Category Archives: Seeds

One weird trick to fix farms forever

As always I’m skeptical of silver bullets, but mimicing Mother Nature is not a silver bullet. It’s a complex interaction of diverse species and cycling nutrients the way the earth was made (or has evolved) to. It’s only a “weird trick” because we’ve done it the wrong way for so long.

“Our cover crops work together like a community – you have several people helping instead of one, and if one slows down, the others kind of pick it up,” he says. “We’re trying to mimic Mother Nature.” Cover crops have helped Brandt slash his use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides. Half of his corn and soy crop is flourishing without any of either; the other half has gotten much lower applications of those pricey additives than what crop consultants around here recommend.

But Brandt’s not trying to go organic – he prefers the flexibility of being able to use conventional inputs in a pinch. He refuses, however, to compromise on one thing: tilling. Brandt never, ever tills his soil. Ripping the soil up with steel blades creates a nice, clean, weed-free bed for seeds, but it also disturbs soil microbiota and leaves dirt vulnerable to erosion. The promise of no-till, cover-crop farming is that it not only can reduce agrichemical use, but also help keep the heartland churning out food – even as extreme weather events like drought and floods become ever more common.

One weird trick to fix farms forever.

The Ultimate Showdown: Mother Earth vs Globalization

Bolivia is a fascinating place to live right now. It is a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes that are a microcosm of the economic and ecological crises that the rest of the globe faces. Like any other collection of people, organizations, communities and especially nation-states, Bolivia is a complicated mix of history, races, languages, religions, ideologies and these make up the political situation of parties, factions and groups vying for influence, pushing their agenda, marching and blockading streets. Amidst this complex environment two issues in particular arise that frame all others and create contradictions that will eventually have to be overcome. They are environmental protection/conservation and economic development. An article on the Poverty Matters Blog of the Guardian summed this contradiction up nicely,

Rated eighth in the world for its biodiversity, more than half of Bolivia is still covered by pristine forests. But what for some is picturesque remoteness, is for others the curse of underdevelopment…Despite its finger-pointing at the west for causing climate change through the irrational use of raw materials, Bolivia’s economy thrives on the sale of natural gas… So, on one hand, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and an environmental champion; on the other, he’s a tacit supporter of the industrialised model. 2

Seeds, Security and Sovereignty
I’ve written previously about this contradiction in terms of the Law of Pachamama
(The Law of Mother Earth) that Bolivia passed which gives “rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration” and mandates “a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature.” 1

Bolivia has since proposed other legislation concerning genetically modified seeds and food sovereignty. Carlos Romero, the minister who proposed a draft law for Bolivia to produce its own seeds and fertilizer explains in another Guardian article that “[Seeds] are a major factor in food production. But in recent years we’ve seen an increase in their price across the world, because of a rise in oil prices and the monopoly exercised on seeds by a few corporations. That’s why we want to create state-owned companies that produce seeds.”

In the same article Ciro Kopp, an agricultural engineer at the National Council for Food and Nutrition, puts the concerns about seeds and fertilizer in the broader context of food sovereignty,

“About 20 to 25 years ago, 70 to 80% of what we ate was produced locally in Bolivia,” he said, “but then we embraced the agro-industrial model and now 70 to 80% of what we eat comes from the agro-industry, which makes us dependent on technologies and price controls from abroad. So, in the same way that industrialists received support from the government in the past, now it’s small farmers who need help…Bolivia is a centre of origin of several Andean crops such as potatoes, quinoa, chili and corn,” he said. “It is essential to strengthen the systems of production, natural selection and exchange of seeds that farmers have been doing for centuries. Our focus should be first of all to feed the country. If our priority is to export, what are people going to eat?” 2

There have been serious effects from this shift to agro-industrial production, including abandoning one of the healthiest foods in the world. Also from the Guardian, “Prices of locally-produced indigenous food, such as quinoa, are also at a record highs: some highland communities have taken to eating rice and pasta instead of their traditional – and more nutritious – crops.” 2 Quinoa contains the most complete protein found in any grain in the world. Yet, the very people producing this crop cannot afford it and are forced, instead, to consume the poor substitutes of rice and pasta. For people whose health depends on getting the most nutrition out of the small amounts of food they can afford this places their very lives on the edge of survival.

