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.

Litany of the Meadows

Champ_de_colza_Côte-d'Or_Bourgogne_avril_2014 Wikipedia Commons
Oil-seed Rape, Wikipedia Commons

The 7th of July formed a tide mark in the UK’s environmental policy. A request to use bee-killing neonicotinoids on 5% of oil-seed rape crops put forward by the National Farmers’ Union was approved by the Expert Committee for Pesticides.

This was controversial not only because it could lead to the loss of two-thirds of wild bumblebee queens in the neighbouring areas but because the Department for Environment, Food and Agriculture prevented publication of minutes from a meeting in May, where the ECP argued against lifting the ban, until the decision was pushed through. This was to prevent environmental campaigners from lobbying ministers.

It was later revealed the pesticide manufacturers Bayer and Synerga, whose produce will be used on the oil-seed rape, were the only external representatives present at the meeting on July the 7th. This decision was clearly made with capital at the forefront and demonstrates our Tory government’s acquiescence with major companies at the expense of truth and democratic processes as well as their refusal to acknowledge scientific evidence.

The tides have turned. The hard work of scientists investigating the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder and of environmental campaigners has been reversed. This decision will lead to the deaths of innumerable wild bees and will have a harmful impact on flowering crops and wild flowers in the vicinity of the pesticide treated oil-seed rape. It also opens the door to similar treatment of crops across the UK.

As a Friends group leader who has been working hard to cultivate a wildflower meadow in my local valley to provide a food source for bees I was furious when I found out. I have signed petitions from 38 Degrees but know this is not enough to turn the tides back upon this cataclysmic decision.

For now as a poet and awenydd I share these poems which give voice to the intrinsic value of meadows and bees, their worth to the gods, and to the threat of their extinction. I imagine a time when those responsible ‘hear the litany of the meadows with wonderment and fear’.


Unsung Meadow

Unsung meadow
with your summer snowfall
wild carrot, buttercup and nettle
time is slowing down.

Unsung meadow
with your summer snowfall
plantain, clover and yellow rattle
world is slowing down.

In my summer eiderdown
time and world are slowing down
sleep easy, sleep easy, sleep easy
unsung meadow sings.


Litany of the Meadows

The meadows have been shorn
in a rain of grass heads and sedges
tinted with sorrel, brown-white plantain
and shredded folds of yellow rattle
that never had the chance to seed,
now cut in twain, discarded.

I want to repeat a litany
for every spider, ant and beetle
that lost its home, or legs,
for the dead and empty carapaces,
for the orange tip, cabbage white, and fritillary,
for all the bees returning to dried and empty flowers.

Now I know why we no longer
hear the voice of grasshopper or cricket.
There is no place for the froghopper
to leave a gauze of cuckoo spit.
All her nymphs have been
trampled to froth.

I wonder how long
this thoughtlessness can go on
before they rise in strands and stalks,
marching through dream with the hum and buzz of insects
and we finally hear the litany of the meadows
with wonderment and fear.


Take Wing My Queen

We are the bees of the invisible.
We wildly collect the honey of the visible,
to store in the great golden hive of the invisible.’

Let us depart my queen,
sisters kiss farewell to the flowers.
Sink your long tongues
into the obituaries of stamens,
one last taste, forsake the namelessness
of this world ruled by drones.

She who builds creatively
finds no nourishment in nectar grown
on the ramparts of technology,
in the cracks of mechanical arms
snatching endlessly
at the noctilucent hive of the unknown.

Hives empty, baskets heavy,
bearing honey on furred bodies
to a sanctuary of wax and comb,
invisible wisdom to hum
until meadow flowers
recall sweet songs again,
take wing my queen, let us be gone.


I was not dead when you took me

from a wild uncultivated land
where I swayed in leaves,
walked naked amongst meadow flowers.

Now they are spraying the fields with poison,
green-fly drop like itching stars
on my searing skin.
Writhing worms haunt pink bodies into my dreams.

When cabbage stem flea beetles depart in a fleeing sheet
and worker bees deadened of appetite
lament their dying queen,

when I collect their poor parched bodies
from the dusty ground like rain
will you take them in?

When I wither and faint wilted unable to seed,
skirts ripped from me like precious petals,
when I lie empty and barren
at the end of the earth,
when I am dead will you return for me?

*Words spoken by Creiddylad (a Brythonic goddess of flowers and fertility) to Gwyn ap Nudd (a Brythonic god of the underworld).

