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Repurposing farm machinery September 20th, 2020 by

Many farmers in Europe and North America are burdened with debts due to the heavy investments they have made over the years to buy farm machinery. A new tractor easily costs 100,000 Euro or more. New agricultural policies often force farmers to change as well. When environmental policy outlawed the spread of liquid manure on the surface of the field, manufacturers quickly adapted: manure is now directly injected into the soil. But this may oblige farmers to get rid of machinery that still works. What solutions can research offer to repurpose farm equipment? These thoughts have gradually come to my mind, living in a farming village in north-eastern Belgium and observing the various changes.

Farmers creatively adapt in many ways. Our friend, Johan Hons, uses a leek planter to transplant sweet maize seedlings on his organic farm to reduce the need for weeding. Like many farmers, Johan has his own workshop where he adjusts equipment to suit his needs.

American and European farmers see the soaring prices of equipment as one of their key challenges. Besides, equipment has become so complicated and repair is stymied by proprietary software and a lack of available parts. As a response, many farmers are now buying simpler, and much cheaper second-hand tractors from the 1970s and ’80s.

Also, local service providers have repositioned themselves and taken over many of the farm operations. And the fewer local service providers there are, the more pressure they can put on farmers, often charging fees that further eat into farmers’ meagre profit margins. Many machines, like the ones that inject liquid manure into the soil, have become so big that they are often wider than the country lanes, damaging them and forcing cyclists to jump off the road to save their lives whenever these machines roar by.

But there are also positive changes in the development of new machinery, which are not about making them bigger and heavier. Until last year, our local machine provider needed three tractors to collect grass for silage. One tractor raked up the grass and filled a wagon pulled by a second tractor. Meanwhile, a third tractor hauled the grass to the farmstead, to fill the silo, before running back to the field so the second tractor could empty its load. No time was wasted. This year, I noticed a single machine picking up the cut grass. This meant that the tractor then needed to drive to the farm where the silage was made, but to finish this entire field with just one tractor only took an hour longer than with three tractors and drivers, a big savings in labour, machinery and fuel.

Due to tillage and use of agrochemicals, many soils have become depleted of organic matter and soil life. As agricultural policies for decades have supported industrial agriculture, all farmers own their own pesticide spraying equipment. So, will these become obsolete when farming transitions to more sustainable models? Or could pesticide spraying machines be used to spray the soils and crops with Effective Microorganisms or other natural biofertilizers, to bring life back into our soils and boost crop health in a natural way?

To enable the transition to more sustainable farming, appropriate machines will be required. In the Netherlands, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) has been studying intercropping for several years, involving conventional and organic farmers. By growing a variety of crops in narrow strips they were able to attract beneficial insects and slow the spread of crop disease. The researchers also found that yields are similar to those found in monocultures and labour requirements are comparable too. Reading their study, I immediately thought how intercropping would work in a highly mechanised setting. Adjusting machinery will likely be part of the solution.

With the action plan laid out in the European Green Deal, the EU aims to be climate neutral by 2050. Different sectors of society each have a responsibility to make this happen. For agriculture, the ‘Farm to fork strategy’ stipulates that by 2030 pesticide use has to be reduced by 50% and chemical fertilizers by 20% in order to make food systems more sustainable.

Clearly, equipment manufacturers will continue to adjust the design of machinery, but this also comes at a cost. To keep as many farmers in business as possible, some creative thinking will be required on how to strike a balance between supporting industry to innovate and finding ways to repurpose the already available machinery park that farmers have already invested in. European family farmers are ready to adapt, but they are also being run out of business. Policy and research should lend them a hand, by inventing and promoting appropriate small machinery that can be used to serve multiple purposes. 

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Read more

More nature in fields through strip cropping. https://weblog.wur.eu/spotlight/more-nature-in-fields-through-strip-cropping/  

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en  

Credit: The photo on harvesting an intercrop is from Wageningen University & Research. The bottom photo of intercropped field with flowers is by Fogelina Cuperus.

