Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The First Commandment of A Sustainable Farm

No matter the species or crop raised, a good, practical agriculturalist should try to think in a balanced circle, as nature does, rather than linearly, as our land grant colleges and agribusiness leaders try mightily to make us do. The former always makes more sense than the latter, even if the latter sometimes yields more short term economic benefits than the former does. I daresay that the majority of the problems, financial and otherwise that I ran across in my nearly 20 years as an industry troubleshooter could be traced back to the farmer having at some point bought the line regarding a linear rather than a cyclical mindset.

Instead of trying to visualize a whole farm, let's think about cyclicity and sustainability on the scale of an industrious and thrifty old fashioned farm wife's quarter acre kitchen garden, because the same thought patterns apply to both the garden and the farm.

We'll assume that the farm wife has a ready source of manure from a family milk cow or family hog that lives on the quarter acre next to the garden. She uses the manure generated to improve the fertility in her garden, and we'll assume that she does so with a generous application late in the fall and then another applicaition at or shortly before planting time in the spring. We'll assume also that she knows to rotate peas, potatoes, beans and corn to maximize soil fertility and minimize pest problems. She may also be wise to the secrets of interplanting, which will help achieve further reduction in pest problems. She will also be intimately familiar with how to run a hoe, or she might use straw mulch which will help achieve weed control in a different way. Perhaps, like my mother and grandmother, the farm wife is extra thrifty and she saves back her own seed from all the crops she can, thus ensuring her next season even as this one continues. As long as their is adequate animal manure to enhance fertility and build soil, this is a very sustainable garden in the sense that it can continue feeding a farm family indefinitely while building soil fertility and tilth and while minimizing off farm purchased inputs. Maybe she sells her surplus milk, her surplus pork and her surplus vegetables directly to consumers in town and her garden actually makes her some money. The surplus produce and garden plants that don't ger sold or eaten get fed back to the family cow and/or family hog. Nothing is wasted and everything is interdependent on everything else. I don't have to guess that this model works; I KNOW it does. My family has maintained soil fertility and productivity while prospering on the same piece of land using this methodology for the last 180 years.

Alternately, the gardener can run to her local farmers co-op about three days before planting time and achieve roughly the same results by buying all her seeds, buying considerable herbicide and some bug juice, buying copious quantities of fertilizer, and buying a couple of truckloads of mulch to instantly amend the soil. There is nothing inherently wrong with doing things this way, but nobody is going to argue that this is in any way sustainable on it's own, without heavy doses of purchased inputs. Because this gardener is in a hurry, she has no time to fool with selling the surplus, so she plows it all under about Labour Day and she won't think about the garden again until three days before planting time next spring, when she'll repeat the entire experience. If, at the same time, this gardener's husband decided it'd be smart to finish out 500 head of beef cattle by cramming them into pens on the quarter acre next to the garden while buying truckloads of grain to feed the cows before trucking them all off to the auction to be sold wholesale, I'd have succinctly summed up the factory farm experience and mindset. Actually, I missed something. If I told you that the gardener's husband planned on disposing of all the manure his feedlot generated by injecting it into the quarter acre garden, then I would have REALLY summed up the factory farm mindset. As expected, this sort of situation creates all kinds of problems for the cattle (who were never meant to live in mud, crowded together in this way), the farmer (who has to deal with all the sick cows and the overwhelming amounts of manure), the neighbours (who endure the sounds and smells that go along with this catastrophe) and the environment (which gets trashed).

Perhaps now, those of you without a farm background more clearly understand why I shake my head at this nonsense ?

No comments: