“[The planting of crops that are annuals] destroys topsoil. Period.” –Mark Shepard, in “Restoration Agriculture”.
Replacement method needed.
I think I’ve found it, and I’m excited—an important missing piece to my mental image of where we are trying to get to. It relates to agriculture, and a problem that has confounded me for a while; years even. I touched on it last month in “One Tough Row: Agriculture“, with its lead photograph of soil erosion. To wit—I can imagine how to wave that magic wand around (yesterday’s post) and fix a lot of problems, but I’m not sure how to fix agriculture. How in the world do we make agriculture sustainable? How do we solve the fertilizer problem? How do we solve the erosion problems? How do we solve the pest-control problems, and how do we power future farm equipment without fossil fuel? How do we fix this system where it takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to create every usable calorie of food? How do we solve the problem of diminishing groundwater? Of the cruelty, inhumane treatment, and disastrous environmental effects of factory farming? Of agriculture-related water pollution? The lack of bio-diversity? The crowding out of wildlife?
I’ve had some clues, some inkling of the direction to move in. I read about Joel Salatin’s farm in Virginia in “An Omnivore’s Dilemma”, by Michael Pollan, and my wife and I visited his farm a few years ago. He uses a form of polyculture—rotational grazing of livestock in a leader-follower system, and it enables him to raise beautiful beef cattle that are entirely grass-fed, eggs, chickens for meat (the chicken I had that day from his farm was the best I’ve ever had), and pastured pork in a symbiotic, harmonious system that out-produces neighboring farms by several-fold, uses no chemicals or pesticides, and rebuilds the soil from what Joel described as a “worn-out hill farm” with protruding rocks and barely enough grass to mow, to what it is today—one of the most beautiful farms I’ve ever seen, with rich soil and verdant grass.
Other clues—reports of farmers in Asia doing similar things with rotations of geese and ducks through rice paddies, with fish in the mix. A book just out by Judith Schwartz (interview here), “Cows Save the Planet”, about soil building through rotational grazing. Recent emails with a farmer in North Hero, Vermont, about soil-building through a combination of grazing livestock, subsoil plowing, and foliar feeds.
But there were holes in all of these. Grass-fed beef and fresh eggs are great, and healthy pasture is wonderful, but we need cereal crops to feed the world, or at least something like them. We need that massive production of carbohydrates, and of fats and oils, to help provide the energy for human life. And with polyculture in general, we have efficiency problems; as farmers step away from specialization, efficiency and productivity drop, and they have to know more and more about a huge number of subjects.
But then, last week at SolarFest, I attended a workshop by a young farmer named Josh Brill, entitled “Savanna and Forest Farms of the Future”. He is farming with a form of permaculture, and this system has the potential to solve every single one of the problems I listed above, and could even help reverse global warming. It could almost literally save the planet. His talk was fascinating, and it turns out that most of what he does and was discussing comes from the work of a farmer in Wisconsin named Mark Shepard, who has written a book called “Restoration Agriculture”. So I read the book. It’s important.
It’s also too much, perhaps, to capture in a single blog post, but let me try to impart the basics. To begin, take a look at the image at the top of this post of a field being disced. This is a form of how humans have done agriculture for 10,000 years—removing all other vegetation in order to plant seeds for annual crops. After you realize that there is a better way, however, the activity in this image starts to look like the agricultural equivalent of mountaintop-removal mining. We remove every living thing, and obliterate entire ecosystems, to prepare these large fields. Then, the wind blows away the bare soil, or the rain comes and washes it away. Then the planting begins, along with all of the problems I started this post with.
The “better way” is a form of permaculture using long-lived, perennial crops Continue reading