Overhauling the Farm Bill: Planting for the Future With Perennials

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In response to concerns that our industrial, soil-depleting food system will eventually collapse, a new vision for agriculture is emerging.

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Editor's Note: The Farm Bill is the Olympics of U.S. food and agriculture policy. Every five years or so this important legislation comes up for renewal and the games begin. The federal government awards medals in the form of billion-dollar budgets that will determine what foods we eat and how we grow them. The current Farm Bill is set to expire on September 30, 2012, and the debate over who will dominate the food system is well underway. Farm Bill 101 is a three-part series adapted from the recent update of Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill and is designed to unravel what is at stake in this vital legislation.

Ours is the Age of Monoculture. Farmers reap ever-increasing annual harvests by planting hybrid varieties, pumping them up with fossil fuel fertilizers, and managing them with pesticides, herbicides, and industrial machinery. A drive through rural America can appear eerily sterile -- feed corn, soybeans, wheat, or cotton as far as the eye can see, uninterrupted by so much as an acre of natural habitat.

In response to grave concerns that this soil-depleting industrial food system will eventually collapse, a new vision for agriculture is emerging: the Age of Perennials. This idea rests on a transition to deep-rooted, diverse, long-lived perennial plants that cover and permanently protect the soil, and don't need to be re-seeded annually. Rather than being mechanically imposed on the landscape, a perennial mixture would be designed around natural ecosystems' processes. Renewable resources like sunshine, groundwater management, and nutrient cycling would drive the production process.

According to the Salina, Kansas-based Land Institute, the goals of perennial farming include:

  • Extending the productive life of soils from the current tens or hundreds of years to thousands of years.
  • Developing resilience to extreme rainfall, droughts, and insect and pest pressures.
  • Reducing land runoff that creates coastal dead zones with disastrous effects on fisheries.
  • Maintaining the quality of surface and ground water.
  • Building food security to deal with population growth.

STARTING WITH GRASS

Already we have one common perennial agriculture system: hay and pasture-based grazing operations. Pastures can be comprised of a variety of perennials such as timothy, orchard grass, clover, and alfalfa. Some farms and ranches are exclusively devoted to grass-fed livestock production, while others rotate row crops with pastures to restore the soil, prevent pest buildups, and diversify the products they sell. Increasingly, orchards and vineyards are turning to permanent ground cover as well, and incorporating livestock grazing during certain times of the year. Such perennial farming systems are essential for regions like the Upper Mississippi watershed, where decades of erosion and leaching nutrients have resulted in a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

A 12-year research program conducted by Minnesota's Chippewa River Watershed Project has been studying this type of solution. Scientists have documented that where there are concentrations of perennial plants, significant reductions in soil sediments and agricultural nutrients in surrounding watersheds follow. Their findings suggest that if just 10 percent of critical lands in the Chippewa watershed were converted to rotations of pastures and other perennial crops and habitats, the surrounding waterways would see measurable improvements in water quality.

Critics frequently argue that shifting to such diversified agricultural methods is a luxury the world can't afford; that only chemical- and technology-intensive farming can provide the volume of food necessary for a growing population. Peer-reviewed studies increasingly show the opposite, however. Sustainable agriculture systems are highly productive, and also have other benefits -- such as a reduced carbon footprint, the elimination of toxic chemicals, prevention of soil loss, habitat protection, and beauty.

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Daniel Imhoff is a researcher, author, and independent publisher focused on farming, the environment, and design. He is the president and co-founder of Watershed Media, a non-profit publishing house based in California.

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