Category Archives: Food and Agriculture

Bees: Our Problems in Miniature

“All over the world, bee populations are declining because monoculture, insecticides, and economics all have conspired to make life in a beehive difficult to sustain. As large industrial beekeeping operations continue to disintegrate, however, there is an opportunity to save the bees in small, isolated communities. In backyards and on rooftops all over the world, bees are being kept without chemical inputs…” — Les Crowder, in Top-Bar Beekeeping.

A honey bee fully loaded with pollen on her back legs comes in for a landing.

A honey bee fully loaded with pollen on her back legs comes in for a landing.

I’m going to get some bees. They’re fascinating. But, the more I read about them the more I’m thinking that the honey bee problems we’ve all heard about in recent years are really a miniature version of many of the environmental problems we humans face, caused by too much greed as we extract from nature. In the case of bees, an overuse of chemicals, miticides, fungicides, broad-spectrum antibiotics, and bee repellents, artificial insemination, too many shortcuts, and a careless attitude toward natural systems as a whole has caused tremendous harm to bees. The problems at the hive are compounded with similar trends in agriculture, where the bees forage. We humans keep trying to break nature into tiny pieces that we can control, when it’s the system as a whole that we should be trying to protect. It seems to me that the problems bees are having are the modern equivalent of the canary in the coal mine—signs that something serious is amiss. The bees are trying to tell us something, and we would do well to listen.

But, first some bee basics for the uninitiated. Honey bees, unlike solitary wild pollinators like bumblebees, can’t live on their own. They live in large colonies of tens of thousands of bees, and in nature will set up hives in hollow trees, logs, or other cavities, and build wax combs inside where they store honey and pollen and raise their young. Bees haven’t changed much in 100 million years; fossilized bees in amber are nearly identical to bees today. There are three types of bees in the hive—the workers (all female), a few male drones, and just one queen. When plants are in bloom, the worker bees collect nectar and pollen and store the excess in the combs, as honey, and during times when no plants are blooming the bees use these stores to survive. In cold climates they cluster in a tight ball in the winter, and inch around the comb, eating their honey stores. If the hive does well in the spring and summer and runs out of space in the hive, it will swarm, and thousands of bees, with the queen, will fly off to start a new colony. The swarm will temporarily alight somewhere, usually on a tree branch, while the workers find a new location. The old colony will raise a new queen. In nature, this is how honey bees propagate their hives.

A bee swarm. Bees colonies that are vital enough to swarm are a sign of good genetics, and beekeepers sometimes are able to capture swarms and use them to continue to improve the genetics of local stocks.

A bee swarm. Bees colonies that are vital enough to swarm are a sign of good genetics, and beekeepers sometimes are able to capture swarms and use them to continue to improve the genetics of local stocks.

Humans have interacted with honey bees for tens of thousands of years; prehistoric cave paintings in Spain show humans on long ladders removing honey from hives amid swarms of bees. People have traditionally kept bees in woven hives called skeps, or in hives similar to what are today called top-bar hives. Most beekeepers today, though, use those familiar white stackable boxes, called “Langstroth” hives, invented in the mid 19th century. These hives have removable frames inside, and allow for ease of access and high volumes of honey production.

Traditional woven beehives, or "skeps".

Traditional woven beehives, or “skeps”.

So, I’ve been reading and learning about bees for several weeks, and there seems to be a spectrum of methods by which people keep bees, from methods that are fairly unnatural at one end of the spectrum, to treatment-free and organic at the other. At the first extreme, bees are often treated with a wide variety of chemicals and antibiotics to control diseases and pests, they are fed sugar-water while being trucked from one large monoculture farm to another, too much honey is removed (and the bees, again, fed sugar-water to make up the difference), combs are reused more times than bees would use them in nature, and queens are created in unnatural ways, including artificial insemination. Bees are also raised on manmade combs with large cell sizes which forces larger bees to grow. These larger bees, in turn, are more susceptible to mites and disease. Honey and beeswax from these treated hives is often contaminated with chemicals, and honey is sometimes  modified still further with sugars and other substances before being sold on store shelves, often without any labeling to this effect. All of these questionable beekeeping practices are exacerbated by outside factors, such as the use of agricultural pesticides and the loss of foraging habitat in general. Huge monocrop fields, other than the few days when they flower, are essentially deserts from a bee’s point of view. While this is the extreme end of the beekeeping spectrum, such practices are all fairly common, and result in weaker and stressed bees.

Weaker bees, in turn, are more likely to succumb to Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which first appeared in 2006 and now occurs around the world, where entire hives of bees just fly away with no warning, and don’t return. CCD seems to be a complex condition caused by multiple factors, but many implicate a class of pesticides called systemics, and, in particular, systemics called neonicotinoids. When these chemicals are applied to young plants, or even seeds before they germinate, the plants continue to carry the pesticide throughout their lives, which seems to have a cumulative and delayed effect on bees that feed on them. Wild pollinators like bumblebees are also suffering, which is evidence that more is going on in the bee world than just the marginal beekeeping practiced by some. (Whether trucking beehives by the hundreds from location to location while feeding them sugar-water is something we should disparage appears to be a matter of some debate. It has indeed worked for decades, but it doesn’t appear to be working well now.)

Aerial pesticide spraying. Pesticide usage has been widely implicated in the decline of both wild and domestic pollinators.

Aerial pesticide spraying. Pesticide usage has been widely implicated in the decline of both wild and domesticated pollinators, especially a class of systemic pesticides called “neonicotinoids”. These chemicals are still legal in the United States, though Oregon acted alone and banned them last summer.

On the other extreme, some beekeepers use natural methods to keep bees in a dramatically different fashion. They use hives and methods that imitate nature, with careful breeding and no outside chemical treatments. These beekeepers cull weak hives and use natural selection to support bees with good genetics that can fight off disease on their own. They harvest only enough honey to keep bees from swarming, and they only feed bees (usually with real, raw honey) in emergencies or when getting a new hive started. They try to use only local stock when breeding, and try to select for genetics for bees that will thrive in a particular area. Their bees gather from a wide variety of blooming plants, throughout the season. (Just as an example, here in Vermont this includes maples and alders in the early spring, then dandelions and fruit trees, then locust, berries and clovers in the early summer, then basswood, alfalfa, and wildflowers a month later. In the fall the season ends with goldenrod.) Even when using all of the best methods, however, beekeepers sometimes still lose their hives, but the incidence of this appears to be far lower. Some organic growers, in fact, currently report almost no problems with mites and some of the other problems that plague more industrial-scale operations.

