Thursday 20 March 2014

Blog #6  March 14, 2014  - Alternative Futures for Agriculture

Quoting from the Presidents US Council of Environmental Quality – source:

One man’s journey can move from believing what he is told to believing what he sees for himself… this has certainly been Charles’ journey, and that of a fellow commercial farmer that Charles reflects on here David Larsen, who grew corn then grew to understand.  This is another example of how one transforms one’s life, food and journey through mindful observation, experimentation and opening the mind. ~Malki’el


These are some observation of the late David Larsen from 1988 who was a commercial corn farmer that I heard of some years ago. Since the time of David’s observations, I think things have become worse, but I think realization of the seriousness has improved.

US Council reports: We are losing a plant or animal species to extinction every 16 minutes.  We may lose in the next 14 years 20% of the remaining species of plants and animals.  The activities of one species, man, are totally responsible for the ecosystem changes causing this devastation.  Further, our water, air and soil are being degraded and depleted.  Soil erosion caused by mineral extraction, reforestation and modern agri-business practices will within the next three decades create the loss of one third of the world’s top soil.

Comment: I personally never hear of a problem of the loss of organic matter in our soils which makes it harder and harder to grow more crops.  David use to hear similar statements of the soil’s depletion, and totally disbelieved their truth at the time, figuring it was a wild outlandish story created by hippies, or those predicting doom and gloom.  His understanding changed. In fact, his position completely reversed after four years of experimenting on his  own soil with his irrigation system attempting to build a non-limiting environment for growing corn.  This experiment helped him understand the error of his thinking. The changes of the eco systems in the soil astounded him.
I wonder how many people would know what to look for in the soil, how many would know what healthy soil looks and smells like?

During his first years as a farmer, David applied extremely high amounts of anhydrous ammonia (400 pound per acre per year), muriate potash (960 pounds per acre per year) and triazine herbicides at one and half times the normal rate in an attempt to raise 300 per bushel  per acre corn with no cultivation. When you obtain yields of this magnitude, the corn is deficient of nutrients and unbalanced. 

Years ago when I was farming commercially, a new hybrid corn was produced by farmers in Ontario with great yields in due course.  This corn was shipped here to Nova Scotia and I fed it to the animals in December.  The corn may have had good yields, and gave more money for the farmer producing it, but the quality of the product was not understood.  The heads on this new hybrid corn  did not drop down as is necessary in order to lose their moisture and dry out properly.  Instead, they retained their moisture and this created aflatoxins in the corn which contaminated the animal feed causing prolapses and abortions in our sows.  

We did not know the impact on our livestock of using this hybrid corn.  David experienced speeding up the process of growing corn which he believed takes place on every conventionally operated farm in the world.  The result of his experiments: he destroyed virtually all of the biological life in the soil.  He could not even find an earth worm in his fields, and the soil’s aerobic zone diminished to 1 ½ inches.  The soil became more difficult to work.  Yes, he sped up the process of trying to enrich the soil that by nature takes 25-100 years to 3 to 4 years, but at an extreme cost.

I saw another example of this when I visited a sugar plantation in Columbia, South America.  I saw 150 hp (or better) tractors standing in the fields with four 14”ploughs.  These tractors were needed to pull the plough through the hard cracked soil that had been treated chemically.  As in David’s observations, the soil had lost its pliancy and flexibility.  Here I use a 60 hp tractor to pull a 14” plough through my fields.  I did see a few organic sugar fields in Columbia, and the soil was beautifully soft and vegetation had a wonderful green hue about it.  Quelle difference!

David had first taken the common approach in his farming that to succeed in growing food it is ‘Man against nature – that’s what life is all about’.  He admitted that he had developed a militaristic attitude of being at war with nature.  He realized in retrospect that he was a product of the thinking of Bacon and Newton, and others, who set forth a view of nature as raw material existing for the sole purpose of being exploited.  He was further influenced by political and economic theorists, such as John Locke and Adam Smith, who suggested that nature only had value when it was turned into something useful.  It had become easy for him to justify the use of the earth in any way at all, as long as individual knowledge, freedom and prosperity were the results.

I feel there is no respect for stewardship in the common approach that the sole criteria for farming is that it be a business.  Farming is not a business, it is a way of life, hence stewardship, but you must be businesslike.  If we can start thinking that way, there is hope for us all. 

Next blog: Stewardship

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