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Fred Kirschenmann on the importance of sustainable farming | Organic Gardening 365
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Fred Kirschenmann on the Importance of Sustainable Farming

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Restore the soil-Fred Kirschenmann

On Saturday, March 1, 2014 I was fortunate enough to attend the 32nd Annual CT-NOFA Winter Conference. That stands for the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. It was held at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, CT

There was a wonderful array of vendors with products and information on display. Three sessions of workshops with way too many choices, 58 different topics, and not enough time to go to each one. And some outstanding speakers in the Keynote portion of the conference.

The Keynote speaker was Fred Kirschenmann who dazzled us with his expertise on the topic of sustainable farming and why it is so important to the survival of mankind.

And no wonder. He knows exactly what he’s talking about. Fred is a Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, NY, and manages his family’s 1,800 acre organic farm in North Dakota

Tomorrow’s Farmer and You

The title of his talk was, “Tomorrow’s Farmer and You.” His basic message was that farming and food is not a “thing” but a relationship with everyone involved in its production and consumption.

Below is a summary of Fred’s remarks. I have not verified his data, but reported it as he presented it to us.

Farmers need us. The food systems of the last 100 years have culminated today in an intense focus on farmers and the demands we put on them to produce enough food. All we have to do as consumers is eat the end product. We have come to have a rather passive role. The industrial food system’s mantra is: “Just eat it” (and don’t ask any questions).

We need to change that paradigm. For lots of reasons, but for starters: In 2050, how are we going to feed the world’s 9 billion people?

That’s something we all have to think about.

Here’s a better question: How are we going to adapt to the new world and how are we going to feed ourselves? In other words, it can’t be a philosophical question about some world population “out there.” We must be involved in the way our food is produced and no longer be lulled into passivity.

Issues to be faced

End of cheap energy: The era of cheap energy which fueled the industrial revolution is coming quickly to an end. The resources are being depleted at an alarming rate and the cost of these resources and their production will continue to rise.

When this happens, how will we feed ourselves if we our food systems are still based on the industrial agriculture model which uses immense amounts of energy to produce its crops?

Depletion of soil amendments: Where will we get the inputs or soil amendments needed by industrial agriculture such as potash and rock phosphates, etc.? These resources are being used up and could be gone on a large scale in 20 years.

The marketplace is already seeing manipulation of pricing because of the growing scarcity.

Water: Water will no longer be unlimited and free as we have been accustomed to in the past. We are drawing down our fresh water resources with alarming rapidity.

In China, there are wells drilling as deep as 3,000 to 4,000 feet to retrieve water. The Ogallala Aquifer, which is a vast underground water reservoir, was down by half its original levels in the 1960s. Some farmers in parts of the central part of the U.S. are not able to irrigate their farms right now. Several studies show that at the current rate of use for irrigation, the Ogallala will be gone in 20 years.

Stop and think for a minute, if we no longer have water for irrigation in the heartland of America, what will the farmers do who depend so heavily on irrigation for their crops?

Now stop and think about that again. How will these crops be produced without enough water?

Climate change: Climate change is not a sure or exact science by any means. We cannot predict exactly what will happen. But, we can predict there will be more instability. With this increased instability in the climate and less water for irrigation, what will this mean for the farmers?

Farming demographics: The average age of farmers is 53. Will there be enough young farmers stepping up to the plate, or rather the plow, to raise enough food for future generations?

Is sustainability still possible?

We, as a society, seem to be in a state of dreamy belief. Perhaps even a state of denial on the issues raised above.  If so, then we cannot prepare for these issues as they descend upon us.

We must be awake and face these issues together. Together.

Thomas Berry refers to the difficult times and challenges we face as “moments of grace.”  Why? The grace comes when we wake up and realize we have to energize and work together to solve these problems.

It cannot be just up to the farmer to solve these problems. We must all work hand in hand with the farmer to find solutions. Our motto can no longer be, “Just eat it,” just eat whatever the farmer decides to grow.

That attitude treats food like an object, an end product, a commodity that is bought and sold by price and not value.

Food is a relationship

We must transition to a culture where food is not a thing but a relationship. Food can no longer be just what we, as the consumer, eat at the end of the production and marketing process. Food is a relationship with the farmer who grows it.

A good example of things going in this direction is the increase of farmers’ markets and CSAs. You can talk to the farmers and tell them what you want to eat, or what you enjoyed best. You get to know your farmer and realize you are supporting a real person, their families and employees instead of an impersonal corporation. You can ask questions about how the food you buy was grown and make conscientious choices. You understand and participate in the risks faced by the farmer when you join a CSA and know that if it’s a bad year for tomatoes, you will have less tomatoes.

In short, you are part of the process, part of the culture. You share part of the opportunity. You share part of the risk. Food is a relationship.

“Local” food movement

Usually the definition of “local food” is something produced within a 50 or even 100 mile radius. The idea is to decrease the carbon footprint of how far the food you eat has traveled from where it was produced to get to you.

But what if 50 farmers travel 50 miles to sell produce in a farmers’ market? It has be argued that could create a bigger carbon footprint than one semi truck driving from California to New York City with the same amount of produce.

Something to think about.

