Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Unconventional Growing

This post on Grist about farming techniques without irrigation is interesting, hat tip to Moneybox, whose post I steal below:
The catastrophic drought raging across the United States right now is a reminder not only of the climate chaos that's going to increasingly drive the economic environment but also of the longer background reality that as a country and as a world we're really not doing very much to manage our supply of fresh water sensibly. Brie Mazurek at Grist profiles a few operations that rely on a method of "dry farming" that gets by without traditional surface irrigation and still manages to deliver the agricultural goods. Yet even its proponents say the difficulty with this approach is that you grow much less food:

    “When you water a tree, it dilutes the flavor a lot in some cases,” says Stan Devoto, who dry-farms more than 50 varieties of heirloom apples at Devoto Gardens. “Instead of having a really hard, crisp, firm texture, your apple will be two or three times the size of a dry-farmed apple, and you just don’t get the flavor.” [...]

    But while water conservation and intensely flavorful crops are the clear benefits of dry farming, the major tradeoff is yield. Devoto says that apple growers in West Sonoma County, which was once home to a booming apple industry, only get about 12 tons per acre, compared to 30 to 40 tons produced by large apple farms in the state’s Central Valley.

    Similarly, Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl Produce says that his famous dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes sometimes yield only about a third of what their irrigated counterparts produce. Meanwhile, Little estimates that he gets about a quarter to a third the yield of large organic potato growers. “It it’s hard to compete with some of these big organic farms that are watering,” he says.
Here's the original article at Grist: http://grist.org/food/farming-without-water/

Another good technique is farming with woody crops. Energy Bulletin featured an extensive article on the technique a few months ago:
We call it “Woody Agriculture”, tightly defined as: “The intensive production of agricultural staple commodities from highly domesticated woody perennial plants.”

We breed 3 genera of woody plants, hazelnuts (Corylus), chestnuts (Castanea), and hickory-pecan (Carya), for crops with wide adaptation and multiple uses, each with both food and biomass components. Both bush and tree forms are under development.

What we work on is distinct from the multiple versions of “Agroforestry”, which typically means growing timber with food crops, but no significant food from the trees themselves; and from “Tree crops”, the traditional practices described by J.Russell Smith in 1929, which do not include the potential for crop improvement using modern genetics. Agroecology and Permaculture are additional embodiments of progressive alternative agriculture; mainstream agronomists tend to feel both may deliver more ideologies than technologies, and so far can demonstrate few impacts on global problems. None of these alternatives have proven attractive to large scale farmers; and it is specifically large scale agriculture that has the most serious environmental impacts.

Why don’t we already get our crops from trees, if this is such a good idea? That is the quintessential question faced by every innovator since time began; and it is a question known to rarely have merit. Most of our technologies exist as they are because our grandparents inherited them from their own grandparents. That is most especially true in agriculture. The full answer will make a tome, some day, but start here: there are several assumptions widely made about trees, that turn out not to be true.

A very topical advantage: as we write this, the US is in the grip of a broad and severe drought, already affecting crop prices and raising great concern. Our neohybrid hazels, growing under the same conditions which have destroyed neighboring corn fields, are nearly unaffected- except they are ripening their seed crop ahead of schedule. Experience in a similar drought in 1988 showed they could bear the crop, and also bear their crop in the next year.

Woody crops are also more tolerant than row crops to the other end of the weather spectrum; flood. Flood water that covers young annual plants will generally kill them; but woody plants, with their tops above water, are essentially unaffected.

As we proceed into global climate change, this broader tolerance of environmental variation will prove increasingly desirable.
Woody Agriculture - On the Road to a New Paradigm (Energy Bulletin)

Why don't we farm this way? from my understanding, it is less labor intensive in mechanized agriculture to farm annual grasses, not to mention the cultural inertia. The book Tree Crops mentioned above has some instances of farming with trees in various parts of the world; I reviewed the book here. We're going to have to learn to farm differently all right, and large-scale monoculture seems suited to the now-departing holocene. It looks like we might have to contend with smaller yields too, and I don't think energy-intensive techno-fixes like vertical farming and lab-grown meat are going to solve the problem to allow us to add three billion more people.

One place we could start is cultivating native perennial plants that are much more hardy, so hardy that many are considered "weeds!" This episode of The Survival Podcast has some good information on plants that could be very useful if we get past our large-scale monoculture obsession with chicken-beef-pork-corn-wheat-potatoes-tomatoes-lettuce ideas of what to eat and grow: The Survival Podcast Episode-945- Weeds that aren’t Weeds and Other Unusal Edibles.

Here's his list:

Plants I love to grow that many call weeds
Plants you won’t find in the average garden or back yard
 I would also add:
At about 1:06 he talks about how these plants do better in drought conditions than "conventional" crops. I like his comment about how we'll go buy vitamin C tablets at the drugstore while chopping down trees that provide us with plenty of natural vitamin C.


  1. Good article.

    I would also add perennial potato onion, maximillian sunflower, and Jerusalem artichoke to your list.

    Territorial Seed and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange carry the potato onions and Oikos Tree Crops carries maximillian sunflower and Jerusalem artichokes (among many other perennial food crops).

  2. Good additions. I can't believe I forgot sunchokes. These always confuse me because they're not artichokes and they're not from Jerusalem.


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