Sonia Heckler

agriculture, climate, environment

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A Brief History of Agriculture

Early farmers worked on small-scale plots growing crops and varieties unique to their region. Slash and burn agriculture was the first technique applied (Neff 2015), and is still applied in many developing countries.

The evolution of modern agriculture began when feudalism in Europe broke down in favor of capitalism. The traditional feudalism system of the Crown holding all the land while the peasants worked the land gave way to a new system of landlords who owned the land and rented it out to tenant farmers who employed wage laborers (Weis 2007). The scale of land in production increased. Crops and livestock became commodities that are bought and sold (Weis 2007). As capitalism in Europe expanded, more land and laborers were needed to continue increasing economic growth. Colonization became the answer to this problem. Spreading wheat and livestock across the world, large plantations growing specialty crops from the new world with slave labor became the norm (Weis 2007). A dynamic was set up between the colonizing countries in Europe and the colonized countries in the New World where Europe depended on cheap commodities such as coffee, bananas, and tobacco from the New World.

Increasing urbanization of European countries coupled with two world wars, dramatically changed agriculture. After World War II, developed countries felt it was imperative to get their economies going again. A series of policies were introduced promoting the export of cheap commodity crops from the developed countries to the developing countries (Guptill et. al. 2013). This increased the dependency developed during colonialism of countries in what is now the developing world becoming dependent on countries in the developed world for cheap commodity foods (Guptill et. al. 2013). Countries in the developing world became stuck in a cycle of debt.

This relationship was only compounded by the ideas of neoliberalism promoted by Reagan and Thatcher. The World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund begin lending money to developing countries with the conditions that countries remove all their regulations and protections for their farmers (Guptill et. al. 2013). Structural Adjustment Policies applied uniform policies of deregulation and high-interest rate debt across the developing world (Weis 2007). At the same time, developed countries subsidized their farmers in order to create an excess of staple crops such as corn, soy and wheat to export to developing countries (Guptill et. al. 2013). While the developed world was building up their agriculture economies with heavy government intervention, they were not allowing developing countries to do the same. Small farmers in developing countries were devastated as their markets were flooded with cheap goods from the developed world.

Developed countries placed incentives on growing large quantities of commodity crops in their own countries and exporting them to developing countries. These crops included corn, wheat and rice. At the same time, they created policies in developing countries to increase the amount of land producing crops that could not be grown in developed countries, but were nonetheless in high demand from their consumers. These crops included bananas, coffee, chocolate and tobacco.

The current food system evolved over time to favor large-scale farming with more automation and fewer workers. Small and mid-sized farmers in both developed and developing countries began to be pushed out of agriculture. Many of these farms are family run businesses passed down from generation to generation.  Their identities as farmers are important to them, but it is increasingly difficult for them to make a living in the current food system.


Guptill, A., D. Copelton, B. Lucal. 2013: Food and Society: Principles and Paradoxes. Polity Press. Cambridge.

Neff, R. 2015: Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Weis, T. 2007: The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming. Fernwood Publishing. Halfax.

UNR Main Station Field Day

Every year the UNR Cooperative Extension hosts a Field Day to show case their agricultural research. Northern Nevada showcased a vibrant agricultural community with diverse research projects and community involvement this Saturday. There were several themes at Field Day this year. The Veggie for Kids and Veggie for Seniors program highlighted the importance of getting fruits and vegetables to underserved communities especially children and elderly. Master Gardner’s and the Nevada Department of Agriculture were on hand to help locals learn how to grow there own food and reduce invasive weeds. Nevada Grown, Buy Nevada and others stressed the importance of connecting local farmers and producers to customers. Marketing is often the last thing on farmers minds as they focus on getting as high a yield as they can in high desert conditions. However, it is an important part of the food system, and essential to farmers survival as a business. One area of the food system missing at Field Day was waste, an important but often overlooked part of the food system.