Eating bricks June 14th, 2020 by

In Belgium we have an expression: “all Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach”, meaning that all citizens aspire to build their own house someday. But when bricks are literally eaten, something has gone seriously wrong.

Some 25 years ago, during one of my first projects in Sri Lanka, news came out that chilli powder was mixed with ground up bricks. Some crooks were trying to make a dishonest profit. Ground chilli and powdered bricks are of a similar colour and consistency. Few buyers taste the chilli powder when they buy it, and as chilli is typically added to sauces, never eaten straight, a cheating dealer supplying to regional or international markets for customers he would never see again at times could get away with such a scam.  

Fortunately, in Europe we have a long history of food safety standards, regulations and government institutes safeguarding the quality of the food that enters the market and ends up on our plates. But such systems are absent, dysfunctional or just getting started in many developing countries.

Yet many developing countries have an advantage when it comes to food safety: short food chains. Control measures on food safety are less important when one relies on short food chains. In Sri Lanka, for instance, I used to patronize spice gardens where urban people would stock up on black pepper, chilli or cardamom. Over the years the customers would establish a relationship based on trust with the family running the spice garden. Even in the markets, most vendors know their regular customers, and would never risk selling them a fake product. Suppliers are motivated to sell high-quality products to their valuable, steady customers.

I had forgotten about this incidence of adulterated chilli until recently. While reading the book The True History of Chocolate, I was struck by one particular paragraph on food adulteration. Cacao had spread from Latin America to Portuguese, Spanish, English and French colonies across Africa and Asia in the 19th century.

In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten took out a patent on a process to make powdered chocolate with a very low fat content. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and entrepreneurs in England and America established their first companies to make chocolate for the masses. For centuries, chocolate had only been known as a foamy drink, consumed mainly by the royalty, aristocracy and clergy.

Already in 1850, the British medical journal The Lancet mentioned the creation of a health commission for the analysis of foods. According to the journal suspicions about the quality of the mass-produced chocolate proved correct: in 39 out 70 samples, chocolate had been adulterated with red brick powder. Similar results were obtained from samples of chocolate seized in France. The investigations led to the establishment of the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872.

A similar trend took place in the milk industry.

In Belgium, starting in 1900, machines were deployed to scale up butter production. Just two years later, the Belgian farmers’ organisation, the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League) decided to employ food consultants to check the administration, hygiene and quality of the dairies. In 1908, the Boerenbond established a food laboratory which it deemed necessary to help curb the increase in butter adulteration.

Now, more than a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed once more the vulnerability of a globalised food system with long supply chains. Slightly more than 50% of all food produced in Belgium is exported, including milk. As the demand from China dropped, this left farmers unable to sell dairy, meat and potatoes. Belgian dairy cooperatives also struggled to have sufficient packaging material, as this relied on imports of certain materials.

Such troubles are triggering people to rethink how to make our food system more sustainable. For a long time, food safety regulations were assumed to be the main pillar of a safe food system, but the pandemic has revealed that the complexity of a global food system makes it prone to breaking down, leaving producers and consumers vulnerable. Over the years, overly rigid food safety standards in Belgium have discouraged farmers from adding value to their own produce and selling it on their farm. Triggered by the crisis, the Belgian Minister for Agriculture, Denis Ducarme, has just reduced the stringency on food safety control for farm-made cheese. More will hopefully be done in the near future to encourage farmers to process and sell food on their farm. In these short food chains, farmers will be motivated to make clean, healthy products.

The food in Europe is reasonably safe and healthy, but Covid-19 has shown us how modern food systems are fragile. Burdensome regulations oppress smallholders until they are not even able to make a cheese for their neighbours. By investing in shorter food chains, we can make our food systems more resilient, and bring back the distinctive flavours of local foods.  Shorter, more adaptable food chains will build trust, while leaving the bricks to those who are building houses.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 Jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp.

