Archives for category: agricluture

Slash and Burn

A.V. Walters

We learned about it in grade school. It’s a “primitive” agricultural practice of cutting down the forest, burning the “slash,” any unused timber products, and then planting crops in the resulting ash-fertilized clearing. Typically, in areas with poor soils (mostly areas outside the soils-rich Pleistocene glaciation) agricultural use would be for a limited duration, until the soil was nitrogen depleted. Then the farmers move on and the cycle begins again. It was, we were taught, a short-sighted and damaging form of farming. Looking in the mirror, I think that that was Western agriculture’s pot calling the kettle black.

In most of North America, we are blessed with deep and rich topsoils, compliments of the ice age and biodiversity. Our European forebears were more lucky than skilled when it came to farming. Indeed, many of them practiced exactly the slash and burn techniques that my grade-school teacher bemoaned. How else, in a world of hand tools and oxen, was a pioneer family to clear an old growth forest for farming? Over time, excessive cultivation of dry or marginal soils, and the failure to rotate crops, brought us to an ugly truth—the dustbowl. Even without dustbowl conditions, 1970’s estimates showed that using American, post-war agricultural practices were causing the loss of up to six inches of topsoil, per year!

Some early colonialists brought with them time tested farming methods that fed and protected the soils, as you can still see in Amish and Mennonite farms throughout the Midwest. They considered themselves the stewards of the land. Studies have shown that the natural methods used by these farmers retain the topsoil and keep it loaded with organic material and beneficial bacteria. From these traditions, today’s organic farmers learned the mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Organic farming methods have been proven to fight soil erosion, build the soil’s ability to retain moisture (even in dry conditions) and foster a micro-biome that supports healthy crops.

We’ve sent a soil sample, from our property, in for analysis. We know we have some soil building to do, but it’s been lying fallow at least thirty years for a running start. We start with the premise that we’ll build the soil as we go. We’ll start first thing, next season. Ours is not a conventional approach

The GMO corn planted on our current, landlord’s property, is suffering. Its leaves are curling in; its growth stunted. I’m hardly heartbroken about it. We do not have a drought here. These sandy soils are “well draining,” which could be a pun if you wanted to irrigate. We haven’t had rain for just over a week—which shouldn’t make too big a difference in healthy soil. That corn doesn’t have healthy soil. Years of successive corn crops, over-tilling and outright chemical abuse have stripped the cornfield to its geologic base—sand dune. This soil cannot hold moisture. There is some stubble tilled in, but in the absence of “the living soil”—the bacterial component, the stubble cannot breakdown and feed the soil. (Though it may hold a little moisture.)

So, who is practicing slash and burn, now?



A. V. Walters

Food for Thought

I don’t generally include my political beliefs in my blog. Please bear with me, this rant is related to the topics of the blog, and after I get this off my chest I’ll retreat to my usual, bucolic subjects.

My blog includes issues of rural living, gardening and the slower, and possibly richer, human dynamics that go with a rural lifestyle. I’ve confessed to years of organic gardening, even when I lived in the city. What I haven’t revealed is the depth and length of my interests in food issues.

Back in the late seventies I did my undergraduate thesis on World Food Scarcity and Sustainable Agriculture. Even back then it was apparent that our efforts to export “modern” agriculture were wreaking havoc in the third world. A closer examination of those same practices here, revealed the early cracks in the crumbling view of American agricultural invincibility.Doesn’t anyone remember the Dust Bowl? It was time to look in the mirror. Even then, soil erosion, pesticide contaminated underground water supplies and the dangers of widespread monoculture were beginning to illustrate cracks in our agribusiness model. Some changes and improvements did occur–university extension programs hailed crop rotation (like it was a new concept) and alternative tillage approaches. But the solutions offered all came in the form of agribusiness management models and, at the encouragement of government programs, our farms began to look less like farms and more like chemically dependent corporate entities. We continued to lose old-style and family farms to corporate agribusiness. I became a believer in the alternatives.

