Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Year of Soil, Drought, and Fire: Restoring Native Ecologies

Several weeks ago you started your American tour in California. Did you see "artificial nature" there, too? 

It was really a shock for me to see the degenerate condition of California. Ever since the Spanish introduced their grazing cows and sheep, along with such annual pasture grasses as foxtail and wild oats, the native grasses have been all but eliminated. In addition, the ground water there has been overdrawn for agriculture, and huge dams and irrigation projects have interrupted the natural circulation of surface water. Forests have been logged heavily and carelessly, causing soil erosion and damage to streams and fish populations. As a result of all this, the land is becoming more and more arid. It's a dreadful situation . . . because of human intervention, the desert is creeping across the state, but no one will admit it.

Masnobu Fukuoka-1979

 I've spent much of 2015 reading, going to conferences, meeting people, and finishing two permaculture design courses.  Redesigning a garden and small nursery this year have also kept me busy.  Amidst all of this and the sometimes unexpected paths life can take one on I have thought much about the things that make it possible to grow the best tasting and healthiest food.  In the kitchen it is intuitive for me most of the time.  I know what to do to get the flavors I am looking for.  The first flavor though is that of the raw ingredient.  I've now tasted enough great food in my time as a cook to know when food grown in the best soils hits my taste buds. If I use the analogy of the kitchen for the farm, we are dealing with a very complicated recipe. In this Year of Soil as declared by the United Nations, we look to one of the most important parts of that list of ingredients, what the French call "fond de cuisine, the foundation or base.  In the truest sense of the phrase, soil really is the basis for all of the characteristics of the foods we eat, whether it's flavor, aesthetics, or nutrients.  Good soil, not dirt, is what maintains healthy plants and ecosystems. Unfortunately, we have come to farm in a way that extracts the very resource that we depend on for our survival and healthy, delicious food.

Under the Microscope

Soil science is still relatively young and we are now only beginning to understand a fraction of the numerous organisms that make up our soils.  In a teaspoon of healthy soil, bacteria alone easily number in the hundreds of millions(see the work of Elaine Ingham).  Many of them have yet to even be identified.  Still, when we look at healthy forest and grassland soils we can see deep root systems that are its building blocks.  The constant cycle of life dying out and being born is what makes good soil and healthy plants. Degraded soil takes a long time to return to a state where it can hold 10 times its weight in water without human intervention.  Our interaction with our land and soil is not nurturing, it is degrading.  The landscapes have been so drastically altered we have not only affected the hydrological cycle, we have affected the soil's ability to stay hydrated during times of drought.  It is two major catastrophes happening at the same time.  These are the reasons why we are facing unprecedented drought and fire in our lifetimes.  

Looking Back to Native Knowledge

When the Spanish arrived in the 1800's to California what they saw and recorded was a veritable paradise.  The Central Valley was full of wetlands.  Millions of Tule elk and antelope roamed there.  Beavers and otters were plentiful in the rivers up and down the coast.  Wildflowers carpeted the meadows.  The scenes described are almost hard to believe.  The Europeans saw their definition of wilderness:  a wild untamed land that was ripe for cultivation.  This was the beginning of the destruction and degradation of one of the most beautiful places on our planet.  What they did not see were the reasons behind all the beauty.  At the time anywhere from 500,000 or more native Americans were managing these landscapes.  When we think of taking care of our soil and gardens we usually think of compost, fertilizers, and tilling.  Our traditional concepts of agriculture were unknown to the natives.  While they did practice seed gathering, pruning, coppicing, and planting it was within the scope of forest and meadow ecosystems.  There was intimate knowledge of what plants grew where, how to harvest, how much, and when, that was passed down from generation to generation.  Native Americans have no word for wilderness.  They were constantly interacting with their environment,  observing it and manipulating it to create the optimal environments for abundance.  Prescribed burning was one of the most important management techniques of Native Americans.  They burned grasses and woody plants to get straight material the following spring for basketry, weapons, and utensils.  It also accomplished the germination of food for animals with seeds that were fire sensitive as well as holding back the growth of forest into open spaces for hunting.  It had the added benefit of building soil by partially killing off roots.  These fires are low intensity and trigger the plants to send up new shoots that are conditioned to a fire ecology.  Our policy over the past two hundred years has been one of leaving the forest as "wilderness".  Whereas the natives burned regularly and managed the excess fuel in the forests, we now have an immense fuel load as the result of our hands off policy that is creating scorched earth wherever fires occur.