Things with Feathers: Living with our winged urban neighbors

I’ve been finding this series difficult to write in a way I hadn’t expected. Finding information to write about is fairly easy. Being excited about it is also easy. But I have to restrain myself from writing it up and adding “but” statements to it all. The thoughts come up: “Here is this awesome thing BUT isn’t it awful how we came to a state where this needs to be done” or “here is this thing which is great BUT so much still needs to be done” and/or “BUT here are ways in which these aspects of it could go wrong.”

And I want to focus on just the positive aspects of what some people are doing to make the world a better place. It is really hard. Due to a combination of learned social behavior, my own critical tendencies, and a desire to present a full picture of a situation, it is really hard to JUST be happy about things instead of downplaying them; it is hard to focus on just the potential in them and recognize them as indications that things can be even better than they are. Finding the not-so-great among the good is really tiring. I can prevent myself from writing the critical statements; I wish I could convince my mental habits to let it go, too.

Well. With that out of the way (this kind of hope is hard), here are this month’s examples of positive trends in the world.

Fastest animal in the world making a comeback – in cities, no less

Early last week, during a lunchtime walk, I heard some rapid, high-pitched chirping sounds, begging sounds, and trying to locate the bird, saw what I hoped might be a falcon. It was too far off for me to be quite certain, but . . . it could be. The flight pattern didn’t match other birds I know I’ve seen here. There were two of them, near the big bridge carrying the interstate across the river. Could it be a peregrine falcon youngster and a parent? Oh, I hoped! Peregrines have nested on the bridges here in Portland since the 1990s; I’ve known this for a while, but (frustratingly) never sighted any.

The next day, I again saw a bird shaped much like those, flying much closer – smaller than I expected, but with the right shape to be a falcon; it headed off towards the bridge and seemed to fly under it and then slightly upwards. After that sighting, I felt more confident believing I had finally seen one of the inhabitants of the local bridges.

Peregrines  – which are relatively small, about the size of a crow – can reach 200 mph when they dive on prey, making them the fastest animal in the world. Like many other predatory birds, their populations were devastated by DDT – which lingers in the environment, and still causes eggshell thinning and other problems. By the 1970s, they were all but gone in the United States.

The banning of DDT and captive breeding programs, to boost the wild populations, started to pay off in the 1980s, when wild pairs were seen nesting successfully in Oregon. They ignored nest boxes, however, but in the 1990s, they started rearing young on bridges in Portland. They’ve been quite successful – on average, more successful than parents out in the wild: “Portland’s nests appear to be more productive than average nests statewide and nationwide, with an average of 2.3 chicks a season. Elsewhere, nests produce 1.6 to 1.8 chicks on average. ” (Read the source of the quote for more great Portland peregrine facts.)

They do face hazards that birds outside the city do not: falls from a bridge nest can land a juvenile in the river, or on a busy street, or onto railroad tracks, or in front of a bicyclist. Human activity of various kinds can also upset nesting parents enough that they’ll abandon a nest. Audubon and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife started a program called the Portland Peregrine Watch Program. Members of the program not only monitored the nest activity, but helped keep people from disturbing the nesting falcons (which might cause them to abandon it), protected just fledged young when they are on the ground learning to fly, and provided rescues for birds in need. Many fledglings have ended up needing medical care and rehabilitation, before being released. (For more, see Audubon’s pages on Portland peregrines.)

Look at that face!! (Peregrine Falcon on Interstate Bridge - Bob Sallinger, via Audubon Society of Portland)
Look at that cute face!! (Peregrine Falcon on Interstate Bridge – Bob Sallinger, via Audubon Society of Portland)

Since 1999, the peregrines are no longer on the Federal endangered species list in 1999; they were removed from the State of Oregon’s list in 2007. Last week, officials in Illinois announced they had removed the birds from their state list, too. In Chicago, peregrines have found success nesting on high-rises and bridges, and dining on the ample supply of pigeons.

Aid for butterflies and bees

Another winged creature that was thought gone for good in Portland is the monarch butterfly. With little to no source of their larval food, milkweed, there have been few if any sightings for long enough that the common wisdom was that you shouldn’t even bother planting it, since the butterflies won’t come.

Last month, I found an article that disproves that common wisdom: Monarchs reappear in Portland, reinforce need for milkweed

Experts say Portlanders shouldn’t bother planting milkweed – the monarch butterflies won’t come. But one woman found 30 eggs on her two plants this month, and she’s urging others: “If you plant it, they will come.”

. . .

Patti Farris, 58, incorporated milkweeds in front of her house three years ago. She hoped monarchs would appear, but didn’t exactly expect it.

