Future farms will be ecosystems that produce bountiful food

August 24, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

I am moving from Seattle to London by bicycle and boat. Read the intro my travels on Grist.

Monoculture farmland is the concrete of rural America.

Concrete makes urban settings feel detached from ecology, as if cities were somehow not part of nature. As my friend Neil Baunsgard and I ride bikes across our great continent’s agricultural heartland, the celebrated amber waves of single-species grain create a similar effect. It may not feel like it, but both concrete and crops are really just nature that’s been transformed by people and our machines.
Humans engineer both paved surfaces and monoculture fields to dedicate pieces of land to just one function — constructing cities and feeding them, respectively — at the expense of diverse ecosystems. The specialization of land, like its better-known brother the specialization of labor, treats life itself like a mere cog in the economic machine.
Healthy land needs diversity. Have you ever seen a patch of wild nature occupied by just one species? Farmers generally recognize the value of hosting many species on their land, particularly in light of mounting evidence that greater biological diversity on the farm correlates with fewer pests.
But to make ends meet, farmers must supply commodity crops at the whims of consumers who don’t have to think about where their groceries come from. Even for folks who do try to make sustainable eating choices, supporting biodiverse grain production in lands far away often takes a back seat to buying local veggies and fruits at the farmers market. I certainly never paid much attention to the sources of barley in my beer or the lentils I buy for soup before I began this exploration of Montana’s organic farming movement and was surprised by grain growing’s immense scale.
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Walking through an organic crop of a heritage wheat variety. Some might call it a monoculture. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.
Two days after the first stop on our northern. plains farm tour, Neil and I find ourselves at Vilicus Farms, a 4700-acre organic operation just six miles from the Canadian border. Liana Nichols, an apprentice at the farm, met us in Havre, Montana, with a pickup truck to haul our bodies and bicycles 36 miles north to the remote, agrarian home. She is our guide and host for the visit, since Anna Jones-Crabtree and her husband Doug Crabtree, who own and run the farm, are out-of-town this weekend. “The crazy part about living here is it’s incredibly isolated,” says Liana. “If I’m out on a tractor for a day, I see nobody.”
A few days before, Liz Carlisle, author of the book that inspired me to visit organic farmers in Montana, assured me that Vilicus was well worth visiting, even though it’s far off our route along U.S. Highway 2. She said it was a unique place because of its large-scale biological diversity and the level of rigor in the farming apprenticeship program — it’s like a professional graduate school. Anna Jones-Crabtree tells me they are growing 16 different crops this year, which she says is typical for Vilicus. Crops are planted in strips, each a mile or half-mile long but just 240 feet wide. Twenty-foot buffer areas separate neighboring strips.
Liana shows us colorful maps on the farmhouse wall that show what’s planted in the farm’s sixty-odd strips, along with the history of plantings that have populated each strip over the past five years. At the bottom of each plot’s map, a chart tracks what sorts of work have been done on each strip this year — dates of tillings, seeding, and empty rows below for scouting, swathing, harvesting, and more tilling. The diagrams’ red, green, blue, and yellow ribbons accentuate Vilicus Farms’ diversity.
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Vibrant maps of the Villicus Farms’ narrow strips display each ribbon-like field’s current plantings, recent history, and task checklist. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.
Hanging out in the farmhouse at Vilicus is a cultural shift from our last two weeks on the road through rural Montana. Organic bulk goods like tulsi rose tea and white wheat berries fill neatly labeled sealed jars on wooden shelves above the kitchen counter. A bucket for food scraps to be composted sits just around the corner, and metals and paper are also separated from the rest of the waste stream, even though the Crabtrees have to take them over 200 miles to Helena for recycling. To Neil and I, it’s reminiscent of home. Liana agrees that it “feels wrong” to throw beer cans in the garbage with everything else, which we’ve had to do through much of the rest of Montana.
Just outside, newly delivered solar panels and parts wait to be installed next to the garage. There aren’t many solar arrays in the area, despite the sunny climate. Liana explains that the local electric cooperative is apprehensive about member-customers generating their own power, afraid that jobs may be lost if production decentralizes.
After eating a tasty dinner of microwave-baked potatoes topped with leftover chili and collectively draining a growler of Duck Face IPA, the sweet-yet-bitter, famously sneaky nine-percent-alcohol offering from Havre’s Triple Dog Brewery, the three of us head off down the procession of narrow fields, stopping at a strip of waist-high green wheat. We’re roguing this mile-long belt of organic grain, which means weeding by hand.
