In my efforts to point people to various methodologies of eco-agriculture I often encounter those who dispute these approaches. One of the frequent refrains I hear is, “We can’t go back to those old ways, we must use technology to feed the world.”

People who make such assertions assume that practicing agriculture in a way that differs from the industrial monoculture-based approach is somehow unscientific and backward. In short, they consider people like me luddites, though I doubt many know the origins of that term. They give little thought as to how industrial agriculture developed to its state today and obviously have little understanding about how productive eco-agriculture is.

First, we must dispel the notion that the only way to feed the world is through the technology of industrial agriculture. For round numbers we’ll say the Earth’s population is seven billion people and expected to climb to nine billion sooner than people realize. Along with these numbers, we must keep in mind that under our current system of agriculture, globally one-third[1] of the food produced never makes it to people’s mouths. In the U.S., that figure jumps to as much as 50 percent according to a report from The Guardian.[2] Lest we allow some farmers to make the claim they feed the world, let’s consider that most of the world’s grain crops don’t even go directly into human food products but instead go to feed livestock or produce ethanol.[3]

There isn’t a food production problem. Therefore, there is no need to increase the amount of land put in industrial agriculture or to increase degenerative production approaches on land currently in production. There’s not a production problem, there’s a location problem. Food is not produced where people live.

Second, to assume that eco-agriculture (or natural systems agriculture or regenerative agriculture or a host of other names and methodologies) means reverting to techniques and practices that are not productive or sophisticated is arrogance of a high order. In fact, those who are on the leading edge of alternative eco-agriculture are best described as intellectual agrarians, not backward bumpkins.

Many within the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Services are well-trained scientists out among farmers and ranchers every day helping them better understand soil from a scientific standpoint so that they might foster life not destroy it. People such as Ray Archuleta, Doug Peterson, and Raymond Covino come to mind as examples.

Additionally, farmers such as Dave Brandt of Ohio, Gail Fuller of Kansas, and Gabe Brown of North Dakota, are just three of many tractor-driving scientists whose laboratories are their pastures, fields, and farmsteads. These are people innovating to increase the income streams in their operations while simultaneously building soil, capturing and infiltrating water, and sequestering carbon. In other words, they are producing food and not destroying their local ecosystems in the process.

The best part of eco-agriculture is that it is actually science based. The study of the soil food web is highly informative regarding how we should be practicing agriculture, and such study points to complex and sophisticated ways of farming. Agricultural techniques that respect what Wes Jackson calls the “measure” of nature are regenerative, rather than degenerative.

So it isn’t technology that most of the people in the regenerative agriculture movement decry. It’s just some technology that we feel isn’t appropriate. Certified permaculture design consultant, Michael Leonido wrote this recently about this topic:

The folks on the cutting edge of this movement are leveraging everything they can find that will help. Just look at the litany of devices Curtis Stone is using to maximize manpower in his urban gardens, or the ongoing research and tweaking Mark Shepard is doing to machines to harvest in his forest systems. We cannot afford to be anti-technology if we want to be successful. Hobby production? Sure. Backyard gardens? Whatever, plant away. But business? You will not find a business in regenerative agriculture that is successful without leveraging appropriate technology to the limits of its capacity. In fact, often we are talking about using these tools beyond their design specs because the folks pushing this to the limit are tinkerers and problem solvers.

Pamela Dodsworth, a sheep farmer in Colorado has, through the science of microbiology, improved the health of her pastures. She reports the improvement is due to intensive rotation and minimal mechanical interference: “We are considering doubling our stocking density while I’m seeing neighbors pour commercial fertilizers onto their fields in order just to maintain production.”

