The High & Mighty - Present Eastern Conference All Stars (CD)
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Article by Ian Lithgow. Australian Car. Reviews Australian Car. Reviews is an independent publisher of car reviews, recalls, faults, image galleries, brochures, specifications and videos. All rights reserved. Reviews has over 1, extensive reviews of 62, Australian cars In your part of the world, the fine print read, you may have to do a little goosing to get advertised yields—more water, more thorough tilling, more pest protection, more artificial fertilizer.
But once the farmer next door had taken the bait and started to grow high-yielding varieties, you had to as well, so as not to be left behind. Together, like a slow pour over a large falls, we switched to a system of farming that mimicked industry, not nature. Chasing economies of scale, experts advised farmers to get big or get out.
To hold the debt at bay, and to qualify for government subsidies, you have to farm volume. We quickly went from growing food to sustain ourselves to growing so much food it became a surplus—an export item and a political tool.
The farm became just another factory producing another product that would keep the United States in the global catbird seat. They propped up flagging soil fertility with artificial nitrogen fertilizer produced with natural gas. Weed competition was quelled with herbicides, another petroleum product, while oil-based chemicals were used as a prophylactic against pest outbreaks which by now were extreme, thanks to acres of identical plants with identical vulnerabilities.
Suddenly, for the first time in ten thousand years of agriculture, farmers were beholden to the protection ring of petroleum and chemical companies, and were said to be growing their crops not so much in soil as in oil. Once on that treadmill, the feedback loops began.
Weeds and pests are wily by nature, and even if you spray them one year, not all of them will die. Those that manage to hack an immunity explode the next year, requiring even heavier doses of biocides. Sincepesticide use has risen 3, percent, but overall crop loss to pests has not gone down. In fact, despite our pounding the United States with 2.
In the meantime, more than five hundred pests have developed resistance to our most powerful chemicals. On top of that bad news, the last thing we want to hear is that our soils are also becoming less productive. Our answer has been to rocket-boost fertility with 20 million tons of anhydrous ammonium fertilizer a year—as many as pounds per person in this country alone. Recently, the protection racket has jumped to a whole new level of menace.
Because the plant has been specially bred to grow unscathed by that brand of herbicide and none other, the company is assured future sales. Evidently, this latest move has been in the offing for quite some time. This is the kind of news that should worry all of us. At last count, leaching pesticide residues made agriculture the number-one polluting industry in this country.
At stake is groundwater, which supplies half the U. Farm families already know about contamination. Recent studies have shown that people living in rural parts of Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois are likely to have pesticide residues in their wells, and to have higher than normal risks of developing leukemia, lymphoma, and other cancers. Nitrate levels from fertilizer in the drinking water of many farm communities also exceed federal standards, which may be why miscarriage rates in farm families are unusually high.
Nitrates are not the only thing draining from farmland. Money is, too. Today, even though we produce more food, our genetically pauperized, oil- hungry crops cost more to grow.
Moreover, because of the crops and robbers feedback effect, we will continue to need more and more inputs. Already, Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel reckons that society spends ten kilocalories of hydrocarbons to produce one kilocalorie of food. That means each of us eats the equivalent of thirteen barrels of oil a year. Author Richard Manning cuts through The High & Mighty - Present Eastern Conference All Stars (CD) statistics to ask the important question: When you have a system that is one part farmer and nine parts oil, who do you think will have the ultimate power?
Not small farmers, and certainly not the landscape. According to data collected by Iowa State University inmost farm families now rely on off-farm revenues for one half of their income. These megafarms are hardly what Thomas Jefferson envisioned when he saw a nation of yeoman farmers tending their acres, beholden to no one. Fertilizer, for instance, masks the real problem of soil erosion caused by a till agriculture of annuals.
Pesticides mask a second real problem: the inherent brittleness of genetically identical monocultures. Money borrowed to pay for the fossil-fuel inputs masks a third real problem: the fact that industrial agriculture not only destroys the soil and water, it strangles rural communities.
With our help, they are liquidating the ecological capital that took the prairie five thousand years to accumulate. Every day, our soil, our crops, and our people grow a little more vulnerable. What I want to know is, how long can our denial hold?
