Speak Your Piece: Get Trees or Get Out

Industrial farming needs to adapt “Restoration Agriculture,” an old idea that is finding new scientific support as we look at farming as a way to reduce carbon emissions instead of increasing them.

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The time has come to open a window in the conventional agriculture echo-chamber.  The Earl “Rusty” Butz 1970’s prescription to flood the Earth with corn and soy indeed turned our fertile farmlands into massive calorie factories.  But the short term boon for big ag did not appear to account for long term economic and ecological sustainability.  Butz left this world seven years ago, but his agricultural worldview remains largely intact.

The dizzying media chatter concerning a looming climate catastrophe regularly chastises any number of irresponsible human behaviors—from driving cars to procreation.  Unfortunately the media and politicians fail to discuss the extent to which our agricultural practices add to our plight. 

The global food system—from fertilizer manufacturing to production and transportation—accounts for up to one-third of human greenhouse gas emissions.  Of that one-third, large-scale agricultural production contributes 86% of the footprint.  Despite the absence of our farming practices in the mainstream climate conversation, numerous efforts to mitigate their staggering impact abound, from organic production methods to reduced-emission GM crops.

But even these approaches, although noble in principle, inadvertently bolster the Butz status quo—fence row to fence row.  Most current solutions and innovations for annual crop production fuel the current monoculture paradigm.  These methods demonstrate our remarkable ability to treat only the symptoms of a system in dire need of fundamental reform.  These and other innovations just might reduce carbon emissions of conventional agriculture; but it may be time to question the viability of that system.

What about an industrial agriculture system that could actually sequester carbon?  What if the corn-soy carousel ride finally came to an end?   What if diversified perennial crops became the dominant commodity, supplanting the decrepit annual-monoculture archetype?

Many maverick farmers and researchers are attempting to answer those questions.  Myriad theoretical systems have been developed that explore alternative farming methods: permaculture, agroforestry, silvopasture, carbon-farming and numerous other models that approach agriculture with an ecologically sensitive bent.  Each of these approaches share the fundamental ideology that diversified perennial systems hold the key to agricultural longevity and environmental harmony.

These concepts are not unique or new.  Diversified perennial cropping models were most notably introduced to the West in the first half of the 20th century by agricultural researchers such as J. Russell Smith, Sir Albert Howard and Masanobu Fukuoka.  Early proponents of ecologically-friendly farming often cited the apparatus of natural biological systems.  Smith and others also told stories of old-world communities using tree crops as their agricultural mainstay.  Many farmers since have run wild with these ideas, finding great personal success on a small scale.  But regardless of decades of thoughtful study and trial, the evidence supporting any practical application of these methods to broad-acre farming remains largely anecdotal.  In our modern age, anecdotal evidence rarely spurs industrial change. 

Photo by Stephanie Bartman
Kevin Wolz, a PhD Student at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and President of the Savanna Institute, holds a bundle of grapes, one of many woody species used to convert a conventional farm into a new Restoration Agriculture site.

Science, on the other hand, is golden.  When it comes to agriculture, the trustees of this scientific wealth are the land grant universities.  These institutions have for over a century stood at the pulpit preaching their approved practices to farmers.  The Butz decree of the 1970’s coupled with the explosion of agricultural innovations developed at the land grant universities led to the modern dogma of annual monoculture farming.  Certain practices such as agroforestry do enjoy support from land grant universities and the USDA, but mainstream adoption has yet to follow.  Needless to say, diverse perennial farming models have commanded negligible academic attention.  That may be changing.

A new breed of crop scientists has quietly started the tedious task of replicating broad-acre diverse perennial systems in a controlled environment.  Permaculture—dismissed regularly as little more than a backyard hobby— has found its way onto the fields of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in the heart of corn-soy country.  In 2012 a pioneering PhD student named Kevin Wolz, with the help of a few curious professors, established the 5-acre Woody Perennial Polyculture Research Site to gather initial baseline data on a diversified perennial agriculture operation along-side the conventional corn-soy rotation.

Wolz modeled his site from the real-world farm of Mark Shepard, an outspoken advocate, author, and entrepreneur of diversified perennial farming—what he calls Restoration Agriculture.  In his book “Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers,” Shepard applies permaculture on a commercial-scale farm and outlines his theories of an economically and ecologically resilient agriculture operation.  For over 20 years Shepard has grown deep perennial roots on his 106-acre farm in southwest Wisconsin—a farm he converted from the conventional corn-soy rotation.

The most notable characteristic of Restoration Agriculture applied to commercial farming is the replacement of corn and soy with perennial tree crops—chestnut and hazelnut.  Both nuts carry commodity potential in their analogous nutritional composition to corn and soy; chestnuts providing the same starch as corn and hazelnuts the same oil and protein as soy.  Below these staple canopy tree crops, a vast polyculture of marketable products sprawls outward—from apples, grapes, asparagus, and mushrooms to grazing animals.

Another key characteristic of Restoration Agriculture lies in its adaptability to local biomes and the ecological boon that follows.  Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, these operations account for the native ecosystem of the individual farm.  The Midwest oak savanna (the native biome of pre-plow Middle America) informs the multi-layer farm design of both Shepard and Wolz—scattered canopy trees, shrubs, vines, grasses and fungi.  In Kansas, the prairie biome guides the research of The Land Institute to develop perennial grains.  A system adapted to the local climate and geography increases carbon sequestration, improves water management, and reduces erosion.  The no-till nature of perennials also reduces greenhouse gas emissions.  The polyculture approach invites natural protection from disease and pests while providing a habitat for numerous agriculturally beneficial species—particularly pollinators—increasingly ostracized from the conventional agriculture model.

Photo via the Land Institute
Researchers at the Land Institute in Salina, KS work to develop perennial grain crops.

If Wolz’s work had stopped at the 5-acres it would not be as significant—but it continues to grow.  In 2014, UIUC professors secured an internal grant of $500,000 to further explore numerous parameters of woody polyculture systems.  This year UIUC will plant an additional 40-acres of woody species to evaluate “the potential of multifunctional woody polyculture as a transformative system of agriculture to meet growing demand for healthy foods while advancing the sustainability of food production systems in the United States and abroad.”

Outside of the university, Wolz sits as president of the Savanna Institute, a fledgling non-profit whose goal is to empower industry stakeholders to support, adopt, and enhance resilient agriculture practices” in the Midwest.  As UIUC begins gathering crucial quantitative data, the Savanna Institute works with farmers and additional institutions to develop the practical application of Restoration Agriculture operations in the real world.  As part of the Savanna Institute Case Study Program, farmers gather data and share their own experiences and lessons-learned.  This work will provide farmers, investors, policymakers and other stakeholders with the important information needed to effectively integrate tree crops into the food system.  In 2014, the first year of the Case Study Program, seven farms of over 25-acres across three states signed on and planted trees.  Over 50 new applications were received for the 2015 season—of these at least 10 will officially join the program, adding numerous acres and three more states to the bunch.

Eighty-six years after the publication of “Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture,” the academics have returned to the suggestion of J. Russell Smith to consider woody perennials as a possible centerpiece of our agriculture system.  Universities, little by little, have started devoting the brains and Benjamins necessary to initiate crucial quantitative research; and real farmers are increasingly interested in the ecological and economic potential of restorative agriculture methods.  If this growing movement to develop lasting agricultural reform can sustain, policymakers may find it increasingly difficult to endorse the antiquated folly of conventional ag.

Tory Dahlhoff is proprietor of www.yeomanfilmer.org and currently sits on the board of the Savanna Institute.    

 

Topics: Environment
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