Posts Tagged ‘science’

Farm Lesson: 1+1 =/= 2

We live in a very linear world. The only right answer for one plus one is two. Given how our world is constructed, it really has to be that way. If one plus one sometimes equals 11, well, the cogs that make the widgets work might not fit. Farming, however, is not linear. Not even if you’re good enough to be able to plow straight lines. Sometimes it’s a good thing- one doe-goat plus one buck-goat tends to equal one to four kids. On the other hand, one lettuce start plus one lettuce start planted in the same hole will get you, at best, two half-heads of lettuce. Half-heads are fine of you’re just growing for your dining room table, but they don’t sell very well at market. You have the same problem with onions and garlic- only you’ve invested many more months of labor to get two half-bulbs.

What’s the point of this lesson? Farming is as much an art and craft as a science. There is a lot of information out there to be found, and most of it is very, very helpful. However, it’s too easy to rely on someone else’s answers that are presented as “the answer.” If you take a strictly science, linear, only-one-right-answer approach, you might be successful for a while. Maybe. But I am willing to bet that you won’t be making the land entrusted to you the best that that land can be. As a former Girl Scout, I do feel that we should be leaving things better than we found them, not worse. It isn’t until we embrace the art and craft of farming- and really embrace our piece of the land- that we can listen to what the land is asking us to do.

Where it’s wet, the land often asks for lime because the soil is too acidic for a lot of plants to really thrive. Most farming and gardening books are written by people in wet environments. After all, most of the food and ornamental plants we grow originated in Europe and passed through the East Coast to get to Colorado. Taking the books at their word and adding X amount of lime to your soil on an annual basis is, probably, not a terrible thing to do if you live where it rains quite a bit. If you do that in a dry place, like the Eastern Slope of Colorado, you will ruin your land in very short order. There is a reason that it’s almost impossible to grow blueberries around here, but lavender tends to grow like a weed. It is too dry to have the acidic soil blueberries need, but your lavender will almost never be over-watered. Which is a good thing. You can even talk about grass in these circumstances. There is absolutely no reason you can’t have a very pretty green lawn. However, all of the water and chemicals that have to go into keeping a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn green are because the land around here simply cannot support a grass that was bred in and for the well-watered South-East. If you found a local grass (or even better, grass mix) that you found attractive, you could cut your watering in half or better. You would also be promoting healthier soil because you could reduce or eliminate chemical additives.

I really enjoy reading Joel Salatin. I think he’s got a lot of good things to say, and he’s really not afraid to go against convention. However, he lives in Virginia. I was reading one of his writings and he insisted that the water laws out West are ridiculous. There’s no such thing as not enough water. It’s all in how it’s managed. In Virginia, that’s true. It’s about getting rid of excess water more than anything. However, I know people who have what are called “junior water rights,” or newer water rights on their property who have not had access to water some years. Yes, they bought the rights that were available (that’s often a separate transaction than purchasing the land), but the senior water rights in the area had first dibs on what was available. If it’s a dry year, the availability might not trickle down to the junior rights. This is a problem that is specific to dry areas of the country, so it is not really addressed outside of the areas to which it applies. Therefore, the statement that he is so sure about cannot actually be applied to this area.

How the land needs to be managed is more complicated than wet versus dry, north versus south, sea level versus altitude. It comes down to each individual property- and even each area within the property. Did you know that in the Andes, there is a type of potato for each direction a slope can face at each altitude? We’ve forgotten how to think like that in a country that only grows french fry potatoes. However, if we can re-learn that our front yard has different circumstances and therefore different needs than our back yard, we may not have identical landscaping to our neighbors, but we can have landscaping that works with our land instead of against it.

As an aspiring farmer, I am having to nurture my inner artist as well as my inner crafter. It’s the artist that can look at a property and see that with this elevation, that soil type, and so much shading, 1+1= purple. It is the crafter that can take the answer of purple and turn it into the plants and animals that will not just survive, but will potentially improve the piece of land. My land is not the same as your land, so your answer may be mauve, or teal. Or 42. The only thing I can tell you it won’t be, not exactly, is what that book or podcast or YouTube video says it has to be.

