Farming in the past for real ‘down-home’ taste

Mischa Popoff

Mischa Popoff

Would you buy a car welded together by a blacksmith? You’d have to be crazy. But when it comes to pretending to be more organic in the food and wine biz, outmoded methods are all the rage, at least for some.

Honest organic farmers don’t use quick fixes like synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, so they have no choice but to be more efficient than conventional farmers. With scant spare time on their hands they have no choice but to use modern labor-saving equipment. But a fringe element in the organic biz has decided to revert to the past, and to pass the cost of their gross inefficiency onto their customers.

As a former organic farmer, take my advice and DO NOT buy anything from any farmer who claims to use horses. A horse is less than a hundredth as efficient as the smallest diesel tractor. A horse releases more pollution into the atmosphere because it eats, farts and poops all year long while a tractor is shut off when the work is done.

Growing feed for horses requires more farmland, which means less natural habitat and yet more pollution. Old-timers can attest that almost half of all farmland used to be set aside just to grow feed for horses. What’s so green about that? We now basically use 100 percent of our arable farmland to feed humans, and that’s a huge leap forward that we simply cannot afford to take back!

There are many examples of such modern-day Luddites masquerading as valiant organic protectors. The worst are those who not only brag about using horses, which they claim cut down on fuel, but who also believe windmills and solar panels have a place in the business of producing food.

I have just one question for these people: Are you all nuts?


If someone wants to put a windmill or a solar panel on his roof, that’s his business. And hey, if you want to go out into the wilderness to live off the grid, be my guest! But to bring such woefully inefficient paradigms to the business of producing food is a recipe for civilizational collapse, plain and simple.

A few self-righteous wine makers are starting to play this game, pandering to the misapprehension among some urban environmentalists that if you’re modern or big you must be bad. Organic grape growers who use horses, or who pretend to, do not deserve your business.

All agronomic arguments aside, these “green” viticulturalists claim that horses cut down on soil compaction. But that’s simply not true. If a workhorse steps on you while you’re lying on the ground, there’s a good chance it’ll kill you. And while I would never recommend being driven over by a tractor, you will survive such an encounter because the weight is evenly distributed over a much larger area provided by the tires. So, you see, tractors are not only an order of magnitude more efficient than horses, they also compact the soil far less!

Any organic farm or vineyard being operated by honest people who uphold the true principles of organic farming is as environmental and sustainable as you can get. In fact, taking efficiencies of scale into account, and the efficiencies of modern machinery and trucking, larger-scale operations are always more environmental and sustainable. Anyone still using a horse, or pretending to, deserves to have his foot stepped on.

Being organic has nothing to do with being old fashioned, inefficient or backwards. It’s about producing top quality. And modern machinery is the only way to achieve that.

Never, ever, go backwards to move the food industry forward.

Mischa Popoff is an organic inspector and organic business consultant. Visit his website at

3 thoughts on “Farming in the past for real ‘down-home’ taste

  1. Dear JusticeP:

    First of all, food miles. They might seem like a problem, but as I show in my book (Is it Organic?) they’re inconsequential. Sorry to all the local-food activists out there, but if food miles were expensive in terms of fossil fuel, greedy capitalists wouldn’t ship food 1500 miles. The reason we can afford tomatoes shipped up from Mexico in the dead of winter is because the shipping is only a fraction of the final cost. The real consumption of fossil fuel turns out to be in the working of land and harvesting of crops. And that brings us to your next concern…  

    What you’re forgetting whenyou point out that 10 calories of fossil fuel yields 1 calorie of food is something that all organic activists forget. It’s that we used to burn far more calories to get our food by using horses and human energy. It’s just that we didn’t ever bother to measure those calories.

    Burning 10 calories of fossil fuel to get 1 calorie of food turns out to be a real a bargain! Before the tractor, farmers used to work 16… even 20-hour days! They ate four meals a day (that’s why we have the terms “supper” and “dinner”) and all that work required food and meant a lot of energy was burned. But hold onto your hat. This was nothing compared to all the food a horse had to eat, and all the energy it burned! Want to know how much?

    Here’s what you have to keep in mind… farmers used to set asside half of all their farmland just to grow feed for their horses. HALF! And that’s not even taking into account all the methane and CO2 a good work-horse would emit every day, something environmentalists seem concerned about for some strange reason. Also, don’t forget that a horse needs to be fed every day whether it’s working or not, but a tractor only uses fuel when it’s working.

    As for your doubt that “A horse is less than a hundredth as efficient as the smallest diesel tractor,” what do you think a 100-horsepower tractor represents?

  2. JusticeP  I’m not sure what alternative you are favoring.  You still have to get food from the farm to the table.  A lot of those tables are many miles and continents apart from the farms.  We just had an article on this site describing how there is a problem with people not having close access to healthy foods.  Will getting rid of fossil fuels in the equation help that situation?  If you are concerned about calories being used to produce food (and are not concerned about votes in Iowa) I expect you are against the use of corn based ethanol as a gasoline substitute, you’re ten to one ratio in that scenario is shot.

  3. Mr. Popoff:
    Fossil fuel dependency is the greatest bane of agriculture as we know it.  As geologist Dale Allen Pheiffer points out in his article “Eating Fossil Fuels”, approximately 10 calories of fossil fuels are required to produce every 1 calorie of food eaten in the US.  This ration stems from the fact that every step in modern food production is fossil-fuel and petrochemical powered: pesticides are made from oil and commercial fertilizers are made from ammonia, which is made from natural gas.  In this country food averages traveling 1500 miles before reaching your table.  Canada is 5000 miles.  In India, 80% of transport still goes by animal traction over the short haul.
    I question “A horse is less than a hundredth as efficient as the smallest diesel tractor.”