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 280 pp.

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Travelling farmers May 3rd, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

We once had a talented carpenter named Rodrigo, who would come to our house to fix cabinets and build closets. He liked to start in the afternoon and stay for dinner. He was slow and methodical, but his work was always perfect. Every year, this bohemian handyman would take his mother and go back to their home village on the Bolivian Altiplano, several times a year to plant, tend and harvest quinoa. They would bring the harvest back to Cochabamba and wait for the price to peak, when they would sell. In previous stories we have described the soil erosion caused by the quinoa boom (Wind erosion and the great quinoa disaster and Slow recovery), but Rodrigo and his mother were acting like short-term, economic rationalists.

In a provocative new article, researcher Enrique Ormachea explains that people like Rodrigo and his mother are “residents” (country people living permanently in the cities, while maintaining ties in the village, especially returning for harvest).

Other farmers have moved much shorter distances. The Andean valleys are dotted with the ruined, adobe houses where the grandparents of today’s farmers once lived. Many farmers have left the most remote countryside to live in the bigger villages and small towns where there are shops, schools, electricity and running water. In the past 15 or 20 years, many of these Bolivian farmers have bought motorcycles so they can live in town and commute to the farm. It is now a common sight in the countryside to see farmers’ motorbikes parked along the side of the dirt roads, while the farmer is working a nearby field.

These farmers sell their potatoes and grains in weekly fairs in the small towns, to small-scale wholesalers (who work with just one truck). Thousands of people may throng into a fair, in a town that is nearly empty the other six days of the week.

Still other migrants make long trips every year. Farmers without irrigation cannot work their own land during the long dry season. So, in the offseason they travel to the lowlands of Bolivia, where forests have been cleared for industrial agriculture: not necessarily sustainable, but productive (at least for now). This commercial agriculture relies on the labor of rural people who travel hundreds of kilometers to work.

68% of the agricultural production in Bolivia comes from large, capitalist farms, according to census data that Ormachea cites in his article. 23% is on peasant farms that are large enough to hire some labor and sell some produce. Only 8% is on small, subsistence farms. One could argue with this data; smallholders often underestimate their income when talking to census takers, who are suspected of being the tax man in disguise. Even if we accept the figures at face value, a third of food output comes from small farms. But large and small farms produce different things; smallholders produce fruits, vegetables, potatoes and pigs, unlike the soy, sugar, rice and beef that comes from the big farms. 

Three kinds of people (the city residents, the farmers who commute from town, and the dry season migrants) all travel to produce and move food. The government of Bolivia acts as though it does not understand this. In order to stop Covid-19, the government has forbidden all buses, taxis and travel by car, closed the highways and banned the fairs. According to the official logic, farmers live on farms, and grow potatoes for their soup pot, so they don’t need to travel.

Some Bolivian citizens are given special permission, a paper to tape to the windshield of their truck, allowing them to drive to rural areas to buy food wholesale, to resell in cities. But these buyers are not reaching all of the farms, and such schemes are easily corrupted. At least 1,000 vehicles are circulating with counterfeit permission slips, in Cochabamba alone. Ormachea cites farmers like Martín Blanco, a peach farmer, who explained that because of recent travel restrictions, he was only able to get half of his peach harvest to market. The rest of the peaches were lost. As one farmer explained “If I don’t sell it all, I won’t have my little money.”

In the past couple of decades, food systems in tropical countries have changed rapidly, to rely much more on travel than previously. These food systems are resilient, up to a point, but they are also easier to break apart than they are to fix. As Ormachea suggests, policy makers need to meet with business people, farmer representatives and indigenous leaders to find a way to allow the safe movement of food and farmers in these times of virus lockdown.