But the local food movement has at least wakened up a lot of people to be aware of what they are eating and where it comes from. This is a crucial first step.

The next step in the right direction is moving toward food hubs or food sheds. This is when a community takes charge of where their food comes from.

Value added

More young people are beginning to stay on the farm because they are finding ways to produce value added products. If you want to be successful in today’s marketplace, you can’t play by the old playbook by marginalizing labor, environmental and social costs for the sake of company profits.

Today, you must create shared value and incorporate environmental, social, and labor issues directly in your business plan. We must take care of people and the environment to be a true success.

Groups of farmers and processors are banding together to create added value and it becomes a win-win situation, each party contributing one aspect to the final product.

The grower can work hand in hand with the processor and decide together on a price that is best for both for a given crop. Here again, food becomes a relationship and not just a commodity sold to the lowest bidder.

This is not possible in the old way of doing things. But it IS possible when we change our paradigms.

Beacons of light

Here are a number of trends taking place that are strong reasons for hope in the agricultural world.

Beacon: Use of cover crops Whereas organic gardeners and farmers have long touted the benefits of using cover crops, in the last 5 or 6 years, even some non-organic farmers are beginning to use cover crops in their farming operations.

They are discovering that even in the first year of planting cover crops, when these crops are plowed into the field in the spring, it reduces the need for fertilizer by 20-30%.  When cover crops have been used for 6 to 7 years, the amount of fertilizer needed is reduced by 70%.

That is pretty amazing, wouldn’t you say?

Another obvious benefit of plowing cover crops into the soil is that, because of the added organic matter, the biological health of the soil skyrockets. After cover crops have been planted for the above mentioned 6 to 7 years, the rate of water absorption is 8″ of water per hour.

Soil that has not been farmed with cover crops averages 1/2″ of water per hour absorbed. That’s a huge difference.

Think of what would happen in Iowa the next time there are torrential rains, if all those monoculture fields of corn and soy beans (which constitute 92% of the crops grown in that state) were planted with cover crops. We would not have the devastating floods that are so often reported in the news. The soil, enriched with the organic matter from years of cover crop production, would absorb much of the rain.

What is soil anyway? The view of the old-school “soil scientist” is that soil is just a material to hold the plants in place to be fertilized with chemicals of our creation.

This view has led to the travesty and rape of one of the planet’s greatest resources.

“Our greatest challenge and most important task is to restore the biological health of our soil.”      Fred Kirschenmann

Scientists are discovering that a single teaspoon of healthy, bio-rich/diverse soil may contain up to 2 to 4 billion microbes. New discoveries about soil are being made all the time as this true view of soil’s worth is explored.

Beacon: Restoration of soil bio-diversity There is more awareness that the richness of bio-diverse soil cannot be restored with a monoculture approach to agriculture because the cheap inputs of fuel and chemical fertilizers are not sustainable and deplete this bio-diversity.

We need the different seeds and the breeds that perform better in different areas and we need to understand better how many species work together in an agricultural system.

Beacon: Biological systems More farmers are discovering that the biological waste or output of one system becomes the resources for another system.

For example, farmers who have used a monoculture approach have begun to see the immense value of crop rotation. They are discovering that crop rotation adds needed bio-diversity to the soil.

In fact a 3 and 4 crop rotation system can improve the soil to such an extent that the need for fertilizer and pesticides are reduced up to 90%.

Let’s say a farmer plants part of his fields in alfalfa in his crop rotation cycle. The alfalfa helps restore nutrients to the soil. But what will he do with all that alfalfa?

In the old model of a monoculture crop, he would not have alfalfa because he would be using chemical fertilizers to feed his crops. In the new paradigm, the farmer and the consumers (not the middlemen) are involved in the process and farmers and consumers (communities) work together to find solutions.

It is crucial for everyone to be involved. We must know where our food is coming from and how it is being produced.

We need a more diverse market of more varieties available.

Beacon: New farmers It’s wonderful to see a new generation of farmers who are passionate about food production. To them food is not a “thing” but a relationship.

They are truly a gift to our society. We must find and create ways for them to have access to land and capital so they can fulfill their vision of providing food in this new paradigm.

Beacon: Perennial grain production Some farmers in the global south are discovering the advantages to planting perennial grains instead of traditional annual varieties.

These perennial grains only need to be replanted every 5 to 6 years, which is an immense saving on labor and time costs. Plus, these grains are more nutritious than many annual types.

Beacon: The role of the Arts Various artists have written songs, books and poems and have created documentaries highlighting the importance of the soil and sustainability. A good example is the 104 minute “The Symphony of Soil” by Deborah Koons Garcia. Watch the trailer.  And the book The Pine Island Paradox
by Kathleen Dean Moore is another example.

Fred Kirschenmann at the 32nd Annual CT-NOFA Winter Conference

Fred Kirschenmann at the 32nd Annual CT-NOFA Winter Conference

In conclusion:

Just because something is “Certified Organic” doesn’t mean that the soil is being restored. We need well managed bio-diverse agricultural systems to bring life back to our soil and thereby increase the productivity of our efforts. We must pay attention to the inner workings of nature and model our systems accordingly.

The farmer and the community must work together to make food a relationship instead of a commodity.

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