Biodiversity is nature’s way of both creating a safety net and maintaining equilibrium. If one species goes extinct as they do (though never before at the current rate), then another is available to fill the niche left and other species can evolve from the diversity of the remaining gene pool. The BBC says

“Bolivia is home to thousands of native varieties of crops, including potato and corn. The Morales government wants to improve genetic stock through natural selection. It rejects what it describes as an invasion of genetically-modified seeds, fearing they will contaminate indigenous species, and prove to be too expensive for small farmers to buy.” 3

The reason that these technologies are beyond the reach of small farmers across the world is that companies, such as Monsanto, create a vertically integrated line of products in which their genetically modified seeds (or “viralized transgenics” as the host of Agroinnovations prefers) are dependent on the chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that the same company produces. This suite of agro-chemical products is very expensive and only becomes more so as more applications are needed year after year, or as new products are introduced. This has led many farmers in India to go into inexorable debt and is the cause of the epidemic of farmer suicides in that country.

The Guardian article, “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”, concludes on an upbeat note about the prospects for Bolivia’s future, “For now, however, the general consensus is that if the new law is applied well, Bolivia could succeed in guaranteeing food security with sovereignty for its people – as well as keep its biodiversity intact.” 2 Yet, we have already hinted at some of the obstacles facing the application of environmental and food sovereignty legislation.

The Rising Tide of Globalization Is a Tsunami
An Associated Press article pointed out some of these difficulties concerning the current agro-industrial producers in Bolivia.

“In Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, soybeans that would ordinarily have been exported languished in their silos because they could not find local buyers. We were already being battered by the climate when the government came out with these decrees prohibiting exports,” said Demetrio Perez, a soy farmer who is president of the National Association of Oil Seed Producers. “With the restrictions, an incentive to plant more was lost.…”We can’t fight the ravages of nature, but what’s doing the most harm are inappropriate policies that discourage production,” said Gary Rodriguez of the National Institute of Foreign Commerce, a leading business group. “Farmers already have plenty to deal with coping with the climate.” 1

You see, there is currently only one possibility for development and that is the industrial, growth economy. On the one hand, I feel bad for any farmer affected by bad policies, but in this case it might be a case of good policies badly implemented, at least so far. Crops such as soy or corn are not produced in order to feed anybody until they have gone through a long chain of processing and turned into all kinds of products. These crops are damaging to the food security and sovereignty of nations like Bolivia, because they are primarily export commodities. The reason they don’t have much of a local market is because no one can eat them or turn them into edible products without massive infrastructure. This hurts the farmers producing such crops, because they have no incentives to plant something else and many don’t yet have the skills for alternative agricultural production.

How To Have It Both Ways…Or Not
The biggest battle currently raging in Bolivia is over the governments intention to build a road through the middle of the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) which is home to thousands of species of birds, mammals and plants, three indigenous groups and a lot of natural gas deposits. “With its 2.5m acres, the TIPNIS (from its initials in Spanish) is doubly protected, as a park and as the territory of the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes indigenous people.” 4 The conflict over the proposed road between indigenous groups and the government (with an indigenous leader as its president) has been going on for months. The government claims that the road will help to connect and unite the indigenous groups in the area, while the residents claim that the road will bring more trucks and extractive industry than unity or benefits to them. This particular issue has made the paradox of the Morales administration’s situation crystal clear in my mind. It has to deal with indigenous groups and its own agenda for environmental protection and rights, but at the same time has to do something about a country with the worst economy and highest poverty in South America.