Further reading

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 Producción Agrícola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. Boletín de Seguimiento a Políticas Públicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

Related blog stories

A long walk home

Strawberry fields once again

VIAJES PRODUCTIVOS

Por Jeff Bentley, 3 de mayo del 2020

Antes teníamos un carpintero habiloso llamado Rodrigo, que venía a nuestra casa para arreglar gabinetes y construir roperos. Le gustaba empezar por la tarde y quedarse a cenar. Era lento y metódico, pero su trabajo siempre era perfecto. Este artista bohemio solía llevar a su mamá a su comunidad de origen en el altiplano boliviano, varias veces al año, para plantar, cuidar y cosechar la quinoa. Traían la cosecha a Cochabamba y esperaban a que el precio llegara a su punto máximo, cuando vendían. En historias anteriores hemos descrito la erosión del suelo causada por el boom de la quinua (Destruyendo el Altiplano Sur con quinua y Recuperación lenta), pero por lo menos Rodrigo y su mamá se comportaban de manera económicamente racional, a corto plazo.

En un artículo nuevo y original, el investigador Enrique Ormachea explica que personas como Rodrigo y su mamá son “residentes” (gente del campo que vive permanentemente en las ciudades, y que mantienen sus vínculos con su comunidad, especialmente regresando para la cosecha).

Otros campesinos viajan, pero a distancias mucho más cortas. Aquí y allí por los valles andinos encuentras “las casas de los abuelos,” ruinas de adobe donde vivía gente hasta hace algunas pocas décadas. Muchos agricultores han dejado el campo más remoto para vivir en las comunidades más grandes y en las pequeñas ciudades donde hay tiendas de barrio, colegios, luz y agua potable. En los últimos 15 o 20 años, muchos de estos agricultores bolivianos han comprado motocicletas para poder vivir en el pueblo e ir cada día a su terreno. Ahora en el campo es común ver las motos de los agricultores estacionadas al lado de los caminos de tierra, mientras el motociclista trabaja en un campo cercano.

Estos agricultores venden sus papas y granos en ferias semanales en las cabeceras municipales, a los mayoristas de pequeña escala (que trabajan con un solo camión). Miles de personas acuden en masa a las ferias, en pueblos que están casi vacías los otros seis días de la semana.

En cambio, otros migrantes hacen largos viajes cada año. Los agricultores sin riego no pueden trabajar su propia tierra durante la larga época seca. Así que, en la temporada baja viajan al oriente de Bolivia, donde se han talado los bosques para la agricultura industrial; no es necesariamente sostenible, pero sí es productiva (por lo menos todavía). Esta agricultura comercial depende de la mano de obra de la gente del campo que viaja cientos de kilómetros para trabajar.

El 68% de la producción agrícola de Bolivia proviene de grandes fincas capitalistas, según los datos del censo agropecuario que Ormachea cita en su artículo. El 23% es producido por campesinas que tienen suficiente escala para contratar ayudantes y vender algunos productos. Sólo el 8% de la producción agrícola viene de explotaciones de subsistencia. Estos datos son discutibles; los campesinos a menudo subestiman su producción cuando hablan con los censistas, quienes sospechan de ser cobradores disfrazados de impuestos. Pero aun si aceptamos las cifras así no más, un tercio de los alimentos vienen de los campesinos que producen frutas, verduras, papas y chanchos, a diferencia de la soya, el azúcar, el arroz y la carne de res que vienen de las fincas grandes. 

Tres tipos de personas (los residentes, los agricultores que se trasladan a sus parcelas, y los migrantes de la época seca) todos viajan para producir y trasladar alimentos. El gobierno de Bolivia actúa como si no entendiera esto. Para detener a Covid-19, el gobierno ha prohibido todo el transporte público, ha cerrado las carreteras y las ferias. De acuerdo con la lógica oficial, los campesinos viven en granjas, y cultivan papas para hacer su papa wayk’u, por lo que no necesitan viajar.