At core these researchers are farmers, and they think there is nothing more sacred than the pact between humans and the land that gives them their food. It comes from an insistence on decoupling ourselves from nature, from replacing natural systems with totally alien systems, and from waging war on, rather than allying ourselves with, natural processes.
Once wild creatures, our agricultural charges were shaped by an ecological context that bears little resemblance to our farming. Their natural ecosystems ran on sunlight, sponsored their own fertility, fought their own pest battles, and held down, even built, soil.
But long ago, plants were removed from the original relationships they had with their ecosystems and pressed into our The High & Mighty - Present Eastern Conference All Stars (CD). He was amazed that no one planted or tended it, yet the grass came up year after year, drought or no drought, through snow and blistering sun.
There were rattle- snakes coiled right in the middle of it, and burrowing owls standing sentry outside their holes. Another good rain fell while Jackson was working toward his Ph. When Jackson was thirty-seven, on the fast track to tenure after writing a successful text called Man and the Environment, he got uneasy. To the astonishment of his colleagues, he and his wife, Dana, packed up their three kids and returned home to Kansas.
They moved into a partially earth-sheltered house that they had built along the Smoky Hill River, and inthey began a school that focused on sustainable living practices. In Kansas, the wilderness was tallgrass prairie, the natural expression of the underlying layers of soil, the carnival of weather, the licking of fire, and the grazing of elk and bison.
Prairie is what Kansas land wants to be, but for the most part, is no more. With no warning, the bristle of wheat fields yields to a softer ensemble of wild-haired plants, stems akimbo, saturated with color and raucous with flowers and tasseled stalks. As I watch, wind enters like a dancer onto a crowded floor, parting the crowd, causing a bobbing and dodging of plants in its wake.
The whole thing sways crazily for a moment, then settles in a perfect hush, like a band ending a jam by feel. A sign by the road says that this is The Wauhob, a prairie miraculously spared a sodbusting, probably because it was up gradient, and hard to get plows to. An understanding intern spots me and interrupts his organic gardening chores to give me directions to the office. The Land Institute headquarters is a modern brick house that was once home to an older couple.
Ecologist Jon Piper greets me in the foyer and asks about my drive, all the while migrating toward the door, as eager as I am to get out into the prairie. Piper is in his late thirties, bespectacled and bearded, with a quiet forbearance for visitors like me.
He knows that what I experience here, my dip in the prairie sea, will be as important as what we say to one another.
Though never planted by human hands, the prairie is choked with blossoms, grasses gently pouring over, seeds setting, new shoots growing, runners crisscrossing the earth in a web of decay, growth, and new life.
There is no hint of hail damage or drought wilt, no such thing as weeds. Every plant— species in this patch alone—has a role and cooperates with linked arms with the plants nearby. Piper talks about the plants as if they are neighbors in a community—the nitrogen fixers, the deep-rooted ones that dig for water, the shallow-rooted ones that make the most of a gentle rain, the ones that grow quickly in the spring to shade out weeds, the ones that resist pests or harbor heroes such as beneficial insects.
He also points out the butterflies and bees, the pollinators with wagging tongues, spreading rumors from one plant to another. Beneath this unruly mob lies 70 percent of the living weight of the prairie —a thick weave of roots, rootlets, and runners that captures water and pumps nutrients up from the depths. A single big bluestem will have twenty-five miles of this fibrous plumbing, eight miles of which will die and be reborn each year.
These root remains, together with the leaves shed from above, will fall into the welcoming jaws of a miniature zoo—ants, springtails, centipedes, sowbugs, worms, bacteria, and molds. There are thousands of species in a single teaspoon, all tunneling, eating, and excreting, conditioning the soil crumb by crumb. Through their magic, dissolved nutrients are released to thirsty roots or stored in humus—the tilth that transforms the prairie into a living sponge. The character of this belowground world is an expression of the bedrock, organic matter, rainfall, temperature, light conditions, and most important, the plant and animal community above.
Pluck or plant something new and you change the microecology slightly. Plow, spray, and harvest every year, and you change it plenty. Some of the organisms you lose might be those that sponsor fertility, or help stave off insect and disease attacks, or produce hormones that tell a flower to unfurl or a root to push its snout deeper into the soil.
It takes years to tune such an orchestra of microhelpers, but just moments to silence it. The secret of the prairie is its ability to maintain both above-ground and belowground assemblies in a dynamic steady state. A prairie keeps pest populations in check, rebounds gracefully from disturbance, and resists becoming what it is not—a forest or a weed garden.
