Agriculture: we’re doing it wrong

Humans have very short memories and attention spans. This is by design [not intelligent design, but evolutionary design, which is to say natural selection by the environment for fitness]. Humans evolved as an upright hominid species that exploits technology [which includes both physical technology and complex symbolic systems like language, culture and religion] to inhabit an ecological niche first in Africa and then in any other biome we encountered. Technology makes humans more adaptable to our environment than genetic changes arising from natural selection of genetic variations alone. This is why we are successful where success means we get to reproduce more of us.

One of our greatest technologies for our own success is agriculture. There are some other species that arguably practice agriculture [leaf cutter ants], but nobody does it quite like us. It’s miraculous when you really think about. Not only once, but in fact several times in the history of Homo sapiens, we hacked the process of plant and animal sexual reproduction so that we had control over the reproduction of other species and then we domesticated them so we could keep doing it. One of the most impressive things to me about agriculture is that it did not immediately pay off. It was a long game.

When we were only hunter gatherers, our diets were more varied which meant we had better nutrition. Those of us who maintained good access to shared foraging lands had better results than early agriculture. The archaeological record shows that we were healthier before agriculture, taller, had fewer vitamin deficiencies, etc. However, as the theories go, from only hunting and gathering we didn’t have a guarantee that we would always have enough calories and so to solve our calorie flow problem [caused by there being more of us around than could reliably gather calories from the land in any given area] we invented agriculture. Bam: reliable source of calories.

We had discovered how to get calories reliably, but calories are not what we’re actually made of, that is just energy. And so for a long time the sorts of things that we grew might keep us alive, but they were not the ideal diet for how we had evolved.

I’m going to skip ahead, mostly because appeals to some idealized version of the human diet based on a state of nature really bore me. It’s not that I don’t find speculations about paleolithic humans interesting [I really do] I just don’t find essentialist definitions of humanness based on them compelling. This is because I am a subset of the human population who can digest dairy into adulthood, which I know is an adaptation that happened after the paleolithic and after agriculture was been invented. Suffice it to say, humans are not the same [even genetically] as we were when we started out [whenever exactly that was]. In the fullness of time I think we could even manage to adapt to eating a diet comprised solely of vending machine and gas station food, but I don’t want to [and that is why I am skipping ahead].

The real problem with agriculture is not that in the beginning humans created something that gave us calories but not great nutrition and then slowly we adapted [through better agriculture technologies] to co-evolve with the plants and animals that we manipulated until we had a reasonable approximation of the nutrition our bodies really need to optimally function. It is that the human technology of agriculture has forgotten [if it ever knew] that getting calories out of the land is based on the land’s capacity to provide calories, not on the caloric needs of the heterotrophs. Agriculture has become a fantastic way to extract calories from soil and sunshine and long dead organic material [in the form of petrochemical fertilizers], but it has/is reached/ing a diminishing/ed return.

What agriculture forgot [or never knew] is something that ecology does know, even if it has focused on systems as though humans don’t live in them [which they always have as long as humans have been looking]. Because I have come to agriculture after learning about ecology, I am in many respects a cheater [a smug cheater?]. I can point my finger at agriculture and say, “you’ve been doing it wrong for millennia.” But it’s a little unfair.

As with both cultures and habitats, many agricultures [plural] exist. The best agriculture is the one suited to the place in which it is being used. The best agriculture is one that leaves a genetic reservoir to draw from in times of disturbance and change. Large scale factory farming, like American culture, might predominate right now, but there are many cultures and agricultures that do a much better job of working with [rather than in spite of] the biome where they are being practiced. Homogenous culture and homogenous agriculture are a similar problem.

I understand that the process of inventing agriculture was at first in mimicry of natural processes, but I also understand how mimicking a process [like putting seeds in the ground] or replicating natural selection with human selection of animal breeding isn’t the same thing as understanding the entire picture and context of why those animals and why those seeds. I do think agriculture is miraculous and I actively practice it so, it isn’t an idle fascination. I am not an arm-chair farmer. I am impressed at all the things that humans have learned to do to plants and animals so that we can eat. I just want us to not fall into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy, now that we understand the large scale repercussions of practicing agriculture at its current scale with its current practices. Sure we made a great thing, but its greatness is now its folly.

Which brings us to permaculture. I am not a “permie,” but this is probably more out of my aversion to being a joiner and/or a follower, and also not wanting to pay money for seminars. I agree with the fundamentals of permaculture, which are essentially to adapt agricultural practices to the place where you are in order to preserve natural systems there [because duh, nature wins so maybe work with it and not against it]. To try to mimic the ecosystem the land can support with people in it.