A algunos ciudadanos bolivianos se les da un permiso especial, un papel para pegar al parabrisas de su camión, lo que les permite ir a las zonas rurales para comprar alimentos al por mayor, para revenderlos en las ciudades. Pero estos compradores no llegan a todos los productores, y tales sistemas se corrompen fácilmente. Al menos mil vehículos circulan con permisos falsificados, sólo en Cochabamba. Ormachea cita a agricultores como Martín Blanco, un agricultor de duraznos, quien explicó que debido a las recientes restricciones de viaje, sólo pudo llevar al mercado la mitad de su cosecha de duraznos. El resto de los duraznos se perdieron. Como explicó otro agricultor: “Si no lo vendo todo, no tendré mi platita.”

En las últimas dos décadas, la producción y distribución de alimentos en los países tropicales han cambiado rápidamente, hasta depender mucho más de los viajes. Estos sistemas alimentarios son resistentes, hasta cierto punto, pero también son más fáciles de desbaratar que componer. Como sugiere Ormachea, el gobierno debe reunirse con los empresarios, con las organizaciones campesinas y pueblos indígenas para ver cómo permitir el movimiento seguro de los alimentos y los agricultores en estos tiempos de cuarentena del virus.

Más lectura

Challapa Cabezas, Carmen 2000 Tránsito en Cochabamba descubre mil permisos clonados y falsificados. Los Tiempos 24 April 2020.

Chuquimia, Leny 2020 Agricultores temen por sus cosechas y los alimentos tardan en llegar. Página Siete 4 April 2020.

Ormachea Saavedra, Enrique 2020 Producción Agrícola y Estado de Emergencia Sanitaria. Boletín de Seguimiento a Políticas Públicas. Control Ciudadano 35. CEDLA: Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario.

Historias relacionadas de este blog

A long walk home

En el frutillar de nuevo

The pleasure of bread April 26th, 2020 by

No matter what you do for a living, money is not the only reason to enjoy your work.

Years ago, I was enlisted into a team of economists in Portugal, who looked at the profitability of every crop in every “system” (such as maize for grain, versus maize for silage). In their view, if a crop was not profitable, farmers would not grow it. Fair enough, but one day the we got onto the topic of rye, then grown in small amounts in northwest Portugal.

“It’s not profitable,” the economists sneered, checking their numbers.

“But the farmers do grow it,” I said.

“Well, they won’t for long,” the economists shrugged. Obviously if the crops were at odds with the numbers, the farmers were wrong, and the models were right.

I tried to explain that rye was an important ingredient in sourdough bread. The economists dismissed this idea out of hand. No doubt they thought that farmers should grow more profitable crops, and buy their bread at the store.

But not all bread does come from the store. In Pedralva, Portugal, I rented a room from three elderly farmers, sisters who had never married. Like every other farm family in Pedralva, they made bread once a week in a wood-fired, stone oven. To start, they would get out their sourdough starter, a fermented loaf of dough. The raw loaf of dough houses a colony of wild yeast and bacteria, kept from one week to the next in the kitchen. The farmer-bakers would mix the starter with an enormous amount of maize flour, this being one of the few parts of Europe where people eat much maize bread. But maize flour needs gluten to hold the loaf together. So, the farmers would add a generous helping of rye flour and a little paper bag of white flour, the only store-bought ingredient in their bread.

They shaped the dough into some eight large loaves, each one bigger than a dinner plate. Seven of these would fill the oven, but one loaf of dough would be put into the flour box, to ferment for a week, to start the next week’s bread.

One day I was watching one of the three sisters make bread. She slipped the last loaf into the oven, and closed it with a hand-carved stone door. To seal the door, she took some dung (still warm from the cow) and, with a practiced finger, packed it into the space around the oven door, to keep in the heat.

Then she looked at me and, with a comic-dramatical air, explained that an oven was unlike a person, because it had “bread up its ass and shit in its mouth” (pão no cu e merda na boca). The dung was an option, by the way; some of the neighbors sealed their oven with a bit of raw bread dough. The bread was a bit sour, dense, slightly smokey, crusty on the outside and moist on the inside, and full of flavor.

These farmers obviously enjoyed making bread and eating it. At every meal they crumbled into soup, and held in the hand to scoop up the food and to soak up the sauce.

For such a satisfying bread, folks were willing to grow and mill their own rye flour.

Few pleasures compare with eating a perfect, homemade bread. While more people are enjoying baking bread at home, during this coronavirus crisis, other changes may also be taking place in society. Industrial farming has dominated our food systems over the past few decades, but there is a growing appreciation of the art of farming, gardening and bread-baking, suggesting that the value of food cannot be reduced to a mere money value.

Further reading

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1989 “Bread Forests and New Fields: The Ecology of Reforestation and Forest Clearing Among Small-Woodland Owners in Portugal.” Journal of Forest History 33(4):188-195.

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Watch documentary: “Cereal – Renaissance in the field” (Duration: 25 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=7&v=FE23SDj19uU&feature

A revolution for our soil March 22nd, 2020 by

la versión en español a continuación

Degraded soil can be repaired, and replenished with nutrients, until it produces abundant harvests at lower costs, while removing carbon from the atmosphere, and putting it back into the ground. This is the optimistic message of David Montgomery’s book, Growing a Revolution.

In many parts of the world, soils have been degraded by frequent plowing. The benefits of releasing a burst of nutrients for the crops and killing weeds are overcome by exposure of the soil to erosion by wind and water (see Out of space on Montgomery’s earlier book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations). In the Midwestern USA perhaps half of the original prairie soil, and most of its organic matter, have been lost in little more than a century of conventional tillage. Chemical fertilizers provide the major nutrients of phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen in the short run, but they undermine the soil’s long-term health by suppressing mycorrhizal fungi.

These mycorrhizal fungi feed plants while making glomalin, a protein that binds soil particles together. Plowing destroys the soil structure created by beneficial fungi and their glomalin.

Montgomery, a professional geologist, explains that most soils don’t need chemical fertilizer. They have enough phosphorous, potassium and all the minor nutrients like iron and zinc that plants need, but these minerals are locked up in stone particles and other forms not accessible to the plants. The key to using these nutrients are beneficial microbes, like the mycorrhizal fungi that extract mineral nutrients from rock fragments and help to break down organic matter so plants can use it. Microbes trade phosphorous to plants for sugars. Predatory arthropods, nematodes and protozoa then feast on the microbes and release the nutrients back to the soil. A diverse soil life makes soil more fertile. Synthetic fertilizers interrupt these interactions, and the mycorrhizal fungi die, so the crop becomes chemical-dependent. Soil that is rich in organic matter (that is, in carbon) is healthier and supports a thriving community of beneficial microorganisms.

But with proper care, soil can be brought back to good health in just a few years. The right techniques can boost soil carbon from 1% (typical of degraded soils) to 4% (as in undisturbed forest) or even up to 6%. There are many such techniques and they go by various names, including “conservation agriculture,” “agroecology” or “regenerative agriculture,” and they are based on simple principles: 1) Use cover crops (or mulch) to keep the soil covered all the time; 2) Complex crop rotations of grasses, legumes and other crops; and 3) no-till, planting seeds directly into the unplowed earth.

Montgomery takes his readers to meet farmers from Kansas to Pennsylvania, from Ghana to Costa Rica, who are practicing and profiting from these three principles. Some are organic farmers; others apply small amounts of nitrogen fertilizer directly into the soil, near the seed, where the plant can efficiently take it up. We learn that some use earthworms, while others like Felicia Echeverría in Costa Rica make their own brews of beneficial microorganisms, to add life to dead soil. Gabe Brown in North Dakota rotates cattle in small paddocks, on large fields. As the cows graze, they fertilize the soil with manure.

Montgomery and soil scientist Rattan Lal estimate that conservation agriculture could offset a third to two thirds of current carbon emissions, by putting organic matter back into the soil, while tilling less and so lowering fuel expenses. Stumbling blocks to adoption of conservation agriculture include subsidies and crop insurance that keep farmers plowing and dependent on chemical fertilizer. Another is formal research, which continues to favor studies of products that companies can sell: chemical solutions to biological problems, as Montgomery puts it. Only 2% of US agricultural research goes to regenerative agriculture (and only 1% globally). Much of the innovation to revive the soil is driven not by funded research, but by the farmers themselves, who have shown that conservation agriculture, agroecology and permaculture can be more productive, with fewer pest problems. Conservation agriculture saves on expenses for inputs, so it is more profitable than conventional tillage agriculture. Properly conserved soil has little erosion; it soaks up the rain in wet years and holds the moisture for drought years.

Montgomery is concerned that when large-scale, industrialized farmers convert from tillage to conservation agriculture there must be a transition period when profits sag, before the soil improves enough to bring yield back up. He fears that this can discourage farmers from switching to conservation agriculture. Yet I am sure that the farmers themselves will work this out. As the natural experimenters that they are, farmers can try ecological farming practices with reduced tillage, first on one field, or on part of one, gradually creating the practices they need, one plot at a time. The good news is that conservation agriculture can be adopted on large farms or small ones, conventional or organic, mechanized or not. Farming can rebuild the soil, and does not need to destroy it.

Further reading

Montgomery, David R. 2017 Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. New York: Norton. 316 pp.

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Effective micro-organisms

Farming with trees

Out of space

The big mucuna

From uniformity to diversity

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Good microbes for plants and soil

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Making a vermicompost bed

The wonder of earthworms (rearing earthworms to fertilize fields and gardens)

Animals & trees for a better crop

SLM00 Introduction (an introduction to a series of 12 videos on conservation agriculture)

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Till less to harvest more (no-till and minimum tillage)

And many other videos on www.accessagriculture.org

UNA REVOLUCIÓN PARA NUESTRO SUELO

Por Jeff Bentley, 22 de marzo del 2020

El suelo degradado puede ser reparado, devolviendo sus nutrientes, hasta que produzca cosechas abundantes a costos más bajos, mientras que se saca carbono de la atmósfera, para ponerlo en el suelo. Este es el mensaje optimista del libro de David Montgomery, Growing a Revolution.

En muchas partes del mundo, el arar frecuentemente ha degradado los suelos. El arado trae los beneficios de liberar nutrientes repentinamente para los cultivos y matar las malezas, pero el daño es mayor debido al exponer el suelo a la erosión del viento y del agua (ver Out of space sobre el libro anterior de Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations). En el Medio Oeste de los Estados Unidos, quizás la mitad del suelo original de la pradera, y la mayor parte de su materia orgánica, se han perdido en poco más de un siglo de labranza convencional. Los fertilizantes químicos proporcionan los principales nutrientes de fósforo, potasio y nitrógeno a corto plazo, pero socavan la salud del suelo a largo plazo al suprimir los hongos micorriza.

Estos hongos micorriza alimentan a las plantas mientras fabrican glomalina, una proteína que une las partículas del suelo. El arado destruye la estructura del suelo creada por los hongos benéficos y su glomalina.

Montgomery, un geólogo profesional, explica que la mayoría de los suelos no necesitan fertilizantes químicos. Tienen suficiente fósforo, potasio y todos los nutrientes menores como el hierro y el zinc que las plantas necesitan, pero estos minerales están encerrados en partículas de piedra y están en otras formas no accesibles para las plantas. La clave para el uso de estos nutrientes son los microbios buenos, como las micorrizas que extraen nutrientes minerales de los fragmentos de roca y ayudan a descomponer la materia orgánica para que las plantas puedan usarla. Los microbios intercambian fósforo a las plantas por azúcares. Los artrópodos, nematodos y protozoos depredadores comen los microbios y liberan los nutrientes de vuelta al suelo. Una vida diversa en el suelo lo hace más fértil. Los fertilizantes sintéticos interrumpen estas interacciones y las micorrizas mueren, por lo que el cultivo se vuelve químicamente dependiente. El suelo rico en materia orgánica (es decir, en carbono) es más saludable y sostiene una próspera comunidad de microorganismos buenos.

