The rate of social change is unimaginably rapid. Take the example of electricity: lights, trains, the internet, mobile phones & refrigeration. Less than a hundred years ago, most of the world lived without these things, and even today about 1/3 of the worlds people continue to live without power or a reliable source of it. In this article I will be discussing agro-ecosystems, not social change. The example merely serves to charge the imagination a little; to make it capable of stretching out to view possibilities beyond its container of the mind, a thing also ordinarily limited by its appetite for objects of study, e.g. the present day, books and media also focused on the present or the past. Please bear with me, dear reader, as the commentary shifts again.
I like to study history as thought-fodder for imagining the future. Recently I read Changes in the Land by William Cronon and came away with a new outlook on the colonial period of the Eastern woodlands of the USA. My imagination came into swing, thinking about how at some point this ecosystem may again be drastically diminished by a new set of circumstances, for instance, by a shortage of heating oil. How many years would the rich forest survive decimation by millions seeking an alternative heat source? I will not waste time guessing because it is much too urgent now to imagine solutions and take action for presently existing problems around the world. These problems and the solutions to them become models for designing and managing ecosystems for resiliency and self-sufficiency that will prevent future disturbance to soil, land and water.
In it’s biggest usage, agriculture is the production of not only food, but also fuel, fodder, fiber and medicine. Everyone eats and because they do, they make agricultural choices that directly affect climate change, ecosystem destruction, species extinction, social justice, racial and gender equality. Agriculture weighs heavily in all of these issues. Unfortunately, agriculture has never produced much money in its dependence on uncontrollable natural forces, commodity price windfalls, lack of everyday production (duration from input to output) etc. For this very reason, family farms have experienced a ‘brain drain’ worldwide as the smart kids leave for better pay and the remaining ones become exploited by businesses unsentimental for consistent harvests, clean water, fertile soil and family livelihoods. This is when I invite the reader to imagine robotic arms and diesel machines raking the earth’s dry derivatives of chemical-controlled waste-farms (please, let’s not talk about farm animals)
On the bright side, there is a movement rapidly gaining momentum worldwide to rehabilitate land devastated both by industrial agriculture and the pressure of subsistence economy populations. The main tool of these new land managers is the integration of production systems for maximum output while reducing inputs through an exchange of ecological services. This exchange could fill a university level agro-ecology class, so I will keep it simple and funnel words into imagination again: animals grazing mixed forages between rows of trees. These trees are multi-strata and multi-purpose; some of them fix nitrogen and the others produce nuts and fruit. A few rows away, an electric wire keep the grazing ruminants away from vegetables, root crops and grain also growing between rows of trees. Particular fast growing tree species are continually chopped as a fertilizer for the nut and fruit trees, as feedstuff for animals and their leaves as green manure for the annual crops. Meanwhile–to banish any thoughts that this a peasant utopia– the tractor is sedately hissing nearby loaded with chestnuts moving at its whiny diesel hiss to the cooperative mill.
For an example of this kind of system watch the video titled Syntropy from Brazil, highlighting Ernst Gotsch’s efforts there. The rate of carbon sequestration and implications for climate change mitigation & reversal is incredibly high with such an integration of production systems (E. Toensmeier, Carbon Farming). Sequestration in the soil by the action of plants and effective management (take note of this for later) is paralleled by a rise in soil fertility. This means reduction of inputs like synthetic fertilizer and chemicals. Additionally, the production of food is massively higher than any rice paddy or cornfield on earth, possibly 7-10 times higher (M. Shepherd, 2013) Silvo-pasture that incorporates timber trees or orchard trees into animal pasture and agro-forestry systems are getting lots of attention. In light of the small-scale revolutions in land-management taking place around the world, 60 experts published an article in the UN’s Trade and the Environment Review (‘Wake Up Before it’s Too Late’, 2013) that despite good efforts underway, industrial farm systems tweaking their standards of production will not mitigate land degradation and climate change, and only integrated agro-ecological and organic systems practiced widely offer hope of both feeding the world and regenerating land and managing it sustainably.
