I think the number one environmental problem, aside from nuclear war, is agriculture. Industrial pollution as well as material and energy resource depletion are serious, but even though industrial society seems likely to collapse one day, to a point almost beyond recognition, agriculture would not have to sink to such depths if we can keep our soil and water resources intact. The fact that till agriculture sends soil seaward and destroys the water-holding capacity of the soil is, in my view, the problem of agriculture.
In the long run, contamination and loss of the soil resource will lead to the loss of ourselves as people. Soil loss is a problem for the short run too. From a summation of numerous studies done in the corn-belt states one can conclude that with a two-inch soil loss, yield is reduced 15 percent; with a four-inch loss, 22 percent; six inches, 30 percent; eight inches, 41 percent; ten inches, 57 percent; and twelve inches, 75 percent. The consequence varies with the area, of course, and depends on the type of soil and how deep it is. During an extreme downpour, such as occurred in southwest Iowa in May 1950, up to 250 tons may be lost per acre. We are now losing from two to four billion tons of soil each year, depending on which estimate we accept. If it is four billion tons, it is equal to the loss of seven inches of soil per year; more than fifty million tons of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are lost. Without replacement this eventually leads to reduced quality in the crop produced. We should remember that more than nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium is lost in erosion, and if we supply only these elements, some nutrients will be severely lacking. The problem is relatively simple when we are dealing with measurable characteristics. Less measurable properties are equally important, as when infiltration rate and water-holding capacity are reduced and the soil’s water conservation plan slips away.
The story is as old as civilization. Two thousand years before Christ, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of Mesopotamia watered an area so rich that early Biblical scholars believed that somewhere in this area was the Garden of Eden. An extensive irrigation system brought life to remarkable cities and helped sponsor a highly complex civilization. Today the area is a desert of shifting sand around the great buildings and monuments of Babylon, including the palace of the arrogant King Nebuchadnezzar. In one sense it wasn’t all that long ago, for bristlecone pines alive today in the White Mountains of the American West were contemporary with forests on the hills surrounding the great valley of this river system. The hillsides are bare now, as they have been for centuries. The ditches that carried the lifeblood of the land are quiet and the harbors of their commerce filled in.
The hillsides of Syria grew magnificent trees, which became lumber for ships and cities—more than one hundred cities, in fact—cities that now have their foundations and doorsteps several feet above where one stands. The record shows this to be an area that once exported huge quantities of olive oil and wine to Rome.
King Solomon, three thousand years ago, purchased so many cedars from the King of Tyre that he had to marshal eighty thousand lumberjacks to cut the trees and seventy thousand men to skid the logs from Lebanon to build a temple. The cut area was placed under cultivation following log removal, and in an historical instant the soil began its search for a new home in the sea. One wonders if the King of Tyre ever recognized that he had made such a disastrous deal.
Both to the east and west of this region the story is similar in all but the minute details. China’s Yellow River is called yellow for good reason. Though its basin once supported countless rich and prosperous people, at flood stage soil now accounts for 50 percent by weight of the river’s flow. In the delta area, which is four hundred miles wide, the channel runs forty or fifty feet above the fields. The Chinese now value their soil so much that they carry it up hill in buckets.
We can take a trip around the Mediterranean and see the source of civilization as well as of its ultimate failure. Perhaps most notable are the Spanish, who spent much of what was left of their forests and soils to plunder foreign lands. Then it was England’s turn, for after the defeat of the Spanish Armada she spent her forests to rule the waves for three hundred years.
Why have some nations managed to prosper with limited resources by saving their soils while others, with much more ecological capital originally, have vanished? The answer is complex, I suspect, but it might be that many peoples who had few land and water resources to begin with set the cultural pattern for those who followed. People of the Netherlands, who claimed swamps and mud flats from the sea, and Indians of the high Andes have preserved their precious natural heritage and indeed improved on the local environment.
In our own country we suffer in part from a history of early abundance and in part from the legacy we brought from western and northern Europe, where rains are so light that soil runoff is scarcely a problem. When our ancestors found the virgin woodlands and prairies of our continent, they encountered for the first time the thunderstorms and associated quick drenchings and then went on to introduce such soil-exposing row crops as corn, cotton, and tobacco. The age of fossil fuel has allowed erosion to accelerate at an even faster pace. At the same time, this ancient fuel has allowed us to mask almost completely the old telltale symptoms of agricultural decay. Huge tractors and their equipment can now completely wipe out the clear evidence of decay that resides in a large gully. Natural gas, which provides the feedstock for most of the nitrogen fertilizer applied to the field, can restore partial fertility.
Civilization has brought its prophets, most of them eloquent, impassioned, knowledgeable, but almost all peoples have somehow been unable to respond adequately to their warnings. In a real sense, prophecy has failed. So have relevant organizations, including the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. Saddest of all, perhaps, is the failure of stewardship. There is little financial incentive to practice stewardship now; David Pimentel has noted that soil-conserving crop rotation in northeastern Illinois costs $39 per acre. I know that Mennonite farms in Kansas fare little if any better than those of their non-Mennonite neighbors. I saw Amish farms in Pennsylvania this summer that also seemed to be experiencing erosion, though not nearly so severely as their non-Amish neighbors. It is discouraging to realize that the economic system is insensitive to ecological necessity. Even so, it is somewhat easy for all of us to deal with this situation, for we can vent our frustration by being angry at the economic system. But the fact that many of the most ecologically correct stewards have fields that are losing their soil presents another problem.
Our generation is certainly not the first to contemplate the numerous dimensions of agricultural failure. From my point of view this failure is the primordial germ of the “human condition,” which philosophers and thinking people have long pondered. I believe it is the very essence of the human condition as outlined in Genesis.
How Did We Get into This Fix?
We will never precisely know how we got ourselves into such a fix. There is the Genesis version, but most who read that story see it as something separate from our fall into agriculture. I don’t, and I want to talk about it a little later. The orthodox view is that we were gatherers and hunters who started to till, and as we increased the amount of food energy, fewer died, freeing some people up to further invent labor-saving devices, which in turn led to more population and eventually to villages and cities. Jane Jacobs, in The Economy of Cities, has developed the interesting theory that it is the other way around. She cites evidence that agriculture evolved out of an urban environment and contends that cities predate the agricultural communities. She thinks cities formerly were amply supplied with wild game and wild plants. The problem of lack of space to store the animal and plant materials in an urban setting then led to plant and animal domestication.
It may be unimportant here to know which arose first, cities or fields, but what is important is that within a very short time we moved away from gathering and hunting in tribal groups to agriculture. If our non-agricultural ancestors were like what modern “primitive” tribes are today, the work week was less than twenty hours and for less than half the adult population. It is well to remember that agriculture did bend our straight backs for so long during the day that it was not pleasant. Homo sapiens is now a species out of context, and the most out-of-context activity, it seems to me, is the very production of food. So unpleasant is extensive till agriculture on a large scale that when humans did it all, it is easy to imagine that the draft animal was a welcome substitute for the traditional toil necessary to grow and harvest food. As gatherers and hunters we could take our food without thought for the morrow. Early gardening changed all that but perhaps not very much at first. In our hemisphere one group or another probably supplemented its diet with such annual crops as potatoes, beans, amaranth, and corn, while in the old world wheat, rice, barley, oats, etc. were featured.
As the patches in the garden increased in size to become a field, two major new things were happening: a new global language was being born, and there was a realization that we could no longer take without thought for the morrow. Perhaps one to seven days is all the gatherer and hunter had to plan for actively, but the serious planter had to think of an entire year at the minimum. The Biblical Joseph became famous as the first Secretary of Agriculture by planning seven years ahead—or perhaps more accurately, fourteen years. Recall his prophecy of seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of famine. It is quite a shock for a Paleolithic mind to have to plan ahead, not for one day or seven days or even 365 days but for 2,500 to 5,000 days.
Yet with all our planning ahead, even for fourteen years, none of our cultural information was adequate to arrest the wasting away of the soil resource. Both Plato and the Biblical Job knew the score, but it made little if any difference. By then one of nature’s beings, meant to be a gatherer-hunter, was so deep into agriculture that there was no turning back, not without massive trimming of the numbers.
If We Are to Get Ourselves out of Such a Fix, What Can We Trust?
Most people I know who have thought seriously about the overall problem finally conclude that there is no escape, that we are locked into a Whiteheadian dramatic tragedy. Agriculture is necessary to feed people, they realize, even though it has disastrously depleted the very soil that makes it possible. If we leave it at that, we have our answer, for what makes something tragic, of course, is that the human being cannot do anything about it! In my view agriculture will remain a tragedy so long as it is kept separate from the problem of the human condition. And the human condition will remain a tragic problem so long as it is kept separate from the problem of agriculture. Look over the recommendations of the major philosophers throughout history or even the economic theoreticians and social planners of the late twentieth century or anyone else worried about the human condition, and I think you will see that their recommendations appear almost like random ideas of what to do next. I know I’m not comforted when I look over the list. The philosophical “fix it” people are the most consistent, for they almost always anchor their utopian idea in some former time, some past that sounded better and maybe was better. They would have us recapture that time, add a wrinkle or two, and be home free.