It gets more technical than that, I have read the books, but that is also the 30,000 foot review of permaculture. Agriculture, whether it means to or not, is like a lot of human systems: arrogant and hubristic. Permaculture [despite its founder’s arrogant and hubristic attempts to copyright it as a concept] understands ecosystem services as finite and human wisdom as only part of the picture.

Stucco bungalow with large, empty front lawn and some small plantings.
View of the front of the farm before the food forrest and perennial areas are added. All still under irrigation with underground sprinklers. Two areas near the house already have berries, hops and some pollinator-attracting species.

I do not have a large scale agriculture operation [one quarter acre with a house on it, so very small]. But it is the perfect scale to try to create an agriculture of place, a permanent agriculture. I have the added safety net of not needing to immediately subsist off the land, which makes my experiment in sustainable living significantly less urgent or dire than it might be. This particular goal is many years in the making, with many false starts.

My idea for our modest plot is to nurture both native species and other perennial species that can survive here without being invasive. Most of our plot will edible trees, shrubs and perennials plants as well as pollinator-attracting species. It is important to create habitat for pollinating species if you want the food you eat to bear fruit. Because we live in a semi-arid zone with large fluctuations in temperatures there are limits to the varieties of plants that we will be able to grow [alas no avocados], but in many ways there are few limits to the types of plants we can grow because all the same ecological niches exist here in Montana as exist in a warm and wet place. Which plants is the fun part.

close image of blue flower [borage] with red flowers [bee balm] in background
Borage [foreground] and bee balm/wild bergamot [middle ground] attract pollinators to fruit bearing species, gooseberry [background]

There will be a small area of the lot dedicated to annuals that are not hardy in our zone because I really like things like tomatoes and eggplants and squash. But I will be selecting varieties that are adapted to our short growing season and saving seeds in hopes of paying into the great Social Security budget of genetic diversity that is heirloom seeds. Unlike perennials, that once acclimated require low water and fertilizer, annuals are heavy feeders who need lots of water. Therefore over time we will need a watering solution that is not the city line and a fertilizer solution that is not compost from the local nursery. We are starting with irrigation and soil amendments, but this is not the end goal. 

Much of the reason for having chickens, other than to eat their eggs, is that their manure [when composted] is a soil amendment that can be cultivated on our farm. It forms a closed loop for nutrient recycling through the system. Grow plant > feed animal > amend soil with manure [repeat]. I probably will also at some point allow my kids to get goats and rabbits [that they desperately want] which produce even more manure, but first I have to figure out the best way to feed them [but that is another story]. And I will use nitrogen fixing plants and green manures as well.

lawn area with chicken coop and chickens foraging
First season of the animal pasture area, with annual beds, pollinator garden, and some elements of food forrest in pots [with handsome urban homesteader, EW]

Water will be more of a challenge. Helena gets about 15 inches of rain a year and most of that comes as snow. I will be starting with rain barrels but will also probably need to tap into wider wisdom for water capture and storage than just what we can collect from our roof.  Also I’m going to get rid of almost all of our lawn because lawns are not how plants behave. Monoculture is intensive and stressful for plants and their irrigator. For everything that is not converted to perennials, annuals or animals, I will need low water options that include xeriscaping and native ground covers. This will cut down on water considerably and also prevent topsoil loss to erosion. I’m going to mulch like crazy too.

It is important to remember that ecosystems themselves are already excellent at not exceeding carrying capacity, being acclimated to local conditions [water, light, soil, temperature], feeding all the species that live in them, recycling nutrients. This is the sort of wisdom that humans ignore when we try to improve upon something that is not strictly broken. Sure, it couldn’t support a lot of us all on its own, but that is a human problem, not an ecosystem problem.

Yes, the technology of large scale agriculture feeds many people, but not sustainably. We cannot continue to keep borrowing against the future calories of the land in order to feed the mouths of today. I am deeply interested in not being an eco-fascist. Even though I understand that in a natural system if a species transgresses against the limits of their carrying capacity they starve, this is not something I want for humans [especially knowing that those who do the starving are not the ones who have wrought the largest theft from the ecosystem]. The gift of humanity is the knowledge of these systems that affect us and the ability to soften the blow for everyone.

Because I am in a position to do my part to help the land and her species, I do. I think we can do better so we should.

Keep following my Wild Prospect Urban Farm pages for updates on this endeavor.

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