28 March 2012
Andrea Koch is the Project Manager of the US Studies Centre's Soil Carbon Initiative
Photo by Tanetahi
If you have been to Port Douglas you will know the iconic coconut palm grove on the main beach. Pictures of these trees are on tourism websites and brochures all over the world, and when the Cairns Local Council decided recently to cut them down, it caused an outrage. People loved those trees! Trees have a voice in our society. They have people who stand up for them, who speak for them.
If you do a Google image search for "water logo," there will be at least one logo in the results that you will recognise. We all know about turning off the tap when brushing our teeth and we all take two minute showers. (Maybe a little longer now that the eastern half of Australia is constantly flooding!) Water has a voice in our society.
If you do a Google image search for "soil logo," it is likely that you wont recognise any of the logos that come up. None of them are big brands; none of them have any media weight behind them.
Soil is silent! Soil has no voice in our society. Have you ever heard of a soil hugger? Have you ever seen anyone chained to the soil? Why isn’t there a Lorax for the soil? We don’t think about soil, we don’t read about soil, we don’t talk about soil, we don’t really give a fig about it. Why should we? What does it matter that soil has no voice in our society?
Soil is essential for life. If we run out of soil, we die. It is as simple as that.
If we run out of oil we won't die. We’ll find ways to harness the sun for energy and warmth. If the climate changes, we won't necessarily die. We will adapt. People live in stinking hot climates now; they have adapted.
If all the polar bears die, we wont. Nope. It will be very sad and it will do some bad things to polar ecosystems, but we humans will probably survive.
Soil quite simply, underpins life. Without soil, there is no life.
Think about it! Every single one of us has had the benefits of soil already today. The breakfast we ate grew in soil. The coffee we drank grew in soil. The milk in our lattes came from cows, who ate grass, which grew in soil. The water we washed in filtered through soil at some point in its journey from the sky to our taps.
Soil is really like a big water tank. It holds water for plants to grow on, but water also moves through soil. It moves through the land, through catchments, getting filtered as it goes, into dams and rivers and only then into our taps.
If we run out of soil, quite frankly, we’re stuffed.
Technically, it could happen, and it probably will happen unless soil is given voice within our society.
That is the challenge I gave to Australia’s advertising industry at the Battle of Big Thinking event today in Sydney. The brief is to give voice to soil; the target audience is everyone; the objective is 100 per cent awareness. Soil needs a voice and it needs to speak to all people.
This is so important. I can’t wait to see what they come up with!
25 August 2011
Andrea Koch and Dr Uta Stockmann are travelling across mid-West USA with a group of Australian farmers and soil scientists, meeting some of the most innovative and accomplished No Till experts in the world.
No Till is the system of growing crops without ploughing the soil. No Till became possible back in the 1960s, when herbicide development meant that farmers could control weeds by spraying herbicide rather than by ploughing weeds back into the soil. Seed is "drilled" into the soil using specialist seeders. Crop residues are left standing after harvest and gradually break down, returning organic matter (high in carbon), back to the soil. This adds nutrients to the soil, and acts as a ground cover which prevents erosion. No Till has been scientifically proven to increase soil carbon , creating the sink effect for atmospheric carbon that politicians are seeking for greenhouse gas abatement.
Over the past twenty years No Till has become increasingly sophisticated with the introduction of precision agriculture; the use of' global positioning systems (GPSs) to accurately and finely apply fertilizers and chemicals according to spatial data maps of the paddocks. This optimises resource efficiency and crop productivity – lower inputs for higher outputs. Highly sophisticated machinery – tractors, seeders, boom sprayers and harvesters – with integrated computer technology are required.
Monsanto has grown rich on the uptake of No Till farming across the globe. "Round Up", the original Monsanto brand name for the herbicide generically known as "glyphosate", has held its place at the heart of No Till farming for decades. Monsanto developed genetically modified seeds including corn, soybean, cotton and canola with a resistance to glyphosate for use in No Till systems. Referred to as "Round Up Ready" these seeds can be planted and then sprayed with glyphosate without dying, killing the other weeds in the crop. Round up Ready canola and cotton are grown in Australia. The US widely crops Round up Ready corn and soybeans.
