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The use of the term 'conventional agriculture' as a specific school of thought is problematic for it reflects a state of constant change. For example, two hundred years ago conventional farming was, what we now would describe, as traditional Organic/Biological farming. The author accepts that the definition of the conventional or 'standard' agriculture paradigm is still a moving target. The term 'conventional' is often used by authors to distinguish it from so called 'alternative' agriculture without using emotive words like chemical or expletive [Reeve, 1990].

Modern conventional agriculture has been described as a child of science [Koepf, 1979] and been given terms ranging from mainstream agriculture, expletive farming or simply modern agriculture [Roberts, 1995; eds Acton, Gregorich, 1995]. It reflects an approach and a philosophy which the vast majority of farmers in Australia employ. Distinctive characteristics include large scale properties, being highly mechanised, energy intensive and often requiring high financial commitments. It often adopts intensive animal husbandry practices and increasingly separates livestock from crops and pasture. Modern conventional agriculture reflects the widespread adoption of numerous scientific approaches and new technology to farming and the use of any legitimate means at the farmers disposal to maximise profits. It extensively uses high inputs - herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilisers on monocultures of crops [Beus et al. 1990]. This reflects the conventional farmers goals of maximising production to ensure high biological yield and the highest gross margins [eds Edwards et al. 1990; Penfold et al. 1995]. Both goals would want to be sustained for as long as possible [Haines, 1982]. It would appear that the conventional view of the term sustainability simply adds a longer time period to management decisions [eds Edwards et al. 1990]. This differs from the alternative school which holds the view that from a philosophical level sustainability means for centuries or is 'forever' and that agricultural systems can endure indefinitely [Kenney, 1989].

During the development of modern western mainstream agriculture new technology was utilised to maximise the short term productivity and profit from a given area as the making of profit is the key agenda, but this also has an ethical element to it. For example, the deliberate abortion of a cow so that she can calve earlier and so increase the profitability of that livestock unit. Other examples involve animal liberation issues whereby animals are managed for the maximum profit for a minimum outlay. There would appear to be a philosophy strongly biased towards short term financially gains or economic greed [Koepf, 1979] or 'money first' agriculture [Kiley-Worthington, 1993] and this could be classed as exploiting livestock, as well as both natural resources and production systems [Bolton, 1992; Kiley-Worthington, 1993]. With most commercial enterprises profit is a major and fundamental goal. Some conventional farmers appear to make profit the goal and not a goal, which Allsopp [1972] suggests invariably leads to some form of exploitation. In agriculture, commercial exploitation appears to maximise short term profits, however this is often achieved at the expense of top soil [Carter, Dale, 1974].

Specific management practices

To improve the balance between theory and practice this author has placed importance in giving a pragmatic view of each system. To achieve this a number of specific management practices will be identified and briefly discussed in an attempt to close the theoretical gap between systems. A number of specific practices have been selected, and this has been done to reduce the duplication of management practices without going to the detail of relating each practice to a specific farming system. These management practices will give farmers a 'hands on' look at the different management practices which occur in different systems. Furthermore specific issues relating to land degradation and the control of noxious weeds and feral pests will be considered as separate issues later on and will not be directly discussed in this section. It should not be assumed that this author considers that these issues are not important, on the contrary these issues warrant specific attention, yet often they are outside the control of individual property owners, i.e. the rising water tables cannot always be contributed to any one farmer or to any one form of production system. This author considers them to often be two separate although inter-related issues. To attempt to identify the unique management practices of conventional agriculture would be a pointless exercise as they include such a diverse set of practices that it would be beyond this dissertation. This author has however chosen to outline the relatively universal practice of developing a conventional agroecosystem and the transitional steps taken through to harvest and profit. Land development has normally preceded commercial harvests and natural ecosystems have had to be transformed into agroecosystems. Often these systems have been developed to make a profit, however only time will tell if they are to be economically sustainable in the long term. The conventional approach often focuses on the harvest as a 'cash' crop and treats food or fibre as just a trading commodity. In regard to management practices the conventional approach to a production system is often straightforward to a point of being 'recipe' farming with a series of prescription agrochemicals.

Thus the management practices for the conventional agricultural approach will normally commence with land development which is often followed by fencing and water supplied by dam or bores. With this infra-structure in place clearing and grazing can then take place or if suitable, cultivation and the sowing of pasture or crops can then commence. Commercial livestock can graze improved pastures and their husbandry invariably requires the use of agrochemicals in the form of drenches through to growth hormones. Modern crops invariably also need some form of intervention with agrochemicals in many forms i.e. herbicides and pesticides. Finally, the harvesting of the crop, or the sale of animals, which is the culmination of a farmers efforts and satisfies the farmer's aim in producing a profit. The management practices of the conventional approach will include the following:

  • Land development & Fencing and water supplies
  • Clearing/rebushing/grazing & Cultivation and tillage
  • Introduction of exotic plants and animal species
  • The use of agrochemicals
  • Harvesting the product
In many countries a large percent of agroecosystems have had exotic animals introduced to native pasture or some form of cultivation has occurred in order to improve pasture or grow crops. These processes of succession have been a hallmark of conventional agriculture and the following approaches of conservation, Organic, Biological, Bio-dynamic and Permaculture could be considered as different tools that could be used in agriculture.

The information contained in this publication has been formulated in good faith, the contents do not take into account all the factors which need to be considered before putting that information into practice. Accordingly, no person should rely on anything contained herein as a substitute for specific professional advice.
S.O.S. Rev 9.2 All rights reserved. Contact: www.healthyag.com © Gwyn Jones 2001

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