To illustrate, he heads downslope from The Wauhob to stand in the zone between the prairie and wheat field I saw earlier. There exists a sweet spot between chaos and order, gas and crystal, wild and tame. Is there a rule of thumb about which categories of plants consistently show up on a prairie roster, and what ratios they are in? Does it matter where they grow in relation to one another?
In search of answers, Piper read everything he could about prairie ecology, and then spent seven glorious summers up to his eyebrows in wild pastures. He and his interns actually took scissors and clipped and bagged all the vegetation in certain plots. They identified each and every plant, separated them out into piles, and then dried and weighed them to find out what grew there.
Through wet years and dry years, in rich soil and poor, Piper found that prairies do have a pattern that repeats itself, an order in the seeming chaos. They cover the ground throughout the year, holding the soil against wind and breaking the force of raindrops. Hard rain hits this canopy of plants and it either runs gently down the stems or it turns into a mist.
By contrast, when rain hits row crops, it strikes exposed soil, packs it, then runs off, taking precious topsoil with it. Thirty percent of their roots die and decay each year, adding organic matter to the soil. The remaining two thirds of the roots overwinter, allowing perennials to pop open their umbrella of vegetation first thing in the spring, long before weeds can struggle up from seed. Not just one nitrogen-fixing legume, but twenty or thirty.
That means that there will always be some species or some variety of a species that can do well in our highly variable Great Plains climate. Other years, after plenty of rain, you and I could stand three feet apart and not be able to see each other through the big bluestem.
The species composition remains the same, but different species excel in different years. Disease spores may blow onto the wrong plant, or insect young may crawl into the wrong bud. With a diverse offering, attacks die down before they become epidemics. Cool-season grasses come up early, set seed, and then bow out of the way, allowing warm- season grasses such as big bluestem to rule the rest of the season.
Composites, such as goldenrod, asters, and compass plants, can flower anytime throughout the season. We knew we needed perennial grains grown in a polyculture, with the four suits of the prairie represented. The only question was how many different species in each group will we have to plant? Our intuition told us that we would probably have to plant many more species than we need and let the assemblage shake down over a few years to the handful that would provide human food.
That was encouraging to us. Today, most of the food eaten around the world comes from only about twenty species, and none of them are perennials! Some began as perennials, but over the ten- thousand-year odyssey of plant breeding, we systematically removed their hardy perennial traits, marching right by the sweet spot between wild and tame, and domesticating them until they were annual by nature. A story is told about the moment Wes Jackson realized the full extent of this unhappy extreme in agriculture.
Shortly after starting his school, Jackson took his students on a field trip to the eight-thousand-acre Konsa Prairie near Manhattan, Kansas. It was a revelation in black-and-white. They were disturbed to find that no one, save some folks looking at animal forage, had studied seed- yielding perennial grasses or legumes or composites. The reason? The first question The Land Institute assigned itself was the one everyone else had skipped: Can a perennial produce as much seed as an annual crop?
After two more years of library safaris The High & Mighty - Present Eastern Conference All Stars (CD) actual planting experience, The Land Institute staff was convinced that perennials could be bred to yield plentiful seeds without losing their perennial traits. Illinois bundleflower and wild senna, for example, were two wild perennials that, with absolutely no breeding, already approached the benchmark yield the floor range for wheat in Kansas: eight hundred pounds per acre.
Considering that the wild relatives of some of our crops have undergone four- five- even twentyfold seed-yield increases at the hands of talented breeders, the chances of upping yields for these new crops were good.
The trick this time around would be to increase seed yield without stripping the plant of its wild hardiness. In short, the trade-offs were not as strict as everyone imagined, and it seemed that the chimera The Land Institute wanted to create was well within the realm of the possible. Inthe staff embarked on the painstaking process of breeding crops for the domestic prairie. The precedent for this work completely disappears when you consider that Jackson and crew were shooting for crops that were dependable, but not dependent on us.
There were two ways they could wind up with a perennial grain—one, they could start with a wild perennial and boost its seed yield and crop character, or two, they could start with an annual that already had good crop character and cross it with a perennial wild relative to refresh its memory about how to survive the winter.