On the edge of the 2013 Rim Fire outside of Yosemite, a burned pine weaves it's way through oaks

Interaction as Protection and The Bout of the Century over Park Land

Our parks and wild lands require us to interact and care for them.  This idea of tending is the opposite of the exploit vs. hands off relationship of our past.  Indigenous peoples were able to strike this difficult balance between nature and culture.  Conservation biologist Edward Grumbine once said, 
"Biological diversity will not be sustained if new ways of managing nature do not also transfom how we experience our place in nature, how we manage ourselves."
Several weeks ago I attended a hearing on the Oakland Zoo expansion into one of our local parks.  The plan for the expansion involves cutting down 50 oak trees, some of which are more than 50 years old.  The park is essentially an oak savanna ecosystem that is habitat for many animals as well as plants.  It deeply disturbed me to see how easy it has been for this project to begin.  If a zoo's mission is about preservation of species then surely the irony of destroying habitat is not lost on the city planners.  What I see here is as much a problem of vision as anything else.  Whatever monetary motivations there are for developing the land, it is partly driven by their supposed goal of education.  The sad part is the educational opportunity for restoring the park is far greater than anything one can build by degrading it.  This is the type of thinking we seek to change as we ease our way into a new generation of ecologically minded young people.  Bringing children into the park to interact, learn, and get their hands dirty is the ideal education.  They have a chance to understand the history of the place they live that has as much value and biological diversity as anywhere else on the planet.
If we are to restore our native ecologies and actively participate in their care we will need more education for the public.  Policies are more likely to change through public opinion and not with government action--see Governor Brown's signing of the euthanasia bill.  I believe education starts with interaction.  Getting citizens and students out to interact with nature, to recognize they are part of the ecosystem and not separate from it, is a most critical step for us to take in repairing the damage that has occurred.  In the end technology will not solve the problems we've created. Only human observation and thoughtful action will.

    For more in-depth information on fire ecology in California check out Erik Ohlsen's blog at Permaculture Skills Center

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Felix Gillet Institute

Buerre Gris (aka Bouere de Roy)
Beurre Gris
 The perpetuation of some of the rarest unknown California fruit is the aim of this Institute developed by Amigo Cantisano, Jennifer Bliss, Adam Nuber and Abby Shinn.  Recently, I went to visit Amigo and see one of the sights where the fruit have survived without any special treatment for over 100 years.  Thanks to their efforts some old varieties of fruits that have become nearly extinct will have a second chance.  I visited Malakoff Diggins State Park which consists of an old town, once called North Bloomfield, with restored buildings and also the sight of the largest hydraulic mine in the world.  On the San Juan Ridge in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, the gold miners used large water canons called monitors to wash away the mountainsides.  This led to extreme environmental degradation that resulted in the first environmental law to be enacted in the United States.

I was given a tour of the park by Amigo, who pointed out all of the apple, pear, and walnut trees that have survived around the old homesteads and public buildings in the park.  Many of these fruits and nuts were originally brought from France and other parts of the world. They were bred and  cultivated by Felix Gillet at his Nevada City nursery. Born in France, Gillet became a naturalized citizen in 1866 and soon thereafter set up a 16 acre farm of his own.  He spent $3000 ($50,000 in today's money!) importing fruit and nut trees, which was not only risky due to the travel distance but also because he had no guarantee that the plants would survive in their new environment.    By 1871, he had set up one of the first fruit and nut nurseries on the West coast.  It is amazing that he was not only successful, he eventually supplied the stock of Franquette, Mayette, and other walnut varieties that became the cultivars for California walnut farms.  He also crossed French prune plum varieties with wild plums to make them more drought tolerant.  This allowed for more versatile growing conditions and was a big step in the expanse of the prune market which, although highly prized at the time especially for imports, has all but disappeared.    If that weren't enough, he supplied the plant material for the development of fruit industries in California and the Pacific Northwest, including Almonds, Walnuts, Filberts, Chestnuts, Cherries, Apples, Pears, Prunes, Wine Grapes, Table Grapes, Raspberries, and Strawberries.  Thousands of plants that are used today in agriculture and horticulture were bred by Gillet at his nursery.  The California agriculture industry would not be what is today if not for him.  On top of all of that, the wine grapes that now make up California's massive wine economy were brought here by Gillet.  At one time his catalog had over 200 varieties of wine and table grapes!

