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Ognen Duzlevski

Senior tinkerer.

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Background

The other day I joined a group on Facebook called “Environmental professionals”. It is about 3,000+ people, some of which are in one way or another connected to the new “climate change” industry (more on that later).

After a few days, there was a post on soil microbiology and what the latest science says about it (yes, another vilification of tillage). I replied to the post, mostly from the point of view of someone “on the ground” who purchased a farm to rehabilitate the land and go back to it for the sake of improving it. In my mind, we should all live on farms and get around horseback but alas - we need practical solutions for the world we live in, especially if we want to fix the planet, the problem of climate change, environmental degradation etc. etc.

My reply was more or less along the lines of the following: As a particular kind of environmental professional (peasant living on a farm), I face basic questions of soil fertility (creating it but also maintaining it), pest and weed pressures (and managing them without chemicals - even organically approved ones), climate and weather pressures (and trying to insulate the crops as much as possible from these). Some of these we can try and manage (note I am not using the word “control”) but some we cannot (e.g. weather). Then there is living in the real world where in some countries like ours - healthcare is a privilege that costs serious money, one needs a mortgage to buy the farm, the county expects a certain amount of income derived from farm production in order to tax land as farm land and not as residential land (where taxes are much higher), then there are costs of equipment, maintenance, infrastructure (buildings, roads) so on and so on.

At the end, if we want to “fix” the planet, a large part of that fix will be fixing agriculture. After all, right now less than 2% of the American population farms and they feed the remaining 98% - via huge chemical and fuel inputs, growing vast mono cultures on ever expanding area of land, while at the same time poisoning the soil, degrading the organic matter in it, causing erosion, water pollution, cancer and many as yet unknown consequences that science is still to identify. Simply put, agriculture is a major contributing factor to the degradation of the planet in its entirety.

Why is the above so? Well, a couple of reasons. In capitalism, people are free to specialize and hence, free themselves from the worry of growing food (among other things). Wendell Berry identified this and explained it much more succinctly in his book, however, the gist of it is that in our current economic system, food is a commodity, the producer of food is just another specialist and there are less and less of these specialists today, operating larger and larger swaths of land with more and bigger machinery and more and more chemicals that are also more and more potent and wide-ranging in their intended and unintended consequences. For the most part, agriculture is open warfare on pests and weeds where the victims of friendly fire are people, animals, insects, soil microbiology, water supply and who knows what else. However, what makes this system really function (at least on paper) is the fact that the governmental agencies in charge of approving chemicals are basically the authority that “rubber stamps” a chemical as safe, hence absolving the specialist producer of any responsibility (on one hand) but also guaranteeing to the specialist consumer that the food is safe for consumption. Of course, as any toxicologist worth their salt knows - there is no science that will support a toxicological risk assessment for a chemical released in the wild, that can even enumerate all the possible interactions of said chemical with every living being on the planet - from soil bacteria and fungi to the human consumer’s gut microbiome to the bees to birds to water supply to whatever else that may be impacted. After all, even little kids know that Nature is an interconnected web, no Western reductionist science can as of yet untangle it fully, however, we have no problems putting science (“science”) behind claims that a chemical is safe? Note that this is only one chemical we are talking about - what about the hundreds or thousands of chemical interactions that happen every second of every day?

However, the role of government does not stop here - indirectly, agriculture is the only field where the government is interested in seeing the producer-specialist working for $4/hr and not being able to afford health insurance (which is the societal expectation as well, at least in practice - everyone wants cheap food, right?). Why? Well, simply because food is something people cannot go without - we can live without phones and carpenters, but, we will always need farmers (with chemicals and machinery powered by the petroleum industry). If you do not believe this - try imagining a scenario where we all wake up one day to shelves of all grocery stores where only organic products are for sale, of course, with their associated price tags. There would be riots on the streets and of course, no government can afford that.

As a side note, indirectly (and sadly), the current dominant agricultural-industrial approach has one, perhaps unintended, consequence - population explosion. Processed food is dense in calories, widely available and cheap (in America this food represents 10% of the average monthly expenditure for a family) - hence it is easily available and frees up the parents from the worry of producing it (and feeding their offspring). The question of quality of such food, as we already saw, is solved by governmental “guarantees” that the food grown with chemicals is “safe”.

