Thursday, October 21, 2010

Agriculture and a new mind

What would agriculture look like if was governed by the same fundamental rules that govern the rest of the living things on this planet?
• The process of growing food would build topsoil.
• Everything needed to produce food would come from that place – nutrients, water, energy, etc.
• Everything would be returned to that place – all the “waste” from producing the food, and all the “waste” from consuming the food would be returned in a way that it continued the soil building/life building process.
It seems pretty simple, until you test current agriculture/food production/waste management systems against these rules. Then it’s not so simple.

My neighbor farms. I farm. When I look out the window I can see bits of both as well as the wooded hillside on the other side of the neighbor’s field. For my part of the world this pretty much sums up the current agricultural practices.

Neighbor farms about 1000 acres. He grows corn and soy beans in rotation. He produces about 150 tons of corn per acre (that’s 150000 tons of corn) or about 47 tons of soybeans per acre (47000 tons of soy). Right now his farm looks like this…

acres of desolation

My farm is 5 acres. We have about 3 ½ acres in production. Each year we produce about 6400 lbs of milk, 1000 dozen eggs, 825 lbs of meat, and 780 lbs of salad greens, and enough fruit and vegetables for our family and to give away to our friends. We produce no grain. Right now our farm looks like this…



                                       Our Farm %    Neighbor Farm %
Build topsoil                        90 %                        2%
Own Nutrients                    80%                          0
Own Water                        70%                         100%
Own Energy                       20%                          0
Production Waste               90%                         90%
Utilization Waste                50%                           0

So, my farm's sustainable and the neighbor’s farm is not? Could be, but 10% of the things I do don’t build topsoil (that means they destroy topsoil…) and 20% of our nutrients are imported from somewhere else, and 30% of our water and 80% of our energy are also imported, and 60% of the resources tied up in waste walk away every year. We are MORE sustainable than a conventional farm, but still losing ground.
There are things I know I can do to improve what I am doing, especially in the water, energy, and waste areas. (Exploring those will take more than one post…) What I'm doing kind of works here.  I'll be exploring why and how addaptable some of these ideas might be.  Also, there are a bunch of things I haven't got figured out for my little farm.  I'll be exploring them too.
Here’s another thing…

Right now the American diet is more than 70% grain based. We produce no grain, ZERO. That means that we are not touching 70% of what we currently eat. You’d get a bit hungry if I cut your diet by 70%.

I can’t find a way to make annual grain production fit any kind of naturally sustainable model. That means we need to change what we eat. Radically!

Next post - Farming that builds soil.
Another post- Diet for a dying planet.


Anne said...

Basically you are after a permaculture design. :) In just a few weeks I'll be off and settling in to be doing pretty much the same thing.

Cover cropping is an idea.. maybe with a winter wheat (not sure of your location).. winter wheat is higher in protein which translates to bakers as the better bread flour.

One thing that I don't think you are taking into consideration is that with using compost and mulches you are not only building soil but as well much better water retention. You're probably doing better than you are giving yourself credit for.

Sheria said...

My maternal grandparents were farmers but I know vnothing about farming. Sadly, my mother and her siblings chose to move to the city and my grandparents' farm was sold when they became to old to manage it on their own. Sad because by my generation, none of us knew anything about farming. We are all city dwellers and farming isn't a part of our lives. Reading your blog helps me understand what we've missed by losing the connection to the land that my grandparnets had.

Alan said...

Anne, Welcome to the conversation. Hope you will continue. You have brought up some points about permaculture, multch, compost, and grain that I will be addressing in future posts. My main point here (which I obviously didn't make clear) is that despite using permaculture/organic techniques, and doing a good job with pasture based animals, my farm is not sustainable. I fall short in every area, and even if it was perfect I still only produce 30% of what we eat. (more on that soon too.) I haven't even begun to adress how we live, just how we farm. Still a long way to go, and a lot to explore.

Sheria, Great to see you back. Missed your input. Your comment reminded me of the opening chapter to Lierre, Keith's book - "We are urban industrialists, and we don't know the origins of our food." I"m working my way up to an exploration of the ideas she bings up in The Vegetarian Myth. Hope you'll come along for the ride.

Wendy said...

10% of the things I do don’t build topsoil (that means they destroy topsoil…)

You would know better than I, but I wonder if perhaps there isn't also some part of what you do that neither builds topsoil nor destroys it. Is there a neutral ground?

In response to your response to Anne, let me "yeah, but ..." here a second. You say that even with all of your efforts in permaculture and organic gardening, you still fall way short of being sustainable, and I won't disagree, because you'd know better than I, but ....

In his talk about permaculture, Toby Hemenway mentions that the Amazon rainforest is the world's largest permaculture project. We think that it's just a random group of plants growing into this impenetrable jungle, but the fact is that there has been some intervention and manipulation. Some things have been encouraged to grow and other things have been plucked before they can get too big. It's a little like sustainable forestry, where saplings that will not achieve adulthood are thinned out to give the more vigorous trees a chance at survival. The cut trees are used for firewood, for building and for making tools, etc.

Forest gardening is a huge part of permaculture, and really, if we're looking for the most sustainable way to grow food, we should be looking up into the branches. Trees are actually some of the best food crops and are, unfortunately, too often overlooked in our culture. As you mention, we're so fixated on grains as a staple, but how about substituting the grains with nuts, which are more calorie and nutrition dense than grains, can be grown to nurture the land rather than deplete it, and once planted, don't require anything, really, from us? We can just reap the harvest.

This is a really great series of posts you've done. You're addressing some very important issues. I think the key, though, is not what needs to be done, because we all know what we need to do, and we all know that living locally is the only way we're going to solve the problems we're facing this day. The real quandry is how to convince the average Jolene to make the necessary changes.

PioneerPreppy said...

Is it even possible to become 100% sustainable on 5 acres? Perhaps depending on the local rainfall it might be but taken as a whole I kinda doubt it.

Assuming you composted everything there is always something lost. Without petroleum based fertilizers nutrients will always be used and not replaced and some waste takes much longer to restore the soil than others.

The only way I can see becoming almost 100% sustainable would be with the medieval three field system and I think that requires a minimum of 40 acres to achieve successfully.

I am only looking at a herd animal/agricultural standpoint I am not even looking at household upkeep like wood lots etc.

I think your tree and mouse explanation from your last post works here. A human's natural local range would be much greater than 5 acres.

crazyLegobrothers said...

Is the problem you are encountering one of not enough land or are there food stuffs that your family needs that you are not able to produce in a way that follows your fundamental rules? In other words, if you had more land (and the ability to manage it) would you be able to produce 100% of your food or would you still be up against your fundamentals?


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