Conventional-Agriculture critiqued in the light of Agroecology: MORNING BRAINSTORM, nothing fancy…

“In agroecology we feed on the results of science as an organic farmer feeds on carrots as they are plucked from the ground. We do not prefer that someone else claiming rights and position pre-package the product of science with preservatives, pomp, collateral price tags, and irrelevant assumptions…”

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trento Italy

Conventional agriculture often relies heavily on the use of “medicine” and Poison/Pharmaceutical cures for pests (weeds—plants out of place limiting productivity, fungus, virus, bacteria, insects, meso-fauna, and macro-fauna). It also relies on heavy handed “non-diplomatic” methods. It operates in a ‘one of us is going to win and one will lose’ toward nature. In best practices this is moderated slightly, but the framework only allows flexibility within the total dominion and right to exterminate perspective. Conventional-ag is prescriptive, one-size-fits-too-much, heavy handed, and not knowledge intensive at the grassroots level but instead at the “professional” level and at the industrial and the multi-national agricultural infrastructure level.

From the agroecological perspective, in a sort of cultural mismatch, it is backward and barbaric much like the way we envision and typify the “cave-man”; conventional agriculture looks like that to agroecology. The interesting public presentation and “facade” is the very immaculately dressed representatives of a very barbaric methodology vs the very simply and often non-immaculate dress of the higher and more “civilized” form of agriculture where the agrarians and peasants are the experts and those with the finesse to navigate nature’s ebb-&-flow and come out in the positive with product that did not come at the expense of ecosystems, water pollution or system disruption, or geo-environmental barbarism.

In conventional agriculture a business major, perhaps an agri-business major, feeds on the doped-up prepackaged preservative laden compartmentalized product of science in systems that they parrot from the industry rep, to others while they usually understand nothing much of what they are talking about but act as if they do in naive circles. It does not matter anyway since the experts assured them it was alright, needed, and at exactly what expert prescription. They manage a business in which laborers travel thousands of miles to live in poverty doing things they care little about for something they have no ownership in that will feed a nation where they are marginalized as outsiders.

The business major—usually a male—does not need to know ecosystems apart from the techno-electronic variant of the term that he specializes in. ‘He’ does not need to know about soils and whatever he knows of plants is just an extra in a world where his opinion is of little consequence since experts and industry provide turn-key products that, like the hat with the expandable plastic snap, fit all the way from extra-small to extra-large and nothing particularly well.

The one-size-fits-too-many system also prescribes and supplies a system override to nature which in turn “feeds” profits back to the industry responsible for the prescriptions. Delimitation—best known as a variable isolation method in science—is the cutting out of all the extraneous variables. In the case of conventional agriculture, they delimit ecology and the natural systems to much more basic and controllable but otherwise dysfunctional ones. They do this in relation to the cash crop budget variables compared to the potential loss or gain offering a product line-up to match the calculation of weather-able production expense that enables predictable profit. This means in exceptionally valuable crops they hit the system hard and control nearly everything while in less valuable crops they seek to control much less. More value usually corresponds with more ecological and hydrological harm and often more diverse residue profiles in the product. More diverse residues require additional expenses to sway scientific and governmental decisions, to lobby policy, to fight court challenges, and to be sure the tolerance levels match the maximum use targets. These costs are embedded in the product offering as are the costs of paid reps to be the knowledge pools for the business man who brands himself as a “farmer”. It is a complex system in the way that fits our modern perspectives, and ironically all of this to avoid dealing with the ecological complexity of nature.

Delimitation is a scientific term and a method to study very complex processes that in their complexity are beyond control or sufficient understanding. By killing all but the target processes and some chosen variables in line with cash crop budget possibilities, they attempt to assure that they will not have measurable effect. If they do, government funded crop insurance allows some leeway and extra profit for the multi-national side of agribusiness. The system can thus be treated in simplicity allowing the non-expert to steamroll the ecological realities to reliably produce on massive dis-similar acres with less risk, fueled not by ecosystems, knowledge, and sunlight, but by fossil-fuel, chemistry, and the same sunlight. The delimitation allows industry to forgo excess customization and speak generally about massive areas which will need to be addressed with general products. In some cases hundreds of thousands of acres can be addressed with a handful of prescriptions and products and large amounts of that can be consolidated under one operation with standardized protocols and extreme ecological disconnection balanced by an intimate synthetic chemistry connection and the hammer of fossil fuel and ultra-big machinery.

