AcresUSA.com links

Archive | Eco-Philosophy

Interview: Researcher, Author Eric Toensmeier Explores Practical, Effective Carbon Farming Strategies

Real-World Solutions

While this Eric Toensmeier_rgb (2)interview was being prepared a story surfaced on public radio about a couple of enterprising Americans who are taking advantage of changing policy to open a factory in Cuba. Their product? Tractors! The whole idea, the story helpfully explained, was to introduce “21st century farming” to the beleaguered island. By making it easier to tear up the soil. Clearly there is some distance to go before an accurate idea of 21st century farming penetrates the mainstream. It will take people like Eric Toensmeier. His new book, The Carbon Farming Solution, carries enough heft, range and detail to clear away forests of confusion. If the notion of leaving carbon in the soil is going to take its place next to that of leaving oil in the ground, this one-volume encyclopedia on the subject is exactly the kind of deeply informed work that’s required. Reached at his home in western Massachusetts, Toensmeier was exhilarated over finishing a project years in the making, and more than happy to talk about it.

This interview appears in the May 2016 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Continue Reading →

Interview: Scientist, Author, Activist Vandana Shiva Leads Movement to Restore Sovereignty to Farmers

Acres U.S.A. is North America’s monthly magazine of ecological agriculture. Each month we conduct an in-depth interview with a thought leader. The following interview appeared in our January 2016 issue and was too important not to share widely.

Vandana ShivaAmericans who visit India often come back more or less overwhelmed by its vast size and complexity, and if they are not stunned into silence they are at least much less willing to engage in generalities. Timeless beauty, explosive economic growth, persistent poverty and about a billion people all make for an intense experience if you’re used to the predictable movements of cars and shoppers. One thing that does emerge from the ancient nation’s recent history, though, is the way societies that seem chaotic and disorganized to outsiders actually offer opportunities for their citizens who are willing to act with boldness, imagination and fierce resolve. Gandhi was one such actor, and Vandana Shiva may well be another. Increasingly well-known here as an author and lecturer, her popularity makes her a pain in the neck to proponents of industrial agriculture. (Corporate ag apologist Michael Specter recently honored her with an attack in The New Yorker.) It’s a whole other story back in India, however — there Shiva is a force for change not only among the commentariat but also on the ground. She agitates for legislation and political change at one end of society while leading a movement to empower farmers at the other. Shiva is that rarity in modern life, an intellectual who sees possibilities for action in the world outside her study and moves to set them in motion, working with fellow sojourners to build and sustain a counterforce opposing the corporate status quo over the long haul. On a recent trip to California, Shiva spoke with Acres U.S.A., covering an amazing amount of ground. Readers who need a little context are advised to consult Wikipedia on the Bhopal disaster — a 9/11-scale tragedy linked to agricultural chemicals — in particular and modern Indian history in general.

Vandan Shiva interviewed in Acres U.S.A. magazine

Read the interview here (PDF).

Opinion: Growing Doubt on Genetic Engineering, GMOs

by Jonathan R. Latham, Ph.D.

By training, I am a plant biologist. In the early 1990s I was busy making genetically modified plants (often called GMOs for Genetically Modified Organisms) as part of the research that led to my Ph.D. Into these plants we were putting DNA from various foreign organisms, such as viruses and bacteria.

I was not, at the outset, concerned about the possible effects of GM plants on human health or the environment. One reason for this lack of concern was that I was still a very young scientist, feeling my way in the complex world of biology and of scientific research. Another reason was that we hardly imagined that GMOs like ours would be grown or eaten. So far as I was concerned, all GMOs were for research purposes only. Gradually, however, it became clear that certain companies thought differently. Some of my older colleagues shared their skepticism with me that commercial interests were running far ahead of scientific knowledge. I listened carefully, and I didn’t disagree. Today, more than 20 years later, GMO crops, especially soybeans, corn, papaya, canola and cotton, are commercially grown in numerous parts of the world. Continue Reading →

Crop Diversity: The Key to Sustainability

monocropA study is showing that crop diversity is the key to sustainability, although that’s old news to eco-farmers.

U.S. farmers on the whole, however, are growing fewer types of crops than they were 34 years ago, which could have implications for how farms fare as changes to the climate evolve, according to a large-scale study by Kansas State University, North Dakota State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Less crop diversity may also be impacting the general ecosystem.

“At the national level, crop diversity declined over the period we analyzed,” said Jonathan Aguilar, K-State water resources engineer and lead researcher on the study.

The scientists used data from the USDA’s U.S. Census of Agriculture, which is published every five years from information provided by U.S. farmers. The team studied crop diversity data from 1978 through 2012 across the country’s contiguous states.

Croplands comprise about 408 million acres, or 22 percent of the total land base, in the lower 48 states, so changes in crop species diversity could have a substantial impact, not only on agro-ecosystem function, but also the function of surrounding natural and urban areas. Because croplands are typically replanted annually, theoretically crop species diversity can change fairly rapidly. There is the potential for swift positive change, unlike in natural ecosystems.