If you’re interested, here’s the trailer to a good documentary, “Vanishing of the Bees”, a film that presents a good overview of some of the problems, and does so in a fairly balanced way. The film is available on Netflix, and it’s really worth watching.

Differing viewpoints on how bees should be raised are pretty apparent in books on the subject, too. The two books below both seem to adhere strongly to treatment-free, all-natural methods, and I’ve seen the titles to others that do the same. Treatment-free groups such as Backwards Beekeepers also have sites online, with links to much information.

Two books that advocate all-natural beekeeping and breeding methods. Chemical treatments are self-defeating, just as in other areas of agriculture.

Two books that advocate all-natural beekeeping and breeding methods. Chemical treatments often prove to be self-defeating, just as in other areas of agriculture.

So, I might need another hobby like I need a hole in the head, but I think I’m going to get some bees, and I’m going to try to keep them using these all-natural methods. Maybe I can play some small part in helping solve the bee problems, and they should help pollinate everything here from garden veggies to the fruit and nut trees to the berries in the woods. In fact, beekeeping seems to be a perfect fit with nearly all permaculture systems, with their emphasis on many crops being grown simultaneously. I’d like to urge everyone out there to help the bees, too. Even without raising bees of their own, (though bees are commonly kept in towns and cities on rooftops!) people can plant flowers, fruit trees, and other plants that bees use, and, perhaps just as importantly, quit spraying pesticides and herbicides on their lawns (posts: “Leave it a Lawn” and Mr. X’s humorous thoughts in “Mr. X on Lawn Care“.) Our purchasing habits also have an effect. To quote Michael Pollan, “We vote with our dollars three times a day for the kind of world we want to live in, with what we buy to eat, and what we don’t buy.” With regard to bees, buying organic food, or better yet, organic food from smaller local farms (the opposite of large monocultures) has direct consequences on the world the bees live in.

In the end, the problems with these small bees, and the solutions to those problems, are pretty similar to all of the problems and solutions we have with regard to living sustainably on the planet. There is much we can do, but approaching the natural world with a little more humility might be a pretty good place to start.

 Top image credit: US Dept. of Agriculture.
Bee swarm: Creative Commons by Eran Finkle, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/finklez/5661557687. Image has been cropped.
Skeps: Creative Commons by Umbrellahead56, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/55827596.
Crop duster: Creative Commons by Jschladen, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/40769152. Image has been cropped.

And Now for the Hard Part

This is difficult...

This is difficult…

I’m slightly perplexed. I’m almost positive that we can all save the planet (post, “Getting This Figured Out“), and I’d like to live my life in a way that I’ll be doing my part, and in a way that if others were to use me as an example, that we would indeed achieve that goal (though that ideal lifestyle isn’t going to be the same for all people around the world, at least not until we have a lot less inequality on the planet. See post “Pondering Kant“).  But I don’t think I’m quite there, and yet I’ve done most of the easy stuff. I read a question in a book the other week that gets to the heart of the issue—“How much can we expect people to actually change their lifestyles?”. This is a key question, and one that includes me. For example, I’m more than happy to find a way to heat water for our house with solar power. BUT—am I willing to only take a shower every other day in order to save energy or water? (Or, can we all have our cake and eat it too?). Similarly, I can see cutting back on optional travel, but does that mean never getting on a plane again? How much is enough; can we all do what needs to be done without becoming zealots? Or, is zealotry required? And even when we cut back, how do we deal with the fact that, for those of us lucky enough to live in the richer parts of the world, that there might not be enough resources for all seven billion people to live like we do, even after we cut back? How do we solve THAT?

An electric deliver van. Progress...

An electric delivery van. Progress…

So, I’m not sure I have a definitive answer. I suppose that there are several different issues here. First, how far do I need to go to do my part? And, to what degree can we have our cake and eat it too; i.e., could we set the world up so that we can “decouple” our lifestyles from their environmental impact? And to throw in yet another difficulty, the answers to all of these questions are likely to be currently in a state of flux as our world and technologies change. Our economies aren’t decoupled from their environmental impacts, it could be that even with large degrees of change on my own part, that I’m still negatively impacting the planet, because I live and work and consume in a world whose systems aren’t sustainable. Just to use a simple example—to buy a printed book today has water and energy and pollution impacts. But, books being 100% compostable and recyclable, it could be that in the future I could buy a book that was printed on recycled paper, with natural inks in a publishing house powered with renewable energy (RE), and delivered by FedEx in an EV van powered with RE, in such a way that the entire process could be decoupled. I’m not sure there’s a reason that we can’t all eventually have material goods that are created sustainably and can be fully recycled when we’re done with them.

But despite these difficulties in even setting up this question, let me take a stab at it. I think, at a minimum, that I should live in a net-zero house (post, “Net-Zero is Possible“), I should drive electric vehicles and power them with renewable energy, I should avoid consumerism, I should purchase and eat food that is grown or raised in sustainable and/or humane ways, I should recycle and compost and minimize waste, I should invest money that I don’t spend in ways that further these values, and I should spend at least part of my time actively participating in efforts to improve the direction that humanity seems to be heading. And I suppose this list could be even longer (hmmm, and I wrote something like that last year: “Ten Ways to Move in the Right Direction“). But, let’s just keep it short for now. And here’s the point that prompted this whole post—I’ve done most of the easy stuff that pertains here, and I’d say I’m only 2/3 of the way to fulfilling the spirit of even this relatively short list. So here are my thoughts on the easy parts and the hard parts:

The Easy Parts: Well, relatively easy, but for me much of what I’ve done to this point is the low-hanging fruit. Our house is powered by solar and wind, but that was originally (ten years ago) due to the fact that it would cost too much to bring power lines in. We have leased (and really love) the Nissan Leafs, and power them, at least part of the time, with renewable power. But, it hasn’t been a sacrifice in any way, and the Leafs are cheaper than the gas-mobiles. We buy grass-fed beef from a local farmer, we buy local and organic groceries when we can, we have a big garden and fruit trees. But, though some of this food is more expensive than conventionally-produced food, we would probably buy it anyway, for health benefits. And, I’ve “minimized” quite a bit in the last six months. But, far from being a sacrifice, I’ve been able to sell the bigger items, and have quite a bit less clutter in my life overall. I could probably make this paragraph a bit longer, but the basic idea would be the same—the moves I’ve made toward sustainability, to date, haven’t been much of a burden. As I often find myself saying when asked about our off-grid lifestyle, “we live like normal people”.  But, the low-hanging fruit is mostly gone, and now comes the hard part, I think.

