Thursday, May 12, 2011

Beyond Brookline

Roots of Organic Agriculture

For millennia organic agriculture is all there was, but since the mid-nineteenth century chemically-based agriculture, with its aura of scientific progress, has grown to become  the "conventional" way - as can be seen in the produce aisles of any grocery store - rendering organic agriculture unconventional, exotic, quixotic.  While organic farming may be tinged in the public's mind with a hippie lifestyle image, the pushback against chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides began in Europe in the late 1800s not long after chemically based practices were invented. In the 1940s Sir Albert Howard and J. I. Rodale and others took up and popularized the movement for organic agriculture.  Rodale Press remains one of the most important sources of knowledge about organic practices. In the 1960s and 1970s going back to the land was a part of the questioning, rebellious ferment of the times.  Today, interest in how food isproduced, distributed and consumed is coming from a convergence of movements for environmental sustainability, healthy lifestyles and healthy communities.

Writing in Grist, the online environmental news source, Eliot Coleman - author, horticultural researcher and farmer in Harborside, Maine with 30 years of organic farming experience - described the early history of the organic agriculture movement and the biological principles at its roots.  While many pre-industrial agricultural practices have cultural and traditional origins, as Coleman explains, scientific understanding of ecology and of natural processes like nitrogen fixation, mycorrhizal association (symbiosis between fungi and plants) and soil microbes underlies the principles of organic farming today.

Within a few decades of the beginnings of chemical farming, some farmers began to realize that this approach produced an endless need for new chemicals, new techniques, "new crutches to solve the problems it creates."  Natural processes, on the other hand, combined with intelligent management, generate a replenishing cycle that improves soil fertility, reduces pest problems and optimizes the nutritional value of food. Among the techniques used to accomplish these core objectives are crop rotation including a period of grass/clover pasture, green manures (legumes whose deep roots fix nitrogen), compost, raising animals and crops on the same farm, and rock powders to replenish minerals, and encouraging biodiversity.

So why is organic farming not the conventional way today?  Coleman offers a few insights:
-- The lack of a word for understanding plant health. Plant pathology is much studied, but understanding plant health would involve very different expectations and framing of the questions;
-- The tendency for humans to want to be in charge of nature.  Coleman, on the other hand, believes we have a lomg way to go in understanding the complexity of the natural world.  He views himself working "in partnership with nature. I'm a very junior partner. Given the limited amount of hard knowledge available, I often refer to my management style as 'competent ignorance'"
-- The money to be made in an industrial system.  The ability of organic farmers to source many inputs from their own farms is "downright subversive" of industrial agriculture.  Coleman quotes a 1912 statement from Cyril Hopkins, director at the time of of the Illinois State Experiment Station: "'The real question is, shall the farmer pay ten times as much as he ought to pay for food to enrich his soil? Shall he buy nitrogen at 45 to 50 cents a pound when the air above every acre contains 70 million pounds of free nitrogen?'"

For Coleman the health and productivity of his own farm in Maine are proof of concept: organic farming works. "Could it be that we the people have been conned into ignoring a whole other way of farming by a limited worldview that has never allowed us to consider non-commodifiable options?"  That is the question.

Detroit school with garden program threatened with closure

Grist, the online environmental news and analysis site, is a great resource on food-related issues. In another recent Grist article , Tom Philpott protrayed the protest mounted by a group of Detroit high school students around the threatened closing or charter school conversion of their school - a school at which edible gardening and good nutrition are keycomponents of the school day. Catherine Ferguson Academy is a high school program for young mothers and their children. According to Philpott, "By all accounts, it has been successful at achieving [its] goals. Its graduation rate is 90 percent -- well above the citywide average -- and more than half of graduates go on to two- or four-year colleges. And yes, gardening is a major part of the curriculum. The school's grounds include 'goats, chickens, vegetable gardens, a horse, beehives, and more, where the 'city girls' have taken to the farm like they've always lived there.'"

Faced with a proposal to close the school or convert it to a charter school, the young women staged a sit-in from which they were forcibly removed.  The Detroit school system turned the Ferguson cafeteria over to commercial management and has forbidden the use of the school kitchen to prepare food grown at the school's own garden. The Grist article has links to more information and to two organizations with petitions to sign in support of the students.

The Greenhorns Boston Premiere & Foraging Bike Ride May 14 Somrville

The Greenhorns, a film about young farmers will have its Boston area premiere on Saturday May 14 at parts + crafts, 155 Powderhouse Blvd in Somerville. During the afternoon there will be a bicycle ride to forage for elderflowers. Bike ride 1-6 pm.  Screening & Party 6-9 pm. For more information about the film and The Greenhorns organization to recruit, promote ansd support young farmers in America .