I don’t believe that any solution which is more the product of civilization than the product of nature is trustable. Of course we have to have both. But I don’t believe we can understand the human as a product of civilization or as a product of agriculture nearly as well as we can understand the human as a product of nature. To learn about the nature of the human by relying exclusively on the history of civilization is a bit like studying patients in an asylum and trying to develop a synthetic theory of human behavior. You can gain information, but the context is so out of joint with the environment that shaped us that the value of the information is limited. I jokingly tell my historian friends that if one is interested in abnormal social psychology, one studies history or becomes a cultural historian.
I have been holding back from you the most important consideration in this talk. To get at both what the human is and what agriculture is, I think we must study and understand what Wendell Berry, with whom I am sharing this podium today, calls the “natural integrities” that preceded agriculture. For my part of the country that would be the abundant prairies, which had supported the Indians and greeted the settlers. Here in the East it would be the deciduous forests. I am by no means the first to suggest this connection between agriculture and wildness. In England Sir Albert Howard, author of The Soil and Health, talked about the structure of the forest and promoted an agriculture in which the forest served as an analogy.
In our own country a man born and bred in this region, Henry David Thoreau, asked, “Would it not be well to consult with Nature in the outset, for she is the most extensive and experienced planter of us all.” Thoreau wanted to see the wild forest return, but as a practical matter he knew we could not turn our backs on the food-growing process. In his journal of 1859 and again in his “Huckleberries” lecture, Thoreau struck a compromise that he felt would satisfy the demands of both civilization and natural order. He suggested that each town preserve within its borders “a primitive forest” of five hundred or one thousand acres, “where a stick should never be cut for fuel, a common possession forever, for instruction and recreation.” This was for the purpose of people learning how nature’s economy functions. I hope we can elaborate upon his rich insight here.
In 1864 George Perkins Marsh, a countryman from Vermont, brought out Man and Nature, the most extensive work on land management to that date. He had observed New England farming first hand and had read the works of numerous authors in Europe—naturalists, geographers, foresters, hydrologists. Marsh, a contemporary of Thoreau, came to the conclusion that “the equation of animal and vegetable life is too complicated a problem for the human intelligence to solve, and we can never know how wide a circle of disturbance we produce in the harmonies of nature when we throw the smallest pebble in the ocean of organic life.” Even with respect to wildlife he advised the farmer to err on the side of caution. Marsh believed, though not in these words, that for life forms to grow and flourish, information is required—lots of information, more information than we can possibly imagine or comprehend. And that is the first lesson: it is more than we can comprehend!
With agriculture we destroy some of the information of nature and substitute cultural information, much of which, Wendell Berry points out, lends itself more to habit than to thought. Thank God for that, for if it were the other way around, as Wendell has said, we would have perished long ago. Even so, cultural information too is incomplete, partly because the human time frame is never as long as the time consideration of patient nature. We have not had to worry about the morrow. Furthermore, because we live three score and ten, our concern weakens as the distance in time, both forward and backward, lengthens. We pay more attention to our grandparents, for example, than to our great-great-grandparents. The best of people pay more attention to the future our grandchildren will inherit than to the future of our great-great-grandchildren. It seems to be a symmetrical thing.
No matter how incomplete it is, cultural information will always be necessary. The acquisition of cultural information doesn’t happen overnight. It requires time, as Wendell has emphasized, lots of time with lots of people staying put. In the history of the Exodus—when Hebrews took over the land of Canaan—we have a clear example of the problems associated with quickly acquiring cultural information to perform agriculture efficiently. What the Hebrews brought with them from the wilderness experience, and before that from a life of slavery in Egypt, was the religion of Yahweh. Here was a people about to pass from a nomadic to an agricultural and urban life. It is instructive to study how they handled this passage. Fresh in from the desert, they were forced to deal immediately with the Canaanites, a people whose gods were farm-gods, known as Baals, which means “owners or possessors of the soil.” Every little square foot of fertile ground in Canaan owed its fertility to the presence of some Baal, who either imparted or withheld the fertility power of the soil. There were places to worship the numerous Baals all over Canaan—in valleys, on elevated ground, at springs and wells. Each city had its patron Baal, whose name would be hyphenated with that of the city. Bull images and bronze snakes were popular representations of fertility.
The Hebrew herdsmen to the south had little trouble accepting Yahweh, who had guided them in the wilderness, but those who took up agriculture had a problem. Because they were ignorant of agriculture and the art of husbandry, they had to learn nearly everything from scratch. This was not a time when one could learn soil chemistry; besides, to learn the spirit-lore was an efficient and effective and more complete way to learn an encoded language for agricultural behavior. It is easy to imagine that the ten tribes of the fertile and agricultural north had more temptation to practice Baal worship than the shepherd Hebrews of the rocky south. Though Northern Israelites did not lose their faith in Yahweh, they did engage in the practice of giving their first fruits to the local Baals, and they observed the festivals of their Canaanite neighbors. Gradually they became convinced that Yahweh controlled agriculture also. The put-down of the Baals was not as total or as emphatic as one might gather from a superficial reading of the scriptures. Maybe Yahwehism in the north was successful in direct proportion to its eventual ability to accommodate itself to that scattering of local Baals.
