Evaluating Agricultural Systems

A 5-Step Method For Evaluating A System & How To Implement It


While I was at university in the early 2000’s, there were two primary schools of thought in agriculture –conventional agriculture and organic agriculture. In the present day, it can be overwhelming to see the wealth of different systems currently available to farmers and agriculture enthusiasts. In this article, I’m going to lay out a framework for how we can easily evaluate and compare agricultural systems. I’ll also share some of my current thoughts on how we should approach agriculture, horticulture, and growing food in our own backyards.

Interestingly enough, many of the new systems that we see throughout the agricultural industry today are not new; they’ve been around for many decades. What has changed, however, is the speed of communication and the ability to spread ideas. Before social media existed, news traveled slowly, and to learn of new systems, you’d need to visit the area where it was developed, listen to reports from people who had learned about it, or subscribe to alternative agricultural magazines and read through the various articles that talk about the new technology.

But in today’s world, things move much faster. Let’s get into some of the details that can help us to evaluate modern agricultural systems on our own.

It All Begins With Research

To begin evaluating an agricultural system, you’ll need to get to the core ideas and features that actually drive the system to ensure that you have a grounding for best methods and practices. If there are official websites that give an overview of the system, this is a great place to start. These sites will be biased, but that’s okay. It’s their system, they are passionate about it, and they will want to show the system in its best light.

Next, move on to (what should be) neutral sources, such as university web pages and government sites. Although they should be unbiased, some biases will most certainly creep in. Many researchers put their heart and soul into the systems that they have developed, and are not as receptive to criticism as they probably should be. They’ll even go so far as to only surround themselves with people who believe in their system wholeheartedly. Wikipedia can be a good source as well, but it shouldn’t be treated as an authority. If the article is well written, there will be references to back up claims (which you should also view) and it should present the case for and against the system.

To get really in depth, look for books on the subject. Libraries can be a great resource along with most of the major booksellers and retailers. You may be able to get a digital copy, but for some of the older historical texts, be prepared to buy a physical book. Look for biases in books as well. They are, after all, a work that is trying to persuade you towards a particular point of view.

Evaluating A System

I’ve designed a five-part method to help you more effectively evaluate an agricultural system, so that you can feel confident in making a decision on which system works best for you. Feel free to add your own criteria or take some out. However, be sure to remember that it’s best to decide on the requirements before researching, so that you have an opportunity to look at each system objectively. I suggest you run your current system and at least a few others through the five categories and see what you come up with. If you’re analytical, you could create a spreadsheet that lists your key findings. If you’re more of a visual thinker, you could draw out a diagram. How you weigh each criterion is up to you. When you are done conducting your research, you should see a balance of all the criteria that you used to make your decision.

Let’s dive in.

1. Evaluate The Philosophy of The System

When evaluating the philosophy of the system, you need to decide if it’s something you can get behind. Think about whether it makes sense to you and whether you’d enjoy being a part of it. You may be able to live with certain things you don’t agree with if it offers other benefits, but ideally, you should be mostly onboard with the core beliefs of the system.

2. Take A Deeper Look At The Flexibility of The System

Systems can range from frameworks where each person fills in what is appropriate for their area, to a rigid system that everyone must follow to get the results claimed. You must ask yourself if you are willing to follow the system entirely, or are you the type of person who likes to explore and try new things? Neither way is right or wrong, but be aware of this before you commit.

3. Does The System Have Good Credibility?

You may be excited about a particular system, but at some point, you need to think about the plausibility of it. You may need to take a week away from reading about it, or even longer, to be able to take a step back. Where are their sources? Just because it’s from a university doesn’t mean that the system is applicable for your region or for your purposes. It may work in a particular area, while it may be ineffective in others because of differences in soil, climate, and weather. Some systems and ideas that were once promoted all across the board have since been proven false. Are the proponents still using original research? Is there new research that can help to support the credibility of the system or is the proof of the system based entirely off of case studies, testimonials, and anecdotal evidence?

4. Evaluate The Economics Behind The System & The Overall Marketing Strategy

As you research the system, think about how much money you’ll need to invest and what the expected payout is. Is this system going to reduce costs? Will it increase yields or quality?  Will it make your farm more resilient? Will it open new markets? Are these markets available locally or is transportation going to cut too far into the profits? Are you gambling a small amount for a potential big return or are you investing in a solid foundation that has high odds? Neither is right or wrong, just be sure that you understand the risks before making your investment. A small loss can still teach you something. However, don’t bet the farm.

