Agriculture Part 3: Realigning the culture of modern farming

By David Zirnhelt –

The context for this, the third of three articles for TheGreenGazette, is, how do we try to feed the world that, through industrialization and urbanization, is challenged to distribute our abundance?

Photo: Igor Stevanovic/www.123rf.com/Id 56956335

Photo: Igor Stevanovic/www.123rf.com/Id 56956335

I would say the solutions to a world that produces enough food, but doesn’t get the distribution correct, lie in a complex realigning of the culture of modern farming. To do this we must delve deep into “traditional practices” and ask the reductionist (breaking things down into simple and controllable with few variables being examined) science to become more holistic (looking at the many variables and assumptions within food production) in analyzing these practices as well as “modern” practices.

At its simplest, the solution to the problem of having unintended consequences to the application of new technologies and products in agriculture lies in carefully gardening more and better on a finite amount of intensively managed land; and, better stewarding the extensive land base (85 per cent of farmland in Canada is pasture, not cropland, according to the 2016 census of agriculture) that needs to be kept ecologically intact where mimicking nature is the watchword.

An example of this is the maintenance of most of our grasslands in this region in natural condition: all the parts being there to allow succession to later seral (development/evolutionary) stages. In other words, if we manage, letting nature takes it course, there are no human-made obstacles to evolutionary processes. Much of the world’s savannah and grasslands have been seriously altered but often not beyond recovery if appropriately managed grazing takes place, respecting a wide variety of species on the land. Complexity of plant communities appears to be helpful to the health of the soil and the animals dependent on it.

On the intensively managed land base with the better soils (of which we have little in BC so we need to enhance it by our cultural practices) we can add composted materials and soil amendments such as mined calcium, potash, and phosphorus, which are slowly released rather than using quick fix, short-lived. We can and should employ diverse cover crops, which bring up nutrients and fix other nutrients from the air.

As for our farming cultural practices, we need to treat large farms as they were gardens, thereby getting more food from less land, but paying attention to healthy soils’ need to have their biology “fed” thus allowing the fixing of 95 per cent of the plants’ needs from “thin air”.

In short, we need to increase the amount of carbon stored in agricultural land. This is essentially organic matter. Soils in much of North America, certainly in BC, are low in organic matter.

Topsoil can be richer by way of our cultural practices, or it can be depleted.

Water storage capacity is enhanced by increasing the amount of black carbon in the soil. Close to six molecules of water will stick to every molecule of carbon.

Practices like holistic management of livestock on the land, mimicking the historical grazing of wild animals, can achieve the twin goals of more carbon and more water storage. Resting the land after grazing is important to this process.

Holism in management also has other components added to the ecological stewardship. Holism looks at people as part of the ecosystem, and importantly, as primary determinants of healthy land. So, the people who farm must be looked after. That is the role of a good farm manager. The farming business must be good for the farmer as well as good for the land. And to stay operating on the land the business of farming must be managed profitably without depleting the soil’s ability to continue for generations to come (some say we must make decisions for seven generations).

Good farming is good for the people doing it and their communities. It works as a business that is profitable and the business works for the people. The cows work for the business, not the other way around. The farmer doesn’t work for the cows.

All of this must be in balance. “Happy,” healthy cows make good business.

Finally, we must pay attention to the human culture in farming. Culture is both our values and our behaviour. We have to pass on knowledge and skills that work for agriculture. We have to pay attention to our observation skills, as that is how traditional cultures have sustained themselves. Science can build on our observation skills, but in the end, we have to read the land and the animals and stay skilled at that.

Technology and the impacts of technology need to be put in perspective. We have to ask the question: is new technology (or products) functional to where we want to go or is it dysfunctional? If it helps, then we should use it. We have to control technology not the other way around. Sometimes we just do something because it is possible, not because it is the right thing to do. We do have a fascination with new things (and places) and that is what leads to innovation. But practices that have stood the test of time for sustaining our population and civilization should be conserved: rotational grazing and crop rotation, for instance. Good ongoing education for farmers can help achieve critical thinking applied to our technology.

Unlike the early agrarians who believed their way was the only way (for redemption?), modern agrarians embrace the diversity of other cultures and believe that “others” are compatible with a civilization that cares about sustaining this one, wonderful earth we are borrowing from our children.

David and his family ranch in the Beaver Valley where their boys have a small sawmill that supplies their Zirnhelt Timber Frame construction business at 150 Mile House. David served in government as an elected representative for 11 years, two of them serving as Minister of Agriculture in BC. He chairs the Industry Advisory Committee to the Thompson Rivers University Applied Sustainable Ranching Program.

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