On tour with us are some of the most innovative and accomplished No Till experts in the world, including Richard Langley, President of CANFA (Conservation Agriculture and No till Farming Association). Richard hails from Greenthorpe NSW, and has been No Till farming for twelve years.
We are privileged to have Gary Hines on tour with us. A pioneer in No Till farming in Australia and among the first in the world to implement No Till, Gary first started No Till on his Victorian farm in 1963. There is very little that he does not know about the No Till system, and having his insight as we meet American No Tiller's across the mid-West has enriched our visit greatly.
We have met some amazing and innovative No Till farmers across Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Dwayne Beck stands out amongst them, not only for his skills in pushing the boundaries of No Till farming, but also in what he has done to transform the farming sector in South Dakota.
Beck calls himself an "ecosystem manager". He is a scientist who has worked with developing irrigated and dryland farming systems since receiving his PhD in 1983. He has been at the Dakota Lakes Research Center since it opened in 1990. Owned by farmers, the Center was established in an effort to improve farming systems in the Dakota Lakes area, although its influence is now global. Its work is overseen by a board of eleven farmers. South Dakota State University pays Beck's salary and furnishes a small amount of operating money in return for Dakota Lakes hosting small plot trials by University scientists. The majority of the funds used to do the field-scale applied systems research comes from profits on the farming enterprise.
Beck has taken the No Till system and turbo charged it. The results are clear – new houses, and more importantly, shiny new grain bins are sprinkled across the countryside in the cropping areas of South Dakota, testament to economic revitalisation of a rural economy that was on its knees 30 years ago. In the words of one of the local farmers who has journeyed with Beck over the decades, "Dwayne Beck has pumped more dollars into the state of South Dakota than any one other person, ever".
He has achieved this by combining agricultural science with the principles of ecosystem management. He is constantly looking for ways to "close loops", to minimise external inputs and emulate the natural systems in the landscape while growing crops. His goal is for farming to be totally independent of geological carbon use.
The first thing we see when we arrive is a small seed crusher used to crush seeds for oil. Beck can see ahead to when fuel costs will be a limiting factor for food production, and is experimenting with on farm oil production to fuel farm machinery.
During the course of our visit we travel around the farm on a small custom made mobile grand stand pulled by a tractor, as Beck gives us a running commentary on how No Till has been optimised by observing and emulating the natural ecosystem of the area.
The first consideration is water. Once under irrigation from the Missouri River, many local farms are now "dryland", relying solely on rainfall. Beck's principle is that irrigation should not be used until every drop of rain that falls has been utilised. The aim in water management is to match the native conditions in how the water is used by plants, when it is used, and how the nutrients cycle through the system. The cover of crop residues is a good starting point. Ploughing exposes soil, leading to evaporation and run off. "Cover crops", grown primarily for ecological purposes, add organic matter and therefore structure to the soil, which increases its water holding capacity. Beck knows the water storage capacity of the local soil intimately, he tells us exactly how much water can be stored to what depths over what timeframes, and the conditions for filling and storing water in the soil with a rain event.
The elegance of the system at the Center emerges as Beck describes to us the principles of crop rotation that have been developed over 30 years. Crop rotation refers to the cycle of different crops that are grown from season to season. Most US farms are in a corn/soybean rotation, a corn crop followed by a soy crop; or corn crop, another corn crop, and then soybean for example. This small rotation effectively becomes a monoculture system, leading to all sorts of problems due to the lack of diversity. Weeds become an issue and external sources of fertility are required to make up for the continual "mining" of nutrients from the soil. Increasing the diversity in the rotation increases resilience and adds different nutrients back into the soil.
The Center has experimented over the years with many different combinations of crops in different rotations. The order of the crops is important, each crop utilises something left behind from the previous crop, or adds something needed for the next crop. This can be a specific nutrient, such as nitrogen which is added to the soil when nitrogen fixing legumes are in the rotation. The frequency of repeating crops is tuned to break insect and weed problems: insects that like corn for example, are controlled by removing corn and growing something else such as sorghum. The use of glyphosate at the Center has been minimised with crop rotation.
