Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Mimicking Nature to Feed the Masses

Jeffrey Green
Activist Post

To me, there is no job more important than producing healthy food in a sustainable way. Admittedly I’m a newbie to this particular topic, but I feel my passion growing with every bit of new information I find.  Can there be anything more beautiful than mimicking nature to produce an abundance of healthy food? Sustainable farming methods are gaining huge traction based on their fantastic results.

It is estimated that about 80% of our food comes from industrial single-crop farming and feed-lot livestock, all of which is factory processed to our plate. This method is an efficient assembly line however it is utterly dependent on fossil fuels, has been proven to spawn disease, thoroughly kills any organic life in the soil, and grossly pollutes any waterway that it touches. Is this is how we expect to feed our growing population forever - efficiency over quality, biotech over nature, oil over organic, and rampant pollution?

Wonderful books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and corresponding movies like Food Inc and The World According to Monsanto, are making a huge impact on the public. Conscious customers are driving demand higher for organic and local foods. Therefore, more farmers are now adopting sustainable methods because they have proven to produce better products.

Two farming methods have really taken root and are beginning to flourish without the need for pesticides, fertilizers, or large amounts of fossil fuel. It is telling that both methods mimic nature to control pests and produce abundance. In other words, these methods work with nature rather than fight it with chemical additives and antibiotics.

The first method of rotational pastured livestock, or more simply - grass farming, has been popularized by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms (featured in Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc). Polyface focuses on healthy pastures and soil to raise the highest quality cattle, chicken, eggs, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs.  It all starts with the grass which Salatin calls a grand “salad bar”.

Polyface’s method is a beautiful stage show of nature at work. First, the cattle are grazed in a specific area of the bountiful pasture where they eat the fresh salad bar and dung the field.

The herd is moved almost daily to new thick pastures. Following nature’s example, they then bring the poultry birds behind the cattle to eat the dropped grains, scratch the cow dung for bugs (which keeps pests to a minimum), all while their dung adds significant nitrogen to feed the grass. Salatin’s philosophy is to let the animals be what they were born to be, and to use their natural behavior to limit the work on the farm. For instance, they have developed a composting method where the pigs, through their tenacious rooting, turn the compost for the farm. Every action has a purpose and nothing is wasted.

It’s so simple it should be obvious – that following nature to create healthy pastures for happy animals will make for a much higher quality product than factory farming methods. And because there is less labor, machinery, and chemicals involved, Salatin says they can make a nice living. He claims single-crop growers with oil intensive practices make about $500/acre, while he says his pastures produce roughly $5000/acre. Buying clubs, local chefs, and retail shops all rave about Polyface’s premium quality, and their food purity tests off-the-charts, especially compared to factory farm chickens that have been filled with antibiotics and washed in bleach. I would say there is sufficient motivation for farmers to take notes – and they are.

The second method is permaculture gardening, which is an interdependent system where a large variety of complimentary plants are strategically located for the benefit of the entire garden. This design system is brilliant for urban micro-farms, kitchen gardens, self-sufficient homesteads, and even large scale family farming. The philosophy of permaculture gardening is to recreate nature in a profound way to produce chemical-free food.

Permaculture works something like this; you design an entire edible habitat based on the natural capital of your setting. Then, place plants to methodically balance the soil, water, and pests. For instance, a nitrogen fixing plant may be planted next to a nitrogen hungry plant, which may sit next to an ornamental that deters predators, and so on. Permaculture is also a closed circle philosophy where all resources are optimized though conservation and recycling. The immense food yields per acre are astonishing when using permaculture methods and the results are also drawing many newcomers.

Many homesteaders have utilized these techniques for years before Bill Mollison coined the term “permaculture”in the 80s. However since then, the definition of permaculture has grown to encompass sustainable design systems for all aspects of our existence – agriculture, water, housing, business, community, and wellness.

Now that conventional agriculture methods that depend on cheap infinite oil are proving to be unsustainable at best, permaculture’s popularity is exploding. Numerous businesses, institutes, courses, and internships are popping up to spread nature’s gospel.

Learning about these methods has given me new-found optimism about living in a sustainable way as humanity progresses. These techniques can truly provide a future of what has been previously called an oxymoron - Sustainable Abundance.

Start an Organic Garden: Heirloom Seed Bank

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m_astera said...

There is something missing from both approaches above, Salatin's and Mollison's. What is missing is an understanding of the minerals in the soil. They are there, or they are not. I have put a lot of time into making this understandable. Take a look and you might find the missing piece, and no I'm not needing to sell anything. http://soilminerals.com/AgricolaI.htm

Activist said...

Thank you.

Michael said...

m_astera, I just ordered and finished reading your book (in 2 days) and was very impressed. While I was already on board with your philosophy concerning soil mineralization, after all I called my first company "plusMinerals", the book provided much needed info concerning reading soil tests and other fine tuning of my understanding. FWIW, I heartily recommend it to anyone that is concerned about healthy, nutritious food and personal/animal health.

BTW, Salatin's message is, by necessity a simple one. I don't think he wants to "confuse" people with too complicated a USP.

micheal sunanda said...

ola Astera & Michael
am so glad you brot up minerals for soil natural fertility there, mineralizing soil that's critical to balancing soil quality for growing healthy organic food. Sandy soil growers may have native minerals for feeding roots growing food with hi fertility. Soil with hi carbon content needs organic minerals, like many compost piles need minerals we add: egg shells, greensand, rock phosphate, Azomite & glacier rock dust, sea shells, etc, especially with woody soil or hi manuer compost piles for making fertile soil thru seasons cycles. Even seaweed & kelp at minerals.
micheal sunanda Oness press Gaia Permaculture Organic designs

Anonymous said...

There is not a one type soil fits all solution, When talking about a soil matrix your three main constituents are sand, clay and silt, then depending on the chemical makeup of the soil you can have anions or cations which grab different minerals depending on their charge. Then you have humus which is partially decayed organic matter. this contains many nutrients, the plant that grabbed minerals is now releasing minerals through decay. It's near impossible to truly "fix" or "amend" soil, sure you can get a plant to grow and conduct photosynthesis maybe produce a fruit. but we are destroying the very fabric that built that soil eons ago! Keep Paving!

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