Twisting Vines and Farmer Lines
Andrew Curr ie has pursued a career as a farmer with the understanding that food is one of the most fundamental commonalities between all people. He is excited by the challenge of producing food using methods that harmonize with the natural world. He is pursuing a Master of Forestry at FES and a Master of Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School.
In the eastern foothills of the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massa e. I love this anniversary as it means the end of Winter and the beginning of a new growing season. I also dread this time because I am usually out of shape and tillage is very demanding on my body. I often think that the wear on my muscles is mirrored by the damage the plow inflicts on the soil.
With tillage come a series of lines etched by plow and harrow across the landscape. These lines provide the fundamental framework upon which the modern agricultural system of control is founded. A checkerboard dictates where nature ends and agriculture starts, where life emerges and what form it takes. The open fields populated by discrete points of life grow together to create continuous lines now ubiquitous within agronomy. Independent plants can be identified easily using x and y coordinates enabling further specialization of production with GPS precision. Food production today is predicated on the ability to select the species that grow and those that don’t.
There are many methodological and technical advances that have enabled the accuracy of this selection. These controls range from the nanometer to the square kilometer. At the smallest end of the scale, proteins are designed, removed, added and reengineered creating plants whose characteristics allow them to flourish in a uniform agro-scape. Soil tilth is managed so that aggregate size is standard; fertility is evenly applied in soluble form to ensure spatial consistency of concentration; seeding rates are determined, guaranteeing a regular plant spacing such that individuals within a field do not compete against one another for sun or nutrients; crop beds are formed to be laser level, creating a completely flat plane, necessary for the proper functioning of industrial implements; from space, satellites guide tractors that follow the same path year after year.
Within this reductionist, extractive food production paradigm, there is an input-output function where many of the confounding variables are controlled. This function has been optimized to achieve the highest yield with the lowest input. By human centric measures, this is an efficient system. But by holistic ecological measures, it is hugely inefficient. A scheme that prioritizes easy-to-manage lines discards and wastes energy that would otherwise thrive in a natural system.
Agroforestry is a field that melds food production with ecology, by employing biodiversity to capitalize on the niche adaptation of specialized crops. Farmers, thinking as ecologists, begin to measure their bottom line in energy output rather than dollars. Under the control of a natural ecology, energy is captured and slowly funneled up the trophic chain. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are cycled within the system through life, death and decomposition.
A beautiful example of the potential of agroforestry occurs in the spring. Around the same time that I am preparing to plow the first fields ramps, a wild allium tasting of mild onion, are emerging on the forest floor. Ramps are a class of plant called a spring ephemeral because they do most of their vegetative growth during the month or so, in the spring, when the ground has thawed but the upper canopy has not yet leafed out. These forest herbs fill an important niche within nutrient cycles by capturing available nitrogen within their cells at a time when most other plant material is still dormant. They create a sort of temporal tessellation that functions to prevent early season runoff of valuable nutrients during this wet and muddy time of year.
I am not advocating that we depend on forest grown crops as a reliable source of nutrition. In fact, I would strongly dissuade anyone from trying to wildcraft their food without full knowledge of the plants they are harvesting. Ramps, for instance, take 7 years to grow to sexual maturity, meaning that they can, and have been, quickly overharvested to the point of population collapse. Rather, I am suggesting that there is much to learn from the complexity of naturally occurring patterns. Incorporating these designs into the engineered landscape is critical to addressing the wicked issues of our time.