Of course this explanation oversimplifies Chemical Ag in the same way as conventional agriculture over simplifies biological, ecological, hydro-logical, geological, and nutritional realities. Our evolving food and agriculture systems today are still trading ecological efficiency and understanding for efficiency within our industrial infrastructure, which is why we either get food or we get nature. In choosing food by conventional agriculture methods, we choose against species diversity, and the ecosystem services that moderate and balance atmospheric gases, hydro-logical cycles, and environmental and water quality. The ecosystem services also once naturally fortified our foods that must now be artificially fortified. Ecology naturally fortified human health which must now be maintained through healthcare and similarly complex pharmacology. Though it is all turning the wheels of the economy, it is not clear who the winners are.

In agroecology we feed on the results of science as an organic farmer feeds on carrots as they are plucked from the ground. We do not prefer that someone else claiming rights and position pre-package the product of science with preservatives, pomp, collateral price tags, and irrelevant assumptions. Instead we want the building blocks we can take and replicate and fit in custom ways to our system of ebb and flow, distinct to our GPS coordinates and accompanying biological diversity, our cultural and community values, and our appropriate regional scale. For this reason in agroecological systems science at the higher levels is curtailed to a place of supplying components, and building blocks of knowledge and not absolutes and early or general conclusions. The baton then is taken by agrarians and peasants to build the custom bottom up knowledge intensive systems to create synergy between people and their ecology while supplying reliable secure and prosperous existence of an entire interconnected community in locale.

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Following is a semi-random brainstorm sampling of Agroecology’s perspectives and methods of consideration when it comes to “pest problems” that I thought up this morning over the course of about an hour:

Note: The fundamentals of agroecology are about creating and constantly feedings diversity and ecosystem vibrancy without a default expectation of “pests”. It is a very fluid interplay of stewardship, husbandry, and productivity that sort of rides the system the way a sailor rides the interplay of ocean currents, waves, and weather. Agroecology, though a fancy new word, comes naturally as a result of being connected and sharing knowledge and experience with others in knowledge transfer. It is supercharged when it can multiply generationally and it is hamstrung when it cannot.  Complex ideas and solutions come from the freedom to observe and understand what is going on in the particulars of locale.   Sorry the Outline was simplified by the import to publish…

