What is Alternative Agriculture?

What’s “Alternative Agriculture”?

The Grange School is unique among farmer training programs in providing intensive introductions to livestock as part of its regular curriculum. The current generation of alternative agriculture programs started out with Alan Chadwick’s intensive vegetable production program at the University of California Santa Cruz. The apprenticeship program there at the re-named Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems is still centered on horticulture, as are most of its imitators.

Here at the Grange School market gardening (“horticulture” or “specialty crops” in the jargon of the USDA) is still important. But so is livestock and, increasingly, staple grains. That’s because neither eaters nor farmers live by vegetables alone, and many small farming systems historically have relied on a mix of animal husbandry and crops. We expect that will be the case in the future.

Joan Thirsk, the pre-eminent historian of British agriculture finds “alternative agriculture” turning up in history whenever staple crops were in such abundance relative to demand that farmers sought other, better sources of income. From the aftermath of the Black Death, when a dramatically reduced population meant a dramatically reduced demand for grain, to today when huge grain surpluses have prompted farmers to look for other, better sources of income.

The contemporary search began with the advent of organic agriculture in response to the push for mechanization and chemical aids to agriculture that followed World War II. While both the new, industrial-strength techniques and their critics pre-dated the 1940’s, the organic movement grew rapidly as the newer methods acquired a scale that put smaller farmers at risk. And with the enormous surpluses, and collateral damage, associated with American farm policy and agribusiness approaches, organics took on a new momentum all their own.

But the alternative agriculture movement of today is bigger than the official versions of organic, and it includes much more than a preference for chemical-free production techniques. Since the beginnings of the organic movement, small farmers, homesteaders and others have been learning (or re-learning) how to integrate livestock into their farming operations, experimenting with perennial crops and what we now think of as permaculture approaches, and reviving heirloom crops, from tomatoes to wheat.

The Grange School has embraced this diversity in seeking to provide aspiring farmers and more experienced farmers alike with a broad palette of choices in raising food. Workshops this year by the Holistic Management Institute and with Australia’s Colin Seis have drawn ranchers and small farmers to think about the ways in which pasture management can contribute to a more productive and ecologically diverse landscape as well as higher yields. Visits to farmers like Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser’s Singing Frog Farm have given students in the residential program a first-hand introduction to successful no til techniques for vegetable farmers. Doug Mosel’s Mendocino Grain Project has been an inspiration for many in linking traditional varieties and new techniques for bringing staple grains back to the small farm scene. And the Jefferson Institute’s Regenerative Agriculture Workshop with Mark Shepherd and Spencer Smith drew land owners interested in combining managed grazing with perennial nut crop production. Alternative agriculture at the Grange School is thus adaptive agriculture, agricultural practice that not only promises better returns for the hard work of farming but responds to the changing demands of both market and the environment, that restores the environment while providing a living from it for all its inhabitants, plant, livestock, and human.

Written by Michael Foley
Executive Director of the Grange School of Adaptive Agriculture