Selecting for Genetic Superiority

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Gillet was his talent for selecting for very hardy genetics.  He was planting in relatively poor soil, grafting onto wild rootstock and  was able to choose plants that were superior.  Many of these trees  still exist today on old homesteads in the Sierra Nevada, up to 5500 feet in elevation, and have thrived in very difficult conditions, even "re-wilding"in the abandoned orchards.   They have lived through snow, frosts, heavy rains, and drought yet still produce large crops of fruit on disease free trees.  With all of the problems we have with disease today, the need for genetic superiority is great.  In this respect, the value of a 130 year old cherry tree is beyond measure. Only the strongest of the species survive to reproduce.  The practice of breeding, observing, and selecting takes years with no guaranteed results.  Gillet clearly had a gift for picking the best of the genetics and breeding extremely hardy cultivars.  He then went on to apply this knowledge to strawberries, at one point cultivating 48 types, and also writing a booklet about 'fragriculture', the breeding of strawberries.  Prunes then became his focus and he introduced a large freestone prune plum called Claraic Mammoth. He crossed this old French variety with wild plums to make them more drought tolerant. His final contribution was the release of two new filbert varieties, one of which is the Barcelona and now makes up 98% of the nation's filbert industry. 

Apples growing on 100 year old tree

Finding, Recording, and Gathering

Amigo discovered the first trees in an old abandoned orchard in the early seventies.  Since then he has slowly put together data of locations and attempted to identify as many varieties as possible.  This is a  monumental task given how many trees were planted from Gillet's nursery not only in Nevada City, but surrounding towns and counties.  There are places being discovered all the time and Amigo has said that they are always getting calls about new locations that they do not have the time to check out.  The work of identifying, recording, and filing the data for different species and varieties is a long process as many of them exist only in the old catalogs or perhaps old agricultural publications.  The Institute has just raised over $33,000 through Barnraiser to plant a fruit and nut Mother Orchard on a one acre site at Heaven and Earth Farm in the Sierra Foothills.  The site will expand to more than three acres and include many other individual trees, grapes, and roses that are in need of preservation and propagation.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The New Climate: Drought and the Future of Farming or How We Can Restore Our Planet By Planting Trees



Here in California drought is raising the questions about the future of farming in the Central Valley.  A great amount of fear was whipped up by the end of January with no significant amounts of rain falling since the start of the fall/winter season and the drought intensifying further.  I was considering not planting a garden this year due to the extreme drought.  Then I started reading Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard.  It is a most pragmatic call to action in a world that needs practical solutions. 

Your Food Security

The federal government has said the water allotment for the farms in the Central Valley this year will be nonexistent.  In the face of a continually erratic climate the need for food and water security is becoming an issue that clearly cannot be solved by the status quo.  The pressure to build secure systems that can withstand more frequent weather extremes like drought and flood is clear.  These systems are already in existence: they are models of perennial agriculture and agroforestry as defined by the USDA.  The techniques they use to harness and replenish groundwater while building soil are mimics of natural ecosystems.  They are amazingly efficient in how they can produce nutritious food as they become established as well as sequester carbon and create forage and fodder for raising animals.  In fact Mr. Shepard states at the beginning of his book that all civilizations that have depended on annual crops for their sustenance have failed.  That's right, all of them.  The difference is we've managed to destroy our topsoil in the much shorter time frame of 100 years.

Taking Back Carbon

Before deforestation of the eastern woodlands and the removal of native perennial grasslands of the Midwest for annual crop production our landscape was filled with these ecosystems.  Now we have put ourselves in the difficult position of having lost tons of precious topsoil and water to grow three commodity crops: corn, soy, and wheat.  Despite how dire things may look in the face of more extreme weather, it is possible to build soil and recharge the aquifers we need to feed ourselves.  These problems exist more from bad management and policy than they do from lack of resources.  By removing the savannas that existed in North America for thousands of years we removed key species for carbon sequestration.  In fact the removal of savannas and forests has caused widespread desertification and the loss of tons of topsoil per year so we can grow calories that are erroneously labeled as cheap.  What has become clear is that we cannot hope to cope with climate changes if we continue to tear up the very land that can store the carbon that is being put in the atmosphere.  

What the hell is Agroforestry?