The case studies are growing daily of farmers and ranchers who are abandoning the industrial agriculture approach for more scientific and eco-collaborative means of production. I’ll beg forgiveness from some of my pioneering friends and say these case studies aren’t just back-to-the-landers, preppers, hippies, tree huggers or Earth worshippers. The people showing that alternative forms of agriculture are productive wear overalls and trucker hats and drive pickup trucks. The commonality among these everyday farmers and ranchers is their realization that industrial agriculture is ecologically destructive and unsustainable as a business. They are bold pioneering people who won’t let the rhetoric of agribusiness blind them to other methodologies that make business sense.

What disqualifies us as luddites is the fact that productivity is still the measure of success. However, the measure of productivity has changed for us. It’s not yield per acre, though some still use that as a measure of comparison. The best of these farmers and ranchers are measuring their productivity by built soil, enhanced soil food web, and increased biodiversity. These are all quantifiable measures that require sophisticated means of production, detailed planning, and an attuned awareness of the landscape one is operating within. The income streams occur as a natural result.

The United Nations FAO, the Rodale Institute, and a host of other NGOs are increasingly reporting that industrial agriculture does not have a viable future. Those of us who have realized this in philosophy and practice are now ahead of the game, which is an ironic place to be given that supporters of industrial agriculture continue to label us luddites.

Lastly, the final evidence of the fact that we are not luddites is the fact that we are not easily persuaded by organizations and corporations that have a vested interest in agriculture being practiced in an industrial paradigm of monocrops.

No, eco-agriculturists are not luddites. Rather, we are independent, critically-thinking agricultural professionals who have demonstrated that healthful food can be produced at large scale through eco-collaborative methodologies that not only feed humans but foster a broader spectrum of life on the planet.


  1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report on food loss and food waste. Article here: http://www.fao.org/food-loss-and-food-waste/en/

  2. “Half of all US food produce is thrown away, new research suggests,” from The Guardian by Suzanne Goldenberg, July 13, 2016: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/13/us-food-waste-ugly-fruit-vegetables-perfect?CMP=share_btn_tw

  3. “Feedgrains Sector at a Glance,” United States Department of Agriculture report: https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/corn-and-other-feedgrains/feedgrains-sector-at-a-glance/

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Dan Grubbs
For the last 20 years, Dan has made northwest Missouri his home where with his wife Kelli they are stewards of their 15-acre homestead they call Hebron Acres. Originally from Nebraska, Dan is a certified permaculture design consultant. Though he has an “in-town” job, Dan and Kelli are converting Hebron Acres from a twice-a-year hayed acreage into a diverse food-producing farm helping to supply produce and protein to those experiencing food insecurity or working through a ministry. With a BA in English and a student of literature, Dan has taught the Bible using a hermeneutic approach to adults for the last 15 years in a church setting. He is currently working on a manuscript that describes what he refers to as “stewardculture,” or a Bible-based approach to agrarian living.

14 COMMENTS

  1. This is an excellent piece, Dan.

    to assume that eco-agriculture (or natural systems agriculture or regenerative agriculture or a host of other names and methodologies) means reverting to techniques and practices that are not productive or sophisticated is arrogance of a high order

    My own arrogant romanticism regarding alternatives to industrial agriculture was thrown back in my face relatively early, thankfully enough. Something like 10 years ago, around the time I started developing my classes on sustainability and simplicity at the university where I teach, I made contacts with various farmers and food producers that were working locally, so I could see and show my students how they do their work and plan their business models. And I realized almost immediately that these counter-cultural folk, more often than not thoroughly steeped in the language of limits, were nonetheless quick to study up on and experiment with all sorts of soil and growth technologies, tools and tricks of the trade (regarding getting nutrients into the soil, maximizing sunlight, combating pests, easing harvesting) that didn’t fit my idea of “technology that was appropriate.” If any of them had made use of technologies that made them more dependent upon the oil economy, or which were only economically viable if they scaled up production beyond their own or their family’s ability to work the land, then yes, they would only be contributing to the problem. But they weren’t; instead, they were constantly playing around with sophisticated greenhouse design or ingenious irrigation contraptions that built upon the natural resources already available to them. It made me rethink my own latent Luddism, and complicate the way in which I think about technology and localism in general. Anyway, a great reminder here; thank you.