I am relating this history in which religious language becomes elaborate because, as I said earlier, if one is to practice till agriculture, a great deal of information present in the original wilderness must be destroyed. That is, the DNA of thousands of species, both plant and animal, was eliminated. This monumental loss of information stored in the genetic code is not due to species extinction only but includes the huge loss of information within many of the species left. We can be happy that some of these species are yet represented around cemeteries or on some rocky slopes that have escaped grazing or tilling, but most of them have had their genetic information severely reduced. Though we are rightly concerned about a narrowing of the genetic base in our major crops now, it is an extension of the human’s venture into agriculture early on.
I believe the Genesis version of the fall is substantially correct but would expand it to state explicitly, as I have already said, that the root of our fall is inherent in the root of agriculture and the root of agriculture can be found in a garden, more specifically in any of the innocent patches of the garden. Small must have been beautiful in the earlier garden, which featured people working patches in an appropriate ratio. But as the size of the patch increased to the size of a field, even a field much smaller than a modern American field, the number of people engaged in the food-getting process diminished. They took up other jobs as civilization flourished, and their descendants eventually gave us a Renaissance, seen generally as good. Perhaps it wasn’t pleasant to work those patches at times, but it must have been less pleasant for those working in the fields. Even so, we might imagine that those left to the field work were most likely the ones with the psychological makeup not to mind it so much and during certain times even to enjoy it. The cultural language necessary to keep the food coming, even from patch-type agriculture, was necessarily fine grained. But as patches were aggregated into fields, the cultural language was inadequate to rejuvenate the area, and the next thing we know, the irrigation canals were silted in. Invaders did contribute heavily to the destruction of Babylonian agriculture, but this is further testimony to the fragility of cultural information acting alone. One Plains Indian tribe of hunters and gatherers might wipe out the village of a rival, but they did not wipe out the ability of the land to supply food in the future.
But I am getting ahead of my story. What seems important to remember is that essentially all the canals that had contributed to the greatness of Babylon and Canaan did silt in, and we can see for all practical purposes a repeat of this history time and time again, down to our own time as we observe the soils that are becoming salted in southern California and in the lower stretches of the Colorado. It would take a super-duper Baal to say, “Dam my rivers and I’ll salt your valleys” or “Give my mountain waters advice with systems of ditches and I’ll fill them in.” The natural system never had to know such truths because the total completeness of its information system prevented the problem from developing in the first place.
My contention, then, is that we can get away with destroying a certain amount of nature’s information and still maintain high-yield patches without resorting to a slave economy. Patch-type agriculture is within the limits of ecosystem redemption. Perhaps what is important is that we can work the patch without getting too bored by such work and have it enhance rather than reduce our aesthetic dimension. At the patch level both humans and nature can accommodate the products and makers of civilization in high-yielding annual crops such as rice, corn, wheat, and soybeans or carrots, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, sweet corn, green beans, and the like. But when we move to the field level with any of these crops, we will want, if not need, slaves as we always have. The choices are human slaves, fossil or uranium energy slaves, draft animal slaves, or fields themselves as slaves, for they would be the source of alcohol energy for tractor slaves or for the draft animal. Human slavery is out. Fossil or uranium energy will soon be out, leaving the field as the energy source and the draft animal to help us. But at the field level, on sloping ground, in most cases there is still no information system complete or compelling enough to prevent the rush of useful atoms toward the sea with each rain or insistent wind.
If We Must Have Fields, What Will Nature Require of Us?
At The Land Institute we are working on the development of mixed perennial grain crops. We are interested in simulating the old prairie and building domestic prairies for the future. Our current agricultural system, which features annuals in information-poor monoculture, is nearly the opposite of the original prairie or forest, which features mixtures of perennials. If we could build domestic prairies, we might one day be able to have high-yielding fields that are planted, say, only once every twenty years or so. There would be mostly harvest after establishment, and from then on we would be counting on the species diversity that breeds dependable chemistry. This above-ground diversity has a multiplier effect on the kinds of seldom-seen teeming diversity below. Bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates live out their lives reproducing by the power of sun-sponsored photons captured in the green molecular traps set above. If we could adjust our eyes to a power beyond that of the electron microscope, we would reel at the sight of a seemingly surrealistic universe of exchanging ions, where water molecules dominate and where colloidal clay plates are held in position by organic thread molecules crucial for a larger purpose but regarded as just another meal by innumerable microscopic invertebrates. The action begins when roots decay and above-ground residues break down, the released nutrients then starting their downward tumble through soil catacombs to begin all over again. And we who stand above in thoughtful examination, all the while smelling fresh dirt and rolling it between our fingers and thumbs, distill these myriad actions into one concept—soil health or balance—and leave it at that.