Onions from the Bruhl-garden.

Onions from the Bruhl-garden—free food.

The Hard(er) Part: I can illustrate what I’m talking about here by using that same list that I started with–

1.) To get all the way to net-zero at our house, we probably need to bring in the power lines and rewire the systems in the house to be grid-tied. It’s just dramatically more efficient that way (post, “Not Sexy“), and there’s not another way to easily achieve net-zero. But, I’m guessing we’re looking at $15,000 to do it; not pocket change. But, this would save us the gallon of propane we use every day for hot water, and the fuel for the generator in the winter.

2.) As for the electric vehicles, we have them, but they aren’t powered full-time with renewable power. The easiest way to achieve this is also to be grid-tied, and then to add PV capacity to our system. We have 3,000-watts of solar now, and I’m guessing we’d need 2,000 more to fully power both cars. This would be about $4,000, I think, after we were grid-tied, if I did the installation. Again, not really cheap, and not really easy.

3.) Consumerism. I actually think I’m doing ok here.

4.) So, food, since I think I’m doing ok in the consumerism department. I really don’t want to support the factory-farmed meat industry, and I think that in many cases we humans need to eat less meat anyway. Or, we’re going to need to eat less meat in the future, in order for humans to grow enough food to feed our burgeoning population. I have to say, I’m not fully doing my part here. Related, we probably need to source all of our groceries from known entities, in order to support farmers who are moving agriculture in the direction in needs to be moved in. That’s going to take some time and effort. To really achieve this, we’d have to cook nearly everything. We already cook a lot, and further moves in this direction will take up more time in the week.

5.) Recycling, composting, and minimizing waste. Two things stand out here— we should be moving toward a zero-trash household, and we shouldn’t be wasting food. Both require thought, effort, and self-discipline. We currently do better than most with regard to trash; we might make one bag of trash a week after recycling and composting. Not too bad for a family of five. But, there’s room for improvement there, though I haven’t studied that one. Not wasting food is something that we do know how to do, but it’s something that we have to pay more attention to. When the whole family is busy, the tasty and easy-to-prepare food gets eaten first, and the leftovers get bypassed. If we’re not careful, fruits and veggies go bad and end up in the compost, or leftovers end up in the trash. It’s not hard to not waste food, but it takes (like everything else) a bit of discipline.

6.) Investing in responsible ways. We do save a chunk of our incomes every month, and that money does get invested in run-of-the-mill retirement accounts and mutual funds, but the problem here is a lack of knowledge about how to do it differently. I’ve known this for awhile (one of my first posts, “The Environmental Paradox of Thrift“), but haven’t had time to pursue it. Our energy co-op is hosting a workshop on this topic next week; I’ll be attending.

7.) Participate actively. And, I also think I’m doing ok here.

So, there you have it; my challenge to myself. Not super easy. On the plus side, most of these items, if completed, have a monetary payoff. This is worth a few sentences here—achieving net-zero by grid-tying the house would have a payoff, though I need to run some more specific numbers. My guess is a return on investment in about 10 years. After that, powering the cars with solar would also pay off in about the same period of time (because we don’t currently pay for some of the electricity that we charge them with, the payoff stretches out here). Reducing consumption has an immediate monetary effect. Changing the source of our food is probably a net wash (organic and local food is more expensive, but cooking more instead of eating out or buying processed food is cheaper), though improved health is probably priceless. Trash reduction has a very small monetary payoff, but reducing food waste might add up to more savings than I would guess. And, lastly, investing in sustainable ways probably has about the same returns as my current investments. All together, however, while “hard”, I’d come out with more money in the long run if I did all of the things on my list.

Fast food---probably not a good option most of the time.

Fast food—probably not a good option, most of the time.

Lastly, it has struck me about how we all trade money for convenience. This isn’t always bad (I could go to a local restaurant and buy local food, and support the economy while enjoying a healthy meal), but it often is, either in terms of health (processed food for supper, paying for gas instead of riding a bike) or in terms of the environment (using the plastic bags at the grocery store instead of bringing the reusable ones) or both (eating a less-healthy fast-food meal that is served in lots of disposable paper, plastic, and foam). So, it could be that with a dose of self-discipline, that I could be wealthier, healthier, AND more sustainable. Not a bad thing to work toward; I’ll let you know how it goes.

Top image credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Alexindigo, http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexindigo/2572565946/sizes/z/.
Delivery van: Creative Commons, Gruenemann, http://www.flickr.com/photos/gruenemann/4382677367/sizes/z/. Image has been cropped.
Fast food meal: Flickr Creative Commons, El Gran Dee, http://www.flickr.com/photos/elgrandee/1811933063.

Never as Simple as it Seems

Inefficient cooking fires for 500 million--- a tough problem to solve.

Inefficient and unhealthy cooking fires are used by 500 million people around the world— it’s a tough problem to solve.

In my last post, I discussed (among other things) the fascinating potential benefits of highly-efficient micro-gasification stoves, and the potential agricultural and climate benefits of using the char they produce as a soil amendment. There seems to be tremendous promise in the basic idea—around the world, 500 million of the world’s poorest people cook on inefficient stoves that burn biomass, usually wood or charcoal, and they often cook on them indoors, which creates horrible indoor-air quality and related health problems. The new stoves are relatively cheap, and they are efficient, burning 40-50% less fuel than a traditional “three rocks and a pot” cooking setup. They can also burn a wide variety of biomass, including agricultural wastes and dung. This could reduce pressure on forests, and could reduce or eliminate traditional charcoal production, which is highly polluting. The stoves also release dramatically fewer harmful particulates and other emissions into the air.

