Monday, October 21, 2013

Blast 'Em

In politics, agriculture, and the economy, we want quick, decisive results. We like quick military action rather than slow diplomacy (although there was strong disapproval of military intervention in Syria). We want the Fed to do something to kick-start the economy.

And this is our approach in agriculture as well. On nearly all of the agricultural acreage in America, we use the blast-‘em approach. We plow the soil so that we can plant exactly what we want where we want it, then we blast the fields with herbicides and pesticides to kill everything that we consider unwelcome.

We use this approach even in some of our “sustainable” or “ecological” practices. For example, crop rotation. If a farmer plants beans or alfalfa (which are legumes) one year and corn (a grain) the next, the residual nitrogen from the legumes will fertilize the soil, which means you don’t have to use as much fertilizer on the corn. This is a good idea. But this is still a blast-‘em approach, because we impose a plowing and planting schedule upon the soil.

Scientists at the Land Institute are developing perennial polyculture—that is, an agriculture based upon species of perennials (which therefore need no plowing) grown in polyculture—that is, different species mixed together. Perennial polyculture is much harder to do than conventional crop rotation, because the grains and the legumes are perennials and are neighbors of one another for year after year. At the Land Institute, they have plots with rows of perennial kernza grain, in between which grows perennial alfalfa, a legume. They have to get the right spacing and timing, in order to assure that the grains do not crowd out the legumes, or the other way around. If you plow every year and plant corn and soybeans, you don’t need to worry about that. But if you allow perennial grains and legumes to grow together for a long time, it is a scientific challenge to get them in balance. This is because we are allowing the perennial crops the freedom to grow as they see fit, and we try to coax them into growing the way we want them to.

The blast-‘em approach does not require much intelligence, and it has clear results. The perennial polyculture approach requires a lot of research, and the plants do not always grow exactly where and how much you want them to. Sustainable and therefore intelligent approaches are our only hope for the future of agriculture. Sustainable approaches may be less satisfying to some people than blasting the soil with our willpower, but it is more satisfying to the rest of us because we intelligently fit ourselves into the processes of nature.

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