Natural Systems Agriculture Field Day
I attended the Ecological and Organic Farming Systems Field Day at Carman last Monday. As in previous years, the plots and the work we were shown was most impressive. In introducing the day, Dr. Martin Entz informed us that their work indicates they can produce field crops using 37% of the fossil energy needed in conventional farming. The 150 guests there spent the rest of the day seeing how the research team goes about achieving this remarkable efficiency.
This reported efficiency is astonishing for two very different reasons.
It is astonishing that, given this efficiency, only very few people produce food in this way. Why don’t they? Because current economics does not reward this efficiency. The current fossil energy price is artificial. True, the price is determined by free market forces. In that sense it is the free market price, but that price only includes the cost of extracting the oil, and does not even include all of those costs. Furthermore, that price includes no compensation to future generations who will not have access to this precious resource because it will be gone. Whatever that compensation ought to be, whether it is high or low, it is never included in the market price of fossil energy. The market price of fossil energy is artificially low. Because of this low market price, it currently makes economic sense to use fossil energy extravagantly, in the production of our food.
But the number is also astonishing because it shows what is possible when good science is applied to a problem. In conventional agriculture, the posed challenge is, maximize net economic return by managing fertility, weed control, pest control and genetics. Prodigious amounts of research dollars have been and are being devoted to addressing the challenge defined in this way, and the results have been truly impressive.
The Natural Systems Farming research team has redefined the challenge. Their focus is not on economic return, but on return to energy. Prior to the fossil era, prior to this era when fossil fuel has been readily available, the food production challenge has always been that: how to get the necessary food, while expending the minimal amount of energy. What was lacking prior to the fossil era, was the application of the scientific method, and world wide communications.
When my grandfather farmed with horses, he was very aware of energy in and energy out. There was no cheap energy. His tools to enhance fertility were summerfallow, alfalfa, sweet clover, and to a limited extent, barnyard manure. The Carman researchers, today, are able to choose for some twenty different potentially useful green manure crops. My grandfather was very limited in the tools he had available. Today many more tools are available to both researcher and farmer.
The work done at Carman needs to be nurtured. Input manufacturers will not do this research, because it does not result in a return for them. Such research needs to be and only will be funded by a forward thinking government.