Now all they needed were candidates. Those that survived well in Kansas weather and had a whiff of a hope for high seed yield became candidates in their breeding program.
They planted the seeds and waited anxiously, as farmers do, to see how the plants matured. The four most promising candidates for perennial domestication turned out to be eastern gamagrass Tripsacum dactyloidesa sprawling warm- season grass that is a relative of corn; Illinois bundleflower Desmanthus ittinoensisa legume that grows tall and produces a baby rattle of seed pods; mammoth wildrye Leymus racemosusa stout cool-season relative of wheat that the Mongols used to feast on when drought claimed their annuals; and Maximilian sunflower Helianthus maximilianiia composite that yields oil- rich seeds, which could be pressed to create vegetable oil diesel fuel for tractors.
The second approach—starting with an annual and hybridizing it with a perennial—led to the mix of milo grain sorghum, which is already used as a crop, and perennial Johnsongrass.
Now that The Land has its lineup, the breeding has begun in earnest. The very best individuals from each species are grown together in one plot so that they can cross-pollinate. The seeds from each trial are planted out in various kinds of soil to make sure the differences are truly genetic, or inheritable, and not just environmentaland the best individuals are selected to cross-pollinate once again.
This process is repeated until the improvements due to crossing show signs of diminishing returns. He walks me among the monoculture and polyculture plots where the best of the best are showing their stuff. Some collections of eastern gamagrass are bravely resisting various leaf diseases, and certain collections of bundleflower and gamagrass are yielding well despite some drought.
The most vigorous crosses between Johnsongrass and grain sorghum are showing both high seed yield and good rhizome production. In terms of seed yield, there are already some superstars. Even though its food value has yet to be explored, says Piper, Illinois bundleflower is yielding seed quantities that approximate the typical yield of nonirrigated soybeans in Kansas.
For eastern gamagrass, which can be ground into a cornmeal and baked into a palatable bread, the potential to improve seed yields is great, thanks to a variety that was discovered along a Kansas roadside.
The collector noticed that instead of the normal flower stalk, which is composed of about one inch of female flowers topped by four inches of male flowers, this sport had all female parts which turn into seeds except at the very tip. If all yielded, the sport could produce up to four times the normal amount of seeds. As Piper shows me one of the stalks, I notice that the female organs are green. Most of our crops are exotics, brought over in our traveling bundles from Mexico and Europe.
The only native plants that we have ever domesticated in this country are sunflowers, cranberries, blueberries, pecans, Concord grapes, and Jerusalem artichokes. The Land Institute is trying to lengthen this short list, knowing that natives are tuned through evolution to sing in harmony with the melody of local conditions. While coaxing agronomic manners from these plants will be a Pygmalion task, growing them in monocultures at least gives breeders a chance to compare apples with apples.
The real Holy Grail is to grow them in polyculture—mixed species plots—since, as nature has shown us, only poly cultures are able to pay their own bills. When you are working in a polyculture, you take all the difficulties that you encounter in monoculture breeding and multiply them. The Land Institute staff was essentially faced with designing an agricultural dinner party, deciding who should be seated next to whom to maximize the beneficial interactions and minimize the detrimental ones.
Nature arranges these kinds of matchups all the time through the slow culling of natural selection. Could The Land somehow mimic and speed up this process? Just as Piper and The High & Mighty - Present Eastern Conference All Stars (CD) colleagues started questioning this reductionist approach, they began to read about recent developments in the field of community assembly.
James Drake and Stuart Pimm of the University of Tennessee study what it takes to arrive at an assembly of species that remain in equilibrium, a condition farmers would obvously want for their domestic prairie. Unlike The Land staff, they do their experiments with ecosystems in a computer artificial life and with aquatic organisms in glass tanks real life.
They begin by adding species in various combinations and then letting them work out who will survive and in what ratio. Eventually, without intervention, the community shakes down into something that is both complex and persistent— order for free. A prairie restorationist must give the prairie a successional history, that is, actually grow the prairie over a trajectory of years. Some plants will blow in and others will drop out, but as those facilitating species change the soil and the fauna and flora around them, they make it possible for the final assembly to be there.
What we want to do is build complex, persistent systems that shake down within a very few years. In some plots they sowed only four species, in others eight, twelve, and sixteen. There are four replicates of each treatment. After two years, any species in the replacement plots that have dropped out or failed to germinate will be replaced.