Tanzanian woman cooking with a Philips, fan-assisted micro-gasification stove 2009.

Tanzanian woman cooking with a fan-assisted micro-gasification stove, in 2009. Such stoves could help save the world?

The good news doesn’t seem to stop here—the stoves produce charcoal that can be applied to gardens or agricultural land as “biochar”, which improves water and nutrient retention, improves the workability of soils, and improves yields. AND, the carbon in biochar is in a chemical form that is “recalcitrant”, and therefore stays in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years, which effectively removes it from the carbon cycle, which, if practiced by millions upon millions of people, could reduce atmospheric carbon and help ameliorate global warming.

What’s not to love? But despite the fact that improved, inexpensive cookstoves have been around for decades, and have been supported by groups such as the United Nations, the Global Alliance for Clean Stoves, WorldStove, and the World Health Organization, they haven’t fully caught on in the developing world. The biochar addition to this whole idea is a newer one, and groups that promote it appear to encountering glitches as they try to implement a biochar system, despite its promise. It’s a case, it seems, of things never being quite as simple as they seem at first glance.

This can be seen in an interesting study of the effectiveness of one such program to help poorer families in Cambodia and India adopt both the new stoves and the use of biochar—“Biochar Stoves: An Innovation Studies Perspective“. Written by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, it tracked the use of several different stove designs in a variety of real-world contexts in 2010 and 2011, and studied many aspects of the improved-stove and biochar ideas. As it turns out, in the real world a wide variety of obstacles prevented the stoves from quite fulfilling their potential. The study is over seventy pages long, but here are some of the salient points—

— Not all the stoves make char. Some, like the TLUD (Top-Lit Up-Draft) stoves, make char, but have to be stopped at the right time, or the char combusts completely into ash. To get the char, they either have to be quenched with water or dumped out at the right time in the burning process. Both methods appear to be cumbersome in the real world, as one might imagine. Of all of the stoves, the Anila designs, in which biomass is loaded into an outer ring where it pyrolizes, made the most char. But, the Anila stoves work even if you skip the step of loading the outer ring, and it seems many families did skip this step, probably because they didn’t see the value in burning extra wood just to make char.

— When char was produced, it wasn’t always applied to the soil as biochar. Char (charcoal) is a valuable product in the developing world; something that can be burned or sold. Many families did just that, and burned the char in charcoal stoves, or sold it to others for that purpose. To take something that was worth money and till it into the soil, despite promised benefits, didn’t seem to always catch on. Some argue that this is exactly why we need to put a price on sequestering carbon, to bring market forces to bear on this issue, but others, such as Biofuelwatch, argue that this is exactly the danger we should fear—a world where the burning up of trees becomes profitable. In a world of shrinking forests, I can’t exactly say that I feel that the fears of Biofuelwatch are misplaced. It’s a tricky issue.

— There were cultural obstacles. The new stoves didn’t always fit into the cultural regimes that governed cooking and gender roles. Sometimes this was due to how the fuel was obtained, other times it was something as simple as the height of the stove. For cultures where cooking is done from a squatting position, some of the stoves were just too tall (many designs work better with a short stack on top of them, which increases the chimney effect). This one surprised me, it’s one of those unexpected items one wouldn’t normally anticipate.

— The “energy ladder” often means that the whole idea of a biomass stove that produces char has limited appeal. This one also surprised me, but made perfect sense once I thought about it. Here’s a chart from the World Health Organization—

The "Energy Ladder"

The bottom line here is that what many of the families REALLY wanted was a propane or natural gas stove. And once families have them, they have no real desire to “revert” to a stove that burns biomass, even if the biomass stoves were cheaper or could produce other benefits.

A version of a rocket stove, an improvement over an open fire. Rocket stoves are easier to cook on than biochar producing stoves, but don't produce any char.

A version of a rocket stove, an improvement over an open fire. Rocket stoves are easier to cook on than biochar producing stoves, but don’t produce any char.

— The biochar stoves were often harder to cook on. Though the stoves may be more efficient than other improved stoves (like rocket-stoves), they are fueled in batches, at the beginning of a cooking cycle, which makes them more difficult to use. In addition, the study found that it is difficult to increase or decrease the heat on most of the biochar stove designs, which is something a rocket stove can do well.

— The use of biochar was effective as a soil amendment, but not overwhelmingly so. The explanation for this doesn’t seem to be in this particular study, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, biochar needs to be “loaded up” with nutrients before it is applied to fields, because it is so absorptive that it actually will capture nutrients from the soil if applied directly to the soil in quantity. This biochar preparation can be done, for example, by adding the char to organic materials as they compost, and then adding the compost to agricultural soils. The study found improved yields from the methods that were employed, but not in all cases, and they conclude that more study needs to be done.

The Istovu, a modern rocket stove, in action.

The Istovu, a modern rocket stove, in action. This stove is promoted by the organization Cookstoves for Africa.

All of this is a bit sobering, and might be a reminder that just because something sounds like a good idea, that it doesn’t mean that it’s workable. There are still plenty of solutions to all of these stove-related problems, such as the pelletization of grass crops for fuel, or improved stove designs, or more education and research about the benefits of biochar. But what I really wonder is whether the whole effort is a Band-aid, when we might be needing a tourniquet. The average poor person in the developing world has something like 1/20th of the climate impact of someone in the United States or the industrialized world (good Tom Murphy post, “The Real Population Problem“). Americans and other citizens of the wealthy world can (and do) choose to eat lots of meat, drive big vehicles, power up their hot-tubs, and run their air conditioners, and the consequences of these actions dwarf those of the world’s poor trying to cook a meal.

It seems we have met the enemy, and he is us.

Top image credit and Energy Ladder graphic: World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/indoorair/publications/fflsection1.pdf.
Tanzanian woman image: Frank van der Vleeten, Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/elfrank70/3738409967.
Rocket stove image: David Mellis, Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mellis/3739041269.
Istovu image: Cookstoves for Africa, Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cookstovesforafrica/8539440230

Terra Preta. Who Knew?