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Solutions

I’m on a documentary kick right now. Everything from religion, to politics, to dance. At the moment, though, it’s peak oil and global warming. Of all the ones I’ve watched, what amazes me is that each one states that we have the solutions available to us now, we just have to apply them. Of all the points of views, agendas, and filmmakers, not one says “we need to wait for a future technology to fix this.” Many of them refer to technologies that are currently in development, but even without those, we could make great strides in fixing some very serious problems this world faces.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of these solutions is how very diverse they are. Some are all about the people. Some are all about the technology. Some are all about the cities. Some are all about the farms. Each one, however, offers a piece of the puzzle to put this world back together.

One of the people-centric solutions is a man in California that set up the equivalent of Habitat for Humanity for solar panels. He is giving low-income people, you know, the ones that really need the break, the ability to put in solar panels to reduce or eliminate their electricity bills. This is done through volunteer work and inexpensive loans from the city. More than that, though, is that the people installing the solar panels are disadvantaged in the job market. Many of them are on probation or have been in prison. Along with affordable electricity, he is also providing real job skills to keep the workers from going back to whatever got them in trouble in the first place.

Some other solutions include painting your roof white. A green roof is even better, but they can get complicated. I plan on talking about them some time in the future. However, simply painting your roof white helps reflect some of the sun’s rays that are no longer being reflected by our shrinking ice caps. This reduces both the solar heat absorbed by the earth and the solar heat absorbed by your house. Someone is working on fuel cells that hold energy by splitting hydrogen and oxygen. Not only could this hold solar energy for a rainy day, but you can feed it filthy water and it will give you clean water on the other end. This could be very helpful as our potable water supplies diminish. Did you know that biodiesel was originally a solution to used vegetable oil for cooking? I wasn’t so sure about the idea of growing crops strictly for fuel, but I really like the idea of growing crops to fry chips in and then using it for fuel.

Possibly the coolest idea I heard was about carbon sequestering. I’ve known for a while that trees are a great way to sequester carbon. The world has lost so very, very many trees that it is pretty popular to plant them if you are making some sort of an environmental statement. In fact, one of the reasons I want land is so that I can plant trees. However, a fair amount of Colorado isn’t really that tree-friendly. We are on the edge of the prairie, after all. Which is where grass comes in. Apparently, mycorrhizal fungi are really, really good at sequestering carbon. They attach to the roots of vascular plants in a symbiotic relationship. Therefore, growing grass, or having a garden, or other types of plants that are easier to grow than trees can be a huge boon to sucking carbon out of the air. The catch to this is that the fungi require healthy soil. In other words, you can, and people do, put in a lush lawn of Kentucky Blue Grass. However, the chemicals required to keep it alive in Colorado will kill the fungi. To start sequestering carbon, you need to build a healthy, organic little world in your back yard. Using a variety of local grasses and legumes that actually like growing here will help with that. Aside from pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and using the roots of the grasses to manage erosion, you will also be building up a healthy base to use if you choose to grow food in the future.

So many documentaries can be scary or depressing. Right now, though, I’m feeling hopeful. Yes, we are facing major issues. Yes, talking my roommate into painting the roof white won’t stop climate change in it’s tracks. However, having tangible things that I can do right now makes me feel empowered. Can I change legislation? No, but I probably should do more to influence those who can. Can I stop huge corporations from running rough-shod over people and places? No, but I should be doing more to stop giving my money to those that do. What I can do, right now (as soon as I publish the post, at least), is to start seeing if it’s too late in the season to get some seeds in the ground. In the morning I can go outside and decide how much of the yard I’m going to borrow from the dog to get some roots established before I give it back to her. These aren’t big things. It’s not Earth-shattering. What it is, is doable.