Sunday, 5 September 2010

Sustainable farming

We live in South Lincolnshire, an area famous for producing many of the vegetables found in every green grocers shop throughout the land. Our cottage is also surrounded by farmland, where the farmers grow a mix of wheat, barley and rape on a three yearly rotation basis. Like the vast majority of farmers all across the world, the farms around here grow crops by monoculture, that is they grow a single crop at a time, with no variation. This year has been the turn of wheat. And whilst the sight of a full wheat field, glittering in the sun, or bundles of hey, waiting to be collected at harvest time, is a glorious sight for all country dwellers, the effect that monoculture has on the soil in these fields is worth thinking about.

Farming practices entail ploughing, furrowing and tilling of the soil, before the farmer can plant his seed. The soil is thus constantly exposed, allowing minerals and nutrients to leach, whilst worms and insects are gobbled up by the birds and gulls who follow the tractor. All of which ensures a sterile soil which has to be constantly upgraded by the application of fertiliser to the field, if the farmers wants to produce healthy crops. In time, as a result of constant ploughing, and monoculture practices, the soil becomes degraded, and the farmer is caught in a vicious circle of having to apply more fertilisers, insecticides and fungicides to the fields. All of which have oil as a base in their production. Oil is also needed to propel the tractor and feed the lorries that deliver the chemicals to the farm. Given that, sooner or later oil is going to become much more expensive, as supplies dwindle, a crisis is waiting to happen on our farms.

Ploughing also floods the soil with excessive oxygen, which burns up the humus and puts it back into the atmosphere as CO2.The longer the soil is left undisturbed, the more humus builds up in it and the more CO2 is kept out of the atmosphere.

Farms for a future
It doesn’t have to be this way though, just because certain practices have been carried out for hundreds of years, it doesn’t mean they cannot be changed, with new ways found to produce crops that are both sustainable and healthy. Fortunately such a way of growing food has been developed over the past 30 years, this method is called Permaculture, which is an amalgamation of Permanent and Agriculture. The essence of permaculture is that it takes natural ecosystems as the model for our own farms and gardens. Where different crops are planted side by side. This system ensures maximum benefits to the crops.

There's no need for chemical fertilisers, as the crops become part of the whole eco system and are self-sustaining. And different crops are grown together, thus ensuring all of the plants mutually benefit each other. Some repel predators, whilst others attract insects and wildlife that are of benefit. There is never any monoculrure in the permacultre system

An example of how effective this way of farming is, can be seen at the farm of one of the pioneers of this way of working, Sepp Holzer, an Austrian farmer who has gained international recognition for his work. His expanded farm covers over 45 hectares of forest gardens, including 70 ponds and tens of thousands of fruit trees, shrubs, vines and highly productive vegetables and herbs at an altitude of 1500 meters. He has created a self-sustaining landscape in which he produces many varieties of the best quality fish, fruits, nuts, vegetables, mushrooms, pork, poultry and even citrus and kiwi without irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides or weeding. His farm is said to be the most consistent example of permaculture worldwide.

He is the author of several books, nationally recognised as a permaculture-activist in the established agricultural industry, and works internationally as an adviser for ecological agriculture. He is often asked by desperate governments to rescue big areas of land. One of his biggest and most relevant methods is to work with nature instead of confronting it and working against it.

There are many other issues in which modern, intensive farming could be challenged, for instance, where is the logic in continuing to set aside land for the rearing of animals to produce meat? Very roughly, it takes ten times as much land to produce a kilo of meat than it does to produce a kilo of grain, pulse or other vegetable food. I am not advocating the complete rejection of meat from our diets, (We eat it once a week), but the only way we can continue to eat it daily is by industrialised agriculture, which means feeding vast amounts of grain to animals. The best way to purchase your meat is from local small farmers. One of Britain's leading forest farmers, Martin Crawford calculated that twice as food could be grown by Permaculture methods than by conventional farming methods.

We are now changing our garden into a forest garden, which is an out growth of permaculture. Everything we grow will be either edible or wildlife friendly. The birds will provide us with phosphates, which are found in the seeds they eat and which they expel. We’ll get our nitrogen from composting and by growing beans and potash will be supplied by comfy and ferns. We’ll grow beneficial plants which deter pests and encourage growth in the crops. No irrigation will be needed for the larger trees and mulching will provide the moisture, and no weeding or digging will be done, thus ensuring the soil is always kept in an healthy state. Ok, We are talking about a small plot of land in our case, but as Sepp Holzer and countess others demonstrate, this way of production has to be the way forward, if we are to survive for many years to come.

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