Conventional agriculture still coasts on accumulated principle and interest, hard earned by nature’s life forms over those millions of years of adjustment to dryness, fire, and grinding ice. Lately, agriculture has been coasting on the sunlight trapped by floras long extinct. We pump it, process it, transport it over the countryside as chemicals, and inject it into our wasting fields as chemotherapy. Then we watch the fields respond with an unsurpassed vigor, and we feel informed on the subject of agronomics. That we can feed billions is less a sign of nature’s renewable bounty and our knowledge than of her forgiveness and our discounting of the future.
How could the annual condition in monoculture be more different from what nature prefers? Roots and above-ground parts alike die every year, so through much of the calendar year the mechanical grip on the soil must rely on death rather than life. Mechanical disturbance, powered by an ancient flora, imposed by a mined metal, may make weed control effective but the farm far from weatherproof. In the course of it all, soil compacts, crumb structure declines, soil porosity decreases, and the loss of a wick effect means the soil’s ability for pulling moisture down diminishes. Monoculture means a decline in the range of invertebrate and microbial forms. Microbial specialists with narrow enzyme systems make such specific demands that just any old crop won’t do. We do manage some diversity through crop rotation, but from the point of view of various microbes it is probably a poor substitute for the greater diversity which was always there on the prairie or in the forest. Monoculture means that botanical and hence chemical diversity above ground is also absent, which invites epidemics of pathogens or epidemic grazing by insect populations that can spend most of their respiratory energy reproducing, eating, and growing. Insects are better controlled if they are forced to spend a good portion of their energy budget buzzing around, hunting among a mixture of many species for the plants they evolved to eat.
Some of the activity found in the pre-turned sod can be found in the human-managed fields, but the plowing sharply reduced many of these soil qualities. Had too much been destroyed, of course we would not have food today. But then, who can say our great-grandchildren will have it in 2081? It is hard to quantify exactly what happened when the heart of America was ripped open, but when the shear made its zipper sound, the wisdom the prairie had accumulated over millions of years was forgotten in favor of the simpler, more human-directed system.
I believe it is possible to return to a system that is at once self-renewing like the prairie or forest and capable of supporting the current human population.
Much scientific knowledge and narrow technical application have contributed to the modern agricultural problem; nevertheless, because of advances in biology over the past half-century I think we have the opportunity to develop a truly sustainable agriculture based on mixtures of perennials. This would be an agriculture in which soil erosion is so slight that it is detectable only by the most sophisticated equipment, an agriculture that is chemical-free, or nearly so, and certainly an agriculture that is scarcely demanding on fossil fuel.
What We Have Learned at The Land So Far
Much of what we have learned since we started our work at The Land is from the literature, but much of it is from our own investigations. We were not surprised to read that annual crops fail to stop wind erosion approximately 60 percent of the time. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that perennial grasses grown anywhere, but particularly in semi-arid climates, are the most efficient producers of granular soil structure and that when it comes to forming soil aggregates, the roots are the most active part of the grass crop. These perennial roots are more effective than simply adding grass clippings or hay to the soil. A legume and a grass together do a better job than each growing alone.
Sylvan Wittwer, Assistant Dean of Agriculture at Michigan State, has described recent studies on the fate of nitrogen fertilizer applied to the soil. These studies indicate that 25 to 35 percent is lost both by nitrification and denitrification. It has been discovered that rhizomes or underground stems release inhibitors which suppress nitrification. Perennials have rhizomes; annuals don’t. Meanwhile, agricultural researchers are studying the many variables that affect these costly losses, and because their research deals with annuals, they are forced to exercise their cleverness by considering such options as root-zone placement of fertilizer and the development of natural and synthetic inhibitors applied with ammonia or urea.
The soil-loss problem is another matter which ultimately boils down to how a living community is going to deal with the bombs—miniature bombs, as Professor Beasley at Iowa State calls them. These raindrop bombs measure 0.12 inch each on average and fall at a velocity of 25 feet per second. On a bare field they can legitimately be called bombs because they shatter soil granules and clods, compacting the area below, reducing infiltration, creating craters, and eventually carrying the detached particles seaward. We have learned from the literature that one acre of bluestem, above ground, can hold over fifty tons of water from such bombs. This is significant, for it is not unusual out our way to have a two-inch rainstorm in thirty minutes, yielding a weight of 226 tons of water. Between one-fourth and one-fifth of that tonnage, in other words, can be absorbed by the first line of defense, the cover itself.