The secret of the rotation is to have long breaks between species, two years out of the rotation for each year in, and to keep changing the rotation with observation of what is working and what is not. Emulating the ecosystem is not predictable in either sequence or interval. The Center is currently rotating corn, soybean, wheat, sorghum, field peas, canola (both napus and juncea types), linseed, safflower,, pinto beans, and millet. Canola, safflower, flax, and soybean are all used to provide oil from the cold-press. Warm-season (C4) perennial grasses are used in odd areas. Alfalfa (lucerne) has been used and will be in the system again. The problem is that systems with perennial plants require a longer time frame to evaluate. During its first 20 years the goal was to develop good short-term rotations. The long-term types will be worked on next.
Above all, everything they do is feeding the soil microbial community. Healthy soil means healthy crops, and healthy soil comes from having a vibrant and diverse collection of "bugs" in the soil – bacteria, fungi, nemotodes to name a few. The soil ecosystem underpins the landscape ecosystem. Beck knows that he is managing both. As stated earlier, Beck's goal is to eliminate the mining of geological carbon when growing crops. And yet carbon is what fuels the entire system: soil biota live on carbon. The carbon that Beck is transferring to as he weans the system off of fossil fuels comes from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. That is good news for farming, good news for the ecosystem and good news for the climate. It has certainly been good news for South Dakota.
Beck is no stranger to Australia. He has visited Australia on numerous occasions, and mentioned the names of a number of innovative No Till and Conservation farmers that he has worked with across Australia. Gary Hines first met him in 1994, Beck has since visited his farm in WA. Innovative Australian farmers have been experimenting with ecosystem management such as that developed by Beck, for decades. Good work in managing ecosystems is alive and well on Australian farms, and is a key focus at the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at Sydney University. That is excellent news for Australia!
24 August 2011
Andrea Koch and Dr Uta Stockmann continue their tour across mid-West USA with a group of Australian farmers and soil scientists. Along the way they meet with American farmers, researchers and agribusinesses.
Today we drove for about five hours through miles of what we Aussies would call "grazing country" and what the Americans call "ranch country": South Dakota, the great prairie, famous for the movie "Dances with Wolves." Not much ranching going on, however; we saw only a few hundred cattle on the entire trip, on what are known as "mama/calf" ranches, where calves are bred and reared on grass until they are old enough to wean. Then they are shipped off to the feedlot for fattening. There are no mature male cattle on these ranches.
It felt odd to drive past all that pasture without seeing livestock feeding on it. I pondered with one of the conservation farmers on the bus about how much beef could be produced on all that country under timed grazing systems. Increasingly popular with graziers in Australia, this system involves grazing cattle in tight mobs in small paddocks for short periods, and moving from paddock to paddock regularly. This emulates the mob grazing that the buffalo would have done on prairies such as the one in South Dakota, moving quickly from one patch to the next, and leaving the "mown" pastures to regenerate, their root systems intact and holding down the soil. This natural ecosystem worked well for the animals and the grasses, a well balanced and symbiotic system. Timed grazing pastures have been shown to sequester more soil carbon than conventional grazing systems. Ironically, timed grazing systems were developed in the US by people such as Alan Savoury and the Salatin family.
Timed grazing systems can require a lot of up front capital to set up small paddock systems (although moveable electric fences work well), and are far more labour intensive than conventional grazing systems. This is the country which pays its farmers not to farm, and has a pretty big unemployment problem, so theoretically neither of these barriers should pose a problem. Perhaps this is an opportunity for South Dakota to restore the prairie to a semblance of its original state, to raise grass fed beef in timed grazing systems, create jobs, and increase the fertility and health of the soil by increasing the soil carbon. It sounds a lot healthier all round than the CAFO system which dominates the beef supply chain in the US today.
Andrea Koch, Program Leader of the Soil Carbon Initiative for the US Studies Centre, and Dr Uta Stockmann, Soil Scientist with the Faculty of Agriculture Food and Natural Resources, are travelling with a group of Australian farmers and soil scientists across midwestern USA. They are meeting with American farmers, researchers and agribusinesses and learning about the nuances of the US agriculture system. This is the blog of their trip.
