Before the beginnings of a plant even pops its head out of the ground, there are a lot of things to think about! Inputs are the parts of the food system that come into play to get the plant or animal grown and harvested.
These include the seeds, soil, water, sunshine, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, human work, machinery, and energy. With each of these elements, farmers (and by extension, we food citizens!) have a choice.
- Where does the farmer buy her seeds? Or does she save her own to reuse? If she wants to save her own seeds, does the law allow her to do so? (With certain patented seeds, such as genetically-modified seeds, farmers can face stiff fines - or worse - for saving seeds!)
- How does the farmer irrigate? Flood irrigation is by far the cheapest way to irrigate, but it also tends to be the most inefficient as there is a lot of water lost during the process. Drip irrigation in a vegetable operation, for example, is more expensive at the outset, but allows direct irrigation of each plant so that water is used very efficiently.
- There are many choices about how, where, and when to use any and all kinds of fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. There are organic versions of these inputs and chemical versions and each has its benefits and drawbacks. Generally, chemical versions produce higher yields, but can contaminate waterways and soils. Alternatively, some organic advocates argue that some of the inputs that have been certified organic in the past few years are not much better for the environment than the chemical versions! Many farmers choose to use these kinds of inputs on a limited, as-needed-only basis.
- Human work can be the most expensive input farmers use and many small-scale farmers have begun using interns and volunteers to make up the majority of their on-farm labor. While this requires a lot of additional management, it can oftentimes make the difference for new farmers.
- Machinery, and the energy it requires, is another big input decision - oftentimes, this comes down to a question of the cost of purchase, maintenance, and energy versus the time savings it offers the farmer!
- One of the pieces we've worked on the most at CFAC is ensuring that there is land available for farming - perhaps the most important input - good agricultural soils! Subdivision development in Missoula County and around Western Montana has often occurred on agricultural soils because they're flat and drain well. Making sure that agriculture is a part of our future means dealing with this challenging issue!
How Can We Help?
Want to get involved in farmland conservation? Join our Land Use & Agricultural Viability (LUV) Committee! We're working to get farmland conservation policies on the books in Missoula and around the state!
One other great project operating right now in Western Montana is the Five Valleys Seed Library, designed to offer producers and home gardners with new options for getting seeds. The Seed Library is working with different partners to offer Seed Schools to teach people how to save their own seeds and the Library serves as a place for people to exchange seeds from the best plants they grow!