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Things with Feathers: “Freedom farming” and Lazarus species

I found a couple articles recently about farmers taking a non-dominating approach to growing crops. Neither article mentioned terms like permaculture or biodynamic farming; these folks are coming from (apparently) different perspectives, or at least not using that terminology to describe their farming practices.

What they have in common is a desire to grow crops in a manner that takes their local ecosystem into consideration, and work within its constraints to deal with weeds, insects, and – in one case – breed crops best suited for the local ecosystem.

One article, Meet This Third-Generation Farmer Who Converted His 1,400 Acres to Growing Organic Food, is about a farming family who switched to organic production primarily for financial reasons, despite experts saying this wasn’t a good idea.

Klaas used to grow monolithic fields of corn. He used to spray. For 20 years, he applied all the “right” chemicals. He put them on properly. He carefully recorded the results. Then in 2000 he and Mary-Howell decided to stop; they decided to go completely organic all at once.

“We weren’t making a good living on our farm,” Klaas said. “Sad to say but quite often my profit was entirely in subsidy money that I was getting. I would plan a crop of corn knowing that it was not likely to be profitable but we were going to get enough subsidy to make up the difference.”

Klaas and Mary-Howell had been toying with organic practices on a few test acres for a few years, intending to gradually convert a little more land each year. Then one day they saw an ad in the newspaper offering $6 a bushel for organic wheat, twice the conventional rate.

They found there were local markets for most crops they wanted to grow, but agriculture experts told them that going organic didn’t make sense for a farm their size. However, Klaas had another reason besides the finances to want to switch: after years of using herbicides, he’d had a terrible reaction, and didn’t want to get sick again, or ask anyone else to on his behalf.

In the course of learning how to grow organically,

. . . Klaas came across a quote by a German agricultural researcher that completely stumped him but completely changed his way of thinking:

Cultural practices form the basis of all weed control. Various other means should be regarded as auxiliary only. — Bernard Rademacher

“Until then, I was used to thinking that whenever you have a problem you react to it,” Klaas admitted. He was used to asking the conventional question: how do I control this? “Well this quote turned that thinking around,” he said. “It asked: What caused this problem? Why is this weed here? And once you start thinking like this, you can derive a holistic plan for what you’re going to do about it.”

The answer was not to fight against the weeds but to understand them. Completely and fully, within the context of everything else around them.

The article describes the natural succession of plants on a plot that has been taken out of agricultural production – how different species come in after others have first prepared the way. So Klaas farms in a way that takes that process into consideration. He grows a variety of crops, and grows them in rotation. Over several years, this practice meant he saw a pest plant become smaller, less and less of a problem, and then get attacked by disease and insects while nothing else was affected. (His neighbors continued to have problems with the same plant.)

“Everything that grows in soil changes the soil,” Klaas said. “It makes the soil the best environment for something else.”

. . .

“The weed that bothered us the most was velvet leaf,” he said. “It seemed unstoppable. But within six years of changing our farm, our rotations and our inputs, velvet leaf started getting smaller and smaller every year. And we started seeing a disease on it.” The velvet leaf was being attacked by fungus and virus and insect. “And yet the crop wasn’t being affected.”

After 15 years, he feels they are “only getting started as an organic farm,” and still have a great deal to learn, including what crops are the right rotation, and how to best bring in nutrients to make up for what is removed when the harvest is sold.

This is the 10,000-year old problem of agriculture that every farmer simultaneously contributes to and contends with: farming changes the environment. It changes the soil. Period. As long as we’re committed to domesticating and growing the food we eat, we’re also committed to altering the very earth that provides it.

This is why we need to be extremely thoughtful about how we feed ourselves. Because the question we automatically ask is: How do we reduce human impact on the Earth? But when it comes to farming, the better question might be: How do we produce the most constructive and sustainable human impact possible?

In The Rise, Fall, And Almost Rise Of The Caviar Of Cantaloupe, we are introduced to Ken Taylor, a farmer and (now retired) chemistry professor, who practices a low-intervention method of farming, and was asked to see if he could bring back the “Montreal melon” from virtual extinction. The fruit was extremely popular in the late 1800s and early 20th century, but urbanization had a detrimental impact on some of the areas it was grown, and the plant’s needs weren’t a good fit for industrialization:

It wasn’t an easy melon. It required a fair amount of coddling: watering, syringing, ventilating, lifting with a flat stone or shingle to prevent cracking or rot, and turning every few days to ensure uniformity of shape, color, netting, and ripening.

