Saturday, May 26, 2012

The A B C's of An Urban Trench

The obvious place to start is "A", of course, and with agriculture.
Wikipedia says that agriculture can be defined as "the cultivation of animals, plants, fungi, and other life forms for food, fiber, and other products used to sustain life". The New Oxford American Dictionary  says agriculture is the science or practice of farming, including cultivation of the soil for the growing of crops and the rearing of animals to provide food, wool, and other products.
That's still pretty broad. There are dozens of  branches to get lost on in the study of agriculture. If one were to go to school to study agricultural sciences, we would be studying irrigation, agricultural productivity, plant breeding, agricultural diversification, pesticides, soil, agricultural techniques, and the list goes on. So, if we use the two definitions above as our starting off point, we can study how we use animals, plants and fungi in our day to day lives, how they're raised or grown and how we modify them for our own use. Our track record, generally, isn't good.

We have a bad habit of squeezing animals in massive numbers into cages or pens too small for them, denying them basic comforts, force feeding them so that rapid growth benefits us, and even feeding them in a cannibalistic manner because slaughter house floor scrapings are cheaper, never mind the health risk. All one has to do is sit through half of Food Inc. to really see how we treat the animals destined to become our food. Now, I'm not a vegetarian, and I have no plans to become one. My standpoint here is that we, as a higher life form, really should know better than to continue down this slippery slope. We already dance with danger every day. E. Coli and Mad Cow runs rampant, and usually it's because some member of the human race has done something they know is wrong. E. Coli in melons killed 13 people, because two brothers thought they could save a few bucks. 9 people died because of salmonella in peanuts back in 2008. The list is exhaustive, and not the main thrust of this post. You get the point I'm sure.

One way to live healthier is to eat healthy food. I've written here before about diminishing nutrient values in our fruits and vegetables, and while I'm still appalled by it all, let me say that the declining nutrient levels have caused many to start their own gardens. Indeed, it is the main thrust behind my passion for organic growing methods. Growing healthier food starts with healthy soil. Soil that is teeming with life in the form of worms, microbes, fungi and bacteria. Before you get grossed out, these tiny critters are the keystone to good food. If your spadeful of shovel has no worms, chances are it is bereft of the smaller soil-dwellers too. That's not good for the plants. To feed the plants, you must first feed the soil. No soil ... no food.

Massive industrial agriculture is not a viable option for the future as the model stands today. There needs to be a change in our habits, and while there is a revolution that marches on, it is still small. We need to get politics out of our fields so that monsters like Monsanto wither and waste away. We need to get politicians to stop paying farmers to let their fields sit empty, and instead pay them to think more organically. We need to educate more people so that they better understand soil and what should live in it. We need to spread the word about compost so that everyone knows what it does, what it should be and what it can do for us. We need to understand water and how to live with less, as well as how to conserve it both in a small scale and a large one. We need city councils to allow us to raise chickens in our backyards, and sell eggs and grow tomatoes in our front yard if we want; not take homeowners to court when they rip up water-guzzling lawns.

This conversation is a massive, ongoing dialogue, one I hope we can all wade in on and share our opinions. It is only through the exchange of ideas and truly listening to one another that we can learn. So tell me what you think of agriculture today, perhaps you'll teach me something or get me pondering some aspect of it that I had overlooked!

The A B C's of an Urban Trench

One of my fondest memories as a child was watching Sesame Street. I used to love  discovering what the letter of the day was, and learning the word that went along with it. Yeah, I had a sappy childhood, deal with it.
Anyway, I woke up from a nap a few days ago with that memory in mind and found myself pondering an alphabet that related to the things I'm passionate about; farming, agriculture, organic vegetables, human chicken-rearing, food security, being prepared, food politics and all of the other things I've written about here on the blog. So, starting tonight, I'll be starting a new series here in the Urban Trench. I'm also expecting a guest post in the coming two weeks, with an eye to possibly making my guest poster a monthly feature.
So stay tuned, there's a lot of great stuff coming down the Trench!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why Worry About Sustainability?

Sustainable agriculture is food production through practices that can be continued indefinitely. In conventional, industrial agriculture, natural resources, such as water and soil, are used faster than they can be replaced. The results may include famine, pollution, and habitat destruction.

Benefits of Sustainable Agriculture
Food security: More than a billion people worldwide don’t get enough to eat each day. Sustainable agriculture uses fewer resources and has a lower risk of famine resulting from droughts.
Less environmental impact: Sustainable agriculture does not include the use of harmful pesticides that can pollute the water and soil. It does include reducing soil erosion. Also, fewer nutrients are depleted from the soil, so there is less need to expand farmland. This means that farmers don’t need to continually cut down rainforests and invade other natural habitats because of over-farmed land.
Urban improvements: In inner cities, sustainable agriculture means community and balcony garden projects. These endeavors increase access to fresh, affordable foods, and can make communities more tight-knit.
Health: Sustainable agriculture usually means shifting to a greater emphasis on a plant-based diet. You can lower your risk for heart disease when you eat less fatty red meat and more healthful proteins such as beans.
Cost: Unsustainable agricultural practices will inevitably lead to the depletion of resources like nutrient-rich soil and water. Developing extensive schemes—including irrigation systems—to mitigate these losses is expensive.

Although air and sunlight are available everywhere on Earth, crops also depend on soil nutrients and the availability of water. When farmers grow and harvest crops, they remove some of these nutrients from the soil. Without replenishment, land suffers from nutrient depletion and becomes either unusable or suffers from reduced yields. Sustainable agriculture depends on replenishing the soil while minimizing the use of non-renewable resources, such as natural gas (used in converting atmospheric nitrogen into synthetic fertilizer), or mineral ores (e.g., phosphate). Possible sources of nitrogen that would, in principle, be available indefinitely, include:

  • recycling crop waste and livestock or treated human manure
  • growing legume crops and forages such as peanuts or alfalfa that form symbioses with nitrogen-fixing bacteria called rhizobia
More realistic, and often overlooked, options include long-term crop rotations, returning to natural cycles that annually flood cultivated lands (returning lost nutrients indefinitely) such as the Flooding of the Nile, the long-term use of biochar, and use of crop and livestock landraces that are adapted to less than ideal conditions such as pests, drought, or lack of nutrients.

Sustainable agriculture depends on  inputs being as local to each farm's location as possible. In our case, the manure that will help nourish the soil will come from our own chickens and manure from animals within our community. The other elements that manure cannot provide will come from green manure crops such as nettle, clover and ryegrass. We will be developing a water preservation and storage plan, as well as a crop rotation and companion planting plan also. The more one's gardening can rely on self-produced inputs, or at the very least local ones, the more sustainable each property, farm or homestead will be, and in turn this will ripple outward to the community at large.

We can change our planet one farm, one property, one community at a time. Therein lies our future as a race. That's the only reason we need to apply ourselves to sustainable agriculture.