By Alan Wright

Tractor spraying
Books, magazines, and the internet provide diverse scientific and anecdotal information demonstrating how industrial agriculture is physically unhealthy and ecologically harmful (Horrigan, Lawrence, & Walker, 2002). So I will not belabor the negatives of industrial farming, nor will I preach a particular type of agriculture as the solution. I want to suggest methods for dealing with a foundational challenge we face as ecologically minded farmers. How do we develop and define our agricultural ethics? As we, the new generation of farmers, step into the fields, we must understand that our ethics will guide our practice. And that by developing strategies to further define our ethics we can move beyond theoretical dilemmas and transform our morals into balanced growing systems that provide plentiful crops with maximized social and ecological benefit.

In general, our ethics are largely shaped by our culture. Society tells us what is good and bad, right and wrong by facilitating, rewarding, or punishing certain behavior. Although an individual ultimately has choice, the scope of that choice is limited by our cultural boundaries. In other words, the opportunities that are available to us define what we think is possible.

Specifically, our recent agricultural ethics have been largely defined by consumer demand for inexpensive food and the drive to maximize economic profit. The resulting ethics encourage industrial farming practices. Practices that, among other things, eliminate a soil’s ability to produce food without massive chemical and oil inputs while simultaneously exacerbating issues of top soil loss (Cox, Hug, & Bruzelius, 2011), toxin coated food (Pesticide Action Network, 2013), climate change (Lin, 2011), water pollution (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1996), oceanic dead zones (Environmental Working Group, n.d.), and farm worker health and safety (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012).

I believe our species’ health and existence hinges on whether or not we redefine our farming ethics. If we redefine our agricultural ethic to align with the imperatives of physical and ecological health we will have no choice but to transform our practices, creating agricultural systems that can provide enough food for our burgeoning population, indefinitely. It is up to us, the growers, those intimately involved with the land and most knowledgeable of production methods to continue and strengthen the effort started by those before us, namely Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and Wes Jackson.

In the “old days” ethics and practice were passed down from our parents and grandparents. Their validity was proven, or disproven, by the health and existence of subsequent generations and necessary changes were discovered and made. Today, many of us are agricultural orphans, so we must develop new strategies to build our farms’ moral backbone. While much traditional knowledge may have been lost, this lack of established ethic affords us an open field on which to cultivate a new agriculture.

gardenWe are also in a new, technology based era and agriculture has changed dramatically. When the majority of farm work was done by hand, irrigated by gravity systems, and planted with seeds saved from the previous year it was much more difficult to do damage that nature could not quickly mend. Now that we have surpassed those limitations with massive tractors, transgenic seeds, deep wells for irrigation, and a plethora of highly toxic chemical sprays, an ecological, agricultural ethic is even more imperative. We are capable of causing much greater detrimental effect, and our culture has not yet evolved the necessary accompanying ethics to manage these abilities responsibly. That’s where the new farming movement comes in.

Whether or not we consciously develop our agricultural morals, we will inevitably practice agriculture based on some ethic. To develop an ethic that shapes an ecological farming practice I believe setting clear goals, being unafraid of failure, using observation and science to view our actions and their effects on a systems level, learning from others, continuously evaluating our practices, and not getting mired in the names and established systems of growing, are very helpful tools.

Set Goals:

Setting goals is the first step in nurturing our ideals into reality. We must take our dreams of a farm system and clearly identify the steps to achieve that vision. By setting goals we take strides toward developing our ethics by limiting the potential options. If our goals are to grow food without toxic residues on the fruiting bodies, than we can no longer believe in spraying for mid-season pests. After our goals are set, we must use science to inform our ethics.

Use Science to Make Informed Decisions:

There are innumerable ways we can manage our growing systems, and in general, there are no rights and wrongs. However, there are decisions and consequences. Our ethics should be informed and substantiated by a scientific understanding of the physical cycles and relationships within the growing system so we can understand the effect of our actions. Awareness of nutrient cycling, water dynamics, and soil food web afford knowledge of the physical consequence of our practices. This in turn allows us to further define our ethics because we understand the benefits and drawbacks of using particular methods or inputs. Fortunately, the scientific details are more easily discovered in this new age, thanks to organizations like A Growing Culture, ATTRA, Acres USA, extension offices, and the plethora of small sustainable farmers sharing their experiences. While science can help us immensely, we must also listen to our own experience and observation.