    • Mr. Fox,
      I’m humbled you took the time to read and respond. My thanks! I’m happily amazed at what creative and intelligent farmers and homesteaders are achieving out there that don’t fit into industrial models. The more I talk to, read about, or watch videos of the many people who are practicing agriculture that is Creation friendly, I find new and different ways to do things. They also do an amazing job of adopting old ways that help them (landrace genetics, e.g.) as well as employ innovative ways (photovoltaics to power pumps for livestock tanks, e.g.).

  2. I do not understand this sentence as written:
    “Lastly, the final evidence of the fact that we are not luddites is the fact that we are not easily persuaded by organizations and corporations that have a vested interest in agriculture being practiced in an industrial paradigm of monocrops”
    So then Luddites would be “easily persuaded by organizations and corporations that have a vested interest in agriculture being practiced in an industrial paradigm of monocrops”? That doesn’t seem right, so what am I missing in what you are trying to say?
    I’m reminded somewhat of aspects of what Joel Salatin has to say, that by stressing and formalizing rules for “organic” agriculture it made it all too easy for Walmart to step into that world, which entirely defeated the purpose. Similarly, I just don’t believe you’re going to “win” against large scale producers, if technology is the focus. The technology is critical, but the goal should be local and small, in large sustainable numbers so the overall production scales, but the size of individual producers does not.

    • Brian,
      If I misled you, my apologies. My attempt was to write that many people who practice eco-agriculture are NOT persuaded by corporations that promote the industrial model.
      Thank you,
      Dan

  3. I greatly enjoyed this piece, as well. As an aspiring agrarian with a BA in English from an Ag school, your story gives me hope – and I look forward to reading more of your work on this subject.

  4. Mr. Fox.
    Thank you for your comment. The people I’ve met (in person and virtually) that are pushing the boundaries in alternative agriculture are usually people who can see past the immediate to what can be. I recognize not everyone is like that. But, those who undermine visionaries just because they think differently and are successful, is beyond my comprehension other than to chalk it up to one of two things: 1) avarice; and, 2) ignorance. That may be putting too fine a point on them, but at least that’s been my experience. If you like the more fringe segment of those trying to be more efficient or some other measure of success, a quick perusal over at https://farmhack.org/tools can be rather entertaining and, for me, educational.
    Keep teaching healthy soil, Mr. Fox. That’s the foundation of it all.
    Dan

  5. Thanks for the article, Dan.

    “They are bold pioneering people who won’t let the rhetoric of agribusiness blind them to other methodologies that make business sense.” This idea, which I too have observed, gives me both hope and pause. Hope, because I think if a suit of practices can be proven to be not just more ecologically sound than the current paradigm but also more profitable, then they will be adopted relatively quickly. No- or minimal-till, albeit in its most chemical and GMO dependent form, is already becoming the standard. More comprehensive changes of this sort could only be good for the health of the environment, and they wouldn’t require much alteration to either economic incentives or consumer behavior.

    And this is also why it gives me pause. If agriculture is to take the health of human communities into account in a deep manner, it will have to be conducted at a scale that is smaller, and thus less efficient, at least by certain economic metrics. And I am speaking as more of a localist than an agrarian. I don’t think a majority of people, even of rural people, need to be working the land. Put another way, it is possible for a farmer to manage more acres in an ecologically sound way than in a manner that is deeply human. How to fix that is a thorny problem, one to which I don’t have many good answers.

    • Mr. Brown, thanks much for your contemplative comments. I too feel great hope, but not without hesitation. If agriculture does “take the health of human communities into account in a deep manner” it will require an entirely different kind of accounting for the true and total cost of everything. It’s much like the discussion Wendell Berry was having with Wes Jackson that Berry documents in his essay “Two Economies.” I agree with you that the practice of agriculture will have to be different than what is practiced in the mainstream today if we remain in a money economy which does not account for the total cost of agriculture.

