How will we grow our food for the rest of the century? Faced with a changing climate, this is a daunting question for farmers. Increasingly extreme weather events such as floods and droughts are creating conditions that cannot be met by business as usual. Adaptation and innovation are key to the future of farming.
The manifold considerations of agriculture and climate change were addressed on the first day of the Young Farmers Conference 2014, hosted by the Stone Barns Center outside of Tarrytown, New York. Agriculture leaders and new farmers from around the country converged for a ground-breaking program organized by Zach Wolf, director of the center's Growing Farmers Initiative, whose mandate is to train the next generation of farmers, many of whom did not grow up on farms. Eager to learn more about evolving technology, attendees formed a heartening gathering of kindred souls.
Seasoned agriculturists led sessions and spoke on panels addressing topics from the philosophical to the practical. Some spoke of soil, plants and tools and how best to adapt them. Others questioned the basic western notion of man pitted against nature, positing that rather than masters of the universe, we earthlings are a part of the earth, mere players and ultimately pawns in an enormously complex system.
As one speaker put it, "We are not in charge of the eco-system." Instead of trying to harness the natural world, we would do better to employ invention and responsiveness. Trying to outsmart nature, to snake around her, to alter her by control, will be our undoing.
Dorn Cox, Executive Director of GreenStart and a passionate environmentalist, called for a stronger stance on soil health, to fix the soil that poor farming practices have depleted of nutrients. He believes in going beyond sustainable -- he calls for regenerative farming. "We must recreate what we destroyed."
All agreed that healthy soil is vital, and some spoke of it with near reverence, calling it a living organism, the lungs of the earth. Soil inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen. It is full of life forms -- worms and protozoa, microbes and fungi. Maintaining this underground richness is crucial to surface life.
Cox spoke of the need to switch the roles of agriculture and commerce, contending that commerce should serve agriculture instead of the other way around. The power lies with consumers. If they demand well-raised food, the market will comply. Instead of Monsanto dominating food sources, consumers should govern what kind of food they eat. This shift has begun and with perseverance will continue.
Drawing on extensive experience and a sharp wit, Tim LaSalle (former CEO of the Rodale Institute) debunked many of the current misconceptions about organic farming. Countering the argument that organic food is too expensive, LaSalle says it may cost more per pound, but in the long run it covers its costs. It's far less expensive to society to support organic food than to pay health care costs associated with diseases that can result from industrial processed food, like cancer and diabetes.
Travels in Africa and around the underdeveloped world have strengthened LaSalle's beliefs. He maintains that there's plenty of food in the world, that food shortages are a political and social problem. "In South Sudan, where people are starving, they grow grain for Saudi Arabia." He cites the objections of conventional farmers to growing organically: "We'll need more farmhands for that." "Good!" says LaSalle, "We need jobs." Farm work is an answer to unemployment. A shining example is in the city of Detroit, where vegetable gardens are springing up, small oases amidst urban blight.
LaSalle warned against creeping corporate interests in organic farming, that excessive influence is compromising organic standards. For example, the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) is currently considering a proposal to allow for synthetic Methionine in organic poultry feed.
A panel titled Cultivating Resilience proposed options for a farmer's best hedge against climate change. Compost, cover crops and multiple kinds of plantings grow root systems that help prevent erosion and aid in water retention.
Speakers cautioned that with the warmer climate will come more pests and possibly pesticides. Panelist Brett Grohsgal, an organic farmer from Maryland, said it used to be easy to grow basil, but now downy mildew attacks the underside of the leaves. He advised new farmers to diversify, in both crops and activities, in order to stabilize farm production and profit. When one crop fails, you can sell others. Or honey or millet or Christmas wreaths.
Speakers noted that water is assuming a huge role, as it's often too much or too little. Ag schools are developing drought-resistant strains of plants that farmers can test. When heavy rains flood fields, drainage systems must be in place. Crops that sit in water can't develop roots, and running machinery on drenched soil will compact and ruin it.
Better yet is higher ground with good drainage. Before buying land, check out the site. Does it get enough water? Low lying land, especially near the sea or running rivers on the east coast, is probably not the best bet.
Among the sobering reports of prolonged heat on land and livestock, such as lower cow's milk yields, there were a few bright lights in the dark forecast -- longer growing seasons may allow for double cropping. Bananas may flourish in Pennsylvania.
No-till farming was proposed as an alternative, albeit wistfully. One panelist confessed her fondness for steel; another his attachment to his tractor. But they agreed that low or no tillage is preferable, allowing the soil to maintain the life that is disrupted with deep plowing. Turning over topsoil breaks apart the biomass, a web teeming with life that not only holds the soil together but creates and transfers nutrients, making vegetables more nutritious and better tasting.
The conference encouraged open-sourcing, the opposite of patenting. Attendees were encouraged to share what they learn. Given the compressed timeline for devising effective strategies against climate change, all will benefit from communicating what works and what doesn't. The Internet is as revolutionary a tool as the printing press for communication, and can function as a means for cross-pollination between farmers, to spread the word about results of adaptive farming. Much information is available, such as Cornell's online beginning farming courses for the general public.
The high caliber of presenters and attendees at the conference was inspiring. Their collective intelligence, openness and flexibility equip them well to face the coming challenges.
As one of the better-educated countries, and one whose increased population and industrialization has cleared the great majority of woodlands, the US could learn from others such as Ecuador, which is the first country to pass legislation protecting the rights of nature. They have deemed that nature in all its life forms has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles.
We are all part of the food system, if only as end users. We must be food citizens in the coming decades and buttress the entities that serve us well. Support your local farmers; write your congressmen; eat from the whole farm.
Links to related sites:
Climate Smart presentations from the DEC:
American Farmland Trust:
The Wikipedia for farm technology:
University of Vermont's Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Farm initiatives in the Hudson Valley:
Local Harvest online food community:
Farmland documentary, online now and in theatres in March, 2015
Follow Corinna Clendenen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@corclen