Ideas to consider.

Many ideas to consider.

“All the world’s problems can be solved in the garden.” –Geoff Lawton, permaculture pioneer.

I just read “The Biochar Solution”, by Albert Bates. I’m not sure I can fully recommend it, as his argument strikes me as a bit scattered and slightly less than incisive. BUT, that being said, there’s an awful lot to consider here, and an amazing number of things that I’d never heard of before. Terra preta? Salt-water greenhouses that distill fresh water from the air? The UN’s Billion Tree program? Step-harvesting? Pre-Columbian Amazonian cultures that rivaled the Inca and Aztec? So while I don’t feel inclined to uncritically endorse all of his ideas, the topics in the book are fascinating, and they have added some nuance to both my vision of ideal agriculture and to potential solutions to the world’s CO2 problem.

Here’s his idea in a nutshell (it’s kind of hard to summarize, the flip side of good storytelling could be called “rambling”). First, Spanish explorers in the mid-16th century, forced by privation to descend the entire length of the Amazon from the Peru side, encountered tremendous Amazonian civilizations that were built in harmony with nature, and whose farming was based on the intentional improvement of the soil by making a form of charcoal and plowing it into the earth to transform thin Amazonian soils into rich “terra preta” soils, with depths in some places of many feet.

Terra_Preta wikimedia by Rsukiennik

Terra preta, or “dark earth”, soil on the right. Such soils were created through human activity over millennia.

These “garden cities” and the surrounding countryside in Amazonia may have supported a population of 30 million or more, according to Bates. Then came the plague of diseases from the Old World, brought by the Europeans, which decimated American native populations with such rapidity that they lost virtually their entire culture, in addition to 99% or more of their populations. All of that incredibly rich soil, now abandoned, was very rapidly overgrown with jungle trees and vegetation, to such an amazing degree that it sucked so much carbon out of the air that it cause the Little Ice Age of the 17th and 18th century. Bates holds that the Amazonian methods were an exception to the story of agriculture as it has been practiced in virtually every other civilization and time (including our own), whereby the agricultural methods are ultimately so destructive to the soil that the environmental underpinnings of the civilizations fail, causing collapse. (Related post– “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“). He extrapolates further from this, and writes that not only can the methods be revived and used again, but that the intentional “farming” of carbon can actually stabilize or even reverse climate change, if fossil fuel use can be brought under control.

Quite fascinating. All of this is plausible, if not completely proven. Recent scientific inquiry, much of it in just the last few years, seems to concur with his position on pre-Columbian Amazonian civilizations, though there isn’t full consensus on the issue. (A few articles– Scientific American, “Lost Garden Cities: Pre-Columbian Life in the Amazon“, and The Washington Post, “Scientists Find Evidence Discrediting Idea that Amazon was Virtually Unlivable“.) Terra preta soils certainly exist, and apparently, even under the lowest estimates, cover thousands of square miles of Amazonia. Analysis has concluded that these soils were definitely created by human activity. Whether that activity was intentional or not is apparently also debated, some (like Bates) holding that it was clearly intentional, others that it was more an inadvertent result of normal kitchen fires and wastes and varied forms of slash-and-burn agriculture. As to whether reforestation in the Americas helped trigger the Little Ice Age, some researchers do seem to feel that it was a contributing factor, and perhaps a major one. (Stanford article here.) If this was indeed true, then it would lend credence to Bates’ ideas that a concerted effort to sequester carbon—to remove it from the natural carbon cycle—would have a similar effect, and could reverse or stabilize global warming. Again, there are experts in all of these fields who would agree, but there are certainly others who would argue about the particulars.

A 45-minute-long BBC production entitled “The Secret of El Dorado”, that touches on most of the topics in this post. It’s more even-handed than Bates’ book, and fairly convincing—

At the root of this entire story is charcoal, or, in the parlance of enthusiasts, “biochar”. (Biochar being charcoal that is contaminant-free and therefore useful as a soil amendment). To make charcoal, woody materials or other biomass is exposed to heat in the absence of oxygen, where they off-gas volatile compounds (“wood gas”) in a process known as pyrolization. The gasses can be burned, and if this off-gassing process is allowed to continue the original fuel remains behind as nearly-pure carbon, or charcoal. Cultures around the world have made charcoal for millennia, and many still do so today for use as fuel, and particularly for use as cooking fuel. But, if that charcoal is added to soil as an amendment, it effectively sequesters the carbon it contains, because the carbon in biochar is chemically “recalcitrant”, or resistant to change (as opposed to “labile” carbon, which is what most of the carbon in soils typically is, in humus and other plant matter). As such, it can remain unchanged in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years (and the existence today of these black soils, 500 years after Columbus, certainly seems to give evidence of this). Combining this form of carbon sequestration with afforestation (planting trees), and the raising of carbon levels in soils as a function of organic farming and/or permaculture could measurably reduce atmospheric carbon. According to Bates and others, the idea of actively sequestering carbon in this way could save humanity from rising global temperatures.

Charcoal vendor, Zambia, 2009. Environmental groups around the world report charcoal production as a major pressure on forests.

Charcoal vendor, Zambia, 2009. Environmental groups around the world report charcoal production as a major pressure on forests.

Bates isn’t alone, apparently there are whole groups that exist to promote biochar and related forms of carbon sequestration, such as the “International Biochar Initiative“. One huge proponent is Nathaniel Mulcahy, founder of WorldStove, (oddly pictorial website here). His organization makes simple pyrolizing cookstoves for poor people around the world (their tagline is “A Million Stoves”). The stoves burn cleanly and help avoid the soot inhalation that kills up to four million people every year, they are efficient, and, they produce biochar. (Apparently their high efficiency makes up for the fact that some of the potential energy in the fuel remains as charcoal). When the charcoal is used as a soil amendment (or better yet, first used in composting toilets and then as a soil amendment) then the use of the stove actually becomes carbon negative, as long as the fuel was sustainably harvested.

Rural outdoor kitchen, of an inefficient design.

Rural outdoor stove, of an inefficient design. Smoke inhalation from such stoves that are used indoors contributes to the death of over 4 million people a year.