All the while they will be tracking changes in the communities and looking for rules and patterns about how stable communities assemble. Within a few growing seasons, they want their target perennial grains to be well represented, and to yield abundantly year after year without weeding or seeding.
If a few other noncrop species are present in the mix, so The High & Mighty - Present Eastern Conference All Stars (CD) it.
Then you sit back and watch the trajectory unfold. The trajectory might take five years, say, but you would be rewarded with a complex, persistent system. The resultant recipe might include a recommendation to burn in year two, mow in year three, or graze livestock in year four. Your best hedge against disaster is going to be variety, just as the prairie teaches—lots of paints in your palette so that no matter what the conditions, some species will still flourish.
It has to compete reasonably well with what farmers are now growing. The final three questions that occupy Piper and company have to do with the polyculture performance from that pragmatic point of view. Can the polyculture yields stay even with or actually overyield those of monocultures? Nor are they competing for the same plane of sunshine. As a result, the members of a diverse community are actually capturing more resources and yielding more than they would under constant same-species competition.
The literature is replete with examples of overyielding when complementary annuals such as maize, beans, and squash are planted together. When compared with their performances in monoculture, plants in mixtures have consistently overyielded. It makes sense if you think about it. An insect that finds itself in a field of nothing but its target plant is like a burglar with the key to every house in the neighborhood.
In a polyculture, where all the locks are different, finding food is more of a chore. A mixed neighborhood is equally frustrating for diseases that specialize in one plant. A fungus may fester on an individual, but when it releases its spores, the leaves of invulnerable plants act as a flypaper, bringing the fungal rampage to a halt.
Invasions are contained. Just as with overyielding, most of the experimental evidence for resistance comes from studies on annual plants in polycultures.
InCornell biologists Steve Risch, Dave Andow, and Miguel Altieri reviewed such studies and found that 53 percent of the insect pest species were less abundant in annual polycultures than in annual monocultures.
Similarly, Australian ecologist Jeremy Burdon summarized studies of two- component mixtures and found that there were always fewer diseased plants in the polyculture. So far, the same seems to hold true for the perennial polycultures planted at The Land. But only in the monocultures. The bundleflower that was grown with gamagrass was fine.
Polycultures also seem to reduce or delay the onset of maize dwarf mosaic virus, which can be a problem on eastern gamagrass. With the thought of pesticides gone, Piper and his colleagues began fantasizing about eliminating another petroleum-based crutch: nitrogen fertilizer.
Can the polyculture sponsor its own nitrogen fertility? The question of how much nitrogen fertilizer a domestic prairie would need has not been definitively answered as of this writing. So far, though, signs are pointing to little or none. Tiny balls on the roots of a legume such as Illinois bundleflower are home to bacteria that have the ability to turn atmospheric nitrogen into plant food. As a result, legumes find a niche in nitrogen-poor soils, thriving where other plants falter.
Plants growing near the self-sufficient legumes may also benefit from stored nitrates that return to the soil when the legume sheds a leaf, turns over a portion of its roots, or lays down its last.
In initial investigations of polycultures that include Illinois bundleflower, Piper found that, as predicted, bundleflower can grow beautifully and yield well even in poor soil, leaving the soil character actually improved. Which is why, of course, no prairie would be without them. If the eroding Breadbasket is to be transformed by the work at The Land Institute, it will have sweeping repercussions. In the droughty plains, you want water hoarders.
As the following stories will show, the investigation is already under way. As he strolled along a rural road, he spotted a rice plant in a ditch, a volunteer growing not from a clean slate of soil but from a tangle of fallen rice stalks. He took it to be the whisper of a secret revealed to him. In early October, Fukuoka hand-sows clover seeds into his standing rice crop.
Shortly after that, he sows seeds of rye and barley into the rice. When the rice is ready for harvest, he cuts it, threshes it, and then throws the straw back over the field. By this time, clover is already well established, helping to smother weeds and fix nitrogen in the soil. Through the tangle of clover and straw, rye and barley burst up and begin their climb toward the sun.
On and on the cycle goes, self-fertilizing and self-cultivating. In this way rice and winter grains can be grown in the same field for many years without diminishing soil fertility. The neighboring farmers are curious. Whereas they spend their days cultivating, weeding, and fertilizing, Fukuoka lets the straw and clover do the work.