The highlight of Field Day is getting a tour of Wolf Pack Meats, the only meat processing plant in Northern Nevada. They process meat from Northern Nevada and Northern California mostly from small ranches and individuals who don’t have a large number of animals. They will process anything from cattle and pigs to bison and wild game. They are a custom processing plant that will even process meat into salami. The small staff of 7 to 8 keep the animals calm through the entire process and butcher each animal quickly. This plant provides an important resource for small ranchers to continue their livelihoods. The workers clearly understand the importance of what they are doing and work to make the process as clean and simple as possible. They are inspected by the USDA everyday to make sure they are following all the appropriate procedures.

Understanding the food system means delving into all aspects of it from production and  processing to sale and waste. With meat being such a large portion of American’s as well as the worlds diet, it is important to consider how livestock is being raised, killed and processed before it is sold. This helps the consumer make better decisions about the type of meat they want to buy, its impacts to the consumers health and its environmental footprint.

There is a vibrant community of farmers, producers and consumers in Northern Nevada. UNR Main Station Field Day highlighted the importance of networking to connect all the pieces of the system together from the producer to the processor to the consumer.

Agriculture: A Complex System

Agriculture involves many interlinking actions, entities and products. It functions at all scales from one individual to the entire globe. It has a long history over time and intersects with other institutions and businesses. It is arguably the most important industry in the world because everyone needs food. Because of its complexity and vastness, agriculture is often studied as a system (Hesterman 2011, Neff 2015, Weis 2007).

Agriculture is broadly divided into production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste (Hesterman 2011). While each category is a stand-alone part of the global food system, each one is interdependent on the others. Without production, there is no crop to process and distribute to customers. Production takes inputs, such as soil, nutrients, water, energy and labor, and creates outputs such, as crops and livestock, that continue through the food system becoming processed goods or feed for livestock. Farms exist at every scale from the small backyard specialty grower to the large monoculture plantations covering large swaths of farmland across the globe.

While agriculture may seem like a linear process of inputs and outputs, it is in fact a much more fluid process involving feedback loops. Rather than being linear, agriculture is a web of interacting systems (Chase 2014) connected by one of the most fundamental building blocks of nature: food. Production may involve using waste as fertilizer for crops or feed for animals. Consumer tastes, often driven by marketing, influence the types of crops grown. In addition, food corporations often only process certain varieties of crops limiting what farmers can grow. At every place in the food web, economics is always involved through government subsidies, the prices set by corporations and the prices consumers are willing to pay.

Production involves many sectors including science, technology, health, government and finance. Government regulations dictate much of what farms and ranches need to do in order to sell their food. Many of the regulations focus on food safety and health. Science and technology also play a role by providing more efficient equipment, better seed varieties, synthetic fertilizers and more.

Small to medium size farmers (anywhere from 1 acre to a few thousand) are under increasing pressure and competition from large-scale transnational corporations. These farms often depend on farmers markets and wholesale to restaurants and retailers. However, some use contract farming where the product, crop or livestock, is sold to a company before it is grown. Each farm is itself a system within the larger food system. Small farms do not have the ability to implement large-scale greenhouses or expensive technologies, but they are always looking for ways to grow higher yield per unit land and increase profits. Many of the technologies they use include drip tape, low tunnels and high tunnels. They also employ management practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, fallowing fields and intercropping, growing different kinds of crops next to each other often in the same crop bed. These technologies and management practices can be the difference between survival and bankruptcy for many small farms. High tunnels have recently increased in popularity in the United States but remain understudied. A system all to themselves it is important to understand the many complexities of high tunnels. They are and will continue to be an important resource for the small farmer, an important part of the larger food system.


Chase, L., Grubinger, V. 2014: Food, Farms and Community: Exploring the Food Systems. University Press. New England.

Hesterman, O. 2011: Fair Food: Growing A Healthy Sustainable Food System. Public Affairs. New York.

Neff, R. 2015: Introduction to the U.S. Food System. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Weis, T. 2007: The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming. Fernwood Publishing. Halfax.

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