They also didn’t transport well over long distances, and by the mid-1950s, it was no longer offered in Burpee’s widely-sold seed catalogs, the first catalog in which they’d been sold after Burpee’s founder encountered them in 1880.

After a food journalist named Barry Lazar learned about the melons and wrote about them in the Montreal Gazette in 1991, another reporter for the Gazette, Mark Abley, became intrigued.

He wondered how such a popular fruit could have disappeared so completely.

Abley had researched endangered species before. He knew about a stick insect, long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific; a fish that had been known only from its fossil record until 1938, when it was dredged up in the Indian Ocean by an angler; and a bird that was thought to have vanished from Bermuda shortly after British sailors arrived in the 1600s but was rediscovered in 1951 and is now the country’s national bird. “There’s even a particular name for this,” he says. “Lazarus species.”

He thought it was possible someone might have saved some seeds, and if they had, he had an idea who in Montreal might be able to bring the melon back: Ken Taylor, who has a serious interest in crop diversity, and growing crops suited for the local environment.

Though Taylor took on farming simply because he wanted to grow his own food, it has evolved into a mission. He sells seeds, seedlings, and rootstock on the Green Barn Farm website, urging growers to “protect our Canadian genetic heritage.”

. . .

Working with perennial plants, which require minimal upkeep and don’t need to be replanted every year, he has bred and selected varieties of fruits, nuts, and berries that resist the brutal Canadian winters. And he thinks other Canadian farmers ought to be doing the same.

“Planting seeds and pounding the soil and annually preparing it and fertilizing it and watering it and fighting whatever short-term disease you may have so that you can finish everything up in three months is not a very earth-friendly or sustainable food production system,” says Taylor. “But that’s basically all we do in Canada.”

Part of the problem, according to Taylor, is that the country’s agricultural system is designed for exports, not for local markets. In 2012, Canada became the world’s fifth-largest agricultural exporter — and spent $32.3 billion bringing in agricultural and agri-food items from 190 other countries.

“We’re a country of agriculture, but we can’t feed ourselves,” Taylor says. “That’s pathetic.”

The only hope for food security, according to Taylor, is to disrupt the monoculture of modern farming through small-scale diversity. Diversity is important in farming, because planting only one crop, or one variety of a crop, leaves it vulnerable to disease.

His approach, which he calls “freedom farming,” is a very, very low-human-intervention approach, letting the natural systems direct what grows and what does not.

His philosophy is simple: Tread lightly. Let the land do what it wants and outsmart any pests, animals, or diseases that might threaten the yield. He doesn’t try to make his land conform to his desires; he wants to see what the land desires, what will thrive on it. That means interfering with it as little as possible: no effortful weeding, no spraying. No watering, even. If a crop doesn’t grow, well, then, perhaps it shouldn’t. Weeds are not the enemy. They bring rich nutrients to the ground, and they’re useful near vine crops to prevent crows from having a place to land near his fruit.

Freedom farming, he says, is “the ultimate opposite of control.” He’ll do small things — like use plastic mulch to increase the heat when his vine crops are young, personally squash worms that are eating his leaves, or begin his crops indoors if the weather is too cold. But mainly he sees his role as introducing new genetics.

He doesn’t mean “introducing new genetics” in the Monsanto sense of altering an organism’s DNA and creating a new species of tomato or carrot. He means bringing in or crossing existing species with the larger goal of increasing biodiversity and food security. “I aid and abet some of the natural selection that would go on by bringing in new genetics all the time from all over the world. And if nature doesn’t want it there, it doesn’t grow.”

His efforts to get the Montreal melon back have met with mixed success. He did successfully grow it some years, and the seeds are back in circulation among multiple sources, but after enough frustration with it, he stopped working with it to focus on crops that are better suited to the land. Lack of pollinators has been one problem; most of the farmland in the area holds conventional crops that are sprayed. Problems with rain and fungal infection also prevented the melons from growing well.

He knew what he could have done for a better outcome. “I would have had to put a row cover on,” he said. “I would have had to give it some sort of seaweed coating or some intervention of some kind. I have some kale and clay there. I could have sprayed that on, maybe beat back the fungus a bit.” But he didn’t want to do it. He’s a freedom farmer.

“You know, why bang your head against nature? The reason the Montreal melon died out is not just because it’s big and it’s hard to grow. The climate has changed. And I’m sure the climate was changing back 60-70 years ago as well and caused a lot of people to say, ‘The hell, I can grow an easier melon!’ That cantaloupe melon that everybody buys that’s salmon-color flesh? You throw a seed in, and it’ll grow.”

Taylor didn’t come out and say it, but it was obvious what he was thinking: Perhaps the Montreal melon no longer belongs in Montreal.