After college, I kept my convictions about having a smaller footprint on the planet. I’m not perfect, but I knew (and know) that one person can make a difference. I supported California’s early efforts to develop organic standards. I grew much of my own seasonal food in my postage-stamp sized, urban, back yard. When possible (and early on, it wasn’t easy) I sought out and supported local organic farmers. I rejected fast food. I believe deeply in the value of cooking for oneself and those you love. I think sharing a quality, home-cooked meal with friends and family is the essence of civilization and one of the most enjoyable forms of social intimacy. I tried to convey the essence of those pleasures in The Emma Caites Way, as the characters bonded, sharing common goals and great meals. I am a slow food advocate.

For a brief while, in the late seventies and early eighties, I supported the idea that the then-new concepts of agricultural recombinant DNA (now called GE or GMO crops) could revolutionize agriculture in a good way. I thought there was promise in the concept, much as the Ford Foundation’s advanced hybrids had brought us short stalked rice–a boon to food production on marginal lands and in resource poor countries. (Yeah, like some earlier folks had hailed the then-new technology of television as a boon to education!) As the science developed, I was horrified when, instead, the technology brought us Frankenfoods and pesticide-resistant (or worse, pesticide-containing) crops–and all without adequate testing–not only of the impact of those crops on the consuming public, but also on the environment. How can a crop be a good thing if planting it requires ever increasing amounts of chemicals to be flooded onto the soil? Even worse, the very licenses under which these GMO seeds are sold prohibit further scientific review. We, the consuming public, were advised that the intellectual property rights of the Corporate Agribusiness Elite were more important than public safety. We are the guinea pigs. And we are expected to be satisfied with Monsanto’s and Dow’s assurances that these products are safe.

In a warning shot across the bow, a decade ago we saw the Gen-Star debacle, in which strands of wheat DNA were inserted into corn. No need for testing, we were assured, because the products were intended for animal consumption only. Yeah, right. Sure enough, this restriction was ignored and human food products were manufactured from this FrankenCorn. People with wheat sensitivities reacted. Products were pulled from the shelves and the government of Mexico protested that the crop was grown, without disclosure or permission, in Mexico, where the original seed stock that made modern corn possible lives. I cannot begin to explain how important that fact is–because of the dangers of gene stock contamination.

I am one of those chemically sensitive people. I can’t tolerate scented products. I have food intolerances and serious food allergies. I can’t take most antibiotics. My life became much easier in the mid-nineties when food labeling meant that I could go to the grocery store, like a regular person, and read the labels to see whether I could eat the processed foods. Now everyone reads labels to check for vitamin content, or sodium, or sugar. Labeling empowers us to take control of our diets without having to grow all our foods in the backyard. (Not that it stopped me from doing so.) When food labeling was first proposed, the food industry screamed that it would be ruinously expensive, that it would result in lost trade secrets or secret recipes, that businesses would fail and that consumers weren’t sophisticated enough to use the information anyway! Pshaw! The world didn’t end. Millions of Americans assiduously read food labels today. We accept without question that we have the right to know what we’re eating.

Which brings me to my soapbox today. (What, you thought I was already on one?) We have the right to know. I want to know what I’m eating and I have that right. In my case, cross-contamination of foods could result in illness or life-threatening allergic reactions. The Gen-Star incident showed us that GMO crossed foods could result in triggering food allergies in unsuspecting sensitive people. You don’t have to be for, or against, GMO agriculture to recognize that Americans have the right to literally put their money where their mouths are. In my case, it is a critical question. But every consumer has the right to align their dollars with their convictions. To do so, you have to know. According to the average grocery cart, most Americans are already eating GMO foods, though polls show that under thirty percent of us think so. Today, over 50 countries (covering 40% of the world’s population) require GMO labeling. It’s shocking that we’re so far behind the curve.  A California initiative currently collecting signatures would require labeling of food products that contain GMO materials. It’s that simple–you disclose your ingredients and let the consumer decide. It’s a pretty American kind of solution to a thorny problem. I urge all Californians to sign the petition for The California Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act of 2012 and to support it in the election in November. It’s a no-brainer.

And now, if someone could help me down off my soapbox…(that’s an unscented soap soapbox.)