This contradiction between economic development and ecological sustainability is the primary question facing our planet. The problem facing the Bolivian government is that you can only have it both ways for so long before the contradictions inherent in these two issues will come to a head. It’s not enough to pass good laws about the rights of the earth, food sovereignty and security. If there is not a strategy for transitioning to a new kind of development and economy, then Bolivia, and indeed the rest of the planet, will remain caught in this most costly of contradictions.

In the next post I will explore some ideas about this transition and what an economy based on the kinds of legislation Bolivia is working on might look like.

Articles cited:
1 AP “Climate, government controls hit Bolivia’s farmers”
2 Guardian “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”
3 BBC “Bolivia moves to end dependence on foreign seed firms”
4 Guardian “Evo Morales plays a double game on Bolivia’s environment”
5 Yes! Law of Mother Earth

All My Relations (Leviticus 19 The Original Cut)

This is one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture. At first I tried to squeeze this whole chapter into one post, but like the love of God it could not be contained. So, instead I will break this up into two parts. First, I will consider the chapter in its Old Testament context. In the next post I will interpret and connect the chapter to the New Testament, primarily Jesus’ reference to this passage and the Letter of James.

We are the Land
My reading of this chapter has been partially inspired by a traditional Native American greeting that the musical group Ulali enshrined in a powerful song. The greeting is “All my relations” and it is offered as a reminder of our connections to each other. The song which I have quoted at the end of this post captures beautifully the sense of this powerful, all-embracing salutation. It is in this light that I offer my thoughts on this pivotal chapter in the Hebrew Scripture.

Verses 1-4 are a recapitulation of the first five commandments given to Moses on Mt. Sinai against idolatry, making idols and using the name of YHWH in vain, and for keeping the Sabbath and honoring father and mother (Ex 20:3-6, 8-12). I wonder about the way that the command to honor parents and the Sabbath are lumped together in verse 3. It’s almost the inverse of the Native American tradition of thinking about consequences to the seventh generation. Here Sabbath practice (which includes the care for the land involved in Sabbatical and Jubilee years) honors those that have gone before by continuing the tradition and legacy of stewardship of creation. Verses 5-8 then concern the peace or fellowship offering, connecting this opening salvo to the sacrificial system which maintained and nurtured Israel’s ongoing relationship with YHWH. The context of this covenantal relationship with YHWH is is the foundational framework for understanding the commandments that follow.

The following verses deal with Israel’s social relationships and their use of nature. The practice of gleaning combines these two arenas into one practice.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. (Lev 19:9-10)

It is hard to imagine farmers allowing the practice of gleaning in our era of industrial agriculture that is so obsessed with yields above all other measures or qualities of crops. There is a certain amount of respect inherent in this command for those who gain their sustenance by foraging for leftovers in other people’s fields. In North American culture we tend to look down on those that take handouts in order to survive (though not in the case of farmers who are propped up by government subsidies), but this practice was a way of maintaining community ties with those who were most vulnerable. The story of Ruth and Boaz certainly does not condemn them for making use of this practice. The rest of the commandments can be read in light of this first command which combines social relationships and their relationship to nature.

It also seems important to note that almost all of the commands come in pairs, each verse containing two or more commands that somehow relate to each other. Often a section of commands is concluded by a command or statement about how this relates to God and then the words “I am the LORD”. This is the pattern for 9-18 and 23-37. Only verses 19-22 break with this pattern (I’m not sure exactly why). For example, verses 11-12 almost seem to imply a scenario in which someone gets more and more entangled in their misdeeds (this is also the plot of many a Hollywood comedy). First someone steals. Then they must cover up what they’ve done by lying and “dealing falsely”. Perhaps when confronted or in an effort to keep their sin hidden they make an oath or swear using the Divine name to back up their (false) righteousness. You can see how these commands relate, intertwine and culminate. This also connects broken social relationships to a broken relationship with God.

Many of the verses leading up to the well known verse 18, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, also concern the treatment of neighbors, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him” (13), “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor” (15) and “you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbor” (16). Loving your neighbor has very little to do with feelings in this context, but requires concrete actions.

