Thursday, January 14, 2016

The History of Farming Must Guide Our Future

A farmer’s love for the earth and its seasons permeates his whole outlook. We may love the heavy farm equipment and modern tractors that make the work go faster – we need to stop and think (and learn) if we are doing what is best for the healthy regeneration of the planet. Examining some of the slower farming methods of the past can give us insights into how to best move forward into our collective future. The time to revert to some of these methods, for the sake of our health, and the health of the soils and the natural environment, is upon us.

Wangari Maathai, Nobel Laureate and soil activist, explains: “We take the soil for granted because it’s there; it’s everywhere, except when all of it is taken by the wind or by the running water. And then you are left with bare rock, and you realize you can’t do much with bare rock.”
In the pre-industrial age farming was a much different profession, in fact, most families who had some land would grow the majority of their own food – working together to plant, weed, tend, grow, harvest, prepare, and store food they had grown themselves from season to season. Animal-powered plows and hand sowing was common.
Seed saving was common as well because it also made the most sense: save the best seeds from your most prolific and hearty growers from year to year and you have healthier, more disease resistant, larger, tastier, crops every planting season. These became what we now call heirloom varieties – varieties that were selectively bred for favorable characteristics over time by the farmers who knew and observed their yields. If they picked the early or late germinators, they could even change the timing of their cops to avoid other seasonal issues, like frost, heavy rain, or recurring pests.

Unfortunately, we now also have GMO seeds, and seeds that are genetically designed to produce sterile fruits – making it harder and harder for farmers to eke out a living or scrape together the funds needed to buy seeds year after year. These seeds also do away with hand selection of robust plants, leaving little for the observant farmer to do but tend their growth and then do it all again the next year with virtually identical seeds – with no attempts to change in yields or productivity.
Community seed libraries are sprouting (pun intended) up around the nation, and growing our own food, saving the seeds, and swapping our seeds and surpluses with our friends, family and neighbors has become a revolutionary act.

Additionally, low tech solutions to farming are, while slower, much healthier for the soil and all the microorganisms that live therein. In a handful of soil there are hundreds of millions of organisms including bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects, and others. Most of them work together symbiotically, essentially acting like the stomachs of the roots and creating a perfect environment for the transfer and uptake of nutrients from the surrounding soil – to the plants that grow in it. All of these microorganisms work together, to allow for not only the transfer of nutrients and the best conduction of water across membranes as well. 
In a commercially or mechanically farmed and tilled property – the soil unfortunately becomes compacted over time. The act of tilling and the pressure of the wheels, and the exposing lower parts of the soil or breaking through tough compacted layers may provide a temporary solution of opening up the ground in order to plant a seed. Unfortunately, these practices do nothing to create a rich healthy soil in the long-term - leading to unresolved and unhealed scarring year after year. This leads to cumulative unfavorable conditions like nutrient or water runoff issues, soil erosion, blow off, and more.

The easiest, healthiest soil is made from the breakdown of bio matter over time becoming a mixture of composted plant matter, bacteria, and fungi. This rich topsoil can include leaves, branches, twigs, grass, dead animals, manure, and other natural breakdowns over time that refuel the soil and create soft, sponge-like topsoil. If you’ve ever been in a protected old-growth forest, you’ll know what I’m talking about – the ground feels springy beneath your feet when you walk and the moisture held in those layers is apparent – especially in early mornings when the fog covers the forest floor.

It’s time to have heart-to-heart conversations with our soils, as Paul Gautschi does in his conversations with God in the Documentary Back to Eden, and ask the earth what it needs to heal and regenerate – before we lose our ability to grow healthy foods entirely. As Miguel Altieri, professor of Agroecology at the University of California explains in the documentary, Dirt! The Movie, “If we don’t take care of the soil, which is just the first five centimeters of life that is on the earth, our future is totally condemned.”

This article was written by Christine Rudolph [] and sent to us for reposting here on our blog.  Thanks Christine!

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