The USDA defines agroforestry as "the intentional integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farming systems to create environmental, economic, and social benefits."  Although this technique has been around for centuries it is the exception to the rule.  With the rise of industrialization and fast food agriculture became focused on increasing yields of huge mono crops and the mechanization to easily plant, spray, and harvest.  Thus the idea of farms based on perennial crops and polycultures seems to be antiquated.  However it is possible to change the idea of what a farm can be and what our definition of a staple crop is.  We need to look past the corn, soy, and wheat paradigm to plants that will provide not only more nutrition over many years but are also part of restoring ecosystems where other plants can thrive.

When I look to the future of farming I see the people that are working with nature and not against it.  In the field of agroforestry, Mark Shepard's New Forest Farm stands out like a beacon over a corn and soy paved country.  Incorporating nut and fruit trees, asparagus, berries, livestock, and even annuals grown in the alleys between the trees, the farm is an amazing example of a restorative and resilient system.  He is proving that it is possible to produce incredible abundance on a broad scale.

Plant a Tree--(Yes It's Really That Simple)

Should I never plant any tomatoes or zucchini again?  No, of course I'm not saying this.  What you can do is plant more trees.  Wherever you can.  It doesn't even have to be in your own yard.  When we use trees and other perennial crops as a foundation we can create systems that support the growth of annuals.  You are not only harvesting a food crop year after year with minimal labor, you are giving benefits back to the planet that will last beyond your lifetime.  I believe if we have any chance and continuing our journey on this planet we must think as far ahead as possible.
This man is doing it.  Why not you too?


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Preserving Food Culture and Traditions in Italy

At the beginning of this year I talked about finding people who are working in positive ways to improve food culture.  This takes on many different forms from the agricultural aspect to the place something ends up on a plate.  This article features a likely yet unlikely character, Daniele De Michele, who is collecting and recording old recipes from all over Italy.   I say likely because it is no surprise to me he is Italian.  They are passionate about their food and I’ve seen first hand how seriously they take their food traditions.  I say unlikely because he is a 40 something year old DJ from Puglia!  The recipes will be printed in a book and others are posted on his website Artusi Remix as they are contributed.

Slow And Dirty

Despite the fact that Slow Food was started in Italy, they have still been subject to many of the ridiculous regulations around food production.  Especially on rural farms where many of the peasant traditions are being lost, there has been a scrubbing and sanitizing of the old ways and their “dirty” conditions.  The EU has swooped in with their plastic and stainless steel anti-bacterial rules, scrubbing away individuality until it can be rinsed down the tile floor drain.  The microclimate and regional conditions that make cheese and other fermented products unique have become unsanitary.  Many small producers have struggled to make the changes necessary without money to do expensive remodels and small farm based products have been pushed out of the local markets due to such overbearing policies.  De Michele is asking two important questions as stated in this piece:  How do we create development without industrialization and how do we preserve centuries-old customs in the face of globalization?

Food Traditions

In a recent article called The Rise of Egotarian Cuisine, Alan Richman talks about the transition away from traditional dining over the past few years to what could be considered an overly perfectionist and self-centered type of cuisine.  The over saturation of food media outlets has had far reaching effects.  In the U.S.it has given rise to a new type of dining brought about by younger people with far less experience than the generation of chefs before them.  One could argue that the definition of chef has drastically changed or at least the road to becoming one has been shortened to the point of taking away most of the meaning.  Apparently, Italy has not been immune to these trends and it has become a contributing factor in the disappearance of traditional foods.  

Memory-Based Identity

What gets lost in the rush to modernize is local food culture.  The preparations and the crops grown for them become marginalized.  As De Michele says about his project, “to take a snapshot of Italian working-class cooking today” is to record part of those cultures before it’s too late.  The foods that differentiate towns, villages, and the historically separate regions of Italy are a memory-based identity for the people of those places.  Memory is perhaps the most powerful part of eating.  It ties us to our own personal history and that of our communities.  Thankfully there are people like De Michele interested in keeping those communities alive.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Realities and Moralities of Raising Animals

poland china pig

I recently posted a link to an article about raising animals for meat.  The comments posted below the article are very much divided.  Many people state that it is morally reprehensible to kill animals for food yet we know that animals are an important component of diversified, healthy agricultural systems.  The questions of stress and suffering are valid when we are looking to give animals the most humane treatment possible, while there is a real disconnect for the public on both sides with what it means to kill to eat.  How we reflect our own feelings about suffering and death is part of our moral compass.  However, we are so far removed in our industrial and technological society that we may no longer see the benefit or necessity of this part of our nature.  This is one of the questions raised by the farmer in the article.  How do we justify killing as our moral compass shifts?