More Sex and the Land
Verses 19-25 are filled with subtle references to sex. First there is a prohibition against breeding two different cattle and planting fields with two kinds of seed. This may seem foreign to us, since our culture has gone far beyond traditional breeding and crossing of animals into the realms of cloning and bioengineering. Planting a field with only one kind of seed sounds like the monoculture of industrial agriculture practiced around the world today, but contradicts what science has taught us about biodiversity and ecosystems. I’ll be honest, without the help of commentaries for more insight into this particular prohibition I would just be shooting in the dark (and as you may know that can be dangerous). The commandments concerning fruit trees in verses 23-25 are pretty much common sense. Most fruit trees take 3-5 years before producing fruit, again in the way of all living things involving sex of some kind.

Sandwiched in between these two verses is another command concerning sexuality (20-22) further connecting sexual relationships and sexuality to our treatment of the land (see Sex and the Land). The image of the land falling into prostitution in verse 29 is an interesting one in this regard. The connection between objectifying sexual relationships and objectifying the land is reiterated. The keeping of Sabbath practices in verse 30 then properly reflects the opposite of prostituting the land.

I would need much more time and space to make all of the connections in this chapter, but I believe they are there. For example, verse 26 contains two seemingly unrelated commands, the first not to eat blood and the second not to try and tell the future. If we recall that the prohibition of consuming blood is because it is the source of life (see Blood Cries Out), then the connection to telling the future is our attempt to control or have power over things that are not ours to control. Verses 27-28 are about how we mourn and our relationship to the dead, the opposite of the previous verse.

Present in all of these commandments is the idea that sex, fertility, the land, respect for life and for things that are beyond our control are interconnected parts of the same whole reality and our relationship to it. As I said before, I think that the Native American greeting “All my relations” is a helpful way of understanding this.

All My Relations by Ulali

To our elders who teach us of our creation and our past so we may preserve mother earth for ancestors yet to come

We are the land

This is dedicated to our relatives before us thousands of years ago

And to the 150 million who were exterminated across the western hemisphere in the first 400 years time starting in 1492

To those who have kept their homelands

And to the nations extinct due to mass slaughter, slavery, deportation and disease unknown to them

And to the ones who are subjected to the same treatment today

To the ones who survived the relocations and the ones who died along the way

To those who carried on traditions and lived strong among their people

To those who left their communities by force or by choice and through generations no longer know who they are

To those who search and never find

To those that turn away the so-called unaccepted

To those that bring us together and to those living outside keeping touch, the voice for many

To those that make it back to live and fight the struggles of their people

To those that give up and those who do not care

To those who abuse themselves and others and those who revive again

To those who are physically, mentally or spiritually incapable by accident or by birth

To those who seek strength in our spirituality and ways of life and those who exploit it, even our own

To those who fall for the lies and join the dividing lines that keep us fighting amongst each other

To the outsiders who step in good or bad and those of us who don’t know better

To the leaders and prisoners of war politics crime race and religion innocent or guilty

To the young, the old, the living and the dead

To our brothers and sisters and all living things across mother earth

Whose beauty we have destroyed and denied the honor the Creator has given each individual

The truth that lies in our hearts

All my relations

The Lazy Way of Farming

I’ve been intrigued by Fukuoka and his natural way of farming for a while. This precursor to the modern permaculture movement developed a way and philosophy of agriculture based on his observations and experiments in Japan. Eventually he was able to produce as much rice using his method as others did with more traditional (mono-cropping) techniques. One of the things Fukuoka did was go into a field and just throw seed randomly out in the field and see what happened. If something grew particularly well in one place, he would make observations and try to figure out what nature was doing. In this way he tried to base his way of farming on nature.