23 August 2011
Andrea Koch, Program Leader of the Soil Carbon Initiative for the US Studies Centre, and Dr Uta Stockmann, Soil Scientist with the Faculty of Agriculture Food and Natural Resources, are travelling with a group of Australian farmers and soil scientists across the midwestern USA. They are meeting with American farmers, researchers and agribusinesses and learning about the nuances of the US agriculture system. This is the blog of their trip.
It was the smell which first hit me last night when I stepped out of the pick-up into the evening air at Greeley, Colorado. I couldn't quite place it, but it was distinctly agricultural – a pig facility perhaps, or maybe a distillery. I was just off the plane from LA, and had been picked up by one of our hosts and delivered to the hotel at Greeley. We arrived in Colorado just on dark, and didn't see much of the landscape on the hour long drive.
This morning we set out on the bus with our host for the next two days, Scott Ravencamp, President of the Colorado No Till Association. Scott is an innovative farmer with a cheerful disposition, and as we drove along he told us about some of the issues that Colorado farmers are facing.
Water is top of the list. Colorado is running short of fresh water. Denver's water is supplied by the North Platte river, which flows out of the Rocky Mountains. Farmers here are facing the same issues as the irrigators on the Murray-Darling; competition for city water supplies and environmental flow requirements are making irrigation water increasingly scarce. About 40 percent of corn in the region is grown under irrigation. Conflict over allocations has already seen the permanent shutting down of irrigation wells on about 60 farms. As the water dries up, the salts which have accumulated from years of snow melt out of the Rocky Mountains rise to the surface, leaving desertified farms. Scott described the soil on the effected farms as almost white with salt, and unable to grow anything.
Not far out of town Scott pointed out a CRP field. CRP, the Federal Government's Conservation Reserve Program, is the fourth largest "crop" in the US, after corn, soybeans and wheat. First legislated in 1985, the CRP was designed to take farmland out of production in an effort to lower supply and increase grain prices. Farmers are paid a rental of $30-35 per acre each year over a ten year lease. The land must be turned over to native vegetation and not farmed for the period of the lease. Up to 25 per cent of each county can be converted to CRP, but there is no restriction on the amount per farm or the type or condition of the land. CRP has provided a handy retirement scheme for old farmers. Up to 32 million acres of American farmland now lies idle. Whether the Fed continues to fund CRP in this era of fiscal tightening remains to be seen. The time may soon be up on a quarter century of paying farmers not to farm a quarter of America's agricultural land.
It was about 15 minutes out of Greeley where the source of the smell I detected last night became evident. I have read about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO's) in Michael Pollen's books, and seen them in the movie Food Inc., but seeing them first hand was a shock to the senses. Thousands of beef cattle penned up in small pens together, where their job is to eat and fatten up ready for the packing plant. The feed is processed on site, we saw the big holding silos which hold the corn. The corn is steamed, rolled into flakes and mixed with other supplements to round out the nutrition, the mix optimised to minimise the growing time – time equals money. Maximising efficiency drives the whole system.
From the bus, the feedlots look like large brown patchworks plonked down in the landscape. There is no green, just pen after pen of brown dirt and manure, each holding a small group of cattle. Most of the pens had little or no shelter. Huge hills of manure and large ponds of effluent are located next to the array of holding pens. According to Scott the manure is composted and spread across farmland for fertilizer, but supply is currently outstripping demand and so the manure just piles up.
We rolled past about ten of these intensive animal facilities, some feedlots dedicated to producing beef, and also some intensive dairies. No one on the bus was unaffected. The farmers amongst the group were particularly concerned about the lack of shelter for the cattle; it is simply not good animal husbandry. Scott told us that more cattle are lost due to heat than cold. What upset me most were the rows of small white huts in little pens on the intensive dairies. These are for new born calves which are taken straight from their mothers without being allowed to suckle. Not a drop of milk is spared. I can only imagine the noise which comes from those animals as they are separated and penned.
Joel Salatin, poster boy for sustainable livestock agriculture in the US says that if something smells bad on the farm, then something is wrong with the system and it is the farmer's job to work out the problem and fix it. This system stinks, but I am not sure whose job it is to fix it. When our own government has just shut down the entire live beef trade to Indonesia off the back of one TV show, it astounded me that we could witness such systemic cruelty to animals while driving down the highway. As the bus rolled down the road, I resolved not to eat beef while visiting America.
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