Trust Experience and Observations:

Our land, and the plants and animals on it, continuously respond to our actions. Disease, nutrient deficiency, or lack of water is shown to us by the way our system responds. We must hone our skills of observation to tease out accurate cause and effect relationships within a complex system. This is made difficult by the nature of farming, in that isolating variables is nearly impossible. However, by using observation we do not have to know exactly why something works a given way, only that it does. When we discover something, we must be honest with ourselves, answering the question, “are my methods achieving my goals?” If this means disagreeing with a practice you have been using for decades, then it is time to change. Setting goals and using science and observation are great tools for developing ones ethics and practice. However, there still can be significant fear in abandoning old methods and subscribing to new ones.

Continually Evaluate Our Practices:

It is a daunting task to evaluate and challenge all of our practices, especially when this leads to drastic changes in practice. But we cannot be stopped from breaking away from “standard” farming practice for fear of “failure”. We know that current farming cannot continue and it is up to us to change it. One of the largest challenges industrial agriculture has laid before us is the “failure” (crop loss, weed invasion etc) we will endure in rediscovering sustainable ways to produce food. Anything that goes “wrong” (loss of money, poor crop quality etc.) is largely the result of inadequate cultural training, not entirely personal inadequacy. Among other things, when we stop fearing failure and change, we become more open to trying alternative methods of production. And luckily, there are many people willing to lend a hand.

Learning From Others:

Many producers are achieving amazing results using innovative practices based on ecological ethics substantiated by years of study and practice. Eliot Coleman, Joel Salatin, John Jeavons, and Sepp Holzer have redefined farming in their own way. Yet, they all have found ways minimize their ecological impact while maximizing yields, as well as social and environment benefit. We should listen to them, and the many others in our own communities, in order to compare their experience with our own. Whether that means reading, watching videos, conducting interviews, or attending workshops this process develops our growing methods and the ethics behind them.

Blend all Methods to Suit Our Needs, Goals, and Microclimate:

While we must learn from others, I believe it is counterproductive to get caught up in particular growing “brand names” like “Deep Organic”, “Biointensive”, “Square Foot Gardening”, “French Intensive”, “Biodynamic”, and “Permaculture”. Each one of these methods alone can achieve great results, but by selecting and combining portions of each we have greater versatility and give appropriate respect to our own creative potential. Additionally, drawing from multiple “growing styles” enables one to tailor methods to specific, regional, climactic, and other land characteristics. There are innumerable combinations of actions we can take, and the most healthy, productive, low input, and sustainably fertile are yet to be discovered.

By using the tools described above, and any others not discussed here, we will stride towards defining our ethics and implementing the resulting practices. The crux to developing ecologically minded ethics and practice though, is committing to the goal of developing a growing system that is productive without negative ecological consequence. Through using the described methods to help discover my ethics, I find myself confident in the necessity of my practices. Growing vegetables in raised beds, without tilling the soil, using any chemicals (chemical or organic), irrigating conservatively, and striving to replace all off farm inputs with self-generated fertility allow me to farm in line with my ethics.

Developing an ecological, agricultural ethic is imperative to long-term food production and the health of all natural systems that sustain life. Despite being ill prepared by our culture, and confused by rapid incorporation of technology into farming, there are ways that we can develop ethics that force us to grow food without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same. I hope for nothing more than to impress upon you the importance of your ethics and the practices that follow in their lead; And, to suggest that we start where Aldo Leopold left us, embracing “the role of Homo sapiens”, and our growing systems alike, not as “conquerors of the land-community” but “plain members and citizens of it” (Leopold, 1987).


Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R., & Walker, P. (2002). How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental Health Perspectives, 110(5), 445-456. Retrieved from

Cox, C., Hug, A., & Bruzelius, N. (n.d.). Losing ground. Retrieved from Environmental Working Group website:

Pesticide Action Network. Pesticides on food. Retrieved from Pesticide Action Network, Advancing Alternatives to Pesticides Worldwide website:

Lin, B. B. (2011). Effects of industrial agriculture on climate change and the mitigation potential of small scale agro-ecological farms. CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources,6(20), 1-18. Retrieved from

(2013, February 13). Introduction to agricultural water pollution. Retrieved from FAO Corporate Document Repository website: impacts on water quality

Centers For Disease Control And Prevention. (2012, July 13). Agricultural safety. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control Workplace Safety and Health Topics website:

Leopold, A. (1987). In A sand county almanac and sketches here and there. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marder, J. (2011, May 18). Farm Runoff in Mississippi River Floodwater Fuels Dead Zone in Gulf.  Retrieved from PBS News Hour website: