Thursday, June 19, 2008

Farming Perspective

From Allie Devereaux

My perspective of conventional farming practices shifted entirely some years ago when I took a drive through the Midwest with the intention of seeing some remnant of the Great Plains, the intensely productive and resilient ocean of grassland stretching from Texas to Canada that once supported 60 million bison and 100’s of millions of other ruminants. Instead what I saw in one state after another, for mile after mile after mile, was nothing but corn. It was then that I learned that most of this corn was grown not to feed people, but to feed cows in massive feedlots, or to make a cheap sweetener for processed foods, or nowadays for fuel. The truth concerning what is required to produce such a vast monoculture began to reveal itself: millions of tons of chemical inputs applied every year, which are often toxic blends of industrial waste products permitted for disposal on crop lands in amounts deemed “safe” by the EPA, federal subsidies that cost tax payers up to $35 billion annually and tie farmers in a knot of unproductive regulations, losses of top soils, biodiversity, water and water quality...

The deeper I dug into the realities of conventional farming, the more I was convinced that the benefits of “organic” farming, which is professed to be "an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity,” go much deeper than simply keeping carcinogenic chemicals out of the food supply. But now, with multinational food corporations cashing in on the organic food trend, the focus of production is turning back towards quantity and bottom lines, and in many cases the “organic” farm can be difficult to distinguish from the factory farm. Certainly the notion of “sustainability” is being reassessed as goods are flooding into the US from as far away as China and New Zealand to meet the consumer demand for “organic” food.

In response, the world is seeing a massive movement into small scale, regional food production and re-localization, a strategy to build societies based on local production of food, energy and goods. But, long before there was any notion of carbon footprints or ‘organic’ farming, there were visionaries who could see that industrialized farming was corrosive to human society.

One of the first to pioneer conversationalist thought in America was Aldo Leopold, an internationally known ecologist who recognized the great need for wise use of land and water resources in the early part of the 20th century. Leopold devoted his life to planting seeds of thought about how farming should be productive but not interfere with natural systems. He called us to determine what is ethically and aesthetically right in regard to land use, in addition to what is economically expedient. The ethic he envisioned simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals; collectively, the land.

Leopold’s land ethic has inspired several generations of farmers and ranchers, like Fred Kirschenmann, third generation farmer, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and a leader of the organic/sustainable agriculture movement. His father passed on a love for the land and a sense of wonder for the miracle of the soil's productivity, as well as a profound sense of responsibility to care for it. Of Kirschenmann’s 3,500 acres, 1/3 is native prairie used for grazing livestock, and the rest is managed in a diversified operation where eight to nine crops are organically raised each year including durum and hard red spring wheat, rye, buckwheat, millet, flax, canola, also alfalfa and sweet clover for forage and green manure crops.

Kirschenmann has said, “local community economies are healthiest when they are as self-reliant as possible, especially where food and agriculture are concerned. Self-reliant communities are healthiest because they are free to pursue their own course, shaped by cultural norms which evolved in those communities to maintain the local public good… More important is our failure to recognize that farms are not factories and that the effort to impose these principles on farms has created an agriculture that is headed for collapse.”

When Karl Kupers took over his fathers 5,400 acres he followed the conventional wheat/fallow rotation that was common in the dryland wheat region of Washington. He eventually learned that he was not content as a highly subsidized wheat producer. He set a goal to create a farm in 10 years that would not depend on the subsidies that he felt promoted irresponsible and wasteful farming practices. When he quit tilling and began to direct seed he found the resulting improvement of soil tilth over the years provides a healthier environment for more diverse crops. Soil loses most of it carbon content during plowing, which releases carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere. No-till farming helps soil retain carbon. Healthy topsoil contains carbon-enriched humus – decaying organic matter that provides nutrients to plants. Soils low in humus are more susceptible to erosion and cannot maintain the carbon-dependent nutrients essential to healthy crop production, resulting in the need to use more fertilizers.

