Batesville Herald Tribune, Batesville, Indiana

February 19, 2013

Permaculture could be farming’s future

Debbie Blank
The Herald-Tribune

— “We’re in a bit of a new world,” admitted author Peter Bane, Bloomington, to about 50 attending the seventh annual Food and Growers Association of Laughery Valley and Environs conference Feb. 9. They came to the Batesville Intermediate School cafeteria to learn about “Growing in Challenging Conditions.”

Climate and energy challenges will be “the story of the next era we’re entering into.”

Bane was invited because the longtime editor of Permaculture Activist is an expert on the practice, which is modeled from natural ecosystems and emphasizes patterns of landscape, function and species assemblies.

Farmers and gardeners now contend with “too much heat because of the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That’s probably why we had this roller-coaster winter – deep cold and then warm.”

Weather is more variable than in the past. “We can’t necessarily count on the same progression of seasons. Last year’s March got into the 80s very early and stayed hot, then we saw some frost after that. It’s pretty hard for plants to figure out what to do.”

Bane pointed out, “Heat brings with it drought ... 63 percent of the country was in extreme drought” in 2012.

As climate shifts, the “delicate coordination between pests and pest predators” is upset.

The speaker reported, “We have to re-stabilize the climate. That requires a lot of people to cooperate, but we can do our part” by reducing fossil fuel use. He urged listeners to advocate at city council, school board, neighbor and church meetings.

“The longer-term solution is to address where that carbon got into the atmosphere.” Carbon in the soil was reduced when it was plowed and forests were cut down. “There are ways to put the carbon back in the soil. Farmers are poised to become the heroes of the future.”

They must “not only grow crops, but grow and build soil .... to farm successfully.”

The Earth Haven Ecovillage co-founder suggested planting perennial trees and shrubs around fields or in rows between crops, called alley cropping. They can provide shade and wind breaks for crops, plus attract wildlife and pest predators to lessen destructive pests.

“We need to figure out how we can use plants and animals together.” He reported Joel Salatin, who owns 550-acre Polyface Farm in Virginia, went from 1 to 8 percent nutrients in his soil by rotating animals in fields. Cows are moved from one pasture to another. Then chickens in portable coops are moved in behind them, where they dig through manure to eat protein-rich fly larvae while further fertilizing the fields with their droppings.

Purdue University researchers are experimenting with growing corn between black walnut trees, which release nitrogen in the soil to fertilize crops. Other “nitrogen fixers” Bane recommends planting are two shrubs: amorpha, an indigo bush; or goumi, an Asian bush that bears small fruits; or any of four trees: mimosa; redbud; black locust; or paulownia, also known as Japanese princess, a quick grower that produces high-value cabinetry wood.

George Schewe, Dillsboro, was concerned that as trees planted for alley cropping grew, crops would be crowded out. Bane recommended pruning and allowing enough space for trees to spread. When asked what trees he would plant, the speaker said black walnuts are compatible with grains and legumes and “if you’re growing black locusts, there are your fence posts.”

Pampering plants, while time consuming, can produce better results. Because “heavy rain causes rot in tomato crops, plastic covers can help prevent that.” He also suggested using shade cloths and even greenhouses to keep the growing environment cooler in the summer.

Bane, who has been known to water his microfarm at midnight, said growers need to use that resource more wisely. “Shape the land to hold water. Start at the top of the watershed .... Manage runoff” by creating ponds for rain to flow into. Later, it can be pumped to parched fields.

Soil has to be made more porous so rain can infiltrate it. While the tendency of farmers has been to plow and aerate claylike soil, that packs down the earth. Instead, Bane suggested using plant roots and soil organisms, such as worms, to help the ground become more permeable. The deep roots of some plants, such as daikon radishes, even dead, can create underground channels for moisture if left undisturbed.

Larry Stosman of Growers Tools, Cincinnati, asked, “Can permaculture be used on an industrial scale?” Bane replied many of the guidelines are more practical for small farmers and gardeners.

Producers with many acres should “shy away from intense chemical usage and genetic modification.” He maintained chemicals are ineffective, expensive and dangerous. Farmers lost 7 percent of their crops in 1950, lower than today’s 13 percent, according to him. “You have to wonder ... (are chemicals) actually effective?”

“Over the long term, I think we’re going to see smaller farms re-emerge. In 20 years, we’ll need more people on the farm because we’ll have to do more things by hand.”

“Our moment is coming,” he promised attendees. “We need more young people” in agriculture. “This is what we’re going to do with the unemployed. We’re at the tipping point.”

DEALING WITH DROUGHT

• Keep a weather log and follow regional statistics to assess baselines and emerging trends.

• Store as much water as you can and have more than one source of supply.

• Feed soil and keep it covered.

• Cluster and layer plantings. Put small plants in the shade of big ones to protect from frost and sun.

• When water must be rationed, apply limited amounts regularly. Favor long-lived or high-value plantings that have a chance.

• Use the cooler seasons to grow more annuals.

• Adapt by choosing a variety of crops, including those that tolerate high heat.

• Consider installing drip irrigation and monitor water consumption closely.

DETAILS

• FGA’s mission is “to build a regional food system that is sustainable, healthful and just,” reports President Kathy Cooley. Info: www.foodandgrowers.org.