Soil Acidification Is an Awaking Giant Close to Home

Author: Joel Huesby | Published: December 17, 2017

The Dec. 12 front-page article, “Region’s farmers seek answer for soil acidification,” describes what may well be the most far-reaching threat to conventional crop production: soil acidification. The repeated application of relatively inexpensive nitrogen fertilizers over the past 70 years or so has indeed increased crop productivity, but it has also come at a great hidden cost.

The threat of soil acidity is like an unseen sleeping giant who is only now being awakened. Soon enough, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to undo what was done.

Even moderate soil acidification is hideous because it prevents crop roots from growing properly and taking up nutrients. The very practice that gave abundance now takes life away. Few things in nature come free. It turns out that particularly ammonic-based nitrogen fertilizers are both plant food and soil poison.

You wouldn’t want to take a whiff, but the nose knows. If soil acidification is not abated or reversed, food insecurity — on a local as well as global scale — will surely follow, and like the giant, it’s already awakening here close to home. This should get your attention.

Soils in the foothills of the Blue Mountains of Walla Walla and Columbia counties, the Palouse, and the Idaho Panhandle regions indicate acidity is widespread and becoming more severe, much with a soil pH well below 6. Peas and lentils get into trouble below 5.6 and wheat below 5.2. But some pH samples are in the mid 4s — nearly 1,000 times more acidic.

Our remarkable soils have had the ability to buffer, that is, to mask or hide, the harmful effects for a time. Like the giant, his rumblings went largely unnoticed and then… there he is.

Amendment or correction won’t be easy. In the soil on a chemical level, lime must be mixed with several feet of top soil, not just applied to the surface, in order for the reaction to occur.


Local Food Video Series: Diverse Approaches to Common Challenges

Author: Caroline Kamm | Published: December 2017

In the summer of 2017, I set out on a road trip from Monterrey, Mexico, to Toronto, Canada, filming a documentary series on North American local food initiatives. During this 4,800-kilometer (3,000-mile) journey, my co-creator and I had the privilege of meeting dozens of farmers, small-business owners, community organizers, and food advocates who shared an inspiring and diverse vision for the future of North American food.

Beginning in November 2017, each of their stories will be presented as a component of a 10-part series entitled The Food Less Traveled.

There is far from a consensus on what counts as local. The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses several definitions of “local food,” including geographic distance traveled and specific types of market arrangements. Many of the organizations in this series work expressly on shortening the distance between producer and consumer, while others are engaged in work beyond a single community or region. When exploring the concept of a local food system, this series highlights organizations at the neighborhood and community level, as well as larger initiatives that have a significant local impact.

Each of these organizations approaches food from an entirely unique perspective. Even so, a number of common themes emerged between their work, and it is these core themes that the series will explore further. This is perhaps one of the most inspiring things about food and agriculture: the capacity of creative people to devise a number of solutions to the food system’s biggest challenges.


A Growing Number of Young Americans Are Leaving Desk Jobs to Farm

Author: Caitlin Dewey | Published: November 23, 2017

Liz Whitehurst dabbled in several careers before she ended up here, crating fistfuls of fresh-cut arugula in the early-November chill.

The hours were better at her nonprofit jobs. So were the benefits. But two years ago, the 32-year-old Whitehurst — who graduated from a liberal arts college and grew up in the Chicago suburbs — abandoned Washington for this three-acre farm in Upper Marlboro, Md.

She joined a growing movement of highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers who are capitalizing on booming consumer demand for local and sustainable foods and who, experts say, could have a broad impact on the food system. 

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture. Sixty-nine percent of the surveyed young farmers had college degrees — significantly higher than the general population.

This new generation can’t hope to replace the numbers that farming is losing to age. But it is already contributing to the growth of the local-food movement and could help preserve the place of midsize farms in the rural landscape.


