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Learnings from Lopez Island
A week on Midnight's Farm
I just spent a week living at Midnight’s Farm on Lopez Island, as part of Terra.Do’s Climate Farm School. It was a wonderful amalgamation of insights, manual learning, and intellectual nourishment. Over the course of the week, I studied soil science, helped rotationally graze cattle, thinned trees in the forest for wildfire mitigation, visited five farms, heaved compost, and reflected on the food system at large.
Some of my takeaways were as follows:
It was reaffirmed for me that animals are an integral aspect of our local food systems. Rotational grazing of goats, sheep, and cows can be essential to maintaining healthy soils on pastures, and is particularly important for regenerating plots of land to be used for growing crops (either in between growing cycles or when beginning anew on degraded land). Moreover, some organic fertilizer inputs for plants are sourced from animals, such as manure, feather meal, fish meal, and blood meal. It’s ironic that people who are vegan are occasionally eating plants that are grown with livestock inputs.
Over the course of many discussions, I walked away reflecting on contradictory nature of 1) the outsized emissions, water usage, and animal welfare impacts of industrial livestock production, and 2) how essential animals can be to smallholder farms, especially when managed/grazed properly.
We should find ways for ranchers and plant-based communities to align, given both are committed to a more regenerative system. A good start could be eliminating CAFOs. Doing so may increase the price of beef (which helps ranchers become more competitive) and decreases the consumption of beef overall (to the satisfaction of plant-based groups).
There are so many nuances with everything related to agriculture; tillage, livestock raising, grazing, organic, fertilizer, monocrops, “efficiency”, scale, regeneration. Nothing is black and white, which is important to keep in mind…
Soil carbon: 58% of organic matter is made of carbon. Bacteria and fungi, which are made of carbon, decompose and slowly release their carbon into the soil (which is stored in their dead biomass from eating other organic matter). While there is always some microbial respiration of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (i.e. microbes exhaling), during the decomposition of organic matter carbon can be aggregated (stuck together) in ways that bacteria are unable to get to it - this is occluded carbon, which is not actively cycled and instead stored in “carbon pools.” Two other main building blocks of soil carbon come from root storage (especially from deep rooted plants such as perennials) and the bonding of carbon into inorganic compounds via mineralization, which then may move into the hydrological cycle and can be stored in the deep ocean or deep rock strata.
Viva Farms is an incubator program in Skagit Valley for aspiring farmers. They run a 5-year program of technical assistance and land leasing, with the goal of helping farmers eventually expand to their own new plots of land to steward. This is especially important given the high costs and low supply of available land in the Skagit Valley area (and elsewhere). There's a great model at play here, particularly to support BIPOC farmers who have a more difficult time accessing land.
Many technologies that are trying to help smallholder farmers are simply a) not affordable for them and b) don’t make feasible sense for their acreage. As such, a lot of technology providers try to work with mid-sized and large farms, which creates greater efficiencies and profitability for those farms, and subsequently makes it more difficult for smallholder farmers to compete. Given this feedback loop, it’s important to keep in mind that scale is not always the answer, particularly when it comes to agriculture. We need thriving smallholder farms to ensure a more resilient food system. We’re already producing enough food to feed the US, and then some. So we should be asking, what is the goal of our food system today? Is it a continuation of our previous focus on scaling and producing as many calories as possible, as efficiently as possible, or is it ensuring a diverse system of resilient farms that support communities, culture, soils, and livelihoods? If the standard ‘tech fixes’ for agriculture aren’t readily applicable to small scale (>100 acres) diversified farms, the next question for climate and ag tech workers may be, how can we support these valuable food production sites with customizable technology offerings or products that make their financial sustainability more secure?
So yes, my wheels are spinning a little bit. Below are some pictures to get a sense of why: