Sunday, August 16, 2009

Food Lessons (in the Pacific Northwest)

A local farming summit looks at better ways to grow food

Paul K. Haeder

It was a beautiful late-July day and a glorious evening, after tromping through wheat near Reardan. The Eastern Washington sky vibrated blue as we touched stalks of grain while farmers explained the benefits of no-till farming, or direct seeding. In the distance, pines and firs rimmed the banks of the Spokane River on its way from Long Lake.

The green and amber hues reminded me of Vietnam’s sea of rice. The summer wheat was a week away from harvest. Caterers, food experts and others tied to health, nutrition, food and ag — including Stone-Buhr Flour CEO Josh Dorf — joined representatives from major distributors such as Food Services of America and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) for a two-day summit on what Shepherd’s Grain’s Fred Fleming calls “Ag in the Middle.”

Chefs from Portland’s Bon Appetit Management Co. concocted a huge spread of food prepared in the kitchen of the Hutterian Brethren of Reardan. Hutterite ladies adorned in Amish-looking garb sipped blackberry sparkling juices while their plaid shirt-clad spouses and offspring chowed down on gourmet fare. All ingredients originated from a foodshed rooted in the Pacific Northwest — Country Natural Beef, Shepherd’s Grain, Goldman’s Hydroponics, Millennium Farms, Willamette Valley Farms, Golden Hills Brewery and Skagit Valley Farmers.

Whitman County farmer John Aeschliman stoked the crowd by showing earthworm castings — aka, poop — and all sorts of other soil-enhancing microbes from his 30-year no-till farm growing wheat, corn, soybeans and garbanzos. He rattled off the benefits of direct seeding: one ton of earthworms per acre of land, making his 4,000-acre no-till operation’s soil complex and fecund.

“Here, see,” he shouted while clumping up rich, ebony-shaded dirt, “one teaspoon of soil has as many microorganisms — six billion — as there are people on earth.”

Fleming, Aeschliman, and Jim Nollmeyer touted other benefits of no-till farming:

  • one-third less fuel consumed since fewer passes from machinery are necessary
  • almost no water erosion or wind-induced topsoil loss because the previous seasons’ crops stay as mulch, which acts as a sponge or duff
  • since it’s not ripped up, the soil stays moist and crops stay healthy
    higher yields, in some cases by 50 percent
  • much less nitrogen fertilizer laid down

Karl Kupers, of the Shepherd’s Grain 33-grower cooperative (totaling 65,000 acres), organized the event “as a way to start a conversation … to try to build a Northwest food culture.” Kupers wants to maximize farmers’ ability to bring tonnage of crops to market while treating Pacific Northwest fields of wheat, beans, barley, lentils and other crops as food, not commodities.He and other growers also want to find ways to source out their products — like Connie and Doc Hatfield’s grass-fed Country Natural Beef — to purveyors who support their style of sustainable product.

We had a mini on-the-farm class, as Jill “Worm Lady” Clapperton, Ph.D., head of Montana-based Earth Spirit Friendly Consulting, talked about sustainability, cover crops, keeping fields in rotation, and soil dynamics — including why organic matter is the important factor in no-till’s soil enhancement.

Chad Kruger of WSU’s Center for Sustaining Ag and Natural Resources broached the topic of climate change briefly. He launched into a quick spiel on carbon sequestration, hinting that no-till practices bring down carbon while conventional farming produces carbon dioxide.

But the scientific jury’s still out on those sequestration studies: Most of the studies will not unequivocally say that growing wheat pulls down carbon in large amounts. Agronomists and soil experts say that the differences between no-till and conventional tilling in terms of carbon sequestration depend on a wide variety of factors including soil conditions, types of crops and depth of soil analysis. However, when we broke bread and sipped beer, some whispers intimated that Palouse no-till wheat might equate to one pound of flour produced and two pounds of carbon sequestered.

I wonder if I was the only one weighing the benefits of no-till against one negative — the Monsanto Corporation. No-till is wedded to Monsanto’s glyphosate, known as Roundup, the world’s most widely used herbicide. Farmers use it to control weeds and other annual and perennial plants. Part of the no-till process involves a “chem fallow” — spraying the fields with Roundup as part of a burn-down to keep other crops at bay before a new crop is planted.

Writer Paul Roberts (The End of Food) headed up a talk on just how resilient our food system is and where these mid-sized farmers fit, yet environmental sustainability never got aired. Neither did organic or bio-dynamic farming.

These fellows with Shepherd’s Grain and Stone-Buhr Flour Company are good-hearted, serious business owners and supporters of the larger farming community. At the end of the day, however, they are supporting a $65 billion a year global pesticide market. Behind the farmer and the food are the major players in the toxic-chemical market — Syngenta, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Du Pont and Monsanto. Globally, farmers use up to 2.5 million tons of their stuff annually.

One epiphany came to the fellow from ADM — one of the largest agribusiness companies in the world, a company that takes wheat and turns it into flour. After 13 years with ADM, Bill Turner had seen his very first wheat field that day — when he set foot on Fleming’s farm.

Read the comments on this recent article on Ag in the Middle at the above url. Monsanto is being questioned for some tactics. Let's see the discussion on no-till conventional versus no-till in an integrated bio-dynamic farming system.

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