Fukuoka’s method actually reduces the amount of labor needed, because you aren’t trying to apply lots of inputs, use tillage and cultivate the ground in a way that works against nature. Instead you do your best to let nature do all the hard work and you sit back and reap the results. I’ve been wanting to experiment with this way of cultivating food. Well, I had a bag of seeds that were not labeled. So, I had no idea what they were or what to do with them. This was the perfect chance to begin developing what I would like to call the lazy way of farming. Sounds good right?

IMG_7617.JPG

Here’s the bags of seeds without any labels. I might have learned something by trying to identify the different seeds. Instead I thought it would be fun to plant a bed in my garden Fukuoka-style.

IMG_7618.JPG

Here is the result of mixing my seeds all together in a bag. Then I prepped a bed in my garden for them by hoeing it up (I know this is not pure Fukuoka, but I’m experimenting okay?). Then I just tossed the seeds out on the bed, watered them in and then mulched them with some weeds.

IMG_7619.JPG

The thing I’m most worried about is birds getting to the seeds before they germinate, but so far so good. My hope is that something will grow this season and the seeds that don’t grow will lie dormant until the time is ready. So, I won’t replant this bed. I’ll just knock down whatever grows, let it mulch the bed for weeds and see if anything else comes up when the rainy season starts in November or so. I’ll let you know what happens and what I learned from the experiment. Hopefully, down the road it will develop into a low-labor, low-input way of farming a la Fukuoka and permaculture that will result in sustaining ourselves more and more off of whatever plot of ground we happen to be on.

Cultivating Human Beings (Matthew 13:24-43)

bono coexist.jpg So, why create a sandwich with these three parables together followed by the explanation of the first parable? It seems that these parables build on each other and relate to each other. But how?

All three parables have to do with something small that takes over for good or ill. The seeds sown for the weeds and the mustard tree (toothbrush tree) become prominent features in the landscape. The yeast is worked into all the flour.

The parable of the weeds is a negative example of the kingdom, while the parable of the mustard seed and yeast are positive examples. Perhaps this is why only the first parable needs explanation. The idea that God’s kingdom is small and takes over through small acts is easy to swallow. It might be hard in practice, but it’s easy to hear. The good guys win. The idea that what is sown by evil people should be allowed to continue alongside the works of the righteous is much more difficult to swallow.

When we divide the world into these binary categories of righteous and evil, it is difficult to abide their coexistence. If there is simply an Axis of Evil then the decisions about what to do are simple and obvious. If, instead, as Jesus suggests, we are to allow the righteous and evil to exist alongside each other and leave judgment for the end of the age and harvesting to the angels, then life between now and then just got a lot more complicated.

As I suggested in my post on the parable of the weeds, the idea that we know what’s best in agriculture may be based on some faulty assumptions about good plants and bad plants. We also make the same mistake with insects. Upwards of 95% of all insect species are beneficial. So, what happens when you blanket crops with pesticides that kill off the 95% along with the 5% that do damage? I also believe strongly that the soil is the foundation of good agriculture. If you create an environment in which your plants are healthy and thriving, because they have good soil, you are also controlling for weeds and insects. In other words, the healthiest environment for productive life on the planet is one where we allow the weeds, crops and insects to thrive together in a balance that naturally occurs without our help.

The stability of old growth forests, create an abundance of life and resources, because nature is allowed to live out its balance with “weeds”, insects and edible plants all living together. We tend to err on the side of intervention, always assuming that we know best the answers to natures problems (usually problems we created through our intervention). As with my idea of what missions is, it is less about intervening and more about listening, understanding and allowing the Spirit to lead us in a process of mutual transformation.

Like, the mustard seed or the yeast, it is hard to see what will come from something so tiny. It is also hard to see what comes from allowing the weeds and wheat to grow together. The transformation begins when we lay down the assumption that we know the answers, solutions and who is righteous and evil. Transformation also begins with the small acts of the kingdom that multiply, grow and permeate the world around us.

“Natural farming is not simply a way of growing crops; it is the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” Masanobu Fukuoka (quote and photo via eartheasy.com)

one-straw.jpg

photo of Bono from u2tourfans.com