As we prepare for our breeding program involving perennials we have learned from a survey of the literature that different species of perennials of the same genus, or even from closely related genera, are more likely than annuals to successfully cross and in turn have fertile hybrids. In other words, the barriers to yield improvement through crossing of perennials are significantly fewer than the barriers affecting annuals. We have learned that wild plants, with only a moderate degree of assistance from us, respond with an overall vigor much greater than that demonstrated by their relatives struggling in nature. We have nine-feet-tall perennial sunflowers at The Land. Our wild senna is over five feet tall, with a surprising abundance of seeds. Maximillian sunflower is loaded with blossoms far beyond what I have observed in nature.
It is our goal to have one thousand species from across the Great Plains and elsewhere growing in five-meter-long rows at The Land. Under the direction and care of Marty Bender, director of the herbary, we have over 150 species now established. We are developing the herbary for the purpose of having plants close at hand so they might suggest to us how they can be used—as, for example, in a domestic tall-grass prairie mix or in a domestic mid- or mixed-grass prairie or in the short-grass prairie west of us. We are ideally located, for we live in the middle, in the mixed-grass prairie country. To the east, seventy-five miles or so, is tall-grass country and to the west, less than one hundred miles, is short-grass prairie. We are close enough to the middle of the prairie north-south that we can grow plants from Manitoba alongside plants from Texas.
Perhaps our favorite star so far is a relative of corn, Eastern Gama Grass. It is a strong and highly nutritious perennial which has 27 percent protein in the seed, three times that of corn and twice that of wheat. It is also 1.8 times higher than corn in the important amino acid methionine. There are five characteristics we are involving in crosses to increase the yield of this strong perennial. It is probably because we cannot promise one quick response to our breeding problem that only the Rodale organization has seen fit so far to fund our work with this promising perennial.
Other major stars include wild senna, Illinois bundle flower, Maximillian sunflower, sand dropseed, and sand lovegrass. You will note that we are interested in these plants only as seed producers, for we think it is essential to come up with compelling alternatives to the annual grain producers for sloping ground.
We are careful not to get ahead of ourselves by looking at specific plants to become crops; rather, we plan most of our experiments with two important biological questions in mind. Are perennialism and high yield mutually exclusive? Can a polyculture or mixture of perennials outyield the same perennials in a monoculture? These questions have led us to numerous others. For example, there is the very important yet, so far as I can find, unasked question, What is a perennial? My bet at the moment is that the biochemical pathways pointing toward perennialism in one group may be very different from the pathways that contribute in another. Tropical perennial plants simply don’t experience winterkill, and temperate perennials have some mechanism that keeps them around over winter.
We have an experiment underway to determine if there is something inherent in perennialism that might keep a perennial from responding to selection pressures as quickly as an annual. We have two species of Lespedeza—one an annual, the other a perennial; both are obligate outcrossers, that is, they won’t accept their own pollen. We intend to weigh the seed of each plant from each species, plant the seed out from the top 3 percent, and then repeat this process in subsequent years to see how the perennial responds compared to the annual. We hope to do the same with obligate selfers, one perennial and the other annual.
We have over 160 plots, each four feet wide and twenty-four feet long, devoted to two major categories of experiments. We grow two species together in a biculture and the same two in monoculture in order to determine if they get along better together or separately. We have additional plots with two species growing together, involving fifteen different combinations, and here we hope to introduce a member of the sunflower family or the mint family or the crowfoot family. We have known that legumes enhance yield, but we didn’t know until relatively recently that they fix nitrogen, which the entire plant community can utilize. We want to know if these plants of the prairie make a contribution that we can measure, or if they are “just there.” In this respect, Wendell Berry has reminded us in a recent Sierra Club article that the creation is mysterious precisely because it does not conform to human purposes. In other words, just because there is no measurable yield increase from incorporating members of various families into the mix, it does not mean they have no purpose. Even so, over the longer pull the role these prairie plants play may be of profound significance for the kind of ecological agriculture we envision.
Another insight we have gained from a certain set of experiments this growing season came as a total surprise. We had a pasture at The Land consisting mostly of Indian grass, which was there when we first saw the place a dozen years ago. It is adjacent to a bromegrass pasture for our livestock. This spring we mowed the Indian-grass pasture into blocks twenty feet by forty feet each, separated only by aisles the width of one lawnmower. We then grouped them so that one plot was mowed, one burned, one mowed and disced, another burned and disced. We also had a control in which we did nothing. We then hand sowed approximately fifty live seed of one species per square foot in all five of these conditions in order to learn which conditions would accommodate that species best. We did this for a total of fifty different species. In other words, we had 250 four-feet by twenty-feet plots tied up for all fifty species. Then we had a decision to make. Do we allow the livestock—a horse, a milk cow, and two calves—to be part of this or not? We had the area partially fenced off already, and with three or four hours of work we could have isolated it from the livestock with an electric fence. We decided to let the livestock graze the area as a matter of choice, for they had plenty of good brome this year. Now comes our surprise: Where we burned, the livestock systematically ate the growth; what we did not burn but only mowed early, the livestock mostly left alone. Consequently, the burned area scarcely flowered, while the unburned area, regardless of whether it had been disced or not, bolted and flowered.