On June 4, she noticed a butterfly circling her plants. Generally a monarch will lay one or two eggs per plant. This one laid 30 between two.

Tom Landis, a retired nursery specialist from the U.S. Forest Service, called this unusual.

. . .

Using his knowledge of native plants, the Medford resident said he began growing milkweed and raising monarch caterpillars. He now travels all over the region and gives workshops on caring for the plants and bugs.

Landis said he considered leading a workshop in Portland, but local experts told him it was a lost cause.

Farris found Landis online, and taking Landis’ warning about the low survival rate of eggs to adult (5%), Farris took in the leaves with eggs, raising the caterpillars in an enclosure (and keeping them well-supplied with milkweed) to keep them from becoming dinner for something else. As of the article’s publication, the caterpillars were pupating, possibly to return next year to the milkweed they grew up on.

There have been several other monarch sightings in the northwest recently, which has surprised a number of people, due to general loss of milkweed in the region. But apparently it doesn’t take much to encourage them to show up after all! (Plant more native milkweed! The Xerces Society can help you determine what species is best for your area.)

On the other side of the world, the city of Oslo is taking a city-sized approach to helping out bees, by creating a series of green spaces filled with habitat and food (via Oslo creates world’s first ‘highway’ to protect endangered bees.):

“We are constantly reshaping our environment to meet our needs, forgetting that other species also live in it,” Agnes Lyche Melvaer, head of the Bybi, an environmental group supporting urban bees, which is leading the project.

“To correct that we need to return places to them to live and feed,” she explained, sitting on a bench in a lush city centre square bursting with early Nordic summer growth.

. . .

Oslo’s “bee highway” aims to give the insects a safe passage through the city, lined with relays providing food and shelter – the first such system in the world, according to the organisers.

Government groups, private companies, and individuals are among the people working to create the bee highway, which includes replacing some areas of grass with flowers, increasing green roofs, as well as adding bee hives in some areas.

The mass destruction of bee populations around the world has already forced farmers in the Chinese province of Sichuan to pollinate plants by hand, and in the US some farmers are left with no choice but to rent hives transported cross-country by truck to pollinate crops.

But in Abel’s Garden in Oslo, Agnes Lyche Melvaer says she has faith in the “butterfly effect”.

“If we manage to solve a global problem locally it’s conceivable that this local solution will work elsewhere too.”

That about wraps it up for this month, evidence that with some careful thought, and with intentions of care, wecan have cities that are good habitat for other animals, too.

Bonus feature: Biodiversity in cities

This isn’t so much “look at how we’re doing things to make the world better” as “LOOK AT THIS COOL THING,” but it’s also about insects in cities, soooo I’m going to stuff it in here.

Via the awesome BiodiverSeed blog, a quote from Stephen Fry (QI, G-series, Episode 1 “Gardens”):

Now where’s the best place in the world to discover an entirely new species?

Basically, your own garden. You may say, “Ah ha, there won’t be anything in my garden that hasn’t been discovered.” You would be amazed. In 1971, Jennifer Owen, a biologist, did a very long-term study of her ordinary garden in a suburban house in Leicester. She discovered 533 species of ichneumon wasp, just that family of parasitic wasp. Fifteen of these had never been recorded in Britain; four of them were completely new to science. In a suburban garden. So, in your garden, if you have a garden, there will be things.

Gilbert White, the naturalist, said that nature is so full and so varied that if you want to find the place with the most variety, it’s the place you most study. It almost doesn’t matter: Just take a piece of land and look at it hard enough.

This one’s much more recent:

In 2013, Brian Brown, the curator of entomology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told one of the museum’s trustees that he could find a new species of insect practically anywhere he looked. Her cynical response was, “Can you find one in my back yard?” Brown accepted the challenge, setting up a large, tent-like Malaise trap—named not for the emotion on which certain bugs seem to thrive but for the Swede who invented it—in the trustee’s Brentwood garden. After a few weeks, he brought his haul back to the museum, where he began by examining the phorids, a large family of tiny, humpbacked flies that he has spent much of his career studying. The very first one that Brown put under a microscope turned out to be previously unknown to science.

Since then, with a larger and more organized effort, they’ve found another 30 suspected new species of phorids. (That’s what they were focused on – what if they broadened their search??!?!?)

It seems to me like most of the talk about biodiversity talks about remote forests – how much more is out there to discover and get to know? And much closer to what is home for most of us? A lot! And it’s so exciting!

Because the world is so full of death and horror, I try again and again to console my heart and pick the flowers that grow in the midst of hell. –Herman Hesse, from Narcissus and Goldmund