Path to the 2018 Farm Bill: A Comprehensive Approach to Food and Farm Policy

Published: November 1, 2017

NSAC Editor’s Note: On October 24, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) released its 2018 Farm Bill policy platform, An Agenda for the 2018 Farm BillNSAC has been a leader in agricultural policy for over 30 years, and has been instrumental in helping to develop some of our nation’s most successful agricultural programs for conserving natural resources, advancing the next generation of farmers, supporting agricultural research, and creating farm to fork market connections. NSAC’s 120 member organizations put together these recommendations after months of working closely with each other and with grassroots stakeholdersAn Agenda for the 2018 Farm Bill provides a comprehensive vision for a more sustainable farm and food system based on the recommendations and experience of American family farmers and the organizations that represent them.

This is the first post in a multipart series on NSAC’s policy platform for the 2018 Farm Bill. The second post is on Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers and Ranchers, the third on Conservation, fourth on Local/Regional Food Economies, fifth on Seed Breeding and Research, and the last post will be on Crop Insurance Modernization.

Over the last year, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) held farm bill listening sessions, conducted surveys, and ran workshops across the country in an effort to gather feedback from farmers, ranchers, and food producing communities. The goal of these outreach efforts has been to better understand what programs and policies would best support a sustainable, equitable, and profitable agricultural system. Together with our 120 member organizations, NSAC used this stakeholder feedback to develop our 2018 Farm Bill recommendations and policy platform.

This initial post of our 2018 Farm Bill platform series is meant as an introduction to the platform and to NSAC’s overarching goals and priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill. In upcoming posts, we will introduce readers to the key takeaways and themes from our platform, including: Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers; Conservation; Regional Food Economies; Public Seed Breeding and Research; and Crop Insurance Reform.

Increasing Opportunity: Beginning and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers

Nearly 100 million acres of farmland (enough to support tens of thousands of new family farms and ranches) is set to change hands over the next five years – during the course of our next farm bill. To keep our agricultural economy strong, we need to facilitate the transfer of skills, knowledge, and land between current and future generations of family farmers. Like beginning farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers face many, often deep-seated barriers to accessing assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The 2018 Farm Bill should support aspiring and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers by:

  • Expanding access to credit, crop insurance, and affordable farmland
  • Increasing technical assistance and outreach services to underserved communities
  • Empowering farmers and ranchers with the skills to succeed in today’s agricultural economy
  • Encouraging a heightened commitment to advanced conservation and stewardship

Farmer Wants a Revolution: ‘How Is This Not Genocide?’

Health comes from the ground up, Charles Massy says – yet chemicals used in agriculture are ‘causing millions of deaths’. Susan Chenery meets the writer intent on changing everything about the way we grow, eat and think about food

Published: September 22, 2017

The kurrajong tree has scars in its wrinkled trunk, the healed wounds run long and vertical under its ancient bark. Standing in front of the homestead, it nestles in a dip on high tableland from which there is a clear view across miles and miles of rolling plains to the coastal range of south-east Australia.

Charles Massy grew up here, on the sweeping Monaro plateau that runs off the eastern flank of Mount Kosciuszko, an only child enveloped by the natural world, running barefoot, accompanied by dogs and orphaned lambs. Fifth generation, he has spent his adult life farming this tough, lean, tussock country; he is of this place and it of him. But when his friend and Aboriginal Ngarigo elder Rod Mason came to visit he discovered that a lifetime of intimately knowing the birds, trees and animals of this land wasn’t significant at all.

The tree is probably a lot older than 400 years. Rod told him that when the old women walked their favourite songline tracks they carried seeds of their favourite food and resource plants, and sowed them at spirituality significant camping places. His front garden was one such ceremony place – there would have been a grove planted, and the women had stripped the bark from the tree to make bags and material. This old tree represented a connection to country “deeper than we can imagine, and linking us indivisibly with the natural world”, he writes in his book Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture – A New Earth.

Part lyrical nature writing, part storytelling, part solid scientific evidence, part scholarly research, part memoir, the book is an elegant manifesto, an urgent call to stop trashing the Earth and start healing it. More than that, it underlines a direct link between soil health and human health, and that the chemicals used in industrial agriculture are among the causes of modern illness.