Kupers says weeds arise when nature tries to add diversity to a weakened and fragile landscape. “We tell people, don't try to eliminate the diversity by killing the weed. Put a crop in to fill that need for diversity. The majority of the people in the world are going to demand a cleaner environment. You use crop rotations, not chemicals, which also reduces cost. That is a key component to making a sustainable agricultural system work.” He says subsidized wheat is very difficult to compete with. “Today, when you take that subsidy away, and make wheat stand on its own--these other crops start working. Recognize that soil is what you're shooting for, it's not the crop, it's not the 1997 to 1998 income."

Wes Jackson survived the Dustbowl as a child in Kansas and went on to found The Land Institute, an organization devoted to research and development of agricultural systems with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops. He has coined the term Natural Systems Agriculture which involves perennial cropping systems that mimic the permanent ground covers and root systems of the perennial plants of the prairie. They are having success developing strains of wheat, sorghum, sunflower and flax at the University of Minnesota that return annually from an established rootstock of up to 10 feet deep, helping to protect, conserve and even “re-grow” living soil.

In the mid 1970s, two Australians, Dr. Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, started to develop ideas that they hoped could be used to create stable permanent agricultural systems in response to a rapidly growing use of destructive industrial-agricultural methods which were poisoning the land and water, turning rivers into stagnant holes of brine, reducing biodiversity, removing billions of tons of soil from previously fertile landscapes, and causing desertification. The principles they espouse have been applied to a wide range of environments - from dense urban settlements to individual homes and large farms.

Ultimately, their vision has spread, transforming lands that were once totally depleted and barren into edible, self perpetuating ecosystems. It is inspiring to see aerial photos of the green webs of interconnected life established in barren or desertified landscapes yielding diverse arrays of fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs, fodder, and seed, for villages, homesteads and communities around the globe. By utilizing this bio-intensive method of food production we would not only use 90% less mechanical and manual labor and consume 60-80% less water than is used in conventional methods, but by producing 2 to 6 times more food per square foot, it would be possible to feed the US population in the space that is currently established as high maintenance lawns.

Masanobu Fukuoka, a farmer trained in microbiology and soil science, sees in a conventional farmland landscape a vast desert lurking under a thin fa├žade. He discovered his own route to a diverse small-scale farming operation that requires no plowing or tillage, no chemicals or fertilizer and no weeding - and the condition of the soil in his orchards and fields improves each year. Fukuoka observed that nature is quite efficient at reseeding. Similarly, he simply spreads the seed of one grain in a stand of another, and after the standing crop is harvested, the straw from that crop is laid down on top the seed from the next crop. In this manner his yields of rye, barley and rice compare favorably with the most productive conventional Japanese farms. By intercropping various kinds of vegetables and herbs among the natural vegetation in his orchards, there is no need to mitigate pest population in any way.

Fukuoka considers the healing of the land and the purification of the human spirit to be one process, and he proposes a way of life and a way of farming in which this process can take place. "…farming is not just for growing crops, it is for the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

In his writings on agriculture, Thomas Jefferson has not only expressed a shared belief with this 95 year old Japanese farmer in diversification and cover cropping as techniques to conserve water and protect the crop, the soil, and the organisms living in the soil, but he also recognized the deep connection between farming and man, saw farming as humanity’s wisest pursuit, and believed that small landholders working their land into production without coercion from the state were the most precious part of our society. It is unfortunate that federal farm and trade policies imposed by governments acting in the interests of multinational food and chemical corporations have nearly eradicated small and middle sized farms and depleted the environment upon which we all depend; but, thankfully, wisdom does manage to find a way to surface through all the red tape.

The way we live on and with the land, that is, the way we produce food, build homes, exist in our space and interrelate as a community of human beings, will ultimately determine the quality and duration of our society. There is no doubt that with the coming of $200-a-barrel oil we will have to reassess the viability of farming schemes that are heavily dependent on this diminishing resource for production and distribution. And while we may be approaching the day that the “organic” label outgrows its usefulness, the principle of growing food without dangerous chemicals, in a balance with nature, in or near the community in which it is to be consumed, is, and will always be, the soundest approach to procuring the sustenance upon which civilizations depend.


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