While the melon may no longer be happy growing in its place of origin, he does consider it a success, as an achievement of one of his primary goals: to increase genetic diversity among crops.

And remember the list of other “Lazarus species” mentioned? This article came my way today, and I almost cried reading it: Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides For 80 Years

That’s the stick insect, “long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific,” that one of the reporters knew about. It’s known as a “tree lobster” (it’s very large for an insect) or the “Lord Howe stick insect,” presumed extinct since 1960 and not sighted since 1920. The insect was named for the only place it was known to exist, “Lord Howe Island.” Rats landed in 1918 after leaving a ship that ran aground, and hunted the insects to extinction. Some people who’d climbed the small, very very steep island called Ball’s Pyramid several miles south reported seeing stick insect corpses in the 1960s, but that was apparently it for the species. Since stick insects are nocturnal, no one felt strongly inclined to go look, because that would require climbing the very very steep mountain in the dark, and so the insect was classified as extinct.

But in 2001, two Australian scientists decided to go looking. They found fresh droppings of some large insect on one bush, went back in the dark, and found a small population of the long-unseen Lord Howe stick insect. A more extensive search later indicated that small population was it for the entire island.

After years of meetings and studies, government officials agreed that a very small number of the insects could be removed from Ball’s Pyramid, to see if they could be bred in captivity. Some of the removed insects died, and after another near-death, a population in the hundreds is established – in captivity.

Whether or not they can ever be reintroduced to their original home is unknown – the rats that wiped out the population on Lord Howe Island have continued to breed and inhabit that place, and the human inhabitants would have to agree to any plan to kill all the rats and bring back the very large insects. The stick insects are harmless, but you know, lots of humans find insects, especially very large insects, kind of creepy. I think they’re pretty adorable, and they have some pair-bonding behavior (unusual for insects) that might help others find them somewhat more charming than the average crawly.

At any rate, where’s there’s life, there’s hope.

6 Comments »

  1. Why are organic products so much more expensive?

    Including perennials, my growing area is a modest 2400 square foot plot – enough to feed us. I do a lot of things Klass does: add chicken manure from my own chickens, rotate crops, include bean crops to replenish nitrogen, add carbon (ashes from the wood stove) and yes, he is right that “they will have to buy sulphur, boron, potassium and other minor trace elements to make the soil most favorable to the crops they grow.” The weed thing really interests me. Two years ago I was sick and couldn’t maintain my gardens and the yield went to nearly zero because weeds choked out the vegetable crop. I used an organic weed block last year and it worked well where I used it. But I still would like to fight back the weeds more naturally. I will research how that might work. Thanks for the post.

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    • You’re welcome! I haven’t done enough reading about organic farming to know why the produce is more expensive, but I suspect there’s more labor involved, and many growers may also have much smaller markets they sell to, or overall smaller quantities than large scale farming – except I know there IS some pretty large scale organic produce farming going on, or Whole Foods and the like wouldn’t be able to keep stocked (plus more and more “regular” groceries carry organic foods). So some of the pricing may also be “because we CAN sell it for more, because there’s enough of a population who will pay it.”

      Good luck keeping ahead of the weeds; the little I picked up from the article made it sound like it may be a long term project – there’s a really fantastic blogger at http://biodiverseed.com/ who has been doing permaculture and blogging about it for a number of years; I’m drawing a blank on what she’s said about weeds, but I think she’s written about that some times.

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  2. If you do some research on what particular weeds tell you about your soil, you can also find ways to improve the soil so that it’s less friendly to those “pioneer” species. You can plant preferred crops that do similar things as the weeds — for example, daikon radishes where you have a thistle problem. Both break up hard, compacted soil. I’ve found deep layers of wood mulch helpful for improving the soil while (gradually) suppressing weeds. It’s a lot of upfront work to haul mulch and top it over cardboard, but you can usually get it for free from your city or a local arborist. A local bike shop drops off huge cardboard boxes here instead of paying to recycle them. Worms absolutely love cardboard! The first year, wood mulch saps nitrogen from the soil, but in following years, you’ll find deep, rich humus underneath the mulch, which retains moisture, blocks out weeds, and protects crops from flooding. We also have a local guy who sprays an invasive species of fish onto our yards (usually large farms but he knows us), and the trace minerals and macronutrients in that spray have transformed a once horribly weedy yard into a diverse and highly productive 1/3 acre with excellent soil microbes.

    Just passing along some things I’ve learned in this crazy project of a full yard garden over weeds and tree stumps. Thanks for this inspiring post!

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