I have described the need for a farm bill that makes sense of and for agriculture -- not the fiscal and political sense of agriculture, as in the customary five-year farm bills, but the ecological sense without which agricultural sense cannot be made, and without which agriculture cannot be made sustainable.
"A 50-Year Farm Bill," which has been in circulation now for more than three years, is a proposal by The Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, with the concurrence of numerous allied groups and individuals. This bill addresses the most urgent problems of our dominant way of agriculture: soil erosion, toxic pollution of soil and water, loss of biodiversity, the destruction of farming communities and cultures. It addresses these problems by invoking nature's primary law, in default of which her other laws are of no avail: Keep the ground covered, and keep it covered whenever possible with perennial plants.
At present, 80 percent of our farmable acreage is planted in annual crops, only 20 percent having the beneficent coverage of perennials. This, by the standard of any healthy ecosystem, is absurdly disproportionate. Annual plants are nature's emergency medical service, seeded in sounds and scars to hold the land until the perennial cover is re-established. By this rule, our present agriculture, which gives 80 percent of our farmland to annuals, is in a state of emergency.
You can't run a landscape, any more than you can run your life, indefinitely in a state of emergency. To live your life, to live in your place, you have got to bring about a settlement that does not involve you continuously in worry, loss, and grief. And so "A 50-Year Farm Bill" proposes a 50-year schedule by which the present ratio of 80 percent annual to 20 percent perennial would be exactly reversed. The ratio then would be 20 percent annual to 80 percent perennial. And perhaps I need to say plainly here that the perennial crops would be forages and grains. Nobody at present is talking about the possibility of breeding and raising perennial table vegetables, though they should.
By reversing this ratio, reducing annual plowing by four-fifths, and making it possible to plow in any year only the least vulnerable land, soil erosion would be radically reduced. So would chemical pollution, because perennials grown in mixtures such as grasses with legumes, as they are in most pastures and many hayfields, are more self-sustaining and less chemical-dependent than annual monocultures.
This proposed great change would involve many smaller changes, not all of which can be foreseen. I would like to enlarge upon just one of these implications.
The perennial plant cover we are talking about would be of several kinds: permanent pastures, pastures in rotation with row crops, perennial crops grown for hay or silage -- and, starting perhaps within 10 years, perennial grain crops grown with grasses, mixtures that at times can, and probably should, be used for grazing.