Cooperating with Nature

The traditional view of agriculture is confrontational.  Man is at odds against nature and its elements.  Man must fight to outsmart nature and to wrench a harvest from it.   Man is not a part of nature, but ‘something’ apart.  These are epistemological roots of traditional agriculture.

When pests such as weeds or insects are encountered in agriculture they are quickly sprayed, tilled, or otherwise destroyed.  If any consideration is given to the pest, it is in regards to what chemical or mechanical means of control is most effective.  In this manner, farmers create and manage systems in perpetual states of instability.  Future problems are not only likely, they are encouraged by shallow and irresponsible management practices.

Combating nature is a futile struggle and a waste of time and resources.  The panaceas of industrial agricultural (e.g. roundup & GE-Bt) have limited spans of functionality in the face of evolution.  The genetic resources of nature are tremendous, more tremendous even than big agriculture companies.  Species of many plants, fungi, and insects have several copies of each chromosome and distribute hundreds of thousands of offspring per generation.  Often, pests can produce several generations in a brief period of time.

Each time I pull a hemlock, I plant a crocus in the hole.

Each time I pull a hemlock, I plant a crocus in the hole.

Weeds should never be left intact to run rampant and imbalance a system.   I am not promoting that style of management (or lack thereof).  However, the presence of a weed is more than a call to arms; it is instead a call to attention.   Instead of fighting against nature we can work with it, observing and learning from its signals and signs.  The presence of a pest can often be interpreted in order to reach sustainable solutions.

Pest species are indicators of habitat disturbance; plowing and herbicide, soil compaction, nutrient or fertility imbalances.    Other signals convey ecological information; a lack of biodiversity, edge habitat, species imbalances, etc.  For example, simply growing annual crops as a monoculture encourages the presence of many weeds.  Annual agriculture entails a whole set of disturbance events that encourage weed growth; plowing/chisel/etc, unoccupied niches, species and fertility imbalances, etc.    A healthy system does not have the weed or pest problems of imbalanced agricultural system.  Yet, there are always undesirable species; weeds, that need replaced or suppressed.

How do we interpret the messages nature is sending us?  If pests are a sign of imbalance, then we attempt to rectify the system.

e.g   A weed implicates compaction (e.g chicory). Nnature gives us several options.

-The soil could be forked or tilled to reduce compaction.

-If mechanical soil aeration isn’t an option, worms could be introduced.

– Other more desirable species could be planted in the area that are adapted to compacted soil e.g. Guara.  Over time these plants roots would loosen the soil and add organic matter to it.

Nature’s is diverse and therefore too are the solutions available.

Sometimes pest issues require more complex or sacrificial solutions.  In some situations the best option is to destroy a particular species or area.  In monocultures this would not be feasible.  However, if you have done a thorough job regarding biodiversity implementation, extermination of one or two species should have marginal impacts.

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Introducing beneficial organisms, such as nematodes or milky spore disease, into systems works well to control pests because they will evolve alongside their hosts; and remain effectively indefinitely.   By recruiting beneficial species from different areas into the system, one can access genes and organisms that natural dispersal would never result in.    This is the way “genetics” should be used to advance agriculture, and indeed they have.   The advancement of biological control agents is dramatically improving the results of natural farming.  Natural recruitment can only do so much in a fragmented and devastated landscape.    Luckily, remnant populations of beneficial organisms have been preserved by individuals who realize their potential.  It is sad that natural recruitment can do so little in our modern world, and we must rely on the individuals rather than the surrounding landscape.

In the end, you will find that working with nature is much more productive and efficient than fighting a hopeless and self-defeating battle against it.  True solutions require more planning, time, and knowledge than traditional stop gap measures.  However, when working with nature, if your solutions are insightful and well executed, they will be long lasting. Future system imbalance corrections will be less intensive and less often necessary.  You’ll find the solutions not only rebalance the issues in your system but add productivity, revenue, and beauty to your system.  They also save nature from a bit more abuse, which is the last thing it needs.