One Tough Row: Agriculture

Not my fields but this looks familiar.

Soil erosion.

I called my very first post “A Tough Row to Hoe”. Unfortunately, we’ve got more than one tough row; we’ve got a whole passel of them. A big one is perhaps how to solve the energy and greenhouse gasses equation. Another might be population growth and the related problem of habitat destruction. A third tough row might just be agriculture. This has been on my mind this past week, as here in Vermont we’ve had about ten days of nearly constant rain. Oddly enough, we really needed it before it started. But, just like the old saying, “When it rains it pours”, we may have gotten too much, too fast. Just prior to the rain, the farm I lease my fields to had spent a great deal of time turning fifty or so acres from corn production into grass, and had just finished seeding. Unfortunately, the rains have been heavy enough that a disturbing amount of that finely-harrowed topsoil has been washed either down the hills or right off the edge of the fields and into the streams and ditches. And the truly unfortunate part—there is nothing uncommon or new about this; I see it all the time, as I drive around. And I’ve seen a related problem in other parts of the country with wind blowing soil away. Soil can be created or built, but it’s a slow process, and it’s self-evident that current farming practices are far from “sustainable”. Worse, as the world adds that million more mouths every three days, the pressure on the land will only increase. Not growing food isn’t an option. (We might be able to grow less by changing our eating habits with regard to meat, and our energy habits with regard to ethanol, but those are topics for separate posts.)

The soil conservation issue is just one of a host that are centered around agriculture; there are pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer water runoff issues, there’s groundwater contamination, there’s the decreasing amount of organic materials in soils as they are treated with chemical fertilizers and constantly tilled. There’s the frightening drop in groundwater levels worldwide, due to agricultural irrigation. Then there’s other problems caused by irrigation, such as the salinization of soils.

Then, there’s the problem of how to power farm equipment without using fossil fuels. Batteries and electric motors work fairly well for some applications, but there are no 350-horsepower electric John Deere tractors out there, and there’s not going to be for a good long time, if I had to guess.

There are glimmers of hope. First, a controversial one—GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crops. Like nuclear power, I might have to put GMOs into the “I don’t love it but it might be necessary” category. If perennial grains could be developed, or rust-resistant wheat, or rice that can grow with much less paddy-flooding, or crops that are drought tolerant or tolerant of saline soils, etc, then they might be a necessary part of the solution to feeding the worlds’ teeming billions. The Monsanto’s of the world can go too far at times, but the difference between what they do and what plant breeders have done for millennia is mostly (but not completely) a matter of degree.

Another glimmer of hope might be “permaculture”. A Vermonter in Waitsfield has just published a book about his experiences; I’ll have to read it. Their website is at this link- http://www.wholesystemsdesign.com/resilient-farm-homestead-book/ . The author, Ben Falk, could probably provide a great deal of insight into the issues in this post; I might ask him if he would consider contributing a short guest post.

Proper grazing and poly-culture might be part of the solution. I’ve been to Joel Saladin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia (the farm mentioned in Michael Pollan’s An Omnivore’s Dilemma), and seen his approach to solving some of these problems, as he combines agricultural efforts in innovative ways, for example, integrating rotational grazing with poultry production. I’ve read about similar approaches in Asia with rice production and ducks. There currently seems to be some substantial controversy about how much carbon could be removed from the atmosphere by improving soils instead of letting them degrade, but two things are clear—1) Some amount, and perhaps a sizable amount, of carbon can definitely be captured and stored in improved soils, and 2), it’s not going to matter what that rate is if we don’t quit cranking carbon into the air at ever-faster rates. I saw a page online today of a counter spinning, representing tons of CO2 released into the air. The ones, tens, and hundreds digits were almost a blur. What we’re doing to the atmosphere is probably madness, and we just don’t appreciate the magnitude of it yet.

So, I’m not sure I have any good answers for this one. My feeling is that it’s something that’s going to be solved, like nearly everything else, a little piece at a time. Agriculture might be something that needs to be more labor intensive in the future, which would go against the general trends in productivity. We can buy organic. We can support Fair Trade. We can buy local, so that we can see where our food comes from, and support farmers who try and use sustainable practices. We can participate in CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) and perhaps be involved in its production. We can grow a good deal of food in gardens (during WWII about 40% of all U.S. produce was grown in “Victory Gardens”), and such efforts can double as quality family time, outdoor time, and exercise, along with providing truly fresh and delicious food. (In the last ten days of rain, I saw zero runoff from my mulched garden beds). We can plant nut and fruit trees.

And we can all pay attention, and maybe find more answers together.

Image credit: funniefarm5 / 123RF Stock Photo