At the request of GANE, I will now highlight my work in this field. I am currently working on three sites in Eastern North American in the temperate deciduous biome doing orchard installations. I’m hopeful these fields will be managed for maximum production and used as education sites. Here, maximum production means incorporating N-fixing trees for coppice/fertilizer/fodder and eventually animals. The first is a 19 acre steep pasture in North Carolina with an existing dairy operation of six cows. The land dries out on account of being so steep, so we have dug water retaining ditches called swales to hold moisture and as a means of preparing the ground for rows for trees. Temporary electric wire protects the young trees from grazing. So far, 100 N-fixing Black Locusts have been planted, 65 Chinese Chestnuts, 40 apples and pears, 20 Hazelnuts, plus many Mulberries, Russian Olives and Persimmons.
The second site is two hours west, over the mountains in Tennessee. Ananda Arpana is preparing to plant 500 trees on a similarly steep 4.6 acre grassland. We will cut swales with a plow and 80 HP tractor the second week of March, then plant trees in the third week of the same month. The third orchard is 1.2 acres of old hay field at Ananda Viplava near Albany New York. Here, the land is flat and ready for planting a large variety of fruit trees incorporating Black Locust as the fodder/fertilizer tree plus Chestnuts and hybrid Hazelnuts. This site would be ideal for an alley-cropping system growing vegetables and other annual crops between rows of trees and for .
Such integrated planting schemes using high density plantings of beneficial trees and perennial crops provides a variety of services through diversity and a demonstration in how rapidly old farmland can be improved and made productive through modern. This foretells of a direct shift here from dependence on annuals for all our staple foods (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) to include perennials. Perennial plants like trees grow year-after-year undergoing their reproductive stages of life after 2-10 years of vegetation whereas annuals complete vegetative and reproduction within one year, typically managed by the eliminating competition of other plants through cultivation of the soil or chemicals.
The key to maximum production is management. By proper design, dense planting, pruning & cutting the fodder/fertilizer trees, rotational grazing and rotationally cropping in between rows of trees, an efficiency of nutrient-cycling is reached that requires no inputs. The necessity of increased management ensures ongoing productive returns with the added investment in long-term fertility. In contrast, modern industrial farming is like a mining operation in the sense that it employs chemical inputs and a minimum of human management to extract crops with negative returns year-after-year unless added inputs are used. The soil is merely a substrate to anchor the plants feeding on a chemical solution.
Many people declare that silvo-pasture is easily practiced by turning their animals loose in the forest, but this is where such simple thinking gets muddy. The colonial settlers of the eastern states did this commonly with terrible consequences. Not only did the forest offer little animal forage because the soil and plants were not prepared for browsing, but their animals often got sick. A productive and sustainable silvo-pasture system is actually an intentional process, requiring that the forages be of such species capable of growing back from heavy browsing (typically grasses and forbs of European origin), appropriate for eating, and that the grazing be rotational and not exceed the recommended stocking rate of animals per unit land. Trees in this systems may be managed for soil fertility as much for their production of timber, timber by-products or crops.
The questions arises: are animals necessary? This depends of course on the interest and goals of the farm and it’s capacity to manage unintended growth of other species by mowing, pruning or chemicals. The one idea that I will volunteer in this regard is that just wild ecosystems always have animals, we must incorporate scientifically-managed domestic animals into our agro-ecosystems to obtain a peak of productivity. Here, scientific management means maintaining plants at the height of their bell curve by not grazing our domestic animals too early or too late. Grazing or trimming most plants before the solstice and flowering maximizes their vegetative states actually enabling them to become more productive later on. Incidentally, this sequesters huge amounts of carbon into plants and the soil as well.
In the next 15 years it’s estimated that another 2 to 3 billion hungry human beings will come to Earth before the global population begins to plateau. Without a precipitous increase in the amount of farmland appropriately using science to integrate production systems, wild lands will continually be thrashed and existing farmland will continue failing to produce without chemical controls. Supporting farmers, agro-foresters and permaculturalists working at the farm-scale is going to be an essential part of repairing the damage of the last century. A new vision of the natural world and a new experience of how we live becomes possible when the terms agriculture and ecosystem collide. The desperate race to save species and the last wild places of the Earth also comes into focus when we take a step back and understand the necessity of radically changing the farm and forestland we’re using already, if not in the seat of a tractor, with our money and food choices. Such a change in land management and an increasing dependence on perennial crops may also include shifting dietary patterns. If you’re interested in this subject, there may be a ready market for a cookbook, Food Forest Cuisine. All for now, thanks for reading, you may contact me here: email@example.com.
James Geoffrey Steen in an agro-forester and tradesman. He also leads workshops on nature awareness & homesteading, enjoys reading, writing, sports, group meditation and good humor.