In any case, back to our desire to save the planet via farming cleanly - in all reality, the proper solution would be for all of us to go back to our own acre or two of land - this way economy would be local, we would all produce what we need or barter for what we do not produce (all other things equal). However, in the real world, capitalism, individualism, specialization - they are all too far gone to reverse by doing so. Incidentally, I see movements such as permaculture as an example of such a solution attempt - even if the main permaculture figures of the world today do not want to admit this fact. However, because of the system we live in today, permaculture is simply not a scalable option - simply put, not many specialists are interested in becoming subsistence farmers!

We have already established the fact that only a small portion of the population farms. This means that this portion of the population has to farm large areas of land, if it is to feed the vast remainder of people out there. As a farmer who wants to be good to the land today, I face two choices in maintaining fertility and managing weeds at scale(!):

  1. Tillage - a technique that mechanically (by turning and “working” soil) combats weeds and prepares the soil to be a proper seed bed.
  2. No-till farming - where tillage is not practiced and instead seed is “drilled” into the soil, which is left undisturbed.

In a no-till system, for the vast majority of food producers today (note I do not call them farmers) - no-till means chemicals are used to “burn down” the previous crop, in order to “terminate” it or the weeds growing on the land, in order to be able to raise the next generation of crop. Obviously, since chemicals are involved, we do not want this system.

In a tillage system, the problems are:

  • Soil acts as a carbon sink (good), this carbon is released when the soil is disturbed - this same carbon binds with oxygen into CO2, a major contributor to climate change. Also, exposure to oxygen means faster burn-off of the organic material in the soil, which makes fertility “bloom faster” but it also depletes it faster.
  • soil microbiome is disturbed when the soil is turned

In the perfect world, we would all farm in a no-till, no-chemical system. However, the problem is that there are no good ways of terminating crops or weeds today without chemicals and without tillage. Some methods are out there - like crimping, however, crimpers are expensive and the timing of crimping a crop is very tight and important (crimping is basically termination of a crop using a specialized implement that kills it mechanically, without tillage and without chemicals - the next crop is planted into the terminated crop bed). Due to the price of the implement and the fact that it is finicky (timing wise), it is not for everyone and hence will not scale to a planetary level. Other than crimping, we really do not have a good way to prepare a soil bed (and “clear the weeds”) on a large scale, without chemicals AND without tillage.

Note that I have not addressed the problem of maintaining soil fertility and organic matter content. In a conventional system, artificial (petroleum derived) fertilizer is applied and such a system does not concern itself too much with soil organic matter content or anything past the “NPK” ratio in the soil. In an organic system things get complicated - inputs such as manure, cover crops (tilled in or crimped), so on and so on, need to be used to maintain and add fertility. In a tillage system, due to faster burn-off of nutrients due to oxygen exposure, more organic material is needed, in a no-till system less. Also, the inputs have to be carefully controlled (e.g. manure could come from a conventional farm and spoil the farm’s organic status, it is frequently also loaded with weed seeds etc.). Some movements like “regenerative agriculture” try to incorporate livestock into the crop rotation (cattle graze a field, deposit manure, their hoof action stimulates root growth and hence root penetration, soil microbiome gets richer), but more often than not what ends up happening is yet another “commercial rancher found a way to justify his meat business” story (this is, of course, a crude explanation as many a cattle rancher cares deeply for his land, but one has to wonder about the motivations).

Finally, we are also not addressing the very difficult problem of running the farm as a “closed loop” system, where the farm is its own fertility provider. This is a pretty difficult thing to achieve but one necessary if we will try and save the planet by bettering agriculture. I will just say that, for the most part, today, 99% of farms and market gardens (organic or not) are “extractive” in nature, meaning - they mine the soil for nutrients to produce food and put back nutrients mined from somewhere else (manure from a neighboring farm, wood chips from someone else’s lot, artificial fertilizer produced with petroleum inputs etc.). In other words, someone has to give up their soil fertility for someone else to improve theirs. Net-net this is a loss to the planet and as “environmental professionals”, we have to address it as it is central to the problem of sustainability both on local (farm) or global level.

So, what else is left?

The plot

After the above introduction (which was hopefully enough to explain what comes next) - I will relay the gist of the discussion I had with an environmental professional (another farmer) in the Facebook group I mentioned already. The discussion mainly focused on his sharing of his farming methods and other details with me. Strangely enough, even if we both conversed in English, it was like he was speaking Spanish.

