“With climate change increasing, drought increasing, and more high rainfall events, I think there’s more of a need to incorporate permanent vegetation into agriculture systems.”
Susan Stein, Director of USDA National Agroforestry Center
In the movie Interstellar, the near-future world is being consumed by climate change, and one-by-one the monocultural crops that feed the world are succumbing to disease. Vast fields of each given crop are rotting or drying up and dying, in spite of the drone-monitored and GPS-enabled watering systems, self-driving tractors and combines. Starvation faces the planet. There appears to be little natural world left, so humans are looking to space for salvation.
Sometimes we humans tend to focus too much on one goal. In the movie, they spend billions trying to get interstellar travel to work. I wondered whether that money could have been better spent here on earth fixing some of our practices. Being human, in forestry we try to maximize lumber production; in farming we try to maximize crop production. We often overlook the effects of our practices on other aspects of our operations.
Closer to home I wonder whether we are doing what we can now to deal with some of those possible futures. The argument of man-induced climate change aside, are there ways we can adjust our farming practices to avoid some of the more obvious problems? Can we be more efficient and less destructive – take a look at the big picture?
It turns out that many in the normally-conservative agricultural community are already thinking about this and trying out some alternatives. It starts with the concept of Agroecology – the study of the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment within agricultural systems. Agroecology is inherently multidisciplinary, including factors from agronomy, ecology, sociology, economics and related disciplines. Agroecology is normally defined broadly to include social, cultural and economic contexts as well as environmental.
What have we learned? Various practices such as crop rotation, more efficient water use, fertilizer and pest-control management techniques, biological pest control, rotational tillage or no-till systems, and others have vastly improved the effectiveness of farming today. Wind breaks — planted en masse from Texas to North Dakota after the dust bowl — remain in effect in many places, not only slowing wind erosion, but providing slices of natural systems amenible to pollinator movement and bird and small animal habitat.
Promising techniques (some as old as the hills) combine uses over a given piece of land, such as:
Intercropping — a multiple cropping practice involving growing two or more crops in proximity. The most common goal of intercropping is to produce a greater yield on a given piece of land by making use of resources or ecological processes that would otherwise not be utilized by a single crop. Think of the Native American planting of maize, beans and squash together.
Agroforestry — introducing trees into agriculture to protect farms from wind, enrich the soil, absorb excess nutrients, filter and retain water, and sequester carbon, but also produce food and timber products as well. Features may include:
- Silvopasture — an agroforestry practice that integrates livestock, forage production, and forestry on the same land-management unit. Silvopasture systems are deliberately designed and managed to produce a high-value timber product in the long term while providing short-term annual economic benefit from a livestock component through the management of forage or an annual crop component.
- Forest farming — using forests to produce timber and also everything from fruit (berries) to mushrooms to medicinal herbs (goldenseal, ginseng).
- Alley cropping — involves planting rows of trees between rows of crops to enrich and protect the soil and the crop, and provide pollinator corridors; and
- Riparian forested buffers – uses stands of trees to absorb excess nutrients and agricultural chemicals before they run into streams, rivers, and other waterways.
Commercial agroforestry is being practiced by small landholders and newer farmers who have limited resources — “people who are trying to intensively manage parts of their land so they can intensively produce more food on a small piece of land.” Agroforestry “requires more management and more labor,” which can make it a tough sell in the current agricultural landscape.
Trees can produce salable wood fiber, forage for livestock, and fruits or nuts, while increasing pasture and livestock production by breaking the wind and providing shade. Trees can keep pastures from overheating during record-breaking heat waves, especially in warm regions such as the South. Partially shaded pastures allow cows to graze all day rather than at dawn or at dusk. It may also make for more palatable forage for livestock in semi-shaded conditions, resulting in more grazing.
Meanwhile, the average farmer in Colorado is approaching 60-years-old, and CNBC reports that there will be close to 60,000 new, skilled agricultural jobs in the next five years. Colorado has a twenty-year shortage of teachers in agricultural education. It may be that new blood is not only needed to replace the aging agricultural workforce but to reinvigorate farming.
There is a renewed interest in what Michael Pollen calls, “Little Food” — organic food, local food and artisanal food. The above agroforestry techniques align well with smaller landholders who are interested in more than just this year’s crop production, but are investing their money and their future in creating and maintaining a healthy environment on their property. It is reminiscent of the 1960’s Back-to-the-Land movement that spawned the Whole Earth Catalog and “Mother Earth News”.
So, it seems that our challenge is to get people interested in farming again, and one way may be to resurrect the idea of small farming communities and farmers as protectors of the land as well as producers of crops. We can all embrace the concept of farm as part of the environment — not a separate function.
The promising techniques above and others offer the opportunity to farm in a manner more aligned with the whole environment including social, cultural, and economic contexts. The Little Food movement may help make it more profitable to be a small farmer, and just possibly, more rewarding in other ways.
The glimpse we got in Interstellar didn’t look too good.
Agroforestry Notes, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, November, 1997
Twilight Greenaway, “The Farm for the Trees”, TakePart’s Big Issue, Vol 13
Molly Harbarger, “Farms Face Land Crisis, New Report Says”
The Oregonian, October 16, 2016
Michael Pollen, “Big Food Strikes Back”
The New York Times Magazine, October 9, 2016