“Most of our cereal crops, the soybeans, the corn, are all predicated now on the world’s most widely used chemical which is glyphosate [Roundup],” Massy says. “There is mounting evidence that it is one of the most destructive chemicals ever to get into the system. Its main effect is on the human gut and our entire immune system.

“When you look at the As – autism, ADHD, all the other auto-immune diseases – their take off is a 95% correlation to these chemicals being introduced. The evidence is that it affects the gut and the immune system, though it is not the sole factor, and it is a complex thing. But it is that gut that drives our whole immune system, it is our second brain.”


Regenerating Dairy in Vermont

Author: Kate Duesterberg | Published: September 12, 2017

My colleagues and I have been on the Vermont back roads for months, visiting all kinds of farms and talking with all varieties of farmers, from Franklin County mega-dairies to Orange County garlic growers. Since 80 percent of Vermont farming is industrial dairying, much of our work at Regeneration Vermont has been centered on documenting the ills from this confined dairy system — from water contamination to bankruptcy prices for producers to poor cow health and inadequate worker condition. It is a broken system and it needs to be replaced. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. And, better yet, as we learned along the back roads, Vermont is already well on its way toward establishing the regenerative organic solutions.

Take, for example, the Beidler Family Farm in Randolph, where we recently attended a NOFA field day. I had known about Regina and Brent Beidler since I worked at the University of Vermont with folks who were helping to pioneer the rotational grazing movement in Vermont. But this would be the first time I had visited their farm.

The Beidlers’ farm is a prime example of how much healthier and happier farmers and cows and the resources can be when the growers have a commitment to regenerative, organic methods. Here’s how Regina Beidler articulated their approach to farming in a recent interview with Foodtank: “The basis of the food system is the health of our nation’s farms. Organic farming, with its focus on building healthy soil, movement away from toxic chemical use, positive impacts on water and water quality, and close work with nature has the ability to bring positive change from small garden plots to larger farms.”

The day we were there was one of those perfect Vermont days — beautifully sunny and in the 70s. We had spectacular views all around from the lush pasture where we talked as we watched the healthy cows grazing. There were experts there from UVM and NOFA, but the real experts were the farmers — not only the Beidlers, but the other grass-based and/or organic dairy farmers who were there to learn what they could and share what they had gleaned from their own experiences.


Industrial Farming is Driving the Sixth Mass Extinction of Life on Earth, Says Leading Academic

‘Re-imagining a world with less stuff but more joy is probably the way forward,’ says Professor Raj Patel

Author: Ian Johnston | Published: August 26, 2017

Industrial agriculture is bringing about the mass extinction of life on Earth, according to a leading academic.

Professor Raj Patel said mass deforestation to clear the ground for single crops like palm oil and soy, the creation of vast dead zones in the sea by fertiliser and other chemicals, and the pillaging of fishing grounds to make feed for livestock show giant corporations can not be trusted to produce food for the world.

The author of bestselling book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy will be one of the keynote speakers at the Extinction and Livestock Conference in London in October.

Organised by campaign groups Compassion in World Farming and WWF, it is being held amid rising concern that the rapid rate of species loss could ultimately result in the sixth mass extinction of life. This is just one reason why geologists are considering declaring a new epoch of the Earth, called the Anthropocene, as the fossils of soon-to-be extinct animals will form a line in the rocks of the future.

The last mass extinction, which finished off the dinosaurs and more than three-quarters of all life about 65 million years ago, was caused by an asteroid strike that sent clouds of smoke all around the world, blocking out the sun for about 18 months.

Prof Patel, of the University of Texas at Austin, said: “The footprint of global agriculture is vast. Industrial agriculture is absolutely responsible for driving deforestation, absolutely responsible for pushing industrial monoculture, and that means it is responsible for species loss.

“We’re losing species we have never heard of, those we’ve yet to put a name to and industrial agriculture is very much at the spear-tip of that.”

