I left Skipley Farm this week, and headed south to Portland to visit family. Skipley Farm was my first experience as a WWOOF-er as well as my first serious agrarian effort. It’s hard to collect my thoughts about the experience, because it is unlike anything I have ever done before.
I feel very overwhelmed about how much I learned, and I learned about how much I don’t know. Turns out, I don’t know shit about plants. My elementary school style knowledge of pollination and fruit production does not even begin to cover it, and it turns out some things that I thought of as basic tenets of biology are fundamentally flawed. For example, “cells carry two sets of chromosomes” was something that I held to be pretty true of MOST things, excepting haploid bees. Well, polyploidy is a thing, and becomes pretty important when breeding things like apples and potatoes. My limited understanding tells me that this is because triploid plants are typically sterile, and has effects on plants “coming true”, i.e. producing fruit of the same variety.
(To explain, an apple tree will not “come true” from the seeds it produces. You may have an apple tree with great apples. If you would like a tree that produces the same type of fruit, you will need to clone the tree, which involves taking a cutting and grafting it onto some root stock. Fertile seeds produced by an apple tree have unknown parentage, and will produce fruit with unknown characteristics. Which makes a lot of sense when you think about it. But it was very comforting when I got to Portland, and my cousin told me that he had recently discovered this fact as well. Hooray for other intelligent adults also didn’t realize that fact.)
My time at Skipley brought to light a whole host of issues facing modern agriculture that I wasn’t aware of. I will touch briefly on the few most important that are spinning around in my thoughts.
1. Recapturing waste resources.
Skipley Farm is a permaculture farm, meaning that it is layed out with the goal of maximizing useful connections on the farm, between the plants, between the animals, and between the people and community. A lot of what this means in practice is a concentrated effort to reclaim waste resources. For example, using burlap bags from a local coffee roaster to put around the blueberries, or finding hardwood scraps from a local furniture maker for wood burning furnaces. Or feeding excess produce to pigs, or adding spilled organic fertilizer to the compost pile, so nothing is wasted.
I think even just bearing in mind the concept of waste as a resource lends a certain elegance and pragmatism to any system, but especially agriculture. I am looking forward to learning about other systems and how they capitalize on their waste resources.
2. The value of perennial agriculture.
For thousands of years, agriculture has depended on annual crops, which are crops that are grown from seed every year, and harvested to seed every year. We plant corn seed, harvest, and ideally, use the seed from that year for next year’s crop.
This system demands huge amounts of resources be spent on tillage, which overtime degrades the soil and leads to altered water tables, erosion problems, and degraded soil quality. Add heavy uses of pesticides and other chemicals to this and it makes for a pretty heady problem. But as the Land Institute terms it, it is not a problem in agriculture, it is the problem with agriculture.
Many farmers and researchers who are concerned with sustainability are focusing on the need to develop perennial systems that help maintain ecosystems world wide.
3. Seed Access
Seed saving has always been a vital part of agriculture. But recently, as big companies like Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta are developing patented varieties, and targeting open pollinated varieties, reliable access to fertile, GMO-free varieties of food plants is becoming more and more difficult.
To get an idea of what the seed industry is heading towards, I recommend the following two articles:
The first discusses how Monsanto protects its patent on seeds, and the other discusses the damage done to farmers by cross pollination from patented crops. All of this goes to show the sticky situation that arises with a system of patented, protected varieties of seeds are grown and its far reaching impacts on the community.
These are the ideas that are floating around in my head while I spend some time in Portland, drinking with my family.