As a response to my statement about farming not being simple, the method explained to me was the following (paraphrased):

Agriculture is really simple. You use bokashi laid thick on the field and then plant trees through or around your field (the bokashi contributes fertility to soil and the acid produced during the process will sterilize the soil of weeds, weed seeds, insects etc. etc.). Then you trim your trees every four months at 3 meters height (9-10 feet) and use the leaves as cover over the bokashi. Then you add worms (any worm species will do) all over your field and then you use fungal innoculant to start the process of decomposition. You plant your transplants straight into the leaves. You can use fish emulsion from your aquaponic fish growing operation and/or duck poop from your duck operation for manure. You need nothing stronger than neem oil for any pests that might appear. This is what farming should be - diverse and these techniques are 3,000 years old.

I should also say that the person giving me this simple recipe to agriculture was an American living in Colombia (more on this later).

Well, there you go - simple, no?

Let me decompose that for you:

Bokashi = “Bokashi composting is an anaerobic process that relies on inoculated bran to ferment kitchen waste, including meat and dairy, into a safe soil builder and nutrient-rich tea for your plants.”.

Some problems I saw immediately were things like scale - how much bokashi do I need for a field 10 acres in size? Oh well, that’s simple, said my new friend - you need a layer of 6 inches deep over the whole field. What does that actually mean and where do I get so much bokashi? Well, that’s a good question - have you heard of coconut peat? You can use coconut peat over your whole field, you can buy it from a 3rd world country or from me (hah, I knew there was a catch!) for about $300/metric ton - chalk this up to your farm startup costs. OK, so 6 inches deep over 10 acres - how many tons is that? Well, around 50.

The problem with the above approach

Aside from the scaling question, I am immediately thinking to myself - $300/ton and I need 50 tons for my fields - that would be $15,000 just for coconut peat! Not to mention the fact that we are trying to get less global here, not more - I want local agriculture not dependent on faraway components! Then there are the trees - planting trees around a 10 acre field - how many trees would that be (expensive!)? Besides, what trees grow so fast that I would trim them at 10 feet height every 4 months and what do I do in the meantime until they grow up - who is paying my bills? Finally, aquaponics and fish farming? Duck farming? I just want to farm the land, for crying out loud! At this point, I am starting to wonder is someone is “having me on”. What ever happened to traditional, peasant farming of the yesteryear, a practice that is still alive and well in the Balkans, Russia and other places where most of the food is still grown locally for open markets, in countries that are almost fully self-reliant for food production?

The explanation

By now you may be wondering how all this ties back into the original story about the soil microbiome. This is how (and I will be crude here - I apologize in advance) - “old school” farming is simply not cool anymore. Today farming is about soil microbiomes, the “cool gotchas”, it is about teaching, writing books and making a “coolness factor” impact on others, it is also about the “competitive advantage”, something that is basically attention grabbing for the audience and redirecting their focus on the person making these claims. In translation, farming is not about farming anymore, like everything else, it has turned into a subculture of its own and it is more about the bling than it is about the bang. “Traditional”, nowadays, is not about farming with horses or about rotating fields, planting cover crops, integrating bees and other “traditional” livestock into the farm and generally living the peasant life. It is about “soil diversity”, about the bacteria and fungi, about burying trees and growing on top of them, about biochar and bokashi, fish emulsions and using parakeets’s poop to fertilize fields where the fields are surrounded by trees specifically planted for the parakeets. In other words, it is yet another hip trend that is special in some way, because it provides something novel for its bored audience. As such, there are two types of people in this trend - the “haves” and the “have nots”. The “haves” are like my farmer friend above - an American who sold everything they had in America (where the standard of living is high) and used a portion of that cash to buy a beautiful and very cheap (by American standards) piece of land in Colombia. Why are they there? Well, simple - cheap price of living, access to healthcare (where money talks and coming from America, money is a-plenty for Colombian standards), relatively clean environment, not much in terms of regulations, so on and so on. As we used to say in the Balkans - do you want to be the bottom feeder in the large city or the top dog out in the tiny village?

The other part of this equation are the “have nots” - the people who do not have access to land and for some reason are incapable of discerning myth from reality or even questioning the background of the folks “selling” the new approach. They usually have good intentions, care deeply for the land and the planet but sadly usually end up being free, volunteer labor on these “alternative farms”, hoping to one day be able to afford a few acres of their own and promote their own take on the methodology, hoping that the coolness factor is still there. Perhaps there is a different description of the this group of folks and I am just too old and cynical, if so - I would love to hear it.

