Farm Smarter, Not Harder

Written by Chad Adams

That quote regarding “the truth cannot be unseen” pretty much sums up my understanding of sustainable agriculture.  All the years of “that won’t work here”, “you can’t feed the world with organic food”, “it’s not as productive”, “oh those chemicals don’t hurt anything”, “there’s no way to make that affordable”, and all the other go-to myths people spout against the practice tend to drain one’s resolve.  Even though I have life-long experience with organic farming, a degree in plant and soil science, and a passion for knowledge, only recently have I been shown the truth.

I have had the pleasure over the past few years to spend time with many of the “heroes” of sustainable agriculture—and many of these heroes are people that no one has ever heard of.  Bio-Logical Capital has made a large investment in the knowledge of how to make food in a way that is nutritious, affordable to the eater, profitable to the farmer, and improves, rather than degrades, the place where it’s grown.  In a series of articles, I’d like to share some of those experiences.

Let’s start with the coast of Maine in winter.  My time spent with Eliot Coleman at his Four Season Farm was eye opening, to say the least.  Blossoming, chemical-free, four-foot high tomato plants in a moveable, unheated greenhouse in March.

The mainstream understanding is that local, organic agriculture is, and will remain, a niche market, and that it certainly can’t be done at scale.  But it is dangerous to assume that because industrial agriculture commands such media and market presence, that it is a) currently doing what is claimed, or b) the best way to do it.  The fact is that large-scale industrial agriculture produces only around 30 percent of the food consumed globally, while small-scale food producers produce at least 70 percent.  (ETC Group, “Who Will Feed Us? Questions for the Food and Climate Crises,”2009)

It is not a difficult exercise to research modern, fossil-fuel dependent food production and to realize that it simply doesn’t work without economic subsidies and creates any number of negative political, environmental, and social consequences.  Further, industrial agriculture will become considerably less viable in a future of increased climate variability and economic fluctuations.  For the purpose of this piece, let’s avoid the doom and gloom, and go right to the revelation.  Yes, there is a much better way, it’s being done in many places, and Bio-Logical Capital will be seeding it wherever our projects take us.

An article by Eliot Coleman, “Organic agriculture: deeply rooted in science and ecology” provides a prescient overview of the influences that guided him to farming with nature.  The version he gave me was entitled “The Other Side of the Tapestry”, alluding to the best metaphor for the relationship between conventional and agro-ecological farming that I’ve yet encountered.  I won’t ruin the surprise, but the fundamental point is that conventional industrial agriculture does not address the questions for which it purports to be a solution, and in practice, most of the problems it “solves” are created by the act of farming in that fashion.

In contrast, an agro-ecological approach to farming, according to Coleman, “evolves from intelligent interaction with the living processes of the earth itself”.  His synthesis of traditional knowledge and his own decades of hard-earned experience provide a biological approach to agriculture.  He states that:

1.  Soil fertility can be raised to the highest levels by techniques that increase the percentage of soil organic matter by rotating crops and livestock and by maintaining soil minerals through using natural inputs such as limestone and other finely ground rock powders.”

2.  The plant vigor resulting from doing #1 correctly renders plants resistant to pests and diseases.

3.  The plant quality resulting from doing #1 correctly provides the most nutritious possible food for maintaining human beings and their animals in bounteous health.

There is more depth and complexity here than the words immediately reveal—but the fundamental simplicity is profound.  It achieves the goals: make healthy food, in a place, in perpetuity.  I have personally seen this performed at many scales, in many climate types, with nearly any kind of crop.  It simply requires observation, thinking, and a willingness to challenge the “way it’s done”.  It is neither prescriptive nor easy, but the results cannot be achieved any other way.