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Tag Archives | biodiversity

A Retrospective: A Journey of Seed Saving and Beyond

Alan and Linda Kapuler, Oregon Country Fair, photo by Serena Kapuler.

Conceived in unity and born for the common good, as part of the Back-to-the-Land movement inspired by the consciousness revolution of the 1960s, two Als and a Linda founded Stonebroke Hippie Seeds in a $90-a-month rental house in Jacksonville Oregon in 1975.

We knew little about gardening, less about seed saving and nothing about business. A few years later we changed the name to Peace Seeds. Here is a true story: I was standing by the sink cleaning seeds from a Buttercup Winter squash, putting the internal pulp and seeds into the compost bucket when it occurred to me that three months later I would buy a packet of the same seeds costing the equivalent of an hour’s work in the gladiolus field where I was glad to get $1.92 take home pay.

I realized I could save the very seeds I was tossing out, completing the cycle of saving the seeds from the plants me and my family had grown in our backyard garden. Completing the cycle, from plant to seed to plant, endlessly with thousands of cultivars in most all the food plants of the temperate zone on planet Earth was our dharma for the next 20 years.

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Pasture Management: Benefits of Biodiverse Forage

Pasture management for livestock far too often falls to using artificial stimulants, and not by selecting the right plants and managing the soil. But the latter is by far the better way.

Cows and calves in the pasture.

The resurrection of interest among graziers in medicinal plants seems to parallel the burgeoning movement of livestock operators in organic (and ecological) meat, milk and egg production, rotational managed grazing, and the stockman’s increasing interest in reducing dependence on pharmaceutical drugs — due to their costs, side effects and concerns over residues in meat, milk and egg products. There are numerous books available on the medicinal properties of various plants, many of which are considered weeds in pastures and meadows on farms.

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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).

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.

 

Plant Communities Beat Monocultures

Plant communities.tifAlthough monocultures can be cultivated efficiently, they are anything but sustainable: environmental damage to soil and water caused by monoculture cultivation is becoming increasingly evident, even beyond in-the-know sustainable farming circles. Despite their disadvantages, however, monocultures remain the principal crop form and are often regarded as the sole possibility for achieving higher yields in plant production — quite wrongfully, finds Bernhard

Schmid, an ecology professor at the University of Zurich. Schmid sees “an opportunity for the future of nutrition for humankind in the untapped potential of biodiversity” — a promising prospect as the OECD and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are giving off worrying signals: Both organizations predict that agricultural productivity will rise less steeply in the future than has been the case thus far.

In a 10-year study, a team of researchers from Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands examined the yields from grassland plants which they had cultivated in monocultures or mixed plant communities. The latter proved to be more productive than the monocultures. Continue Reading →

Diversified Farming Better for Wildlife

diversified habitat.tifA study by scientists at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, published in Science, shows that evolutionarily distinct species suffer most heavily in intensively farmed areas. They also found, however, that an extraordinary amount of evolutionary history is sustained in diversified farming systems, which outlines a strategy for balancing agricultural activity and conservation efforts. The findings arise from a 12-year research project conducted by Stanford scientists at the intersections of farms and jungles in Costa Rica. Much of the research has focused on how farming practices can impact biodiversity, and has gone so far as to establish the economic value of pest-eating birds and crop-pollinating bees. Not surprisingly, the diversified farmlands supported on average 300 million years of evolutionary history fewer than forests. But they retained an astonishing 600 million more years of evolutionary history than the single crop farms.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.