Epilogue

One of the first things that comes to mind is this: we should not be looking to teach Colombians, Africans or peasants in the Balkans how to farm - they already know because they live in villages and/or tribes and their methods are relatively the same since hundreds of years ago (and they are all self-sufficient!). What we need to do is teach the Western, capitalist countries how to improve their agriculture and make it cleaner. Why? Because the developed West is the major polluter of the environment, the place with most food-induced chronic disease and the place that produces and uses most of the chemicals and where least of the population farms on ever expanding land, using ever more chemicals, machinery and fuel. Whatever agriculture happens in Colombia that is damaging to Colombia’s environment is probably agriculture geared for Western consumption anyway, meaning that we need to fix the agriculture in the West to produce more and healthier foods at lower environmental costs and locally - so that we do not need things imported from Colombia.

Conclusion

Don’t get me wrong - we should always be looking to new (old?) and better methods of farming. However, we should not forget that we already have methods that work and have had them for ages. The real problem we face is this: how do we make it possible for more people to farm locally and sustainably in America (and other industrialized Western countries) and actually make a living doing so? This is a topic big enough for a dedicated book, unfortunately, as agriculture is a symptom in this case of a much worse and wide-spread economic and cultural system collapse long in the making - the assumption of constant economic growth is one of the major factors, lack of healthcare access is another (at least for the States). As a former boss of mine used to say: “trees don’t grow to the sky” - there is no way we can have neverending economic growth. The over-reliance on technology is another large problem, as of right now, majority of the population is in “business as usual” mode, even with the looming climate change issues - simply waiting on a new technology to be invented to save us all. Finally, the “rugged individualism” and specialization so dear and close to many Americans is in the way of collaboration - peasants, after all, do not exist without villages where they share equipment and collectively decide what will be grown by whom, with the knowledge that the excess will be traded between the peasant families.

Corollary

This is probably a topic for a separate article, however, I have to mention it here. One of the main posts on the “Environmental professionals” group was the group owner’s post about attending the last UN’s climate change summit in New York. A lot of young people these days are galvanized by Greta Thunberg’s movement - which is a good thing. As such, these folks attend demonstrations and the more involved ones, conferences such as the above UN’s climate change summit. One of the major conclusions from the summit (according to the post) were that a) a lot of funding is being pledged for climate change mitigation projects (good!) and b) that “environmental entrepreneur” is out and “environmental professional” is in.

In and of itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing, in a perfect society, that is. Questions of technocrats ruling society aside, I also do not doubt people’s motivations, however, having had exposure to a few non-profits, I can definitely say that there is a whole class of people working for these organizations that make a career of walking around and collecting salaries funded by grants and other folks’ money, where no significant immediate or long-term impact is ever observed. Furthermore, it is a good career choice because at the end of the day, there is no product, no timeline and no boss breathing down someone’s neck. Sometimes even, the non-profits gets so big, they monopolize the field and tend to become like a bureaucratic government themselves; they have their own agendas and sometimes tend to exist for the above mentioned reasons - giant salary paying institutions where everyone’s underlying and mutually agreed-upon mission is to make a comfortable living while feeling good about what they do and pretending to make a difference. Due to their size, these non-profits also tend to exercise their might in “hogging” the donor space but are also regularly consulted in policy meetings at the governmental level where politics and quid-pro-quo may be necessary to achieve 50% of the goal instead of 100% of the goal, since the remaining half needs to be allocated to satisfy another player (often industry) with interests in the same problem space. Since the non-profits have no “skin in the game”, 50% is acceptable and touted as progress (and may have been acceptable 30 or 40 years ago), something I doubt Greta herself agrees with today.

Speaking of Greta, where does she come in, in this story? Well, “environmental professional is in and environmental entrepreneur is out” is, in my opinion, another expression for “you do not need to put up any of your money to fix the environment (entrepreneur), you can now wear a suit, be a technocrat and spend your life in meetings making policy recommendations and make a comfortable living doing so”. Poor Greta, she may find herself surrounded by hawks and vultures, all aiming to make profit of yet another capitalist industry - this time the “save the planet” industry.