Farming: A Forester’s views
Looking at farming practices here one relaties to observations made elsewhere in the world. Probably the most outstanding difference I’ve seen was in north-east China, about the same latitude as Orangeville, Ontario. Traveling literally hundreds of miles I was struck by the frequency of shelterbelts, two or three rows of trees along almost every side road and no apparent wind damage to crops such as wheat. Inter-crop planting of legume trees in Malaysia not only added protection to vegetable plants but, since legumes have nitrogen-fixing root systems, trees constantly fertilized the soil. Channel planting of fields reduced wind damage while providing space for machines to cultivate and harvest crops.
Nurse crops were common in Kenya agriculture. A forest cover of Gravillea robusta in tea plantations added shade, enhancing productivity. In Indonesia it was common practice to establish a tree nurse cover of Gliricidia sepium known locally as ‘madra de cacao’ (Spanish for ‘mother of cocoa’). Hedge planting of Leucaena leucocephala provided a nutritious fodder additive for livestock. Contour ploughing and rows of trees in dry country farming in Kenya helped conserve water, directing it underground rather than having it run off. Terraces of rice paddies in hilly country in the Philippines helped regulate water flow. In Africa Acacias, nitrogen fixing species, fertilized the soil as well as conserving water.
A feature I encountered in Kenya was farmland utilization. Many small land-owners sowed crops right up to roadside, while lands which were not cropped were grazed, young lads looking after cattle or goats, utilizing grasslands in the right-of-ways. Trees were managed as farm crops. Often bees nested in trees providing a valued source of carbohydrate. Mango trees produced both shade and fruit. Legume species in many parts of the tropics grew high protein beans as well as providing shade. Many Indian farmers depend on a range of cultivars of whatever species they grow for food, different cultivars producing food over a time range, rather than being mechanically harvested monocultures on a specified day.
Following experiences in other countries and accounts in various textbooks, one turns to agricuture in Ontario where farmers tend to follow ‘conventional’ practices. As a forester I’m certainly aware of the quality of farm forests. A number of ‘back 40s’, are held in reserve or left as residual poor quality stands after harvesting. Many plots of trees could be classed as scrub forests contributing little to the land-owners income. Rehabilitation of private land forests would be a long term societal investment.
Though much of the above refers to practices in the tropics, there is a general principal thoughout. Love of the land was characteristic of land management of family farms at one time, but generally bio-agriculture has changed motivation. Farming in Ontario tends to be more industrial now with an emphasis on economics and a minimum of ecological thinking. Shelterbelts are seen to interfere with mechanical operations. Monocultures are more efficiently farmed than more labour-intensive multicultures. The use of nitrogen fixing vegetation contributing to productivity is not common though black locust, a false acacia, has been used for reclamation of severely eroded sites. Inter-planting of trees is considered to hinder efficient farming. Use of more comprehensive technology tends to be labour intensive. Chemical fertilizers/pesticides/ herbicides facilitate farm operations despite the greater benefits attributable to use of natural treatments such as mulches and manure. Cultivation controls rapid non-crop vegetation but exposes fields to organic decomposition though many farmers now employ no-till practices. For many, ease of operation trumps soil quality.
Summing it up, many in the farming community treat agriculture as an industry, with business principles usually taking precedence over long term productivity. In the long run, production of food, based on ‘conventional’ land management, can hardly be considered sustainable.