Speaking to The Independent, he pointed to a “dead zone” – an area of water where there is too little oxygen for most marine life – in the Gulf of Mexico that has grown to the same size as Wales because of vast amounts of fertiliser that has washed from farms in mainland US, into the Mississippi River and then into the ocean.

“That dead zone isn’t an accident. It’s a requirement of industrial agriculture to get rid of the sh*t and the run-off elsewhere because you cannot make industrial agriculture workable unless you kick the costs somewhere else,” he said.


Meat Industry Blamed for Largest-Ever ‘Dead Zone’ in Gulf of Mexico

Author: Oliver Milman | Published: August 1, 2017

A new report shows toxins from suppliers to companies like Tyson Foods are pouring into waterways, causing marine life to leave or die

The global meat industry, already implicated in driving global warming and deforestation, has now been blamed for fueling what is expected to be the worst “dead zone” on record in the Gulf of Mexico.

Toxins from manure and fertiliser pouring into waterways are exacerbating huge, harmful algal blooms that create oxygen-deprived stretches of the gulf, the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay, according to a new report by Mighty, an environmental group chaired by former congressman Henry Waxman.

It is expected that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) will this week announce the largest ever recorded dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It is expected to be larger than the nearly 8,200 square-mile area that was forecast for July – an expanse of water roughly the size of New Jersey.

Nutrients flowing into streams, rivers and the ocean from agriculture and wastewater stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which then decomposes. This results in hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, in the water, causing marine life either to flee or to die.

Some creatures, such as shrimp, suffer stunted growth. Algal blooms themselves can cause problems, as in Florida last summer when several beaches were closed after they became coated in foul-smelling green slime.

America’s vast appetite for meat is driving much of this harmful pollution, according to Mighty, which blamed a small number of businesses for practices that are “contaminating our water and destroying our landscape” in the heart of the country.

“This problem is worsening and worsening and regulation isn’t reducing the scope of this pollution,” said Lucia von Reusner, campaign director at Mighty. “These companies’ practices need to be far more sustainable. And a reduction in meat consumption is absolutely necessary to reduce the environmental burden.”


Perspectives: Agroecological Approaches to Enhance Resilience Among Small Farmers

Author: Clara Inés Nicholls and Miguel Altieri | Published: June 26, 2017

Many studies reveal that small farmers who follow agroecological practices cope with, and even prepare for, climate change. Through managing on-farm biodiversity and soil cover and by enhancing soil organic matter, agroecological farmers minimise crop failure under extreme climatic events.

Global agricultural production is already being affected by changes in rainfall and temperature thus compromising food security. Official statistics predict that small scale farmers in developing countries will be especially vulnerable to climate change because of their geographic exposure, low incomes, reliance on agriculture and limited capacity to seek alternative livelihoods.

Although it is true that extreme climatic events can severely impact small farmers, available data is just a gross approximation at understanding the heterogeneity of small scale agriculture, ignoring the myriad of strategies that thousands of small farmers have used, and still use, to deal with climatic variability.

Observations of agricultural performance after extreme climatic events reveal that resilience to climate disasters is closely linked to the level of on-farm biodiversity. Diversified farms with soils rich in organic matter reduce vulnerability and make farms more resilient in the long-term. Based on this evidence, various experts have suggested that reviving traditional management systems, combined with the use of agroecological principles, represents a robust path to enhancing the resilience of modern agricultural production.

Diverse farming systems

A study conducted in Central American hillsides after Hurricane Mitch showed that farmers using diversification practices (such as cover crops, intercropping and agroforestry) suffered less damage than their conventional monoculture neighbours. A survey of more than 1800 neighbouring ‘sustainable’ and ‘conventional’ farms in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, found that the ‘sustainable’ plots had between 20 to 40% more topsoil, greater soil moisture and less erosion, and also experienced lower economic losses than their conventional neighbours. Similarly in Chiapas, coffee systems exhibiting high levels of diversity of vegetation suffered less damage from farmers to produce various annual crops simultaneously and minimise risk. Data from 94 experiments on intercropping of sorghum and pigeon pea showed that for a particular ‘disaster’ level quoted, sole pigeon pea crop would fail one year in five, sole sorghum crop would fail one year in eight, but intercropping would fail only one year in 36. Thus intercropping exhibits greater yield stability and less productivity decline during drought than monocultures.

