

He uses a technique called ridge tilling, which works like this: Instead of plowing the fields with a big tractor, he builds a narrow, elevated bed for his crops. That allows him to turn over smaller stretches of earth, keeping carbon dioxide embedded in the soil rather than releasing it into the air. The ridges also allow Thompson to precisely apply fertilizer to the plants, which means he can use 10 percent less fertilizer and still get the same yield. And the ridges keep the chemicals from running off and entering the groundwater, where they can endanger streams and rivers.

To further deter water and fertilizer runoff, Thompson has built wide buffers between his fields. In them he has planted flowers, such as the gray-headed coneflower, and native prairie grasses. The plants keep the water from reaching the river: “If the grass wasn’t there, the soil would flow directly into the river and remain suspended all the way to the Gulf of Mexico,” Thompson says.

Those buffers also attract pollinators such as butterflies, bees and birds. Neither soybeans nor corn need the pollinators, explains Victoria Wojcik, research program manager at the non­profit Pollinator Partnership in San Francisco. As a result, especially when the price of corn is as high as it is now, it is difficult to incentivize commodity farmers to grow the plants that sustain pollinators: “What is unique is that Tony creates this landscape with no benefit for himself or his bottom line.”

Thompson also has experimented with diversifying what he grows on the farm. Over the years, as the price of corn and soybeans rose and fell, he tried growing specialty grains for the Japanese that are made into tempeh and natto; popcorn, which he packaged on the farm; and specialty wheat, which he milled.

The work was gratifying, Thompson says, even fun. But the premiums he was paid to grow it didn’t even add up to minimum wage for the time spent.

Farmers such as Thompson find themselves in essentially the same situation as many Main Street businesses: Does it make more sense to produce more and sell it at a lower price? Or is it smarter to produce more artisanal products to sell at a premium? “There has been more stability in my life in the commodity corn and soybean business,” Thompson says. “Every time we tried a new product, we encountered risks we couldn’t afford.” And, remember: Stability is what drew the Thompsons to Minnesota in the first place, 150 years ago.

Thompson’s work has drawn local notice. In 2011 he won the University of Minnesota’s Siehl Prize for Excellence in Agriculture, which recognizes individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the production of food. Within his community, he is considered a leader and a sage. Each August, Thompson holds an agro-ecology summit on the farm and welcomes hundreds of residents and agriculture students. (At this year’s event, Thompson served 800 meals of 100 percent locally sourced food.) But he is far from a national name like Joel Salatin, the most famous farmer in America thanks to Michael Pollan’s bestseller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” or even pork producer Bev Eggleston, whose name graces the menu at many Washington restaurants.

New small farms can help reinvigorate agriculture, and they deserve champions. But large-scale farmers who are working toward sustainability also deserve a platform. Like it or not, those farmers grow the staples that feed (and fuel) our country and the world. The small, incremental changes that they make can have dramatic impact — perhaps more than a dozen or even a hundred small farms that adhere to strict environmental standards.  

“Can you be big and good?” asks the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture’s Murray. “Tony’s trying.”

Black writes Smarter Food monthly. She is a former Food section staffer based in Brooklyn. On Twitter: @jane_black.

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