A possible explanation is that even though nitrogen is lost with burning, the rest of the nutrients are quickly released and taken up by the early growth. Maybe this early growth is more tasty. There are other interpretations, but what is important is that both cattle and buffalo graze selectively. This reality suggests a great possibility for a sustainable agriculture. Imagine livestock grazing in a field where burned strips alternate with unburned strips. The unburned area becomes the grain crop and is grazed just right to accommodate the harvesting equipment. The burned area feeds the livestock all in the same field. It is easy to begin to visualize the first steps for healing the split with nature. Here is an agriculture which begins to utilize the natural integrities of nature.
Another consideration important in our thinking, and probably the most radical, is the idea of introducing succession to agriculture. Annual monoculture has been compelling in the short run because we have successfully denied our fields the opportunity to go beyond the first stage or two of succession. Agriculture has depended upon successfully fighting what nature wants to do. But if we are serious about our inquiry into what nature will require of us, then we must be prepared to reject an agriculture based on the near complete denial of succession, except at the patch level.
Succession is an ecosystem’s way of obeying a fundamental of biology. We know that for all levels of biological organization there is a juvenile stage, eventually a mature stage, and the inevitable senescence and death. It happens to cells; it happens to tissues, organs, organ systems, and to the individual. It also happens, by the way, to species, which evolve—often with a flourish—settle down, and then become extinct before changing into something else or dying out. It seems to be a property of life, part of the great round. When this sequence happens to plant and animal communities, we call it succession. Weaver and Clements of the University of Nebraska studied this phenomenon thoroughly in the early twentieth century, and Henry David Thoreau was preoccupied with the idea in the nineteenth century. I think that revolutionary agriculturists will need to make it central in all their considerations.
I began to think seriously about ecological succession in agriculture as we considered putting together mixtures of species which would simulate the tall-, mid-, and short-grass prairies. We had thought that perhaps there would be two harvests: one to collect the seeds of the cool-season plants in early summer and also a fall harvest. We would need to breed these plants to set seed in synchrony for one harvest or the other. Maybe there will be cool-season prairies and warm-season prairies. All plants in the mix need not be seed producers but may be there for other purposes such as to fix nitrogen or to serve as a host for a critical mass of certain insects standing ready to nip a potential epidemic of other insects. Somewhere in all this I was forced to think about ecological succession for agriculture. We looked over our inventory of plants in the herbary and picked some to be sown in four-feet by twenty-feet plots for another experiment. We noted, however, that the aggressive types, such early-stage invaders as Illinois bundle flower or Maximillian sunflower, had few weeds in the plot material. On the other hand, the plots of the climax species, purple prairie clover, which were not weeded, were mostly taken over by cheat and other weeds. The unweeded plants were not worth harvesting.
These conditions represent two extremes of succession on the prairie, but what of the intermediate species, which represent other stages between the invaders and the climax? The question now becomes, Can we be participants in succession? If we think ahead a century, perhaps some of our descendants will be planting their bare fields with high-yielding luxuriant perennial mixes—aggressive species, which would then be followed closely by other species, plants with less total potential energy but with more elaborate information systems and perhaps a more efficient use of energy overall. After twenty years perhaps these future farmers will have accelerated their domestic prairie to the climax stage with a relatively high yield along the way. The presumption here is that the information system of the prairie has evolved to accept succession as a reality just as much as gravity.
This is one of many possibilities for an ecological agriculture, but I want to conclude with a word of caution.
A Problem with Ecological Agriculture
I have promoted an ecological agriculture that emphasizes our maximizing the information of nature’s storehouse beyond what humans are capable of comprehending. I hope I have given due emphasis to the fact that cultural information must evolve to accommodate this system, though it need not be as complex as what is necessary for a sustainable agriculture using the crops and the livestock of the late twentieth century. We may feel that we are on the verge of “a new tomorrow” if only agriculture embraces ecology. But we’ve got to watch out.