Instead of flooding his fields throughout the season, Fukuoka uses only a brief dousing of water to head off weed germination.
After that he drains the fields and then worries about nothing, except an occasional mowing of the paths between fields. On a quarter acre, he will reap twenty-two bushels of rice and twenty-two bushels of winter grains. Natural farming has spread throughout Japan and is being used on about 1 million acres in China.
The allure of this system is that the same piece of ground can be used without being used up, and yields can be consistently good. Instead of working harder, he whittled away unnecessary agricultural practices one by one, asking what he could stop doing rather than what he could do. It throws scientific and traditional farming know-how right out the window.
With this kind of farming, which uses no machines, no prepared fertilizer, and no chemicals, it is possible to attain a harvest equal to or greater than that of the average Japanese farm.
The proof is ripening right before your eyes. In permaculture, you ask not what you can wring from the land, but what the land has to offer.
You roll with the weaknesses and the strengths of your acreage, and in this spirit of cooperation, says Mollison, the land yields generously without depletion and without inordinate amounts of body work from you. The most laborious part of permaculture is designing the system to be self-supporting.
The idea is to lay out crops so that those you visit most frequently are close by your dwelling Mollison calls it edible landscaping and those that require less vigilance are set out in concentric circles farther from the house.
Everywhere, there are plants in two-or three-canopy schemes, that is, shrubs shaded by small trees, which are shaded by larger trees. Animals graze beneath all three canopies. Dips and furrows in the land are used to cache rainwater and to irrigate automatically. Wherever possible, permaculturists invite external forces such as wind or flooding to actually help do the work.
They build windmills, for instance, or plant crops on floodplains, where they can enjoy a yearly pulse of alluvial sediment. To maximize these beneficial unions, the permaculturist creates a lot of edge—transition zones between two habitats that are notoriously full of life and interaction.
Mollison is also fond of using interactions between animals in place of high-energy inputs or machinery. They add to the heat with their own bodies, helping the plants survive the frosty dawns. In the morning, when the greenhouse becomes too hot, the chickens move into the forest for grazing. As they search for nuts and acorns shed by the planted trees, they comb the ground like rakes, aerating and manuring the soil while snatching up tree pests.
Humans eat the eggs and eventually the flesh of these chickens, but in the meantime, they enjoy their services as cultivators, pest controllers, greenhouse heaters, and self-fed fertilizers. Mollison learned this ballet of efficiency firsthand when he worked in the forests of Australia in the late sixties.
As a researcher, he was trained to describe the biological world and leave it at that. Today in Australia many farms are now working according to the permaculture principles he has popularized, and an international permaculture institute, with branches throughout the world, is training people to disseminate the technique.
They formed the New Alchemy Institute in to design living spaces and food producing systems that would use nature as a model. The forest-in-succession was the conceptual guide for their totally self-sustained farm.
It then rises through the shrub layer to the canopy formed by the trees that produce fruit, nuts, timber, and fodder crops. Wherever possible, the work of machines and, by extension, humans is replaced by the work of biological organisms or systems. The Javanese farm is nature in miniature, and it shows the restorative processes of planned succession. In early phases, annual crops and fish ponds might dominate the landscape, but as the landscape grows and matures, a third dimension develops as tree crops and livestock come into their own.
The tropical forests here are paradises—cornucopias of irrepressible vegetation and edible foods ripening under a natural heat lamp and mister. It makes sense if you realize that the same force that creates the jungle—deluges of rain—can also leach nutrients from unprotected jungle soil after clearing, when there are no plants around to soak up water. Crop harvests also remove even more nutrients from the site. After a few years of this nutrient extortion, the soil quickly tires.
Natural clearings in the jungle meet an entirely different fate. They are quickly revegetated by a parade of species that take over one after another, sinking roots, spreading canopies, shedding leaves, and restoring fertility to the site.
Ewel, a botany professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville, hypothesized that if you could simulate a natural regrowth of jungle using domestic crops as stand-ins for the wild species, you could achieve the same fertility-building phenomenon and actually improve the system rather than deplete it.
