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Top 5 Earth Day Strategies for Agriculture

If Earth Day offers a moment to reflect on how we’re treating the planet, then it’s critical to use this moment to rethink our approach to agriculture. For more than twelve millennia, humanity has employed agriculture to appropriate the Earth’s productive capacity for its own growth. And boy have we been successful! So successful, in fact, that the biomass of people, domestic livestock and pets is 40-50 times greater than the biomass of all wild land vertebrates combined. Not surprisingly, such dominance by a single species has created environmental ripple effects — more like tsunami effects — especially within the last hundred years. Agriculture has transformed the landscape on a scale unsurpassed by any other human endeavor.

We are in a terrible bind. We need the sustenance that farmers provide, but we can’t continue to obtain it by undermining the processes that support life on the planet. In a 2009 study, Johan Rockström and his colleagues examined nine planetary processes that, if altered significantly, would risk catastrophic harm to the entire planet or whole continents. The researchers identified “safe operating boundaries” for each of these planetary processes and assessed the degree to which humanity has pushed the processes beyond the boundaries. Their results are downright frightening: we have already exceeded the safe operating boundary for three processes: biodiversity loss, climate change, and the nitrogen cycle.

Planetary Boundaries

Humanity has surpassed the “safe operating boundary” for three critical planetary processes.

Agriculture is a key contributor to all three breaches of the safe operating boundaries. Just look at a typical farm in the U.S. Corn Belt where biodiversity has been obliterated. Fossil fuels are used liberally to power machinery and manufacture synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, releasing copious quantities of greenhouse gases along the way. Global fertilizer use is so extreme that the reactive forms of nitrogen made in factories exceed the amount formed naturally each year.

We have to do better — we need to develop a restorative and regenerative agriculture, and we need to do it today. The Post-WWII agricultural model, founded on a chemical-industrial-manufacturing mindset, is killing us. It’s time to establish an ecological model that can support people while respecting planetary boundaries. But how do we get there? Here are the top five strategies for making the transition and examples of how Farmland LP is employing these strategies.

Earth Day Strategy #1: Make farms bastions of biodiversity.

In a food web, the diversity of species interactions provides three key benefits: high productivity, resilience, and conservation of nutrients — all with minimal to no external inputs aside from sunlight and water. For farms to realize these three benefits of highly evolved ecosystems, they need to add biodiversity, not remove it. Just as a business puts together a team of workers in which members contribute different skills, food webs need diversity to innovate, adapt and thrive.

Farmland LP supports ecosystem diversity in three ways:

  • Poly cropping. We avoid planting fields with a single species at a time. We typically sow pastures with 8 to 12 distinct plant species to mimic a natural grassland. Even when growing grains, we often co-plant, such as oats with clover.
  • Crop rotation. One of our farms in Oregon has twelve fields and eight crops planned for seed harvest in 2014, making the farm a patchwork of distinct plant communities.
  • Habitat conservation. We use edge spaces, such as remnants of native vegetation or newly established hedgerows between fields to integrate wild species within the farm. These native plants and animals work for the farm by providing pollination services and pest control, among other services.

Land Institue Perennial

The roots of perennial wheat (left) go way deeper than annual wheat (right).

Earth Day Strategy #2: Use perennial plants.

Perennial plants, species with multi-year life cycles, are the prime builders of soil fertility. Despite this fact, annual plants (plants with a one-year life cycle), such as corn, soy, rice and wheat dominate most arable cropland. Annual staple grains rose to dominance as a historical accident, not a biological necessity. Annuals appear to be ultra-efficient because harvests can be bountiful, but a full accounting of inputs and outputs shows that perennials are often more productive. Annual plants require high inputs of fertilizers to produce high yields and compete against weeds, and most of the applied fertilizer actually leaks out of the farm each year to pollute surrounding water and air. In natural ecosystems, perennial plants are the clear winners, with their thrifty use of resources and reliable yields year after year.

Farmland LP’s strategy is to rebuild topsoil by mimicking the natural processes that make it. We employ perennial plants in our pasture mixes, such as perennial ryegrass, white clover, and forage plantain. A single season of field preparation and planting establishes a plant community that will persist for years, allowing the soil community to mature and reap the benefits of complex interactions between roots, fungi and bacteria below ground, and leaves, livestock and decomposing organisms on the surface. Because annual plants only have a single season to complete their life cycle, their roots run shallower than perennials, giving rise to on-farm disadvantages. The shallow roots prevent annual crops from accessing nutrients from the whole soil profile, a situation which tends to deplete the uppermost layer of topsoil and short circuits complex biological relationships that build soil over the long term.