  1. Be ready for the expected issues that will arise with a clever ordering of normal beneficial inputs to reduce or eliminate the anti-factor pressures
    1. Micro-nutrients with pesticidal properties can be timed to fungus out break expected windows to balance soil nutrient windows (relative optimums). Copper, Zinc, Manganese, Magnesium, Boron, Selenium, etc. (Spray or irrigate on single nutrients of cumulative or multiplicative effect boosting mixes. (Mixes can also help eliminate or slow the evolution of resistance mechanisms).
    2. Sea water applications
    3. Macro-Nutrient applications that will throw off balance or be in excess temporarily as a strategy (Nitrogen, Potassium, Sulfur, Calcium (lime)…) Phosphorus in excess will reduce fungus in the soil as well and that may or may not be beneficial at points within a rotation… Potassium in natural concentrated form burns or acts as a biocide, Sulfur is a multi-
  2. Tillage operations (light cultivation, plowing, sub-soiling, deep plowing…
    1. Tillage timing to reduce the otherwise beneficial rodent tunneler community
    2. Tillage to reduce or change the weed seed (free cover crop) seed bank
    3. Tillage to halt a cover crop including weed crop and begin a different stage such as seedling and mulching or composting and planting… Can be minor or major cultivation. Minor may be when weeds act as a nurse crop for carrots, but must be greatly reduces when carrots are 4” tall to enable a strong carrot yield, or a myriad of other situations. Every cover crop is a weed as is every crop at some stage just as every weed has times of benefit and measurable manipulatable strengths to aid the system synergy. Of the common weeds in a certain area 90-99% are just another element of cropping to agroecology where 1 to 10% are targeted for eradication or near zero tolerance with energy spent specifically to combat them. Even those targeted as “Problematic and invasive” add benefit to the system while they are there, such as Canada thistle (edible, provides humus, increases soil depth and structure, acts as a deep nutrient elevator to the upper levels, and an elevator for Oxygen, Carbon Dioxide, Organic matter, sugars, humics, and exudates to lower levels in the soil deepening process (pioneer species activity). Horsetail acts similarly and seems in most situations to kind of disappear when soil comes into a healthful balance.
  3. “Burning”
    1. Propane cultivation cooks vegetation turning it from lighter green to darker and kills small annual weeds while killing the tops of the others.
    2. Propane is currently used because it is an excess product, much of which is flamed off, from the current fossil fuel extraction methods. It is not profitable at the extraction point, but instead creates an economy out of the excess from an industry that is otherwise lucrative (taking it off their hands… sort of like Goodwill and Thrift stores.)
    3. In the future ,as dynamics change other methods can be developed.
  1. Biomass gasification is when you catalyze a process with initial heat that drives the easily gasified components out of biomass which themselves are burnable or harvestable toward creating energy or industrial products.
  2. Biomass Gasification is one very good route to creating biochar at about 30% by dry volume, while benefitting from the other 70% of the dry weight. Biomass from Canary grass harvest in a nutrient flow estuary (for example) could be burned (gasified) while moving across a field cooking weeds and dropping the biochar evenly across the field.
    1. Biochar is a very stable Soil Carbon uniquely catalytic to healthy and resilience building soil processes and a component of the world’s most sustainably fertile soils. Adding it up to quantities of 20% of soil mass in typical scenarios is beneficial and represents ultra-long term Carbon sequestration.
    2. Designing a field machine, perhaps even a self propelled robotic can balance weed cook-mulching and biochar application with… perhaps some pruned branches or some overly seed heavy straw.
    3. What if a shop-vac size micro-gasifier fit on a small carrier field-robot that can be tuned to target specific weeds optically for gasification, belching heat and excreting biochar targeted to every weed. The weed wilts and mulches with the help of the little biochar saving moisture. The root dies without any unnatural substances to throw off soil microbial ecology and it feeds the healthy process of soil.
    4. Another large version could cook down certain type of cover crops, perhaps annual grasses and prairie rotations one day, and return a week later to the dry field and gasify the above ground biomass using its own energy into biochar (30% of the mass) while heat treating the surface for certain types of controls in prep for certain sensitive crops. This would be a no-till prep method that would suit some varieties of crops in some environmental conditions.
    5. Another non heat related method of combining a diverse unrelated issue with an altogether different need. Build a sand blaster tuned to blast with bone meal, nut hulls, oil press cake, sand, or even possibly compost. Mulch or fertilize the field while leveling and killing down the current vegetation in prep for no-till planting. Or build a micro version that again fits on the carrier field robot with the optics recognition and blast target certain weeds or cultivate within a crop in this way… sand-blasting weeds with fertilizer or mulch!
  3. Example 1: When I was beginning in my farming carreer “Irish Springs” soap repelled deer effectively on our family farm in the deep countryside. The deer would walk around the boundaries of strategically placed parts of soap bars on the top of stakes. Later when tried closer to town it had no effect since the various unusual scents of town had accustomed the deer to it.
  4. Example 2: Slugs can be a problem particularly to emerging beans.
    1. Snakes, ducks, are on our agenda but here is a quote from the internet “Hedgehogs, newts, toads and some birds, such as song thrushes, love toeat slugsand snails” Notice they did not list snakes and we have found Garter snakes to be our best slug eaters, so the list will vary in any region.
    2. Trapping for a predictable harvest by placing split chunks of wood boards, etc. In our semi-dryland farming style this has, for some reason not fit that well.
