Monday, November 5, 2012

Crop Rotation

looks like grass, right?  yea - it's a cover crop....i didn't know on for more info 

I read an article in the NY Times Sunday Review section yesterday, "Did Farmers of the Past Know More Than We Do?"and thought about how I've struggled with this myself this season. I believe crop rotation and cover crop planting takes all kind of patience, when what you want most of all is your garden or farm to yield as much produce as possible. Hmm....I don't think Mother Earth had that in mind. The author of the NY Times article,Verlyn Klinkenborg, wrote "Oats used to be a common sight all over the Midwest. They were often sown with alfalfa as a 'nurse crop' to provide some cover for alfalfa seedlings back when alfalfa was also a common sight. Until about 30 years ago, you could find all sorts of crops growing on Iowa farms, and livestock. Since then two things have happened. All the animals have moved indoors, into crowded confinement operations. And the number of crops has dwindled to exactly two: corn and soybeans."  Corn - we love, we hate it.  

Personally, my body does not like corn.  Of course, I eat it occasionally, but I am picky about when and how I do because my intestines will be unhappy for hours.  Alas, I love tortilla chips.  LOVE.  It is my addictive food choice - Tostitos Lime Flavored tortilla chips....oh, how I love these.  After I read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, I decided to forego my addictive food forever.  But it's so darn good!'s also doing terrible things to our soil and dependency on it not only as food, but for energy as well.  Unfortunately, the energy it takes to make corn ethanol is more than the energy ethanol actually gives to us to justify the expenditures.  And - corn isn't just on the cob or in the frozen food aisle to defrost and include in the family meal that night, but used to feed our animals that we eat as well....because corn will fatten up animals exponentially faster than anything else.  

To summarize Pollan's history of corn in the U.S., you can read: Interview with Pollan.  An excerpt:  "the boom in synthetic fertilizer enabled farmers to grow vast quantities of corn without bankrupting their soil. Corn pushed out pasture-raised cattle and pigs and chickens, as it became more economical to warehouse them together in 'Confined Animal Feeding Operations,' or CAFOs, and stuff them full of corn."

To be clear, I'm not against corn in general - I am against my tax dollars going towards subsidizing 50% of the cost to grow and sell it, when I would rather have that money spent on the growing interest in farming that we have seen in the U.S. in the past handful of years.   I have to admit, we are doing better on this front....Obama increased funding to the USDA to support new small-sized farmers and that's what I'm interested in - how can we continue to make food in America, in a sustainable way and encourage young and old to take up small or large scale food efforts - whether it is thru advocacy, building a community garden, starting a full-scale farm or what not?  How do we engage the community at large?  When will those of us interested in improving the system, get up and say something, demand for something better?  Well, I'm guessing it has something to do with Monsanto and Driscoll's having a heck of a lot more money than any of us who are 'playing' around the dirt...we're busy enough trying to find the money to support our are we supposed to get a voice if we don't have the money?  

This isn't just about too much of one crop growing in the US (and how it 'might' be crippling our neighbor, Mexico's, ability to compete with our heavy corn subsidies), but our health.  Think about it - the crops are treated with chemical fertilizers and herbicides - these crops are consumed not only directly by humans, but indirectly from animal consumption to slaughter to human consumption of the meat.  And it isn't just my body that doesn't like corn, but the animals who are fed and fattened up by it as well.  The stomach of cows, one of the few mammals evolutionarily designed to be able to eat grass, can't digest corn.  It turns their stomach acidic and makes them sick.  No problem, says the big agribusiness: Just pump the cows full of antibiotics..."  But wait, that means the meat we consume as humans will contain those antibiotics as well.....

welcome to the cycle of one person or thing is immune to this system.  whether you pay attention now or later (which may be well after you pass away), this system is going to due several generations harm.   the antibiotics we rely upon today?  scientists are finding that humans are become resistant to these.  of course, you can't blame it all on the cows pumped full of antibiotics....our bodies are smart, so it will certainly out-smart the scientists.  but there is something to say about how this can be connected - are our bodies protesting?  

Going back to the NY Times article, Klinkenborg ends with, "Modern agriculture is driven by diminishing biological diversity and relentless consolidation, from the farms themselves to the processors and the distributors of the crops and livestock. But you cannot consolidate the soil. It is a complex organism, and it always responds productively to diversity. The way we farm now undervalues and undermines good soil. Our idea of agricultural productivity and efficiency must include the ecological benefits of healthy soil. The surest way to improve the soil is to remember what industrial agriculture has chosen to forget."  And going back to my first point - this growing food stuff - it's hard and it takes a LOT of patience.  And if you know me, patience is not my strong suit; I want INSTANT results.  Why do I have to do crop rotation when we have limited space and the first round of that plant produced so much?! And why do I have to plant a garden bed with something useless such as rye or oats at the end of the harvest season, when I could build a cold frame instead and prolong the growing season?  It's soil!  Ready to be had!  But that's the needs to rest and replenish its nutrients, just like us humans need to.  

We planted some buckwheat in a couple of the garden beds in early October.  Unfortunately, I thought when I saw the grass growing in the cherry tomato bed was bermuda grass and not the cover crop, it was all pulled out per my directions.  Oy!  lesson numero uno in 2012: map out crop rotation for the harvest season, invest the time to really figure out what works best planted near one another and when to turnover crops and plant new and what, and when should I give up that bed to a cover crop instead?  and maybe, just maybe....i need to take photos next harvest season to remember what and where seeds are planted and associate a photo of the fully grown seedling - like that buckwheat....that i will now have to go sow into the bed again......thank goodness we haven't hit frost yet....but i think that's actually happening'll's a trial and error.  and at the end of the day, this is all about taking little steps, one by one - to improve the system, not just by my words and where and what I choose to eat, but taking action.

Ironically, with all my "no" to corn - my aunt sowed corn into one of the garden beds this year, but it was so hot and the corn needs so much water (another topic for another time to discuss - water supply!), the plant died.  Maybe it wasn't the water, but it knowing I wasn't into corn....I was really into having a BBQ with those ears of gold!

*disclaimer: i'm not a scientist...just a public health academic, novice gardener, and improved food production and consumption lover, so anything I say that is sciency could be wrong.  also, i realize that i am privileged to be able to sit here and take the last couple of hours looking up different articles regarding this topic and write about it, to have the time to start and maintain a community garden.

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