A few years ago, the Crabtrees were blacklisted by one buyer of organic wheat because their crop was contaminated with rye. Many organic farmers plant rye to crowd out weeds because it’s an aggressive species, capable of taking over a field. But when that land goes back to producing high-value crops like wheat, rye itself turns into a pest plant as leftover seeds germinate among the intended crop. Rye’s assertive vigor then becomes a liability. Roguing is the only way to remove it. And roguing is a big human effort.
Now, a rare lull in the farm’s endless cycle of chores — and the presence of a couple of pairs of enthusiastic, unskilled, suburban hands — allows for hiking through the field and picking out rye grass. As the early summer sun tumbles majestically to the western edge of Montana’s truly big sky, we wade through wheat, plucking weeds from the soil and stuffing them in garbage sacks. It’s easy to spot the rascal rye plants; they stand about a foot higher than the surrounding grain. It occurs to me that we’re basically maintaining a monoculture, albeit a monoculture of chemical-free wheat.
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A renegade rye sticks up out of the wheat field. Photo: Neil Baunsgard
At Vilicus Farms, monoculture is an illusion, a temporary snapshot in an evolving cycle of diversity. Even in strips inhabited by a single, reigning cash crop, like the wheat field we’re roguing, the Crabtrees rotate between a wide variety of plant species over subsequent seasons, continually experimenting with original, and often unorthodox, successions of short grains, pulses, oilseeds, and other grasses. They keep detailed records to track what works best, aiming for sequences that maintain nutrients and moisture in the soil, prevent perennial weeds from establishing, and support a healthy ecosystem of tiny life underground. Where diversity in space isn’t practical or commercially viable, diversity through time can create ecological well-being.
Elsewhere on Vilicus Farms, multiple species do inhabit a single plot of land. Flax is a common companion of khorasan wheat, an ancient variety that fellow Montanan Bob Quinn has trademarked as Kamut brand in an attempt to ensure that it’s always produced fairly and ecologically. And in the 20-foot buffer ribbons that separate the farm’s 240-foot-wide fields, a mix of flowering plants creates a nourishing environment for pollinator species, intentionally adding beneficial animals to the diverse flora. The USDA remunerates the Crabtrees to maintain this pollinator habitat through its Conservation Reserve Program, a scheme that ecological economists would call “payments for ecosystem services,” which means rewarding farmers with cash for generating environmental benefits that help everyone. No private party would pay them to dedicate a bit of land to hosting bees and other pollinating bugs, even though it will be useful to all the neighbors.
But programs like the one that pays the Crabtrees for maintaining pollinator habitat are, at this point, relatively scarce. In today’s agricultural capitalism, the ecological values of certain crops and practices seldom align with the dollar values that they earn in commodity markets. Farmers must try to keep their land healthy and fertile for the long-term while also remaining financially viable right now. They make trade-offs to balance these goals, measuring costs and benefits in two ways that often contradict each other.
To put in place more mechanisms that make it worthwhile, or even economically possible, for farmers to harvest biodiversity, there must be evidence of the environmental and agricultural advantages of multi-species systems. With substantial proof that a wide variety of life is good for the medium- to long-term productivity of a farm, growers may adopt practices that foster diversity even without additional financial incentives. Toward this end, the Crabtrees’ operation certainly does its part.
All the student-interns at Vilicus must complete a capstone project as part of their apprenticeship, much like in a degree-granting academic program. Liana tells us about her plans to analyze how the Crabtrees’ diversity of plants affects microbial diversity in the soil. She’ll extract soil samples from different strips, plate and incubate them, and then examine the sorts of enzymes that are present in each sample, using that as a proxy for what goes on below ground. This information can be used, in conjunction with the Crabtrees’ meticulous records of what’s been planted in each strip, to compare the impacts of different crop rotations and intercropping combinations on biodiversity in the soil, a characteristic closely linked to fertility. In short, Liana wants to show how diverse life aboveground fosters diverse life underground. The opportunity to apprentice at Vilicus, says Liana, is an “awesome platform for studying all sorts of things.”
Yet it’s difficult to expect farmers to go crazy experimenting, Neil reminds us, because unlike agricultural researchers, they actually have to make sure they get a yield. The balancing act between environmental mindfulness and economic prudence gets even more complicated when results are uncertain in terms of all variables. Liana says she’s interested in how to link ecological research with real farm issues, and isn’t quite sure if that means going back to school for a graduate degree or not.
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A wonderful sign on the kitchen wall in the Crabtrees’ farmhouse. Photo: Neil Baunsgard.
In her debut book, Lentil Underground, Liz Carlisle writes, “Perhaps most insidious thing about monoculture is that getting out of the habit of working with other species has also gotten us out of the habit of working with one another.” For organic farmers in Montana, sharing knowledge might be the most important piece of the real sharing economy that could help make large-scale agriculture work better for both humans and the nonhuman environment. The wild experimentation and careful documentation at Vilicus Farms can contribute to a collective understanding of how to farm more sustainably.
