BY MIKE MADISON
ILLUSTRATIONS BY J. PANTER
The Sacramento Valley is an important source of food for the East Bay, and if you travel through the valley, most of what you will see is conventional, industrial farming. Huge fields are planted to a single crop, which is managed with high inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil fuel. An unspoken principle seems to be “Kill everything except the crop.” But scattered among the industrial farms are a few farms, most of them small, where the farmer follows more ecologically sound practices.
My own farm is one of those. My idea was to create a diversified landscape with a mixture of habitats and crops, emphasizing trees and perennials in a way that imitates the architecture, though not the species composition, of a natural ecosystem. This approach, sometimes called “permaculture,” recognizes an axiom of ecology: complexity creates stability. The farm would be a healthy, diverse ecosystem, but at the same time, it would have to be productive enough for me to earn my living from it. Note that this is not the same as organic. You could have a 200-acre field of tomatoes and it could be organic if the grower obeyed certain rules, but it would be far from the concepts of permaculture.
I started out with vacant land that previously had been farmed conventionally—flat, plowed ground, except for a strip of riparian forest along the stream that defines the northern boundary. The surrounding lands were in continuous conventional farming for miles in every direction. Over a period of years I planted a mixture of orchards, vines, herbaceous perennials, and annual crops, and now that I am a few decades into it, I offer a progress report and a few principles that I have derived from the experience.
BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME
The extent to which animals have moved onto my farm and made themselves at home is surprising. In the creek we have river otters, beavers, and mink. There are the usual possums, raccoons, and skunks, as well as gray fox, red fox, coyotes, and bobcats. There are four species of owls, eleven of hawks, and abundant other bird life, including two kinds of orioles. The rodent population is discouragingly large; besides the beavers there are hares, rabbits, gophers, squirrels, voles, and many tiny rodents whose names I do not know. Snakes (none venomous) and lizards are numerous. Amphibians are particularly sensitive indicators of environmental health; it took 14 years for frogs and toads to reappear on my farm. Now they are abundant in the rainy season, though they disappear in the dry months. Insect life is also highly diverse, and the carnivorous insects (beetles, neuroptera, odonates), as well as spiders, are abundant.
The lesson I take from this is an uplifting one: the prophets of ecological doom are more negative than is appropriate, and here in the valley nature is still extremely resilient. All we have to do is to refrain from the bad things we’ve done in the past, and the natural world will rebound.
With a biological farming system, you trade insect pests for vertebrate pests. Conventional monoculture crops are always at risk for catastrophic epidemics of insect pests, which is why the valley sky is filled with crop-duster airplanes through the summer, dumping pesticides on the crops. On my farm I have found that there are so many diverse predators of insects that insect pests are hardly a problem. Earwigs can be troublesome in the month of May, and by late summer cucumber beetles are a nuisance, but other than that, insect pests of the crops are not an issue.
On the other hand, I have severe problems with vertebrate pests—birds and rodents. Hares, rabbits, gophers, ground squirrels, and voles are always at work, chewing on the crops. Birds are especially keen at pecking holes in fruit just as it ripens, and at tearing up seedlings. The California quail—our state bird—is a pertinacious destroyer of newly planted crops.
I have few options for managing vertebrate pests. Erecting nesting boxes for barn owls is perhaps the most effective. I trap ground squirrels alive and release them at a refuge, and I trap and kill gophers. Despite that, for many crops, my losses to vertebrate pests are high. It has been a psychological struggle to finally concede that the gopher tax, at 35 percent, is a fact of life, like the income tax, and I have to pay it every year.
This has given me a new appreciation for conventional farming. The conventional farmer harvests wheat in June, plows the field and lists it into beds for next year’s tomato crop, and then it sits empty for nine months, baking in the sun, nothing for a gopher to eat and nowhere to hide, and so all the rodents go away. I can see the attraction of that. On the other hand, by failing to maintain a complex ecosystem, the conventional farmer makes his crops vulnerable to insect pests.
AGGREGATE YOUR OPEN GROUND
When I first laid out my farm, I created numerous small open fields, some only 40 feet wide, with the idea that I would nestle the annual crops among the permanent plantings. This was a bad mistake. There are many pests, both birds and rodents, that avoid open ground, preferring to feed close to cover, so that if a predator appears, they can scurry or fly to safety. With small fields, all the open ground is close to cover, and therefore congenial to these pests.
When I finally figured this out, I had to bring in a backhoe and dig out a lot of trees and push them into a pile and burn them in order to reconfigure my open space into one large area. This was an expensive and discouraging lesson.
PRODUCTIVITY IS LESS THAN CONVENTIONAL FARMING
It is sometimes stated that biological farming systems are less productive than conventional agriculture. By carefully measuring the output of my farm, I estimate the caloric content of the harvest at about 2.4 million calories per acre per year, sufficient to feed about three and a quarter people per acre farmed, assuming a diet of 2,000 calories per day. This is below the average for Sacramento Valley agriculture; for example, irrigated wheat in this district would feed about six people per acre farmed. Partly the lower productivity reflects my choice of crops; cucumbers and apricots—important crops for me—have few calories. And calories are not the whole story; by other measures of nutrition my farm may outproduce conventional commodity farms. It is also true that instead of harvesting the entire stream of solar energy to be sold off the farm, I prefer to let some of it accumulate in the form of carbon sequestered in growing trees and increased soil organic matter. I think of it as reinvesting part of my solar income in the health of the farm, rather than spending it all.
The basic premise of permaculture—that a diversified farming system with a preponderance of trees and other perennial crops will be productive and stable—appears to work in this case. The resurgence of a diversified fauna is particularly gratifying. Natural control of insect pests is effective, although the crop damage that insects might have done is accomplished instead by vertebrates. The plants are healthy without input of chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and with minimal use of fossil fuel.
Conventional agriculture is highly mechanized, so that much of the labor is done by machines. Although I have tractors and implements, most of the work on my farm is hand labor. This would appear to be a regression from two centuries of mechanization. However, the carbon footprint is very light, the work is enjoyable, and it has provided us an adequate livelihood for many years. Given the need for jobs in California, the more labor-intensive demands of permaculture could be seen as a positive trait.
Many of the people who write about permaculture have almost a religious passion in favor of it, matched by their contempt for conventional agriculture. I do not share those extreme attitudes. Conventional agriculture is the result of centuries of observation, experimentation, and ingenious invention; it is both predictable and productive. It has many ecological and economic faults, and keeps unsavory corporate company, but for the time being it is the source of most of our food.
If conventional farming is to continue to be the preeminent use of farmland in California, then what is the place of alternative systems such as permaculture? It seems that a very modest proportion of biological farming systems—just a few percent of the land area—could have a profound effect on maintaining the biological diversity of the valley. And unconventional farms also demonstrate that there are effective, valid ways to produce our food that can avoid many of the negative features of industrial farming. ♣