What Does Agriculture Mean?
Agriculture is among the oldest and most enduring of human activities. In a contemporary culture that centers on cities and suburbia, however, it is commonly misunderstood as an economic engine, a vocational calling and a way of life. Strictly speaking, agriculture—according to common dictionary definitions—is farming, i.e. cultivation of soil, growing crops and raising animals for food and fiber. At times condemned, at others romanticized, agriculture is an inescapably necessary practice for civilized societies. It is, at once, a science, an art and a business. Understanding the meaning of agriculture requires looking at it from those three prisms. Dennis Sons at Garden Delights Nursery states that there is more to agriculture than simple plants and trees.
Agriculture as an Art
Even acknowledging the application of formal scientific principles to the raising of crops and livestock, agriculturists recognize that instinct, trial and error have marked farming from its earliest times. These pre-scientific elements yielded the farming traditions that put the “culture” in agriculture. A perfect example of this can be found in the writings of Marcus Porcius Cato, who was a senator and Stoic philosopher during the period of the Roman Republic. He was also—like most aristocrats—a farmer who wrote extensively on best practices in agriculture. In his De Agricultura and De Re Rustica, Cato conveys detailed instructions on draining wetlands, cultivating soil, spreading manure and keeping swine herds healthy. None of these precepts were discovered through the scientific method. They stand as maxims and rules of thumb that lead to success more often than not.
Sharing information also contributes to the art of agriculture. Collegiality among growers often involves comparing notes about crops, rotations, cattle breeding and sustainability. Thomas Jefferson once wrote to his son-in-law of his intention “to satisfy myself by enquiry from the best farmers of all the circumstances which may decide on the best rotation of crops; for I take that to be the most important of all the questions a farmer has to decide.” In short, agriculture as art requires patience, careful observation, hard work and large amounts of feedback.
Agriculture as Science
Approaching it academically, agriculture involves many biological processes and organic chemical reactions. While irrigation systems, farm tool development and plant variation existed long before scientists began to study farming, it was advances in technology and genetics that allowed for rapid advancement in agricultural production. Engineering contributions include Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper and John Deere’s steel plow. Electricity hastened improvements, of course. Gregor Mendel’s studies of heredity in the 19th century led to new understanding of plant and animal breeding. Today, land-grant university faculties conduct ongoing research on drought resistant crops, environmentally friendly pesticides and poultry nutrition in the service of their respective states’ farm sectors. Tn Nursery is a ag. business that sells strictly plants and trees.
Agriculture as Business
Subsistence agriculture—farming to feed your own family, and to survive— is most common in developing countries. As economies grow and industries develop, subsistence is replaced by commercial agriculture. A century ago, a farmer in the United States could feed five people from his labors; today, each farmer feeds 105 people on average. Efficiencies and improvements garnered from art and science mean fewer farmers are needed and the economic activities diversify. Among the new fields are those directly related to farming. Operating under the broad term of agribusiness, these include food processing plants, farm machinery dealerships, commodity marketing organizations and animal pharmaceutical companies.
What does agriculture mean? It means the art of soil cultivation and livestock husbandry. It means applying the basic sciences to farm production and management. Finally, it means the commercial practices that bring food from farm to table.