If millions used these efficient stoves, they could potentially improve the health, sanitation, and food production of poor people around the world, and sequester carbon at the same time. It’s a pretty bold vision, and Mulcahy and his company are active in poor regions around the world, including Haiti after the earthquake of 2010. Below is a video demonstration of a stove like the ones the company makes. This one is “homemade”; the precision parts of the factory-built stoves burn even cleaner, with a nearly invisible blue flame. Once the stove gets to operating temperature, it is wood-gas that is burning, as the woody fuel pyrolizes—

Not all environmental groups agree with the vision of the biochar proponents. One such group is Biofuelwatch, a UK-based group that opposes most large-scale uses of biofuel, fearing for the safety of both forests and natural areas, and of the rural peoples who live there. Charcoal production already puts pressure on forests around the world, and I can understand their fear of what might happen if biochar as a soil amendment was given international sanction as a measurable carbon offset. Biochar proponents, however, point to the tremendous amounts of agricultural wastes that exist worldwide, such as rice straw, that could be utilized without any negative effect on forests.

In the end, as with everything else, the truth is often nuanced and far from the extremes. IF the source fuel for biochar was gathered sustainably, the use of biochar in agriculture seems to fit in very well with sustainable paths forward. As the world (hopefully) switches to regenerative, sustainable permaculture of the type espoused by Mark Shepard and others, huge amounts of carbon will be captured and stored in the trees and soils of these systems. According to Mark Shepard, these systems also produce more woody biomass, in the form of nut shells, pruned and coppiced wood, etc., than can generally be used. Such waste biomass would be perfectly suited for biochar production, and the resulting amendments could be added to the soil during keyline plowing or during planting operations.

One last video, if you’re interested—small-scale production of biochar. Pretty amazing, note the near absence of smoke once the kiln reaches gasification temperature—

So, I’m not sure that you need to read the book. But, you do need to add the word “biochar” to your vocabulary, and we all need to keep it in mind as perhaps an important part of new permaculture systems, and perhaps even, if Bates is correct, as a carbon sequestration option that might help “save humanity”.

 Terra preta image: Rsukiennik, Wikimedia Commons.
Charcoal vendor image: CIFOR; Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/45423546.
Rural kitchen image: CIFOR; Creative Commons at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cifor/8620660813.

Accidental Permaculture

Perennial joy.

Perennial joy.

“I am an old man, and yet a young gardener.” —Thomas Jefferson.

It was a not-so-stellar garden year (though it was my own fault), but in the end it turned out fine, due to some accidental permaculture. Let me explain…

Despite a very wet spring, I got the garden in. We have ten or eleven raised beds, most of them 4 x 12 feet. I planted them per my usual rotation pattern, with potatoes, onions, tomatoes, beans, and other typical vegetables, all annuals. But, then I got busy, and for one reason after another, I didn’t spend much time in the garden all summer long. It was a vicious cycle—too little time in the garden equated to not enough compost, which in turn equated to me not mulching much, which made the grass and weeds worse. To make a long story shorter, the lack of attention resulted in smaller potato, onion, and bean harvests than normal. For example, with beans we plant mostly pole beans, but I never even got the poles up, so the beans had to do the best they could, a few managing to climb the sunflower stalks, but most intertwining with each other until they were a tangled and decidedly not-elevated mess.

But, here comes the perennial wonder—despite my gardening inadequacies, the perennial crops planted over the years all went gangbusters; bumper crops all around. First came asparagus in the spring. The long asparagus bed that began seven years ago as a single row of shoots has spread, and we were picking a huge bundle nearly every day. Then came the horseradish greens, irrepressible even crowded with heavy grass. Then came the peaches in mid-summer; bumper crops on our 6-year-old Reliance trees, juicy and plump and heavenly on a hot day. Then the four grape vines, planted four years ago, became loaded with fruit and kept it through an incredibly long picking window, perhaps eight weeks or more. Then the apples in the wild apple in the yard; more than I’ve ever seen. Thousands, all on one large tree. Finally, the hickory trees were having a mast year, and my son and I have picked up thousands, all from two large trees in the yard. (I went up into the woods to see the hickories there, but the critters had absconded with nearly every nut, leaving only the husks behind. I think the dogs inadvertently protect the ones that fall in the yard.)

Hickory nuts a'plenty.

Hickory nuts a’plenty.

Hickory nuts---the hammer works the best.

Hickory nuts—the hammer works the best.

All of this on top of rosemary, sage, chives, and other herbs that either over-winter or re-seed themselves.

Now, we planted all of these before I started reading and writing about “permaculture”. But now that we have them, they help prove some of the concepts I’ve been reading about. The food we got from these perennials was, essentially, labor-free except for the harvesting.

Great little permaculture video that I linked to on the Sustainable Us facebook page

permaculture capture

As I’ve written before, this sort of permaculture makes the mono-cropping of annuals look like mountaintop coal removal by comparison. The genetic diversity, the resilience, the wildlife habitat, the soil-building capability, the erosion protection, the permanence, and so much more make these permaculture systems, in my opinion, a critical part of our path forward. I’m excited about my little corner of that future permaculture world, and am eagerly awaiting spring so that I can dig in the dirt again. And that part is nothing new, but perhaps my dirt-digging can be put to better effect with permaculture design in mind.

Top image credit: kakisnow / 123RF Stock Photo

The Role of Self-Sufficiency

Farmer in Andra Pradesh, India.

Subsistence farming in Andra Pradesh, India.

Ever wonder where the phrase “dirt poor” comes from? It might have come from describing someone who farms at a subsistence level. Non-mechanized (or even partially mechanized) subsistence farmers are “dirt-poor” the world over, and have been throughout history. From medieval times, to the rural Inca in the 16th century, to many North Korean farmers today, such lifestyles, despite generations of handed-down expertise and skill, barely produce enough food for families to survive. As such, nearly everyone in such societies is scraping by as a poor farmer; production is so low that only a small fraction of the society can be supported in non-farming endeavors.