      The number of people working the land is a matter of what kind of society we want as people. I, for one, seek an agrarian society where goods and services are more closely tied together in a local community defined in some way. Yes, that would be an entirely different kind of lifestyle for most humans. For this reason, an agrarian society will never happen voluntarily. In my estimation, it would require some type of catastrophic event.

      To your final point, there are some pioneering and innovative farmers who are doing so in a creation-friendly manner – who are doing so at scale. I recommend a study of Greg Judy (Missouri, USA), Gail Fuller (Kansas, USA), Gabe Brown (North Dakota, USA) to name just three. There are answers in their operations that point to solving the “thorny problem” if adopted universally.

  6. Hi, Dan,
    Thanks for a timely article.
    Good farming (‘regenerative agriculture’, or whatever name you choose) is so often misunderstood by folks for whom the only alternative to large-scale commercial is Amish, horse-powered, ‘quaint’. Certainly there are many (big number; small percentage) farmers using modern technology to help them farm in a way that respects the earth, the soil, the food, the people. The efforts of as many people as possible to grow food, soil, and fertility in ecologically-sustainable ways, are to be commended, be they larger-scale operations or no.
    But our own experience, in twenty-odd years of farming marginal land to feed ourselves and make part of a living, is that the kind of care it is going to require to put good, fresh, local food in the reach of the average family/individual, happens, in most climates, on the smaller end of the scale. It happens when the average family/individual consider food, soil, fertility, and the earth in general, as things of paramount importance; when the same people become educated about how those things are to be cared for; when they reinstate them in their historic place at the center of their coporal lives.
    If and when that happens, maybe folks will think good food is worth paying for, and the large scale production that is presently almost universally necessary for a farmer to ‘make a living’ at it (check your census statistics, folks, because fewer than 1/4 of famers do) can be replaced with smaller, more intimate, more intensely managed farms.

    Then we’ll need more farmers. Lots more. Everywhere. You and me.

    Most people, for most of history, grew most of their own food. It’s not beyond us.
    And there’s nothing backward about deciding to take personal responsibility for the important things.

    Thanks for being a voice for agriculture.

    • Dear Dougherty family,
      I heartily agree with you on many of your points. Much of the innovative eco-agriculture practiced today is much misunderstood. That’s why I applaud the work of the Rodale Institute for putting these practices in scientific and controlled settings to accumulate the data required to help persuade land-grant university ag departments and the USDA that these methods are better as measured in many positive ways.

      Where I agree with you most is in your thinking that agriculture does not have to be massive in scale in order to feed humans. Human history shows that when agriculture is practiced at large scale to feed a large and growing empire, it will collapse (Persians, Greeks, Romans). As I replied to an earlier comment, I’m not sure we’re going to get to smaller scale agriculture multiplied by each community unless something dire happens. Until then, I’m advocating that we put just as much effort into changing the mindset of the consumer to shift their spending to not support processed, industrially produced food in favor of local, fresh, and seasonal food.

  7. “Human history shows that when agriculture is practiced at large scale to feed a large and growing empire, it will collapse (Persians, Greeks, Romans).”

    As Berry has argued, this is potentially even more of danger to our society, considering that our large scale agriculture is completely dependent on the petroleum industry. If that is ever attacked or otherwise goes south, we’re sunk. Berry rightly considers it a national security issue.

    • Thanks for the note, Rob. In the case of the Persians, Greeks, and Romans, it was the destruction of their topsoil. For the U.S. and similar nations it could be the compound catastrophe of top soil destruction and sudden petroleum squeeze. There won’t be any government program that can rescue the nation from that. This is why consumers have to be persuaded to make different purchasing choices when it comes to food and products. Where we spend our money can change things dramatically if we shift our dollars in scale.

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