Many years ago I was invited to tour an ecological experiment that the town of Harwich, Massachusetts was conducting. They were exploring innovative ways to deal with their sewage. At the time our consulting firm was quite involved in red-bag biological waste and other types of recycling. I was fascinated with the challenges we humans continually make for ourselves by not thinking things through, and the resulting regulations that get made before we know what does or doesn’t work.
The sewage experiment involved a giant glass water tank, probably fifty feet long and fifteen feet high, teeming with fish and dense, green aquatic plant life. One could walk along the side and see the fish lazily swimming through foliage so thick the other side couldn’t be seen. Sewage went in one end of the tank…and voilà, twelve days later out the other end came sparkling, pure, drinkable water! The system now known as Aquaponics, was from ecological designer John Todd, whose creations reflected his forward thinking vision. His work had begun in the late 60s when he founded the New Alchemy Institute, also on Cape Cod (more on that in a moment). Todd is perhaps best known as the inventor of solar aquatic systems that use the properties of natural systems to clean waste water.
Aquaponics, simply put, is the method of combining fish and vegetable farming that requires no soil. The farmer cultivates freshwater fish (aquaculture) and plants (hydroponics) in a re-circulating water system that exchanges nutrients between the two. Wastewater from the fish serves as organic fertilizer for the plants, while the plants clean the water of fish waste. Net result: a 90% reduction in freshwater use, compared with conventional fish farming, and a significant reduction in added nutrients such as fossil fertilizers. The system can be run without pesticides and, because the fish environment is spacious and clean, without antibiotics.
Given the deservedly negative publicity swirling around Monsanto and their cohorts today, maybe a few more folks are starting to give some traction to the idea that current methods of mass food production are a bad, bad thing. An unsustainable idea that is fact, poisoning us.
The delicate but necessary ecological balance in farming is what makes it sustainable and healthy for us. Soil, water, air, beneficial insects, crop rotation, livestock, etc., are essential elements that are connected and depend on each other to work properly.
When the “efficient” methodology of mass production is practiced, there is no balance and before long – as in NOW – the soil is depleted; vegetation lacks nutrition; insects hurt crops rather than helping; disease explodes unchecked which requires hormones and chemicals; and then heavier antibiotics are introduced which leads to stronger, more resistant bacteria. Sounds delicious doesn’t it? Do have another helping of whatever that is you are eating.
Perhaps when we started hearing all this ecological babble of the 60s and 70s, it was ignored it because it was delivered by the crispy critter tree huggers who were eschewed by the 9-5 suits. Remember that guy who was always on Johnny Carson advocating that we all eat twigs and berries. Perhaps the message was confused with the messenger. Whatever. Net result is today we are facing a food crisis and a hunger crisis, the likes of which have never been seen – ever. And we’ve managed to do all this in less than what? 60 years? Ah yes, we are nothing if not efficient, aren’t we? Talk about a “man made disaster.”
Should we blame this crisis and it’s unintended consequences on the vast Interstate system? Or was it the innovation and availability of refrigerated trucks? Could it have been that upward mobility and academic snobbery viewed working the land as something to be done only by those who couldn’t do anything else – so the kids shed their overalls and fled the farm for the bright lights big city. BigAgra moved in and the next thing you know… OMG, I’m a capitalist – this can’t be happening – First BigPharma, now Big Agra. Big business does have an evil twin. Someone save me, I’ve gone over to the dark side.
You’ve heard the saying “When Mother Nature ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy?”
In the documentary Fresh the opening line startled me. Then it resonated with me. The voice states, “When I was in college, a foreign student said to me, You Americans can stand anything but inconvenience.”
That statement hit me like a meteor. Game Changer. How completely right was that student. It’s all about convenience isn’t it? In our culture, we’ll go a long, long way towards having everything we want at our fingertips, 24/7, no matter the cost or the consequence.
Strawberries in December for 311.6 million? Sure. Why not? Quick – get out the map. Where in the world are strawberries growing in December? The cost will be astronomical. Doesn’t matter – The People demand it. Check the transportation systems. How fast can we transport ’em? Oh, you say, Strawberries are fragile, they’ll rot before they get to market. No matter, we’ll spray them with something – we’re scientists – we can figure out how to suspend that rotting process. Or pick ’em earlier and treat them with something that will stop the ripening until we can get them on America’s table. Wait! Better still, do something to the seeds so they’re resistant to cold and drought, and…and suspend that ripening process (how annoying is that?) until exactly when we want them to start ripening again – so they’re perfect when they arrive at market. Ah, enter the GMOs – genetically modified organisms.
Do we care that the gene from a cold water fish has been transplanted into those Strawberries? Don’t ya think we probably should…?
That New Alchemy Institute I mentioned earlier (you see everything does come full circle) eventually became a large cooperative farm called Coonamessett Farm in East Falmouth, Massachusetts. We were members. I have strong memories of picking our summer produce there, getting basil from the hydroponics greenhouse, the biggest tomatoes in another greenhouse. We got the most hilarious newsletter sent out by farm manager, Ron Smolowitz, (the crispest critter of the hippie movement) who alerted us to what was ripe for picking and which funky zydeco band was playing at their cafe.
I won’t tell you about the first time shovels were hoisted and my city boy husband accompanied me to dig potatoes…dig being the operative word in that story. But the 40 pounds (for about ten bucks) we brought home made the most awesome potato salad and scalloped potatoes ever tasted. There are a few advantages to having grown up in West Virginia and having the privlige of being sent to the garden to pick the lettuce for the dinner salad. Just had to make sure the snails were washed off, ’cause otherwise Mama would have a fit.
So meanwhile back at the ranch… I mean the farm – there is a growing movement to bring sensible local farming back to its roots, provide a cleaner environment, create employment, and bring delicious, nutritious produce, fish, honey, cheese, and eggs to your table. No chemicals, no pesticides, no hormones, no genetically altered anything. Is anyone out there sick of tomatoes that taste like styrofoam?
The Urban Farmer movement is taking neglected plots of urban blight and reclaiming the land for intercity farming. A fabulous woman in Las Vegas – The Tomato Lady – is growing all sorts of vegetables in triple digit temps. She says it has to do with rebuilding the soil and developing heat tolerant varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables. I’ll be sure to tell you all about it after I visit her in July.
An organization in Milwaukee called Growing Power headed up by basketball star Will Allen, is teaching the unemployed, the homeless, and even young students, that agriculture, aquaculture and hydroponics are good for the soil and good for the soul. Mark Shepard’s Sheer Total Utter Neglect concept declares that a mere 2% increase in the organic matter in the world’s agricultural land will draw down enough carbon to return atmospheric CO2 to pre-industrial levels.
Most of the time we ignore things when we don’t know what to do about them but I’m offering you dozens of answers, proven techniques, and an opportunity to do something! My glass is always half full so I see the positives and the possibilities. But it does take a community – a village if you will (yeah, Hillary got that one right.) It starts locally, one person at a time. Here in the desert southwest of California we’ve got some soil challenges but nothing we can’t manage. So I’ve embarked on a project to convert our flowerbeds into a “biointensive” backyard garden that will enhance the existing plantings (not to mention the air quality) by adding vegetables year round. First chore, rake up those pink rocks (that retain heat DUH!) and lay out a small 3X3 area where I can develop really good compost (coffee grounds, egg shells, green waste) to mix into this sand they call dirt. There’s one thing I already know about gardening, it’s not a cram course. It’ll take patience and time and continual study.
So, while the plot thickens…who wants to join me? I’m getting started so stay tuned.