Nature, Morality, and Death

In the course of evolution strange things can happen, but it is unlikely that man will ever stop being an omnivore.  Nature deplores inefficiency and utilizes the death and rebirth of countless organisms to support life.  This cycle is likely to continue until the human race destroys itself or the sun burns out, despite our moral opposition.  The best we can do is mitigate how we use our resources and stop exploiting what we have come to take for granted.  Perhaps the greatest issue left out of this argument is how our change out of agrarian culture has led us to wasteful and disrespectful use of the animals (and arguably all foods) that feed us.  We have lost touch with the understanding that what nourishes us is sacred and is created out of the continuing cycle of birth, life, and death.  Suffering and death are part of the natural existence of all living things.  It is going on around us constantly, out of our control.  Our morality leads us to decide how much we allow in our own lives. We make our own choices based on our morals that we have no right to force on others.  That said, it does not mean that we put aside our personal ethics.

Debate vs Mudslinging

This Intelligence Squared debate I happened to hear gave me some clarity on the argument.  I don't take either side to be wrong.  There are facts, conjecture, flawed studies, and real experience for both.  What I took away was that each person has to do what works for them.  In our rush to save the world and make it a better place we cannot fit everything neatly into the box of our choosing.  We make the best decisions based on the knowledge we have about our bodies and ourselves, knowing that there are favorable and unfavorable consequences to the choices we make.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

First Look: The Morality of Raising Animals for Meat

I wanted to share a link to this article from Modern farmer I found fascinating that questions the practice of raising animals for meat.  Rarely have we heard farmers talk so honestly about raising and slaughtering and what it means to them personally.  Most people have never gutted a fish, let alone know what it is like to raise animals for food.  So it is interesting to see questions raised by someone who's life is very much about close contact with these animals.  What we do know is that agricultural systems are greatly enhanced by them, especially when those systems attempt to mimic nature.  Our relationship with them though has evolved.   There have been and most likely will always be questions of ethics in meat production as there are in many other areas of our culture.  Many feel it is time to stop eating animals all together.
This raises the question of how we fit into the natural environment we are trying so desperately to preserve.  What is our part in nature as the most evolved species?  If everything on this planet is temporary, even the planet itself, what is the best way to steward what we have for however many generations are left?


There are many arguments for and against raising animals for meat.  You can see some of them in the comment section after the article.  What are the personal ethics that we bring to make decisions about our food?  How do our choices affect this complicated world we live in?   I will speak more about this and other burning moral questions in the second look at this topic.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What Do You Want?

What do you want?  Starting the New Year with such a wide open question can be terrifying and overwhelming.  I've seen this question bring about the most unexpected answers of wishes, regrets, and even tears.  Oddly enough the responses are never things like more money or a bigger house. The human desire to accomplish or leave a mark and the fear that motivates us to do it is far more powerful than material things.  I ask myself this to look at the things I want to change and contemplate why I might be here.

There is a lot of bad news out there.   Things often seem to be falling apart rather than coming together.  However, this does not discourage my resolve.  That is why this question is so important to me.  It reminds me of my ability to rise above the stream of negativity that has become part of the collective consciousness. That negativity can leave me feeling powerless and overwhelmed. My frustration leads me to dig deep and think about the things are truly important to me.  While I don't have control over much of what happens, I do have control over what I do with my response.  I want to put my energy into things that can facilitate real change and create a better balance in how we produce what eat.

In 2013 we saw a strengthening of the commitment of large food conglomerates to control food labeling and the seed supply.   How do we set ourselves up for success against such a powerful opponent?  At this point in our history we are faced with a severe crisis of confidence in government.  The money that continuously flows into the pockets of policy makers can feel like a lead weight to those of us who seek to preserve one of our basic human rights. While I am hesitant to describe the people who think they have a monopoly on nature as evil, the motives of profit and ownership in how we attempt to feed the human race seem clearer than ever.

So this year, what I want is hope as a pragmatic effect and not as an idealistic future.  I see people doing and growing good things around me.  As I put together the pieces of my own puzzle I am discovering how I can take what I am growing, inside and out, to help repair a broken system.  Good change is out there, even if we don't often hear about it.