We need the sustenance that farmers provide, but we can’t continue to obtain it by undermining the processes that support life on the planet.
By Jason Bradford
The arrival of summer and the growing season’s longest days offer a moment to reflect on our approach to agriculture. For more than twelve millennia, humanity has employed agriculture to appropriate the Earth’s productive capacity for its own growth. And boy have we been successful! So successful, in fact, that the biomass of people, domestic livestock and pets is 40-50 times greater than the biomass of all wild land vertebrates combined. Not surprisingly, such dominance by a single species has created environmental ripple effects — more like tsunami effects — especially within the last hundred years. Agriculture has transformed the landscape on a scale unsurpassed by any other human endeavor.
This leaves us in a serious bind: We need the sustenance that farmers provide, but we can’t continue to obtain it by undermining the processes that support life on the planet. In a 2009 study, Johan Rockström and his colleagues examined nine planetary processes that, if altered significantly, would risk catastrophic harm to the entire planet or whole continents. The researchers identified “safe operating boundaries” for each of these planetary processes and assessed the degree to which humanity has pushed the processes beyond the boundaries. Their results show that we have already exceeded the safe operating boundary for three processes: biodiversity loss, climate change, and the nitrogen cycle.
Agriculture is a key contributor to all three breaches of the safe operating boundaries. Just look at a typical farm in the U.S. Corn Belt where most of the native prairie species are gone – including plants, insects, mammals and microbial life. Fossil fuels are used liberally to power machinery and manufacture synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, releasing copious quantities of greenhouse gases along the way. Global fertilizer use is so extreme that the reactive forms of nitrogen made in factories exceed the amount formed naturally each year.
A food web represents the set of connections among species in an ecosystem. It mostly describes “what eats what.” A diverse food web with lots of species interactions provides three key benefits: high productivity, resilience, and conservation of nutrients — all with minimal to no external inputs aside from sunlight and water.
STRATEGY #1: MAKE FARMS BASTIONS OF BIODIVERSITY.
Farms can realize these three benefits of highly evolved ecosystems by adding biodiversity. Just as a business puts together a team of workers in which members contribute different skills, food webs need diversity to innovate, adapt and thrive. The farms we’ve created at Farmland LP support ecosystem diversity in three ways:
- Poly cropping. We avoid planting fields with a single species at a time. We typically sow pastures with 8 to 12 distinct plant species to mimic a natural grassland. Even when growing grains, we often co-plant, such as oats with clover.
- Crop rotation. One of our farms in Oregon has twelve fields and eight crops planned for seed harvest in 2014, making the farm a patchwork of distinct plant communities.
- Habitat conservation. We use edge spaces, such as remnants of native vegetation or newly established hedgerows between fields to integrate wild species within the farm. These native plants and animals work for the farm by providing pollination, pest control and other services.
STRATEGY #2: USE PERENNIAL PLANTS.
Perennial plants, species with multi-year life cycles, are the main builders of soil fertility. Despite this fact, annual plants (plants with a one-year life cycle), such as corn, soy, rice and wheat dominate most cropland. Annual staple grains rose to dominance as a historical accident, not a biological necessity. Annuals appear to be ultra-productive because harvests can be bountiful, but a full accounting of inputs and outputs shows that perennials are more efficient. Annual plants require high inputs of fertilizers to produce high yields, and most of the applied fertilizer actually leaks out of the farm each year to pollute surrounding water and air. In natural ecosystems, perennial plants are the clear winners, with their thrifty use of resources and reliable yields year after year.
Farmland LP rebuilds topsoil by mimicking the natural processes that make it. We employ perennial plants in our pasture mixes, such as perennial ryegrass, white clover, and forage plantain. A single season of field preparation and planting establishes a pasture community that will persist for years, enriching the soil and allowing it to benefit from the fertility-creating interactions between roots, fungi and bacteria below ground, and leaves, livestock and decomposing organisms on the surface. Because annual plants only have a single season to complete their life cycle, their shallow, short-term roots create long-term disadvantages. Annual crops can’t access nutrients located deep in the soil, depleting the uppermost layer of topsoil and short-circuiting the complex biological relationships that build soil.
Farmers can use annuals on Farmland LP land in rotation every 4 to 7 years, but we’re looking forward to the time when, for grains and oil seed crops at least, perennial versions will be available. The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas, runs a program to breed perennial crops, and they’re achieving encouraging results.
STRATEGY #3: MIMIC A FOOD WEB.
