When the semester I ended I spent two weeks traveling around Spain with m younger brother. He had been studying Spanish and had recently finished his program. We spent lots of time on buses – from Madrid to Granada and back to Madrid, from Madrid to Barcelona and back to Madrid. Despite the leg cramps and stale sweaty clothes, the bus ride offered ample time for thinking and an excellent view of the countryside. Agriculture dominates the Spanish landscape. Rolling hills of olives stretch across the landscape and into the horizon, climbing the steep mountain slopes until exposed bedrock eliminates their further ascent. Irrigated hay and potato fields covered the valleys. Often we would see a shepherd walking his sheep down the edge of the highway to another field. Hiking in the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains in the south, sheep and cows dominated the rocky landscape. 9,000 feet in the mountains, we came across a bearded man tending his sheep in the midst of birthing season. A bit higher the mountain grasses became rocky lichen and fragile tundra-like grasses. While instances of land mismanagement were clear – eroded hillsides, degraded fields of agricultural weeds – I was impressed by the way farming had become intertwined with the natural parts of the landscape. Wild mountains graced by grazing sheep, large plains covered with orchards…maybe there is hope for designing agricultural systems that mimic and complement nature.
Back in the Midwest, less than 1% of the native prairie remains, it’s lush, diverse perennial grasses, flowers, shrubs, and wetlands drained and plowed for agricultural and paved for urban expansion. Corn and soybean fields dominate the landscape. The ordered rows, devoid of weeds due to multiple applications of chemical herbicide lie in stark contrast to the hectic productivity of the prairie. The prairie ecosystem supports a wide array of bacteria, fungi, animals, and plants using only water, sunlight and feces to support this system. How can humans learn from these natural processes to improve our current agricultural systems that are fraught with structural inefficiencies such as large transportation costs, high fertilization inputs, massive chemical run-off, and erosion? As human population increases, farmland will need to produce more food, provide more ecological services, and depend on less external inputs. A deeper understanding of nature must complement growing technological advancements.
At Concrete Beet Farmers we are trying to incorporate perennial systems and intercropping to develop a more sustainable, productive agriculture. We are in the process of establishing perennial grasses and flowers that will line our beds of annual crops. While only a few inches tall, we hope these plants will provide habitat for soil microbes, beneficial pollinating insects, and keep soil from eroding and leaving our plot. On a larger scale, Minnesotan farmers are beginning to experiment with biofuel grasslands that would border corn fields. One could harvest the perennial grasses, converting them to fuel, while improving river borders and degraded landscapes. David Tilman, a University of Minnesota scientist has written that the carbon sequestration from the perennials would exceed the carbon output from these fuels. Extending the vision further, fruit trees could line our city streets replacing the ornamental elms, maples, and gingkos. With creativity and and improved understanding of global agricultural practices and our surrounding native landscape we can and must create better farming systems.