5. Examine Any Possible Geographical Constraints

For this criterium, you need to evaluate not only the agronomy of your region, but also the local support available as well. Are you the first one to be trying this in your area or will you join others? There always needs to be innovators, but if that is you, recognize that most, if not all, of the risk falls on you. You’ll need to start slower and build local credibility first before scaling up. If there are others near you following this system, can you learn from them? Will you be able to get the necessary supplies? New systems usually require new inputs and new machinery; are there local suppliers and those with expertise?

Evaluating the Philosophy, Flexibility, & Credibility of The Soil Health System

Looking over all the systems that I see in agriculture today, the one that I come back to the most consistently is the soil health system. I’m not sure if it’s a system per se, but it's so ubiquitous that it's taking on the form of a system.

The philosophy is straight forward and can be outlined in five principles – minimize tillage, keep the ground covered, increase plant diversity, keep living roots in the ground as long as possible, and integrate animals. It is based on scientific principles and is backed by decades of research[1]. Not only that, there are a massive population of growers who have been following the system for a decade or more and can back up the claims anecdotally[2],[3]. Both the science and the grower experience give credibility to the system. I also have personal, long term experience using these principles in my own garden.

I’ve caught on to the system because flexibility is inherently built into it. It can apply to someone practicing organic, regenerative, or conventional agriculture. Some principles can be easier to follow in a conventional system. For example, using a genetically modified corn hybrid that is resistant to glyphosate can allow planting it into a green cover crop without terminating it until after corn emergence. However, some principles may work better without chemicals. Pollinator and beneficial insect strips in fields may not be able to work effectively against pests until insecticides are eliminated.

The Economics & Geographical Applicability of The Soil Health System

On the economics side, building soil health is a long-term play. There aren’t many quick fixes in this system. This can result in money spent up-front that doesn’t payoff in the current year. If you have crop rotation that you stick to because you know each crop in sequence helps the next, you’re ready to apply soil health principles. If every year you grow only the crops with the highest price, you’re probably not ready.

Currently, there’s no market for applying soil health principles, unless you can capitalize on direct marketing to consumers[4]. However, I see changes coming that will reward you for using these principles[5],[6]. The transferability of the soil health system means that if you start now and in 5-10 years see a market open for organic, regenerative, or any other system, you’ll be better able to transition and capture that market.

Finally, soil health principles can span many geographical areas and levels of expertise. Because flexibility is built into the system, each person can look at their resources and apply what they can. Most home gardeners are not going to integrate animals. However, a farm in Alberta, Canada (where I live), has many opportunities to integrate animals, whether by using their own or making deals with neighbours who need more land for their animals. There isn’t much special equipment needed and the most significant input is likely going to be cover crop seed. Seed dealers are starting to get into it carrying cover crop seed, but if you can’t find a local supply, you should simply start where you can with existing seed and add complexity into the equation later.

Evaluating Systems Doesn’t Have To Be Difficult – It Should Save You Time & Money

In this article, I’ve covered how to research agricultural systems and provided a framework for how you can evaluate them. When researching agricultural systems, you need to look at many sources to get the full picture. Each source will come with its own biases, so you need to recognize them and factor them into your evaluation. Each source should be evaluated on philosophy, flexibility, credibility, economics and marketing, and geographical constraints. Once you get a full picture of the system, you can more accurately decide on the best system that works for you. We also took a deeper look at the soil health system and integrated the five guiding principles when working in agricultural, horticultural, and backyard gardens.

If you’re able to take everything that we’ve talked about in this article and apply it to your agricultural practice, the odds are high that you’ll save some much-needed capital, and will save yourself some time in the long run because you’ll have conducted your due diligence and found the agricultural system that works best for your needs.

 Are you in need of system evaluation support? Please feel free to reach out today with any questions, requests, or concerns. I can be reached at: scott@scottcgillespie.com

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 Sources & Further Reading

[1] USDA Soil Health website: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/soils/health/

[2] Steve Groff. Cover Crop Coach. https://www.stevegroff.com/about-steve

[3] Gabe Brown. Brown’s Ranch. http://brownsranch.us/

[4] Gabe Brown direct to market website: https://nourishedbynature.us/

[5] Eillie Anzilotti, Fast Company. 2019. General Mills has a plan to regenerate 1 million acres of farmland.

[6] General Mills. Regenerative Agriculture.