A few days further east along Highway 2, we’ll visit Matt and Sonia Johnson, who have also had success interseeding Kamut and flax as companion crops, to grow and be harvested together. Evidently, organic farmers on the northern plains have shared knowledge about these two species’ compatibility. The flax isn’t a weed competitor at all, Matt tells me, but at least it’s growing where weeds would otherwise grow. As Anna Jones-Crabtree says: Mother Nature does not like to be naked.
It’s not easy to manage two crops in one field, however. Standard agricultural machinery isn’t made to sow, care for, and reap more than one species in a given space. “You’ve kind of got to get two plants that mature at the same time,” says Matt. After harvesting Kamut and flax together, the Johnsons separate them using a machine that was originally designed to get contaminant seeds out of conventional grain crops. This technique for segregating the bigger Kamut berries from the tiny flaxseeds addresses another impediment to farming ecosystems rather than monocultures: Buyers want single products that they can package and distribute.
The Johnsons, though, have found that they can benefit from growing multiple species in tandem even if only one is a crop for harvest. While planting wheat or another grain, a broadcast seeder scatters sweet clover seeds all over and between the neat rows of plantings. Clover, a legume, crowds out problem weeds and delivers nitrogen from air to ground. It’s also a biennial — meaning that it lives for two years — so sweet clover will become next year’s soil-building crop, either to be swathed for hay or grazed by the Johnsons’ cattle herd, whose digestive systems will turn the clover into fertilizer and deposit it directly on the field.
Matt and Sonia have established a rough outline of an eight-year rotation of cash crops, cover crops, and combination plantings, with each 400-acre block at a different point in that sequence. Matt says they’ve pared down their variety a little because growing tons of crops and storing them separately gets to be a lot of work, but planting something different each year allows, for example, a legume like lentils or clover to put nitrogen in the ground for wheat to gobble up the next year. If it’s a dry year, sometimes the Johnsons will till an entire crop into the soil instead of harvesting for hay or seed, so that moisture and organic matter is preserved for next year instead of taken from the land. It’s an example of farmers foregoing a little cash right now for the long-term health of the field, which is never an easy decision to make in a profession that operates on margins thinner than the Crabtrees’ strip fields.
What excites me about these farmers’ novel techniques for incorporating biodiversity into agriculture is not that they’ve figured out a flawless method for producing our daily bread. Heck, as I discussed in my last post, it’s not even clear that organic systems are any “better” or “sustainabler” than no-till conventional farming for raising dryland grains on the northern plains, if such distinctions can be determined at all.
What’s cool about this organic movement is that they recognize earth’s preference for heterogeneous communities of life and they are fearlessly yet respectfully exploring ways to incorporate diversity into their fields so that one day farms may begin to resemble vibrant ecosystems that spit out nutritious food instead of uniform fields monopolized by identical rows of a chosen crop.
Humans farm somewhere between 25 and 40 percent of our planet’s land area. Some conservationists advocate producing food as intensively as possible, so that we can reduce agriculture’s footprint and devote more space to wilderness. Meanwhile, others encourage wildlife-friendly farming with lower yields, to protect species everywhere even as more land is used by humanity.
But environmental scientist Claire Kremen, of the University of California, Berkeley, recently wrote a paper arguing that this “either-or” framing isn’t very useful. Instead, research should focus on which specific agricultural practices promote biodiversity while maintaining or even increasing output. Kremen concludes that pretty much anyone concerned about the ecological impacts of feeding humanity could get behind a vision of “large protected areas surrounded by a relatively wildlife-friendly matrix of favorable land uses and corridors.” Amen.
The world could be a food forest. Growers that experiment with rotations, intercropping, mixed crop-livestock systems, and so on, like the Crabtrees and Johnsons, help get agriculture started in that direction.
Right now, most ecological research examines what’s left of the wild. On the northern Great Plains, this group of organic renegades that social scientist Liz Carlisle calls the “lentil underground” is building and sharing a body of collective knowledge about how complex communities of life interact on real, operating farms. And that’s important.
What I learned at Vilicus Farms is that fresh-ground organic Kamut flour makes for scrumptious muffins. With a bit of rye mixed in, I’m sure they would have only tasted better, more complex, if you will.
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Taking a break from riding the beautiful, desolate road back to Havre, Montana. You didn’t think those yellow stripes in the middle of the road were twice the length of 6-foot-tall Neil, did you?


Sam Bliss

Sam Bliss studies and organizes non-market food systems in Vermont. He also reads and writes about ecomodernism and degrowth.

Tags: agricultural biodiversity, agriculture, grain farming, organic agriculture