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The Promise of Agriculture

Posted by Elisha Ondov | February 23, 2016

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference.  We have been posting reflections written by the students over the past several months. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

Elisha Ondov, student guest-blogger.
Elisha Ondov, student guest-blogger.

My name is Elisha Ondov (pronounced E-lie-shuh). I am a student at Washington State University who, in November 2015, attended my first Tilth Producers conference in lovely Spokane. There I was introduced to the wickedly cut-throat world of the farming industry as I felt a little misplaced. A lot of people I spoke to (mostly students at WSU) wondered what brought me, a civil engineering student, to the conference. They thought I was lost, and I think they were right.

My time at the conference was quite an enjoyable atmosphere, but you get out what you put into it. As a socially reserved civil engineering student, it was fairly limited through my perspective. I am not a businessman with a product to sell. I don’t do agricultural research in a lab. I have been living in dormitories, so no yard to cultivate, and every aspect of my life does not support a farming lifestyle from family to friends and finances.

So what the heck do I know about agriculture? Do I have any credibility writing this blog or trying to give people advice? Do I even know enough to begin my own farming venture? I learned a lot from personal time browsing books, the web, and life. Much of the information presented at the conference affirmed the ideas I learned through days of procrastinating.

I did enjoy Maurice Robinette’s talk on his planned grazing operation in Cheney, Washington; not far from Spokane. It makes me optimistic that planned grazing works for more than just Allan Savory. Especially around Eastern Washington where I daydream of greener pastures and trees in place of brown mud and stubble.

I have come across several stories of organic agriculture being successful. More specifically, restorative agriculture as addressed during the conference. Experienced farmers like Maurice suggested that “organic” agriculture without additional regulations can be more damaging to the environment than conventional methods. Thus ‘restorative’ agriculture should be emphasized. Fortunately, restorative agriculture with no tilling, intensive cover cropping, diverse crop integration, and planned grazing are more promising in rejuvenating the soil, sequestering carbon, cleaning water runoff, and eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides – while providing a healthy populace of animals and humans.

An example of cover cropping. A stark contrast to the bare soil after wheat harvest. Photo: E.Ondov
An example of cover cropping. A stark contrast to the bare soil after wheat harvest. Photo: E.Ondov

I learned that these permaculture farming methods brings agriculture to its roots, quite literally. The microbes and fungi demand carbon, obtained through photosynthesis, in the form of sugar from plant roots. In exchange for carbon, they fixate elements like nitrogen and minerals from the surrounding specks of rock. Then, smaller microbes are eaten by larger microbes, creating more complex carbon chains, becoming the soil itself and aerating the soil as they move about. Roots of vegetation are thus invigorated to pierce deeper into the sponge-like soil. The farm becomes nearly self-sufficient without the need of any inputs besides a fraction of irrigation, compost, and certain minerals on larger scale farms.

So why then, aren’t these farming methods taking hold across America? I suspect a lot of it has to do with agricultural business giants, status quos, pharmaceutical companies, and plain stubbornness.

From my perspective, agriculture has been about feeding a mass population, mainly for profit. I see little consideration for agriculture’s repercussion on environmental and human health and It is about time that changes. Politics are rife with concerns about medicare, foreign policy, economics of middle class, and climate change through vehicle and building emissions. They never propose agriculture as a problem or solution. What if millions more of americans took up their gloves and sowed seed? More local food grown restoratively means less carbon use for production and transportation, improved soil, higher nutrient densities, and healthier – less stressed people. This may translate into less dollars spent on medical care, less foreign oil and food, reduced atmospheric CO2, and a more balanced economy.

On the flip-side, countless house plots are laden with green lawns. Wealthier homes parade decorative rocks, bark, and greener lawns. Under circumstances influencing someone to live in urban settings, urban permaculture is a very viable option. There is a family from Los Angeles, California named the Dervaes and they grow about 6,000 pounds of vegetables, fruits, herbs, and even livestock on 1/10th of an acre. Clearly that is enough food for a whole year, with more to sell. About 400 million acres in the United States are used for cropland alone. If 1/10th of an acre can feed a family of four for one year, how many people can 400 million acres then feed? Potentially more than 16 billion. The solution to feeding future populations is already here.