“At the very simplistic level, crop diversity is a measure of how many crops in an area could possibly work together to resist, address and adjust to potential widespread crop failures, including natural problems such as pests and diseases, weed pressures, droughts and flood events,” said Aguilar. “This could also be viewed as a way to spread potential risks to a producer. Just like in the natural landscape, areas with high diversity tend to be more resilient to external pressures than are areas with low diversity. In other words, diversity provides stability in an area to assure food sustainability.”

The study is the first to quantify crop species diversity in the United States using an extensive database over a relatively long period of analysis, Aguilar said. The results of the effort, partially funded by the K-State Open Access Fund, were published in PLOS One.

In addition to the national trend, the researchers studied regional trends by examining county-level data from areas called Farm Resource Regions developed by the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Although the study showed that crop diversity declined nationally, it wasn’t uniform in all regions or in all states.

“There seem to be more dynamics going on in some regions or states,” Aguilar said, noting that not all of the factors affecting those regional trends are clear.

For instance, the Heartland Resource Region, which is home to 22 percent of U.S. farms and represents the highest value, 23 percent, of U.S. production, had the lowest crop diversity. This region comprises Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and parts of Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kentucky.

In contrast to all of the other regions, the Mississippi Portal Region, which includes parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas, had significantly higher crop diversity in 2012 than in 1978.

While overall, the national trend was toward less crop diversity, the region called the Fruitful Rim (parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina) and the Northern Crescent (states along the northeast border from part of Minnesota east through Wisconsin, Michigan through to Maine and south to New Jersey and Pennsylvania) had the most crop diversity.

The data used was specific enough that the researchers were able to quantify crop diversity and trends even down to the county level.

“A significant trend of more counties shifting to lower rather than higher crop diversity was detected,” the team wrote in the study results. “The clustering and shifting demonstrates a trend toward crop diversity loss and attendant homogenization of agricultural production systems, which could have far-reaching consequences for provision of ecosystem services associated with agricultural systems as well as food system sustainability.”

“Biodiversity is important to the ecosystem function,” the researchers wrote. “Biodiversity in agricultural systems is linked to critical ecological processes such as nutrient and water cycling, pest and disease regulation and degradation of toxic compounds such as pesticides. Diverse agro-ecosystems are more resilient to variable weather resulting from climate change and often hold the greatest potential for such benefits as natural pest control.”

This article appears in the December 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

 

Pollinators: Bees and Other Insects Will Increase Farm Production

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch feeding areas and managing migration corridors.

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch feeding areas and managing migration corridors.

Supporting resident and migrating pollinators, including bees, not only aids a critical link in the natural ecosystem cycle, but a farm’s production can increase substantially with the presence of ample pollinators.

By giving pollinators safe shelter, water and a supplemental food supply in addition to nectar supplied by crops, their activity on the farm can increase. It’s helpful to remember that while pollinators include the more familiar honeybees and mason bees, they also include various other animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service reports that there are more than 100,000 different animal species (they say the numbers may be as many as 200,000) which play roles in pollinating the 250,000 kinds of flowering plants on the planet. The most common ones are the insects which include bees, wasps, moths, butterflies, flies and beetles. But they report that as many as 1,500 species of vertebrates, including birds and mammals such as hummingbirds and fruit and nectar-eating bats, also serve as pollinators.

Though butterflies and moths pollinate somewhat differently than honeybees, the more familiar pollinators, they’re still a vital link in nature’s overall pollination plan even though a few of their caterpillars can become pests to farmers growing certain crops.

Butterflies, in general, have very good vision and can also see the color red, which bees cannot, according to the USDA Forest Service. They’re also able to detect ultraviolet light which further helps them find nectar. Butterflies taste with their feet and prefer bright colored flowers that are open during the day and that have wide landing platforms whether the flowers are in close clusters or larger singles. While perching on the flowers, pollen collects on their legs and wings as they hunt around for nectar. Not as much pollen is touched and stuck to their long legs and wings as does pollen on bees, but their flight range is often further, allowing them to spread the pollen they do collect throughout a larger region.

Monarchs, specifically, are known to seek out milkweed to lay their eggs. Their caterpillars feed only on milkweed (meaning they leave farmed crops alone) and milkweed also offers nectar to other important pollinators. But as adults, monarch butterflies need a steady supply of other nectar plants. And with monarchs being migratory, the Monarch Joint Venture (MJV) points out that the timing of the blooming plants needs to correspond with the timing of the monarchs’ arrival. Therefore, even if a list of favored monarch nectar plants is planted and nurtured on the farm, climate change and other variables could mean those plants’ blossoms open too soon or too late to feed the butterflies when they are passing through. The MJV website, monarchjointventure.org, has articles and links for rural landowners interested in aiding both the western and eastern monarch populations.

Farmers can play an important role in creating monarch (larva and butterfly) feeding areas as well as helping to manage their migratory corridors. According to MJV, agricultural fields used to be an important source of milkweed for monarch caterpillars because historically, native milkweed grew alongside crop plants. The widespread use of herbicides and herbicide- tolerant crops diminished much of the milkweed growing on farmlands. Though milkweed can tolerate light tilling, it can’t survive herbicides. MJV suggests that farmers plant native flowers in fallow fields, hedgerows and farm field margins which combine early, middle and late blooming species with blossoming times that overlap. If possible, they suggest allowing native milkweed to either grow in unused portions of the farm, or to use either no-till or low-till farming techniques and allow more milkweed to grow alongside crops.

