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Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

Growing Your Own Is More Than a Life-Style Choice

When we decide to grow our own food, we begin to reintegrate ourselves into nature's processes. Our western culture has been separating humans from nature for thousands of years. We tend to put each aspect of our lives into cubicles. We go downtown to the office. We expect agriculture to be off over the horizon. We “preserve” nature in special areas away from our work and living spaces. Then we go home where we have little in common with our neighbors. By growing our own food we bring a piece of agriculture and a piece of nature home with us. If our neighbors are doing the same, we will have that in common with our neighbors. This is the beginning of what I call “a pattern of interactions” that can build upon itself.

When we separate nature and agriculture and business and housing, we prevent the resources produced in one process from contributing to the productivity of other processes. Each process imports resources and uses them up. The by products become waste products. Resources are depleted.

In an integrated system, all of the products of an interaction can cycle locally. Food scraps from the table can feed the chickens. Chicken waste can feed the worms. Worms can feed the chickens. Worm castings can provide the nutrients for vegetables. Vegetable trimmings can feed the chickens. The chickens, eggs and vegetables can feed the people producing the table scraps. I call that “closing the production loops.” That is the way a system becomes healthy and how resources are conserved. A closed loop system can increase its contained resources with each process cycle.

Winter Greens 

There are no experts in what I am writing about. Our culture emphasizes separation rather than integration. We have thousands of knowledge specialties and few generalists. We belittle the generalist as a “jack of all trades and master of none.” But if we rely solely on experts we will always suffer unintended consequences because the expert has little knowledge of aspects of system function outside their expertise.

When experts give their opinion they are speaking from a silo of information that forms the boundary of their expertise. If you ask an agricultural scientist they can tell you all about the chemicals you need to grow food in a sterile system. They know no more than you about integrating agriculture into a naturally healthy system. If you ask an ecology scientist they can tell you all about the interactions in a natural system. They know no more than you about integrating a natural system into a suburban habitat. Every one reading this article is as qualified as anyone else to figure this out.

Building a Complex Pattern of Interactions

Imagine a pristine woodland or patch of prairie. What you see is beautiful and productive. It is a collection of individuals of many different species living together in the same space. Careful observation reveals a pattern of interactions among the many species. Interactions involve an exchange of nutrients. Each individual takes its turn as a consumer, excreting nutrients through its life until it becomes the eaten. As the nutrients cycle through all of the species the volume and variety of nutrients builds to increase the vitality of the pattern (the system). When we remove species from the pattern by logging, plowing or using poisons, we reduce the vitality of the pattern and it loses beauty and productivity. The capacity of the system to retain resources is also reduced.

When a leaf falls on healthy soil, bacteria and fungi begin to break it down. If the right species are present the products of the leaf are taken up and passed around. A particular atom of carbon from the leaf might cycle locally in the soil for a long time before it is lost to the atmosphere again. The length of time it takes depends on the number of species interacting within that space. As the number of interactions increase, the amount of carbon tied up in the form of nutrients increases. As the diversity of interactions increases, new forms of nutrients are available to support new forms of interactions.

The same principles apply to an economy. An increase in the number of interactions within a trading area results in an increase in the volume and variety of resources available to engage in new interactions. The interactions can form a feed back loop that builds resources into the economy.

I have no doubt that local production of food using a complex pattern of interactions can eliminate waste in the food system. By integrating humans into beautiful productive living systems we also address climate change and poverty as discussed in previous blogs. Perhaps in a future blog we can explore how integrating processes addresses violence in our society.

Closing Production Loops

When we concentrate animals into large facilities for feeding we increase the distance between the animal and the food source. If you put 10,000 chickens in a single building it becomes impractical to return the manure to the fields where the feed is grown. Then the farmer growing the feed has to buy fertilizer to replenish his depleted soils and the animal feeder has a waste problem disposing of the manure. Because the volume of manure is so great, the species who could have processed the manure into fertility in the soil cannot do their job. As a rule, the further apart our processes operate the fewer places there are for individuals of the many species to participate. The material that could have been processed and the participation of the species that could have done the processing are both wasted. Because of that waste, resources cannot build up in the system. Without a resource base we are more vulnerable to things that might disrupt those production processes. What happens if the cheap supply of food is disrupted?

Chicken Coop 

We cannot place a value on growing our own food in terms of money. Money measures “market value”. We value money based on the value of the things we can purchase for the money. Think about the value of your access to food. If you have money, food is relatively cheap. As the amount of money you have goes down the cost of food goes up as a percentage of income. Even more insidious, the nutrition contained in the food goes down when we are forced to choose calories over nutrition because of price. Then the value of the food is reduced even as the cost goes up.

Now think of owning the capacity to produce what we value. Increasing fertility in our local ecosystems creates a secure supply of food and a beautiful place to live. What value should we place on that?

The problems we face as a society are systemic. The problems derive from the way our culture has separated things. The solution requires that we integrate system processes at a scale where resources can cycle. It is entirely feasible to close our production loops and integrate our production processes. When we do, we create cells of sustainability. We are then less vulnerable to disruptions in supply lines and our habitat grows healthier and more beautiful with each production cycle. Each of you is as qualified as anyone else to do it and it all begins with the choice to grow our own.

I have been writing about specific techniques in this blog.

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