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Maverick methods work just fine for both produce and the planet

Say it can't be done and he'll do it. So, when maverick farmer Michael Ableman ran a farm in California, he grew tomatoes without a drop of irrigation.

On Saltspring Island, where he now operates an organic farm and bed and breakfast, dry farming tomatoes is a cinch, he says. "It's easy here. The soil acts like a sponge. If you want to grow good tomatoes, don't water them," he says. "It not only conserves water, it concentrates the flavour.

"I can show you 12,000 tomato plants in the field that haven't had a drop of water. I start with tall lanky plants, plant them really deep and time the cultivation so the plant has the ability to seek out subsoil moisture. Tomatoes are actually very thrifty and when you grow tomatoes or beans without water, you're conserving an incredibly valuable resource."

Agriculture, he says, uses 80 per cent of the world's freshwater resources with only 20 per cent of it reaching the plants and animals because of inefficient transport and application systems. "Precise planting depths, timely cultivation, ancient dry-farming techniques, increased crop variety, drip tapes and hoses are ways of using water much more efficiently."

The same goes for energy, he says. "If you look at the relation between food and oil, one of the greatest services is to begin to show that food can be produced without intensive input of energy. My goal is to be 80 per cent fossil oil-free in the next couple of years," he declares. He has solar systems set up to power his farm.

When Ableman drops into a local Japanese restaurant, it's not for sushi. He's there to pick up their spent frying oil, which he filters and uses to power his farm tractor. "We can reconfigure diesel tractors to operate on biodiesel or spent fry oil," he says. "One of the most significant issues for the future of agriculture is that we're on the cusp of seeing the engine for the old way of life -- oil -- disappearing, and we're in trouble. But we haven't even begun to tap alternatives."

Ableman ignores the so-called zones for planting. He grows Mediterranean figs, as well as 12 varieties of French melons which is a feat on the West Coast. He increases heat value by planting the fig trees on raised mounds, allowing more heat to reach the roots.

"If you mulch, it's key to know when to use and when to remove mulches," says Ableman, who is experimenting with growing citrus fruits.

Technical fixes, like remay, a diaphanous row covering, allows plants to grow in otherwise inhospitable conditions. "It sits atop crops and is so light, it lifts as the plant grows and traps heat. I know farmers in far worse climates than in Canada who are doing ingenious things using very little energy with cold frames and layers of row cover, growing an incredible range of vegetables through the fall and winter.

"There are lots of models proving that we can create diverse, flavourful, delicious foods in any number of different climates. The possibilities are endless with vision and creativity. We don't necessarily have to reach a crisis before adopting these ideas," he says.

"Cuba did reach a crisis almost overnight when access to Soviet supplies of fertilizers and pesticides disappeared. They were forced to starve or find another way. They've created a most amazing national system of growing foods in a more sustainable way than could be imagined, more sophisticated than anywhere in the world. It wasn't out of philosophy. They did it to survive.

"I'm here to say farmers can do extremely well in many different climate zones, making an incredibly good living."

THE TALE OF TWO STRAWBERRIES:

When customers ask why his strawberries cost more than imports from California, Michael Ableman refers to the tale of two strawberries.

"In the case of the imported strawberries, which might be 50 cents to a dollar less per basket, the process begins with sterilizing the soil with methyl bromide which is a significant contributor to ozone depletion. They fumigate under plastic and you'll see white sheets covering the ground as far as you can see. It kills everything, including weed seeds and makes the soil a lifeless medium, there just to hold up the plant. More plastic is laid on the ground to keep the food off the ground and the plants are fed chemical fertilizers like patients on intravenous drip. Strawberry farmers have the choice of up to 65 different pesticides and will use some of them during cultivation.

"It's no longer radical thinking -- credible studies show correlations between industrial agriculture and cancer clusters," Ableman says. "So I say, it's true, the industrially grown strawberries are cheaper but the truth is, someone is paying for it many times over."

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