Though the cost of the initial native milkweed and flower planting, including the time itself to plant the pollinator habitat, can be an obstacle for some farmers, others may be able to synergize their monarch (or other butterfly and moth pollination projects) with agritourism to at least indirectly benefit the farm’s bottom line. CSA farmers, for example, can request help, donations and feedback from their members regarding the farm becoming a monarch or butterfly habitat. Farms that benefit financially from positive public exposure can use the project to attract media attention. The MJV also offers information on Citizen Science projects CSA members can take part in. Farmers involved in farm-to-school programs may be able to coordinate farm tours with area teachers and classrooms. The tours can be fee-based at cost-per-head, or can be used as a method to sell other on-farm products directly as a result of visitors coming to the farm to see the monarch habitat. And of course, a native nectar garden also feeds other pollinators which can directly enhance the production of many farm crops.

Various moth species contribute to butterflies’ pollination for daytime bloomers as well as for plants with flowers that open at night. In one extreme case, the crop cannot survive without its partnership with a specific moth. The yucca plant which is grown and sold far from its original native habitat depends on the yucca moth for survival. The adult yucca moth doesn’t seek nectar because its lifespan is so short. But after mating, the female moth carefully scrapes off pollen from yucca flowers, holds the pollen in a lump under her “chin,” then purposefully and carefully deposits pollen into the stamen of a flower.

Not only that, she makes sure the pollen is deposited in a different flower from the one she collected it from to ensure cross pollination. She eventually lays her eggs in the flower, and though some of her young will consume a few seeds, the number of yucca seeds eaten in general does not put a dent in the number of seeds that will be formed because of her pollination. She can even detect if a flower already has eggs laid in it and if so, she moves on to another flower, which makes sure no flower will have too many of its seeds eaten because of too many larvae. Though yucca plants are grown and sold far beyond their area of origin, even into Canada, the moths have managed to follow them and adapt to the newer climates.

This report appears in the July 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.

RESOURCES


For those interested in adding habitats or gardens specifically for pollinators, the following sources offer free or low cost guides.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers basic overviews for planting pollinator gardens and building bee nesting blocks. From there, it offers links to more in depth information and instructions; www.fws.gov/ pollinators/pollinatorpages/yourhelp.html.

The National Center for Appropriate Technology offers a low-cost publication on attracting native pollinators. It provides information and resources on how to plan for, protect and create habitat for native bees in agricultural settings. The full-color digital version is currently $4.95. The black and white print edition is currently $7.95; attra.ncat.org/ attra-pub/summaries/summary.php?pub=75.

When planting for pollinators, native plants are usually encouraged. Landowners can contact their local or state Native Plant Society for names of and resources for appropriate species.

The Pollinator Partnership of the NAPPC offers free eco-regional pollinator planting guides and resources for pollinator gardens and lists the types of blossoms the various pollinator species groups (bees, bats, etc.) prefer; www.pollinator.org.

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service offers a number of documents and leaflets on conserving pollinators; plants.usda.gov/ pollinators/NRCSdocuments.html.

Some state’s cooperative extension services offer guidance on planting for local resident and migrating pollinators. To find extension services in any given state, visit the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s extension page; www.extension.org.


 

 

Book Review: Triumphs & Tribulations in the Heartland

Lentil Underground Book Review

Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America by Liz Carlisle

Lentil Underground: Renegade Farmers and the Future of Food in America;

by Liz Carlisle; book review by Chris Walters

Liz Carlisle was four years into a good career as a country singer when the cognitive dissonance got to be too much. Better to let her tell it:

“… Born and raised in Montana, I’d grown up on country radio, and I loved weaving romantic agrarian lyrics into pretty melodies. When I’d graduated from college, with a new record to sell and a full schedule of shows for the summer, it had seemed like the greatest thing in the world to travel through rural America and tell its story. But now that I’d crisscrossed the country several times in my station wagon, I knew the sobering truth. I’d been lying.

As I listened to people who came up to chat after my shows, it dawned on me that life in the heartland was not what I’d thought. Farming had become a grueling industrial occupation, squeezed between the corporations that sold farmers their chemicals and the corporations that bought their grain.”

Right away it’s clear she can write, and what a joy her story of a short-lived music career might have been had she chosen to write that kind of book. Carlisle had other horizons on her mind, though, and it is to Montana she returns after a spell working in the office of that state’s then-freshly minted U.S. Senator, Jon Tester. He supplied the link to the story she took up after studying journalism with Michael Pollan at UC-Berkeley, the lentil farmers behind a company called Timeless Natural Food, originally known as Timeless Seeds. These hardy souls were staking out a future for post-industrial farming in Montana, a semi-arid state known for short growing seasons, long distances and lack of major cities. Industrial wheat was a king whose rule was close to absolute. Continue Reading →