Archives for category: sustainable agriculture

Just Us Chickens

A.V. Walters

IMG_2417

I’m not one much given to ‘cute.’ Never have been. We got chickens because we prefer the taste of fresh eggs, and we like to be able to ensure the quality of the food we eat. Our chicks eat organic.

I resisted the idea of naming them. However, they have earned descriptives–if only because we need to be able to identify them in conversation. When they first arrived, there were two very small chicks and two larger chicks. Then, one of the small chicks (whom we identified as “Yellow-head”) had a burst of development. She is now the largest. The other smaller chick is still well behind all of the others, both in size and feather development. Despite being the runt, she’s no dummy, and has strategies for compensating for her size. I’ve been calling her Einstein. The middle two have been neck and neck in their growth–and sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart. One walks taller–and so I refer to her as ‘Upright,’ while the remaining mid-sized chick moves about with a sort of nervous, crouched, posture. Perhaps it’s wrong, but I call her ‘McNugget.”

My sister has chickens. They have them for the eggs–and because the spent chicken litter is a great way to speed your compost and build high quality soils. But her chickens are pets. They have proper names. She fully speaks chicken.

Chicks are a lot of work. They are filthy little creatures. I should have remembered from when we raised emu chicks, but I am at a loss to understand how an animal that will spend hours preening its feathers will also shit in its food bowl. Perhaps it’d be easier if the “cute” factor resonated for me. Oh well. After just two weeks, they’re looking moth-eaten, and teenage scruffy. They not fuzz-balls anymore, but neither do they have their full plumage. Only a mother hen (type) would find them attractive at this point. They are, however, psychologically interesting.

IMG_2418

Even at this stage, they clearly demonstrate the concept of “pecking order.” Yellow-head is the dominant and lets them all know that she’s in charge. After the first week we gave them a perch. It belongs to her, the queen of the roost. She won’t let anyone else on it. The others get it. They stay on the floor–except for the occasional hop up to try it out–when Yellow-head is asleep.

At first, the three larger birds would crowd Einstein out of food bowl access. Now she just pushes in between them. And if the rest are asleep, Einstein takes advantage and fills up when there’s no competition. I don’t know if this is intelligence, or just survival. Einstein does not challenge the pecking order. Nor does she spend much of her time socializing–grooming or cuddling together for naps. The two middle sycophants are forever nestling together, grooming each other or Yellow-head. That must be chicken bonding. So far I don’t see any outright pecking of the little one–though I’m watching for it. Chickens can be vicious. Maybe she can continue evasive maneuvers and avoid that particular bit of chicken ugly.

Yesterday we moved them from the basement to their coop. They’d outgrown their cardboard box. Seeing them in larger digs is a relief–they look much better. Relief from overcrowding seems to have minimized aggressive behaviors.

IMG_2420

Watching their interactions reminds me of our current social order. As a species, we need to move beyond bullying and ass-kissing. We need to foster resilience, independence and courage. As much as I’m impressed with little Einstein, it isn’t enough to keep your head down and mind your own affairs. We need to stand up for our convictions. Maybe we can find strength together. Otherwise, we’re just a bunch of chickens.

Advertisements

Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Sustainable

A.V. Walters

Food Stamps 2

For decades, sustainable has been the goal. Organic gardeners and farmers could proudly point at their successful efforts for the fact that they’d brought in crops that were not at the expense of the environment.

Agriculture, as it’s practiced in this country, is a significant factor in environmental degradation. Soil erosion, soil desiccation, loss of beneficial bacteria, poison build-up in the soils (and groundwater), bee losses—these are all “normal” conditions brought about by standard American agricultural methods. By contrast, organic practices, crop rotation, organic soil amendment (cover crops, compost and natural manure applications), these actually build soil health and soil volumes. As an organic gardener’s soils improved, she could be proud of the fact that she was building a better tomorrow in her corner of the planet.

Now we know that that is not enough.

The living world is a connected system. Excessive carbon in the atmosphere is changing the climate all over the planet and, organic or not, we’re along for the ride. It’s not enough to mind your own little corner with the objective of saving it. We need to save the planet. We can start by doing exactly what we’ve always done. Recent research shows that sustainable garden/farm practices actually trap carbon into the soils. Better soil, better air, better climate! So the organic gardener’s efforts actually help to offset some of the bad practices everywhere else!

Think of the changes we could make if we expanded organic and sustainable gardening practices everywhere! I imagine a world in which your local “garden center” does not have an “aisle of death,” with its shelves lined with poisons. To get there, people need to stop buying those products. To convince them to let go of their poison remedies, the organic tribe needs to spread the word. We need to reach out, with solutions, instead of judgments. We need to have classes and write articles on alternatives to the garden fed with chemical fertilizers and “guarded” with pesticides. It can be done. (And yes, I know we’re all busy, but really, our lives and our future depends on this and we can make time.)

Imagine how much more progress we could make if our agricultural system changed to include some of those same techniques. Successful ancient farmers built our civilization using sustainable methods. Our current version of extractive farming has only been used for half a century. We can revive those sustainable traditions and decrease our reliance on chemical inputs. Recent studies on extended crop rotation have shown we can increase soil health and minimize chemical usage.

“Substantial improvements in the environmental sustainability of agriculture are achievable now, without sacrificing food production or farmer livelihoods.” – See more at: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/news/10-11-2012/benefits-of-longer-rotations#sthash.0Zeiwsun.dpuf and at www.cefs.ncsu.edu/…/croprotationsfinaljan09.doc Even beyond that, the evidence is coming in that shows that an international conversion to sustainable agricultural practices on a larger scale could literally save the planet.

This isn’t rocket science. Sustainable practices are cheaper, healthier and sounder than the system that puts food on the tables for most of America—and changes in farming methods could prevent topsoil losses, sequester carbon (reducing climate change) use water more efficiently and deliver better quality foods for Americans.

proclimweb.scnat.ch/portal/ressources/2302.pdf

Our mindsets have to change to make this possible. Our language has to change to embrace a brighter future, without building resistance to what we need to do to get there. Sustainable isn’t enough. But regenerative is. Regenerative Agriculture isn’t exactly new. It’s what all good farmers did before the chemical revolution. So another revolution will be necessary to make the change. It won’t be easy. There is huge resistance in big money—and big money has a lot to lose here. The agri-chemical industry will not go gently into that good night. (Monsanto, the “poster-child” culprit in agricultural degradation, already owns the Google words for “sustainable agriculture.” In a cruel joke of technology, Monsanto gets the first search hit for those words.)

If you want regenerative farming and gardening to survive and thrive, you’ll have to put your money to work. Don’t buy gardening chemicals. Support your local farmer, especially your local organic farmer. Read labels—and be picky about what you buy. Don’t buy GMO foods. Reduce your consumption of processed foods. If you haven’t already, start a garden. Plant trees. Because we are all part of the problem, we can all be a part of the solution.

In a quote often (and perhaps mistakenly) attributed to Winston Churchill, “You can depend upon the Americans to do the right thing. But only after they have exhausted every other possibility.”

(And thanks to the United States Postal Service for the beautiful Forever stamps.)