As omnivores, humans have diverse dietary preferences. We eat a variety of plant parts such as roots, leaves, stems and flesh surrounding seeds — what we call fruits and vegetables. Many of our calories come from starchy, oily and protein-rich seeds, such as grains and beans. We consume animal proteins and fats in the form of milk, eggs and meats. The diversity of our diet suggests the need to design equally diverse farms that can support robust food webs (recall that a diverse food web provides high productivity, resilience, and conservation of nutrients – exactly what you want on a farm).
In nature, a food web contains a large cast of characters with specific roles. Plants are the primary producers of the food web because they convert the energy of sunlight into food for the primary consumers. Primary consumers are species like deer and caterpillars that eat the plants. Then secondary consumers enter the scene. They eat other animals for all or part of their diet — for example, wolves eat deer and birds eat caterpillars. Decomposers play another critical role, interacting to some degree with all the other characters in the food web. These are the species that break down leaf litter — from beetles to bacteria — and recycle biomass back into forms that plants can reuse, completing the cycle of life. At Farmland LP we cast domesticated species, such as pasture plants and livestock, in each of the roles in a food web. We strive to maintain two thirds of our land in a diverse perennial polyculture, i.e., pasture, where ruminant (herbivorous) livestock such as sheep and cattle graze and non-ruminants (grain eaters) such as hogs and poultry concentrate fertility. The other third is devoted to seed crops and vegetables, which benefit from the soil fertility built by the pastured-livestock system. Synergies abound. Animals can eat food that humans can’t, thereby turning potential waste into nutrition. Livestock control weeds with targeted grazing and feed on the plant material left over after crops have been harvested. This mixed farming system is how agriculture evolved and ran for thousands of years, and it provides many lessons for a new form of sustainable farming for modern times.
STRATEGY #4: BRING PEOPLE BACK TO THE LAND.
In the U.S. and other highly industrialized nations very few people farm. According to the U.S. Farm Bureau, farm and ranch families comprise only 2% of the U.S. population. A major reason is that as agriculture has become more and more mechanized and dependent on fossil fuel, farm jobs have evaporated. Remaining farmers are often economically locked into large-scale, chemical-dependent mono-cropping because they can’t find or afford the labor to do things differently. And labor, especially skilled and knowledgeable labor, is exactly what’s needed to manage a mixed farm that mimics natural systems.
Farmland LP gives progressive, often start-up, farmers a chance to develop their enterprises on our land. We create rewarding careers for entrepreneurial farmers who want to grow food in ecologically sound ways. Our farmers act as managers of their part of the food web. Pastured livestock, vegetable, grain and poultry farmers plan their movements together, help each other achieve financial goals, and contribute to the overall health of farmland. Modern farming requires scale and specialization, whereas the land needs diversification. The one-farm, one-farmer model doesn’t always work in this context, and our approach offers another way — one that attracts skilled teams of people to the land.
STRATEGY #5: INVEST IN REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE.
Farmland LP is increasing on-farm biodiversity, using perennial plants, emulating natural food webs, and reconnecting people to rural landscapes. These strategies can solve the ecological problems inherent in the design of most agricultural operations, but most land is not farmed this way. For example, 53% of U.S. cropland is used to grow just two crops — corn and soybeans. With 800 million acres of farmland worth an estimated $2.9 trillion, the U.S. has a vast and valuable agricultural landscape. Transforming this landscape will require substantial investments.
These investments can fund a variety of essential initiatives. For example, mistreated farmland needs to be restored. A new generation of farmers needs training. Financial institutions and government agencies need new policies and systems to better support sustainable farming. And agronomists need more support to breed perennial stable grains and crops that will work in organic and mixed farming models.
Investing is akin to the primary producer in a food web — it feeds the other parts. Without major investments in sustainable agriculture, it’s hard to see how the other four strategies described above could be implemented on a scale big enough to make a difference.
Opportunities for implementing the five strategies abound. One big-picture thinker, Wes Jackson, argues in his book Consulting the Genius of the Place that humanity has constructed a false dichotomy between the sacred (wilderness) and the profane (civilization). Farms represent the best place to deconstruct the dichotomy. If we want civilization to continue moving forward, farming and celebrating summer solstice and our relationship to the land for another 12,000 years, we have to reconnect ourselves and our agricultural systems to the vast array of other species on this planet.
Jason Bradford is managing director at Farmland LP. The company was formed in 2009 to demonstrate that sustainable agriculture at-scale is more economically viable than chemical-dependent commodity agriculture.