Toward the end of Nature’s Economy, a fine paperback about the roots of ecology, the author, Donald Worster, builds a strong case for mistrusting ecology as an operating paradigm for future human action. He takes pains to show that the science of ecology has been studied and understood in the language of economics and industry by people who, whether or not they know it, not only betray their belief in the economic system in which we now operate but also betray their belief in the industrial society. As early as 1910 one of the pioneers of modern ecology said: “Bio-economically speaking, it is the duty of the plant world to manufacture the food-stuffs for its complement, the animal world . . . . Every day, from sunrise until sunset, myriad [plant] laboratories, factories, workshops and industries all the world over, on land and in the sea, in the earth and on the surface soils are incessantly occupied, adding each its little contribution to the general fund of organic wealth.” We may think, “Well, that was a long time ago when such language was used in describing nature,” yet less than fifteen years ago a noted ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “Like any factory the river’s productivity is limited by its supply of raw materials and its efficiency in converting these materials into finished products.” The metaphors used in understanding ecology, Worster says, are more than casual or incidental, for they express the dominant tendency in the scientific ecology of our time. Nature has been transformed into a reflection of the modern corporate industrial system. Unfortunately, ecology has had little or no influence on economics; rather, economics has tainted ecology. It’s been a one-way street.
What do we do now that ecology is saddled with such words or phrases as food chain, producers, consumers, and ecosystem, now that the whole is broken down, now that energy is the medium of exchange, now that efficiency is such a virtue it is seen as the key to biological order? That working ecologists see little wrong with the use of such language is a sign that the completely economic world-view is coming closer. Perhaps science is such an inherently alienating force that we have to begin anew.
The problem is, where do we begin? What do we build on? I think that a long time ago nature gave us two important ecological concepts that became religious philosophy, and both will need emphasis in a new ecology. Both are central to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, though in recent times they have been understood in rather shallow ways. These concepts center around the idea of redemption and the idea of transcendence. Regarding the first, nature has shown us that we can damage an area, yet it will redeem itself—perhaps not for a long time, perhaps not completely, but eventually and to some degree. This idea of redemption is a source of hope: abuse a hillside and the sins of the father will visit the sons even unto the third and fourth generations but not necessarily forever, for redemption of the wasted hillside is possible if loving care is given it.
The idea of transcendence is one that even the most ardent zealot of reductionist science can’t ignore. For instance, there is nothing about the properties of hydrogen and oxygen that gives a clue about the properties of water. The properties of both are completely transcended by what water can do and how it figures in our lives. We can move up the hierarchy of the sciences and see that at every step of the way more is different. As we approach the cultural level, more specifically the agricultural level, we have a clear example of the power of transcendence in the Amish farmer as compared to the conventional farmer of today. Wendell has written of the fifty-six-acre Amish farm in Indiana that grossed $43,000 and netted $22,000 in one year. As Wendell sees it, the reason a conventional farmer could not do that is because, as the circles widen and move away from the farm, much of the harmony of the organic world is left behind, incorporating more of the nonharmonious industrial world. Useful information, much of which we are unaware of or cannot comprehend, is lost.
Conventional farmers may have a degree in agronomy or agricultural economics, but they turn out to be terribly unsophisticated farmers in the sense that their way is not sustainable. The Amish farmer probably never had a single vocational agriculture course in high school. The Amish simply believe that the highest calling ordained by God is stewardship of the land, and this duty is tightly tied to an aesthetic ideal. Because economics is not foremost in their thinking, they are able to make sound economic decisions. By being obedient to a higher calling, “All these other things are added unto them.” This is a practical kind of transcendence that all can experience. It requires no guru or priest or minister. That the consistently sound economic decisions are made by people who do not make economics primary should be no more surprising than the fact that water is more than the combined properties of hydrogen and oxygen. The idea of transcendence cuts through all and is essential to an ecological agriculture. It can go a long way toward helping us temper the unfortunate language we are saddled with, the reductionist language of economics and industry which has been applied to ecology. It should help us soften the utilitarian point of view.
If we do one thing that is ecologically right, we have reason to expect more than a multiplicative effect, indeed a transcending effect, just as when we do something that is ecologically wrong, it works in the other direction. If what we are talking about is not real, as the rigorous reductionists insist, then neither is water.
The implications of an ecological agriculture in which some of nature’s information is allowed to operate are unforeseeable at the moment, but this approach to agriculture is nevertheless something we can trust. It is clearly in the spirit and teachings of our brother E. F. Schumacher, who really was talking about transcendence in his descriptions of meta-economics.
It is both interesting and significant that Schumacher, economist that he was, was very much interested in ecology. He was president of the Soil Society of England. He was a strong advocate of planting and caring for trees, which he saw as more than bearers of fruit, for he thought of them as symbols of what he called “permanence,” for him a synonym for sustainability. He was a man who grew a garden, which by definition consists of patches. A man whose primary message was transcendence of the economic world saw perennial trees as redeemers of the landscape.