So, this is the underlying economic fact that caused me write my original (and now mostly deleted) post about Ben Falk’s book. Falk seems to be striving to achieve a large degree of self-sufficiency, and has created, with much labor, a beautiful natural area that provides him with much of his food, shelter, and fuel; a place of great biodiversity and low environmental impacts.

Thus the conundrum—how do we make sense of these two things that both seem true? Are lifestyles such as Falk’s a good thing, enriching the earth and producing food and fuel in largely carbon-free, organic, diverse, resilient, and natural ways? Or are they a mistaken path in the wrong direction, undertaken with the best of intentions but with a faulty view of the “big picture”, a path that feels right and yet would utterly fail to provide a “way out” of humanity’s conundrum, due to low productivity per unit of labor? Or, does minimizing one’s interactions with the economy slow the system but not change its direction, as I concluded in “The Environmental Paradox of Thrift”?

On one hand, there is still an efficiency penalty to be a jack-of-all-trades (which is what moves toward self-sufficiency require). Such lifestyles can be rewarding and interesting and meaningful, but they aren’t typically highly productive; that part of self-sufficient agriculture hasn’t changed. (They can be highly productive in terms of net-output per area of land, but not usually in terms of output per unit of labor). And, because none of us can be completely self-sufficient, we still end up interacting with the “outside world” and participating, indirectly, in modern production. If that larger system is on a negative track, then such participation spurs it on in that direction. Again, it was this line of thinking is what resulted in my original post about Ben Falk’s book.

It's hard to beat the efficiency and productivity (and wealth creation) of specialization and economies of scale.

It’s hard to beat the efficiency and productivity (and wealth creation) of specialization and economies of scale.

But, after much contemplation, I believe I have figured out how lifestyles like Ben Falk’s fit into the big scheme of things. In short, I think I have figured out the role of self-sufficiency.

To explain, I have to backtrack just a bit, to the issue of decoupling. If you need it, here’s a quick refresher on the concept—economic activity typically causes corresponding levels of damage to the environment, through pollution or habitat destruction or resource consumption, etc. With increased efficiency, and as we move toward circular systems, we can begin to have less and less impact on the environment per unit of economic activity; we can “decouple”. If the total damage is getting smaller, even as the economy grows, then this is referred to as “absolute decoupling” (as opposed to “relative decoupling”, where we’re doing better, but damage is still growing as the economy grows). The ideal end result here—a world where we have completely separated economic activity from any environmental impacts.

In real life, I don’t think there’s any way we could actually achieve this “ideal end result”, our very existence is dependent on the planet and its resources. Until we can live underground or in outer space and create our products with power from fusion and with minerals mined from asteroids, it just isn’t going to happen (read that “it just isn’t going to happen”). And right now, we aren’t even coming close; most of the time we’re lucky to even achieve some relative decoupling, so the damage that humans are wreaking on the planet is growing steadily, right along with growth in the economy and population. A new study by the University of South Wales confirms this, concluding that “All industrialized nations show the same typical picture over time . . . resource use has grown in parallel  to GDP with no sign of decoupling. This is true for the USA, UK, Japan, EU27  and OECD.” (italics mine.)

So, back to my point—because we can’t truly decouple, virtually all economic activity has, and will have, negative environmental effects. And because this is true, we have to quit growing the economy (and the population, if at all possible). That ideal economic growth of three percent a year is exponential, and we live on a finite planet; it just can’t continue. (Good post by Tom Murphy about the 1972 book  “The Limits to Growth”.) Economists call this a “steady-state economy”. I’m not sure how this will work, the books I’ve read about it are not completely convincing. But two related things seem clear to me—we will need to be able to work fewer hours, and productivity improvements will continue to make human labor less important (automation already seems to be outrunning economic growth, resulting in persistent unemployment).

The (dire) computer models in this book still appear predictive, after forty years.

The (dire) computer models in this book still appear predictive, after forty years.

So, here’s where we get back to self-sufficiency—if we’re slowing consumption, and slowing the economy, and if there is more and more automation, we all need, or will be able, to work less. And in this free time, in addition to hiking and biking and having time to read, we can all garden and practice these permaculture methods. Such self-production is decoupled, to a large degree. Your part-time production of food or fuel might not be efficient in terms of labor output, but because the activities are decoupled, they will be a net-positive in terms of the degree to which systems are decoupled, system-wide. A bushel of peaches, picked from the tree in your yard that didn’t need fertilized, peaches that didn’t have to transport across the country—this production is nearly completely decoupled. Every item you grow or gather on your own tends to reduce pressure on the system.

I actually think this is something close to the ideal—we all keep our “day jobs”, (production of goods and services that is highly productive and efficient), at reduced hours, and we spend big chunks of our free time actually repairing the planet and producing in ways that might not be as efficient, but are largely decoupled.

Continue reading

Backward and Forward

(Note– I’m deleting nearly everything that I wrote in this post, including the comments; my conversations with Ben Falk and others have caused me to rethink my ideas about the topics in the book. What remains is the much shorter version. -tb)

(Note #2-– I discuss my “rethinking” in a later post, “The Role of Self-Sufficiency“. )

More about nuclear power soon; I’m making progress. But first, since I was just discussing efficiency, a short review of this new book about permaculture that I just bought—”The Resilient Farm and Homestead”, by Ben Falk.

Ben Falk bookFalk’s farm and property, a focus of the book, is just over the mountain from me, in Moretown, Vermont. The book is beautiful, and focuses on how to design and build a largely self-sufficient, regenerative, resilient, rural homestead. From fish and duck ponds, to nut trees, heating water with compost, herbal medicines, gravity-fed water systems, mowing with scythes, and all matter of activities in between, this book is a pleasure to read, and a valuable addition to my library. Along with Mark Shepard’s “Restoration Agriculture”, it presents quite a complete range of permaculture topics.

 

 

Needed: The Hard Path

Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee.

Vermont Yankee is closing. While I normally have no real shortage of opinions on many issues, I don’t really have an opinion about this one.

If you aren’t aware, Vermont Yankee is an aging, 540-megawatt reactor in Vernon, Vermont, on the banks of the Connecticut River. It has been a lightning rod for those who oppose nuclear power in the Northeast, and the site of numerous spills, leaks, and small mishaps (though many would argue that opponents regularly make mountains out of molehills whenever this particular plant is concerned). The drive to shut it down has moved to the courts, and the battles there are ongoing. But, in the midst of this, low U.S. natural gas prices (themselves largely the result of another controversial arena, fracking) seem to have sealed Yankee’s fate, and owner Entergy just announced that the plant will be closed next year.