The trick is to start with crops that mimic the first successional stage grasses and legumesand then add crops that mimic the next stage perennial shrubsall the way up to the larger trees—nut crops, for instance.
To test their hypothesis, Jack Ewel and colleague Corey Berish cleared two plots in Costa Rica, letting them naturally reseed to jungle. In one of the plots, every time a jungle plant sprouted, they would dig it up and replace it with a human food crop that had the same physical form.
Annual for annual, herbaceous perennial for herbaceous perennial, tree for tree, vine for vine—it was as if nature were guiding the hands of the agronomists. The parade of volunteers to the natural system Heliconia species, cucurbitaceous vines, Ipomoea species, legume vines, shrubs, grasses, and small trees were replaced by plantain, squash varieties, yam, and by the second or third year fast-growing nut, fruit, and timber trees such as Brazil nuts, peach, palm, and rosewood.
This domestic jungle of crops looked and behaved like the real jungle in the plot next door. Both plots had similar fine root surface area and identical soil fertility. The researchers also put in two control plots: a bare soil plot and a plot planted in a rotating monoculture—maize and beans followed by cassava, followed by a timber crop.
They included cassava, banana, coconut, cacao, rubber, and lumber crops such as Cordia species and Swietenia species. The trick to keeping the soil fertile, says Hart, is to choose perennial crops with lots of leaves and roots, so they can protect the soil from hard rains, store nutrients in biomass, and put organic matter back into the soil when they shed. Hart also found it important to use plants that form symbiotic associations, as well as deep-rooted plants that pumped nutrients from different depths of the soil.
In this way, the ground was kept continually covered, yields were provided throughout the year, and each set of new crops prepared the soil physically and even chemically for the next stage. Once the succession progressed to tree crops, farmers could selectively harvest timber and burn the perennials every few years to start the cycle again.
Besides supporting local farmers, this sustained usefulness may also help to slow the relentless clearing of primary jungle. Sir Alfred Howard, whom many credit with the invention of organic agriculture, talked about farming to fit the land in his book, An Agricultural Testament, as did J. Smith wanted to see eastern hillsides replanted with tree crops, which seemed to suit the hills better than the erosion-causing row crops planted after the great green wall of New World forest was torn down.
Smith looked to the eastern deciduous forest as a model of diversity and stability. He described the great number of niches provided by the various tree-canopy levels as well as shrubby and herbaceous understories. Fallen leaves and debris are slowly and steadily recycled into new plant life, preventing leaching and downslope loss of critical nutrients.
The organic litter also encourages the growth of mycorrhiza—fungi that form associations with roots and further extend their water-searching power.
Every now and then, wind or disease or lightning takes out a tree, creating a gap where succession and renewal can begin again.
Early agriculture on these soils, practiced by Native Americans, was also successional in nature. The tribes practiced small-patch agriculture, raising beans, squash, corn, and tobacco on twenty-to two-hundred-acre plots. After eight to ten years, the native farmers would move on and allow the land to lie fallow. In the twenty-year hiatus before the farmers returned, succession would resume and fertility would be restored.
This shifting method required tribes to be nomadic, but it mimicked the natural forest dynamism by creating small patches that were allowed to revert to forest. In his book, Smith bemoaned the loss of soils and productivity that occurred when white settlers began to farm more permanently on these sites, deforesting hillsides and planting row crops. Instead, he proposed planting structural analogues—nut-and fruit- bearing trees as the only fitting crops for forest-growing land.
One scheme that bore out his dream was a farm of honey locust trees which bore seed crops with an understory of Chinese bush clover a perennial legume suitable for grazing and haying. This system yielded crops and supported animals, all with minimal labor, low management costs, and good weed control.
He reported returns of 4, pounds of hay per acre per year, 2, pounds of honey locust nuts per acre per year on average, with a peak of 8, pounds of nuts per acre in eight-year-old trees. The features that made the hardwood forest sustainable in the wild were repeated here: a tree crop in the overstory, a stable understory to protect the soil and retain nutrients, a biological nitrogen source, and a grazing or browsing animal component.
The fact that his work has been republished by Island Press recently, with a foreword by Wendell Berry, is a hopeful sign that the idea of nature-based farming is sprouting once again. Across the Sonoran, the Chihuahua, and the Mojave, rainfall is erratic and strongly seasonal, and soils may vary every few feet.
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