At the El Hatico farm, in Cauca, Colombia, a five story intensive silvo-pastoral system composed of a layer of grasses, Leucaena shrubs, medium-sized trees and a canopy of large trees has, over the past 18 years, increased its stocking rates to 4.3 dairy cows per hectare and its milk production by 130%, as well as completely eliminating the use of chemical fertilizers. 2009 was the driest year in El Hatico’s 40-year record, and the farmers saw a reduction of 25% in pasture biomass, yet the production of fodder remained constant throughout the year, neutralising the negative effects of drought on the whole system. Although the farm had to adjust its stocking rates, the farm’s milk production for 2009 was the highest on record, with a surprising 10% increase compared to the previous four years. Meanwhile, farmers in other parts of the country reported severe animal weight loss and high mortality rates due to starvation and thirst.


Silvopasture: A Sustainable Way to Raise Large Livestock

Author: Tobias Roberts | Published: August 2, 2017 

Every year millions of acres of forest are cut down to make room for ever-growing herds of livestock. Our industrial diet is centered on the consumption of meat. The combination of these two issues brings us face to face with a serious problem. We are destroying our forests and some of the most pristine ecosystems on earth just so that we can enjoy a nightly steak. What if we could raise animals within a forest system?


Few things characterize the absolute unsustainability of our current system and way of life like the way we raise, slaughter, and consume animals in our current food system. People in the United States eat an average of 120 kg of meat per person per year. That comes out to about ¾ pound of meat each day. For comparison´s sake, a person in Mozambique eats under 8 kg of meat per year and a person in India eats just 4.4 kg of meat per year.

For most families, breakfast probably includes sausage or bacon, lunch might include a hamburger or plate of fish, while a full chicken rests on the dinner table. Much has been written recently about the negative health aspects of eating too much red meat. What very few people take into account, however, are the negative ecological and social aspects of what this massive meat consumption means.

To raise billions of pounds of meat each year requires millions of acres of pasture and other millions of acres destined to the growing of grains that are then fed to those animals. While pastures can be an extremely healthy and ecologically sustainable landscape, cutting down millions of acres of pristine rainforest to establish more pasture land for cows is not an ecologically smart proposal.

Most ecologists consider the Amazon Rainforest to be an essential “lung” for the whole earth. The amount of Amazon rainforest cut down in recent years for cattle pastures, however, has surpassed the size of Iceland, or over 10 million hectares. It is estimated that 80% of all land cleared in the Amazon is for cattle pastures. This loss of rainforest also contributes massive amounts of greenhouse gasses through the slash and burn methods of getting rid of the forest. Instead of having a massive sea of green that sucks up carbon dioxide and spits out oxygen, we´re left with huge, deforested grazing lands filled with animals that produce large amounts of methane, one of the most dangerous gasses contributing to global warming.

In fact, the worldwide cattle industry is reported to contribute upwards of 51% of all greenhouse gasses. While world leaders and climate summits have focused on reducing fossil fuel based emissions (a worthy goal, no doubt), almost no one talks about reducing the amount of meat consumed by industrial nations.


Should we all simply become vegetarians then? While there are many health and social benefits to vegetarianism, there are other options when it comes to how we raise the meat that we eat. Silvopasture is an ancient practice that combines forestry with pasture. It seeks to grow trees in areas where animals are pastured as a way to get double the amount of production out of one area of land while also contributing to the ecological health of that area.

Throughout history, many cultures around the world have found that animals can be raised just as efficiently in a wooded area as in open pastures. In certain areas of Italy, for example, massive chestnut trees grew wild throughout the forest. People found that pigs could be fattened to slaughter weight by simply letting them roam the woods and feast on the endless amounts of chestnuts laying on the forest floor.