Farmland LP allows farmers to use annuals in rotation every 4 to 7 years, but we’re anxiously waiting for the time when, for grains and oil seed crops at least, perennial versions will be available. The Land Institute of Salina, Kansas, runs a program to breed perennial crops, and they’re achieving encouraging results.

Earth Day Strategy #3: Mimic a food web.

As omnivores, humans have diverse dietary preferences. We eat a variety of plant parts such as roots, leaves, stems and flesh surrounding seeds — what we call fruits and vegetables. Many of our calories come from starchy, oily and protein-rich seeds, such as grains and beans. We consume animal proteins and fats in the form of milk, eggs and meats. A well-designed farming system for this complex diet can mimic the complexity and ecosystem functions of a food web.

In the parlance of ecology a food web consists of trophic levels that form a pyramid. Plants are primary producers — the foundational trophic level. On the secondary trophic level, herbivores eat plants. If plants go to seed, birds, small mammals and many insects have a food source. These additional secondary level consumers are called granivores. Carnivores and omnivores occupy the tertiary trophic level, for example, wolves that eat ruminants and rodents and hummingbirds that eat plenty of insects along with nectar. Detritivores inhabit a large trophic level in which they recycle biomass back into forms that plants can reuse. Most of these are tiny creatures that break down leaf litter, from beetles to bacteria.

At Farmland LP we work with domestic analogues for these parts of a natural food web. At any given time we expect two thirds of our land to be in a diverse perennial polyculture, i.e., pasture, where ruminant livestock such as sheep and cattle graze and non-ruminants such as hogs and poultry concentrate fertility. The other third is devoted to seed crops and vegetables, which benefit from the soil fertility built by the pastured-livestock system. Synergies abound. Livestock glean crop aftermath and control weeds with targeted grazing. Animals are also willing to eat food that humans won’t, thereby turning potential waste into nutrition. This mixed farming system is how agriculture evolved prior to the cheap fossil fuel era, and it provides many lessons for sustainable farming in modern times.

Earth Day Strategy #4: Bring people back to the land.

In the U.S. and other highly industrialized nations very few people farm. According to the U.S. Farm Bureau, farm and ranch families comprise only 2% of the U.S. population. It takes a skilled and knowledgeable labor force to manage a mixed farm that mimics natural systems. Farmers nowadays feel locked into large-scale, chemical dependent mono-cropping because the alternative takes more people power and that’s hard to come by in many rural communities.

Farmland LP gives progressive, often start-up, farmers a chance to develop their enterprises on our land. We don’t expect each farmer to do everything, but instead ask that farmers work together as managers of their part of the food web. Pastured livestock, vegetable, grain and poultry farmers plan their movements and devise ways to help each other lower costs and increase income. Modern farming requires scale and specialization, whereas the land needs diversification. The one-farm, one-farmer model doesn’t always work, but our approach offers another way — one that produces environmental services, habitat for native biodiversity, and the basis of regional food systems. When people can look at farmland and realize it is working for them in multiple ways, they are more likely to support land preservation and avoid urban-rural conflicts.

Earth Day Strategy #5: Invest in regenerative agriculture.

Farmland LP owns land that is managed to solve ecological problems inherent in the design of most agricultural operations. Our investors believe it is worthwhile to put land into this kind of system. But many more kinds of investments are needed. Farmers wanting to grow non-insured commodity crops or graze livestock on our pastures often lack sufficient financial capital. Major research investments are needed for agronomists to learn how to breed perennial stable grains and crops that will work in organic and mixed farming models such as ours.

Money flows to places where societies believe important work needs to get done. Given the way current agricultural practices are damaging planetary systems, perhaps the most important work that needs to get done is transforming 800 million acres of farmland in the U.S. (worth 2.9 trillion dollars). The typical farm today has $4-8 million in capital, including land, equipment and operating cash. Clearly society has been willing to invest in agriculture, but since the problem occurs at the scale of the entire agricultural landscape, we need similarly large-scale investments to make a meaningful shift.

The dominant form of agriculture in the U.S. advanced after WWII and reflected the times: oil was cheap, chemical and machinery factories wanted post-war purpose, and Cold War cognoscenti considered overproduction of cheap grains for export a wise strategy to undermine the Soviet economy.

Times have changed. What we need immediately (really yesterday) is tighter integration of humans and nature, not separation. In his book Consulting the Genius of the Place, Wes Jackson argues that the dichotomy between the sacred (wilderness) and the profane (civilization) is a conceptual error in Western thought. With 12,000 years of practice, humanity will keep on farming and harvesting the Earth’s productive capacity. If we want civilization to continue farming and celebrating Earth Day for another 12,000 years, however, we have to strengthen our connections to the vast array of other species on this planet. Only by working with these other, non-domesticated partners, can we continue to meet our needs too.

Ladybug on Flower

This ladybug is celebrating Earth Day on the farm.

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