Research Spotlight: Sustainable Farm Systems

Cow trying to graze on the windswept pasture of a farm in Ford County, Kansas, 1936 (Photo Credit: Library of Congress, LU-USF34-001876)

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Editor’s Note: This is part of a monthly series showing the work of the Sustainable Farm Systems project

Andrew Watson and Geoff Cunfer

SFS logoAgriculture in the Western Hemisphere has changed dramatically over the last three hundred years. But have these changes been for the better? Has Western agriculture become more or less sustainable over time? Indeed, has it ever been sustainable? These are the big picture questions being tackled by the interdisciplinary research project “Sustainable Farm Systems: Long-Term Socio-Ecological Metabolism in Western Agriculture, 1700-2000. This project is supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Partnership Grant.


At any time in the past, there have been countless differences between agricultural societies throughout the Western world. But there have also been important commonalities, such as the need to maintain soil fertility, harness necessary labour and energy, manipulate and order the landscape, choose between subsistence and comercial production, and situate farm functions within a wider set of social relations. Understanding the sustainability of farming in the past therefore relies on being capable of assessing common aspects within the context of social and ecological variability.

To accomplish this, the SFS project brings together agricultural and environmental historians, historical geographers, agronomists, soil scientists, landscape ecologists, economists, and demographers to develop quantitative social-metabolism methods to compare the transition from traditional to industrial agroecosystems in Latin America, Europe, and North America. Recognizing that agroecosystems are complex material assemblages of humans, domesticated plants and animals, and their non-biotic environment, the common methodological approaches employed by the SFS project focus on the flows of biomass, nutrients, energy, and water into, through, and out of farming communities. This material and energy flow analysis (MEFA) relies on very large data sets composed of detailed information on a wide variety of key indicators, including farm size, the area of land devoted to growing specific crops, crop yields, the number of certain types of livestock kept on a farm, the amount of livestock feed produced, and the number of labourers per farm. These indicators have been collected for multiple times points, making it possible to use MEFA to draw conclusions about the extent to which farming depleted soil fertility, energy constraints limited farm productivity, and land use change shaped farm output and biodiversity.

The sources used for the project are extremely rich in the data necessary for MEFA, and include cadastral surveys from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and agricultural censuses from the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as land use maps from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and aerial photos from the 1920s onwards. To analyze and interpret this data, the SFS project relies on integrated and highly-refined databases, which can be used to generate Historical GIS maps or construct energy and nutrient flow models.

At the same time, the project is interested in fundamentally historical questions, which necessarily require a consideration of the broader context created by land tenure, taxes and tithes, farm income, labour systems, ethnic and gender differences, markets, economic exchange, and transportation. This involves the expertise of historians specializing in particular geographies, nations, and cultures. For this reason, comparing farm systems in different countries with different geographies, political structures, and cultures requires the expertise of historians and social scientists who are specialists in the areas under study.

The project team includes over thirty faculty members and dozens of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows split between five research groups in Colombia, Spain, Austria, Canada and the United States.

The Latin America Group focuses mainly on Colombia and Guatemala, exploring cases studies of coffee and sugar plantations, beef ranching, and Indigenous subsistence between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. The emphasis on export commodities provides insights into the influence of Trans-Atlantic trade and globalizing markets on the social metabolisms of farm systems.

The Austrian Group explores long-term changes in socio-ecological metabolism using data from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries for a number of villages from different biogeographic regions of the country. The use of manorial estate records are combined with regional data for a detailed analysis of farm level activity, which can then be aggregated and extrapolated to reconstruct bioregional material and energy flows.

The Catalonia Group works with data for counties and townships in eastern Spain and Mallorca with data that date back to the Middle Ages. Data from each of these agricultural areas is assembled to reveal the effects of land use change on farm sustainability.

The Anadalucia Group combines village case studies to explore how Mediterranean agrarian systems functioned before industrialization. This work enables comparisons between historical farm practices and modern organic agriculture to identify the most sustainable features of each.

The Great Plains Group uses population, land use, and agricultural data to focus on 600 U.S. Great Plains counties between 1850 and 2007. Analyzing material and energy flows at the county, township, and individual farm level, provides points of comparison at different scales as well as over time.

SFS team in Montefrio (June 2015)
SFS team members at project meeting, Montefrio, Spain, June 2015 (Photo credit: SFS photo collection)

Over the next several months, The Otter will feature short posts from various members of the SFS project that showcase the ways the social-metabolism methodology has been adapted to the study of different agroecosystems. Although these posts will emphasize the diversity of the case studies included in the project, it will also reveal the strengths of using a common methodological approach to compare the changing social, economic, and ecological conditions of farming in the Western world over the last three hundred years.

The aim of the SFS project is to uncover the material underpinnings of Western agriculture as it underwent the socio-ecological transition from an era of traditional practices, using mainly organic inputs intensively cycled through the local setting, to the modern era of highly industrialized farm management that relied on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers to maintain massive yields. By reconstructing the changes to soil nutrient and energy flows of agriculture over several generations, the SFS project offers new tools to help historians understand how human adaptations to, and modifications of, diverse ecosystems shaped the sustainability of farming in the past.

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Andrew is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. His current research includes the history of sustainability and tourism on the Canadian Shield in Muskoka, Ontario; the environmental, social, and economic history of coal in Canada; and the role of energy in shaping agroecosystems on the Great Plains of the United States. His first book, Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870-1920, was published in 2022 with UBC Press.


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