    3. We limit cover for them when things are fairly dry and find our slugs come on a pilgrimage from the hedgerows and the woods and at a predictable time each evening returning at a predictable time/temp each morning. The movement can be staged to have to cross a tillage strip where we can and our ducks can take an evening walk with scissors to cut and compost or feed our ducks and the same in the morning. It becomes part of the dance of our agrarianism and very serene and connected to our ecosystem.
    4. Several days after our beans are planted we like to use evenly spaced beer traps to protect them since the beer attracts them more than the beans (perhaps the only thing) and they always over indulge.
    5. Note that the critters will evolve, but are pushed to evolve toward those with less ambition to leave the hedgerow and forest and more toward the sedentary lifestyle that leaves our crops mostly in peace.
    6. Another possibility would be to plant a sacrificial row of beans in between the day sleep location and the new bean planting.
    1. L
  1. Diplomacy toward Diversity
    1. Promoting a larger diversity for a greater resilience and more stability
    2. Being willing to pay a tax to get the free ecosystem services. It is an allocation of budget that sends resources to components of the biological infrastructure as apposed to the agribusiness infrastructure.
    3. Not relying on one or two champions to get you by.
  • As with the slugs. Larger crops and acreage in production can support a little browse without setting the husbandry back in productivity. A few deer are welcome on a farm, but not in a garden. A few slugs are ignored and left to feed the snakes and other critters and to the regime set by the ducks themselves, but an increasing population is noted by the connected agrarian and a ritual of ebb and flow discovered to reverse the trend.
    1. Example 1: We enjoyed the deer and combated the elk presence (2 to 4 deer vs. 40 to 60 elk). When we cut off and changed the browse migration route of the elk with strategic fencing that made them nervous, they found their dinner elsewhere while the deer started coming in the absence of the elk. That was fine, but numbers were increasing so the nod was given for weeders who wanted to throw a party to take the 22 into the field when weeding so they could “refine their aim when it was convenient and they needed a break from weeding”. There was soon a party with a ‘spit’ and the deer population stabilized.
    2. Example 2: Flee beetles come in several if not infinite variations and preferences. Some love potatoes. They also love dry conditions and our farm maintains minimal irrigation in a climate that is summer dry. They eat shotgun holes in the potato leaves which in levels sustained in a good rotation (provided you are cooperating with close neighbors) do not bother the potatoes much. The problem is if the soil under the feeding location is undisturbed, they will lay eggs in very short cycles that will eat little tiny shallow holes in the developing potatoes that will end up with potato skin growth around the tube (tell-tale sign for recognition). So, we don’t worry about the little bit of feeding, but we stay in tune to time a tillage event or hilling to match the egg laying as a little hilling or disturbance keeps populations low and prevents potato tube damage. If an outbreak is severe enough to cause leaf damage it signals poor agroecological practice indicating that potato crop specific pressures will be high. It is caused by too much potato presence in a general area without a break or by letting successive populations of particular potato type flee beetles multiply. Remember in the ebb and flow, practices must moderate population spikes.
    3. Example 3: Tunneling rodents. This is an example where natural dynamics create spikes and falls in population as part of rodent ecology. Nature uses this to advantage and so should we. They do a lot of free tillage of exceptional quality including aeration and in some cases are the superstars than enable exceedingly deep beautifully textured top-soils. Our region had not been ancient prairie so we do not have gophers or the extra large earthworms (The Palouse prairie has 15 foot plus soils and used to have an earthworm one meter/yard long that tunneled 16 feet deep. Insensitive husbandry destroyed the organism most responsible for the ultra-high quality of the Palouse soils, but that was an aside from tunneling rodents.) We have moles and voles. Neither of them target root crops particularly, though in dry soil conditions, they and other meso-fauna feed on tubers and Carb storage roots for moisture (meso-fauna are the sized insects between easily seen and microscopic). They will always be in a natural farming system in our area just as gophers will always be in one in a prairie region under agroecological process. The agroecological process maximizes their contributions and minimizes their detriment to key deliverables targeted for productivity. If their population is large during a root crop cycle they will greatly diminish crop harvest and quality, and if moderate to small they will take a little in the process of living that we can also live with. We time deeper tillage to effect a “burrow eviction” that greatly reduces populations and would also likely favor the survival of the deepest burrowing subset thus promoting deeper soil cultivation contribution. If we sort out 5 or even 10 percent that are partially mole or vole chewed, we can live with that since we can still feed other farm critters with the damaged produce. Consider the long term soil benefit and that 1500 to 5000 lbs is the price of that benefit and many others.
    4. Also consider that like many large predators that establish a presence and boundaries which are generally respected by others. Their biological diplomacy tells them to choose space and a balanced presence instead of squabbling over any particular acreage that cannot support them both. Gophers, and to a lesser extent voles and moles can dominate the underworld during some times in the rotation, but not in others where the area cannot sustain too many of them and the good root crop harvest. I have theorized that we can actually develop systems to herd them as if rotationally grazing (in this case rotationally cultivating). We can use solar electric devises, mole chasers, etc. to move them to the next field and station the mole driving windmills along the border to keep them from re-entering. Over time the evolved system settles into a balance and natural flow.
    1.  …?

This was a rough morning brainstorm of agroecological thought process with some actual practices of ours and other theoretical ones.

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