And here the mixed feelings begin. On one hand, nuclear power plants seem vulnerable to terrorism, have the potential to wreak havoc on huge areas (think Fukushima, Chernobyl), use fuel that is non-renewable and difficult to extract, and produce waste that is problematic. On the other hand, they have, on the whole, solid safety records, small footprints, and produce carbon-free power. Then, there is even more potential benefit when you move beyond considering just current reactors (so-called “Generation II” and “Generation III” reactors) and look at newer designs that could be built to shut themselves down if things go wrong, or, like fast-breeder-reactors, use fuel much more efficiently. (A good Time Magazine article here.)

If CO2 emissions and the resulting warming are serious problems, and if the energy in fossil fuels is difficult to replace with renewable power (posts: “A Matter of Limits” and “The Magic-Wand Question“), then nuclear power might, just perhaps, be a big part of the solution. More than a few former critics of nuclear power have come to this conclusion, and have become supporters. A recently released documentary by Robert Stone, “Pandora’s Promise”, focuses on some of these individuals. Trailer–

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint, and the reviews of the film have been mixed. Brian Walsh of Time, whose opinion I tend to respect, feels that it is important, and writes that it should be seen, especially by environmentalists. Others are more critical. I haven’t seen the film yet, but I get the gist of it.

So all of this gives me some things to ponder.

First, some issues are just complex and difficult to be definitive about, issues where all-or-nothing pronouncements tend to be intellectually dishonest. I’d put nuclear power into this group, along with fracking and GMOs. All are problematic, yet all have the potential to be part of the solution.

Second, there is the issue of whether R&D money put into nuclear power wouldn’t be better spent elsewhere. The “promise” of nuclear power hasn’t been fully realized; newer “Gen IV” designs are not ready to go into full production, and much investment would be required. These billions might be better spent doing research on permaculture, or utility scale storage, or any of a thousand other needed efforts.

But third, call me crazy, but we need the curtailment that will come with switching to renewables. It will impose self-discipline; the comparative scarcity of this power will force efficiency and conservation. Humanity has huge problems in addition to energy, like deforestation and pollution and overfishing and groundwater depletion, and many of these can only be solved by reducing the human footprint on the planet (at least until we decouple; see post “Free Lunch and the Holy Grail“); which will require true paradigm shifts with regard to human behavior. If by some miracle we could actually provide what the nuclear supporters of the 70’s envisioned, “electricity too cheap to meter”, I’m afraid it would just allow humanity to plow ahead with profligate wastefulness and business-as-usual.

So in the end, perhaps I do have an opinion. I’m afraid, though, that it is an opinion that might not be popular. Hard paths never are. We must be disciplined, we must be focused, and if we are going to work hard, we might as well think big, and work toward a planet powered by clean, renewable power, with reduced consumption and a reduced focus on material things; a world of wind turbines, solar panels, permaculture, highly-efficient buildings, and more intentional living. That’s the clean, safe, healthy future we need.

 Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ramifications

Wine--better for the planet?

Wine–better for the planet?

I’ve been pondering my last post,  about how perennial agriculture might save the planet. Or restoration agriculture, or agroforestry, or forest gardens; whatever you want to call it. I am pretty sure that the broad outlines of this idea are correct—we’re going to need some sort of polyculture for more symbiotic and diverse agricultural systems, and the use of perennials that only have to be planted once will help to save soil and energy, and all of the other positives I wrote about the other day. Extrapolating out from this results in some interesting ramifications, however. For example—wine or tea would be a better environmental choice than beer or soda, all else being equal. Wine is made from perennial plantings of long-lived vines, and tea from the leaves of trees, whereas beer is typically made from wheat or barley or some other annual grain, from fields that are tilled, with all the resulting soil erosion, fertilizer inputs, water contamination, fossil fuel use, etc., and soda is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, which is made with corn from similar fields in production facilities powered with coal. Likewise, a snack of nuts would end up being better for the planet than a bag of chips, maple syrup or honey better than cane sugar or high-frustose corn syrup, grapes or apples better than melons or cucumbers.

This also adds yet another notch in favor of grass-fed beef, which I already think is a good environmental and health choice. Properly-grazed fields improve the soil, and the meat from grass-fed beef has a nutritional profile more like wild game, which can’t be said for high-fat meat from grain-fed beef. But, grass pasture is also a perennial—such pasture doesn’t have to be tilled and sprayed or fertilized (the cattle do the fertilizing part all on their own). This perennial aspect only broadens the difference, in my mind, between grass-fed beef and your typical factory-farmed, grain-fed beef. One is good for the planet and reduced energy usage, the other a disaster. The same would hold true for cheese made from grass-fed cows, like that made by Steve Getz of Dancing Cow Farm in Bridport, Vermont. (photos, short article here), compared to cheese made with milk from confined dairy operations.

But, then I had to curb my enthusiasm. I’m not sure there are any hard-and-fast rules here. Even the restoration agriculture proponents grow some annual crops in the alleys between the trees. Plus, I garden organically in slightly-raised beds where the soil is mulched, and I guarantee that I lose zero topsoil in the process, nor do I have any other negative aspects. In fact, with mulch and compost, there’s no doubt that my soil improves every year.

Organic tomatoes--annual crops.

Organic tomatoes–annual crops.

So, it is too soon damn all annuals by definition, or to denounce beer as bad for the planet. A more nuanced view might be called for here. Perhaps this—organic is good, perennials are good, any farming where sustainabilily and the humane treatment of animals is a priority is good, and we need to buy our food, when we can, from people who produce it this way. Typically, this means buying from nearby, where you can go see for yourself. And, as always, it is good to support these operations with your dollars— Continue reading

An Important Piece of the Puzzle

“[The planting of crops that are annuals] destroys topsoil. Period.” –Mark Shepard, in “Restoration Agriculture”.

Replacement needed.

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.

restoration ag coverBut 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