Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A look at sustainability

Sustainability is something we work on at our farm everyday. So far it has been pretty elusive, pretty hard to define, a quest rather than a destination. We are lucky in many ways in our quest. First, we are lucky to be able to pursue such a quest. Second, our farm is wedged between two very different models of production so we get to see other possibilities without having to try them all ourselves. Here’s some of what I’ve noticed about my neighbors and their production approach.

Across the road and up the hill from my farm is a collection of fields that have been abandon by the owner. She still owns them, and maintains fences, etc. but no active use is made or management is inflicted in the space. Nature manages as She sees fit. In the past almost five years the fields have changed from mown grass to new forest. I did a species count on my farm (identical to the fields on the other side of the road when we moved in 5 years ago) and we had an average of 12 different plant species per square yard. I haven’t crossed the road and measured, but from my side of the road I can see at least 20 more species, closely spaced in the fields. These are “weed trees, shrubs, and forbs” that no one would allow to grow on their property. I’ve also noticed an increase in the number of birds, and the diversity of bird species seen on both sides of the road. More things are blooming over there so the pollinators have more food and habitat. The varieties of plants is greater and the animals and insects that use them for food or shelter has increased. Over all (with out doing an exact count) I’d say there are twice as many species thriving per square meter. This is without management and will continue into the future until there is some cataclysmic (a very abrupt and RARE occurrence) event that disrupts life. Even then the system would just start over where it was and would quickly fill every conceivable nook with burgeoning life.

Across the fence on the other side of the farm is an 80 acre field of soy beans. It is in a corn, corn, soy bean rotation. Low till methods are used with GPS pinpointed fertilizer applications and every current application being applied to reduce inputs and increase outputs. It produces a lot and the farmers who manage it make a pretty good living. There are three species of plant living in the field (if you count some of the edges). Soy beans, one variety of grass that the spray hasn’t killed yet, and cockle burrs. Nothing else lives. There are a lot of Mexican Bean Beatles (between sprayings), a few birds, and lots of ground hogs. My chickens won’t even go over there now (they did in the early spring until the spraying started again.)

From a sustainability measure it is hard to say which system works. The farm field theoretically produce more human food (except you can’t eat any of it with out processing the life out of it). The other field supports more life. From my perspective the abandon field is a more sustainable system. It is dependant on nothing from outside it’s own community of life. Every resource there stays there and is recycled into food for other community members. The farm field fails as soon as the inputs stop. In 10 years or so it would start to be like the field across the road, but it would be a long slow process to overcome all the chemicals and destruction of life systems that have happened over the past 50 years.

My farm is wedged in between. This is a physical thing, but also a philosophical thing. I can’t live on the production of either field. But I know the natural space is more sustainable. Trying to build systems that utilize the same natural processes while producing the things I need is my challenge. Finding the key could save our species on this planet. It’s much better than questing for the Holy Grail (but it probably won’t make a great movie.)
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