Pero con el cuidado adecuado, el suelo puede volver a tener buena salud en pocos años. Las técnicas correctas pueden aumentar el carbono del suelo del 1% (típico de los suelos degradados) al 4% (como en los bosques vírgenes) o incluso hasta el 6%. Existen muchas de esas técnicas y tiene diversos nombres, como “agricultura de conservación”, “agroecología” o “agricultura regenerativa”, y se basan en principios sencillos: 1) Sembrar cultivos de cobertura (o mulch) para mantener el suelo cubierto todo el tiempo; 2) rotaciones complejas de cultivos de pastos y cereales, leguminosas y otros cultivos; y 3) la labranza cero, sembrando las semillas directamente en la tierra sin arar.

Montgomery lleva a sus lectores a conocer a agricultores de Kansas a Pensilvania, de Ghana a Costa Rica, que practican rentablemente estos tres principios. Algunos son agricultores orgánicos; otros aplican pequeñas cantidades de fertilizante de nitrógeno directamente en el suelo, cerca de la semilla, donde la planta puede absorberlo eficazmente. Aprendemos que algunos usan lombrices de tierra, mientras que otros, como Felicia Echeverría en Costa Rica, elaboran sus propias soluciones de microorganismos benéficos, para dar vida al suelo muerto. Gabe Brown, en Dakota del Norte, rota el ganado en pequeños potreros, en grandes campos. Cuando las vacas pastan, fertilizan el suelo con estiércol.

Montgomery y el científico del suelo Rattan Lal estiman que la agricultura de conservación podría compensar entre un tercio y dos tercios de las actuales emisiones de carbono, devolviendo la materia orgánica al suelo, a la vez que se labra menos y se reducen así los gastos de combustible. Entre los obstáculos para la adopción de la agricultura de conservación hay los subsidios y los seguros de los cultivos que mantienen a los agricultores arando y dependiendo de los fertilizantes químicos. Otro es la investigación formal, que sigue favoreciendo los estudios de productos que las empresas venden: soluciones químicas a problemas biológicos, como dice Montgomery. Sólo el 2% de la investigación agrícola estadounidense se destina a la agricultura regenerativa (y sólo el 1% a nivel mundial). Gran parte de la innovación para revivir el suelo no está impulsada por la investigación académica, sino por los propios agricultores, que han demostrado que la agricultura de conservación, la agroecología y la permacultura pueden ser más productivas, con menos problemas de plagas. La agricultura de conservación ahorra gastos en insumos, por lo que es más rentable que la agricultura de labranza convencional. El suelo conservado adecuadamente tiene poca erosión; absorbe la lluvia en los años húmedos y retiene la humedad en los años secos.

A Montgomery le preocupa que cuando los grandes agricultores industrializados pasen de la agricultura de labranza a la de conservación, debe haber un período de transición no rentable, antes de que el suelo mejore lo suficiente como para que vuelva a rendir bien. El teme que esto pueda desalentar a los agricultores a cambiar a la agricultura de conservación. Sin embargo, estoy seguro de que los propios agricultores lo solucionarán. Como experimentadores naturales que son, los agricultores pueden probar prácticas de agricultura ecológica con labranza reducida, primero en una parcela, o en un rincón, creando gradualmente las prácticas que necesitan, una parcela a la vez. La buena noticia es que la agricultura de conservación puede adoptarse en fincas grandes o pequeñas, convencionales u orgánicas, mecanizadas o no. La agricultura puede reconstruir el suelo, en vez de destruirlo.

Leer más

Montgomery, David R. 2017 Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soils Back to Life. New York: Norton. 316 pp.

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