You gain and you lose while cultivating, because even with the best of intentions, sometimes you have to compromise, write Nadia Lim and her husband Carlos Bagrie.
OPINION: I started writing this column but decided it would be best if you heard it from the farmer himself, my husband Carlos. So here it is:
It’s no surprise, but a key learning since we became farmers is that farming on a large scale in a truly sustainable way isn’t as simple as you might see on a Netflix doco, or be told by someone who runs a lifestyle farm.
When we decided to embark on this adventure, we decided that we wouldn’t be happy running a small-scale farm that could produce just enough for a farmers market.
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Instead, we attempted to grow food, en masse, using large equipment alongside better-known farming practices. The aim was to create a living case study to give some confidence in the practices that might work (or maybe work at all) on a large scale farm, with a focus on sustainability and ethics.
In truth, it was anything but beer and bowling.
We’ve had some big wins, especially with some no-spray cereals that work great with 8-9 tons of hassle-free yields, our sunflowers requiring minimal input to grow and harvest without a problem, and our diverse hedge breakthroughs directly with crops being cheap but nutritious winter food for our sheep.
But just like a player who will only talk about his victories, he would be remiss not to mention some of our catastrophic failures.
This year, we have removed six hectares of barley sown in the fall due to slug damage, and we have another 25 hectares that will be reduced in yield by up to 40% due to fungus damage (we think in large part because of a relatively warm climate and humid winter). So we’ll probably be 130 tonnes behind the pace of our barley production, which equates to over $ 50,000 in lost revenue. This is all because we have chosen not to use synthetic chemicals on the crops.
Admit, I have had visions of us being fully organic, growing and raising foods without synthetic inputs (such as synthetic fertilizers or sprays) deemed harmful to health and the environment.
We took over the management of the farm two and a half years ago and, at that time, converted what was once a conventionally (and hard) managed sheep and barley station to a farm. diversified mixed system. .
We produce everything from eggs to lamb, wool, green products, honey, seeds and grains. We focused on regeneration and no spraying, as market gardens are organic, although there are still some negative aspects of our farming practices (e.g. light plowing / cutting of the soil) that we did not just could not be avoided. .
It’s the balance in food production, a tightrope in walking, between being pragmatic and getting a harvest, or simply betting on a whim for the best.
If we’ve learned anything, it’s that nothing is black and white. Take organic, for example. While this is generally considered to be better for the wider environment because it does not use any synthetic chemicals, it tends to be destructive to cultivated soil.
Weeds must be removed for a successful crop to be grown. The options are either mechanical tillage or herbicide spraying. Not using a herbicide usually means mechanical tillage, which turns the soil over, disrupting beneficial microbial and fungal networks, as well as releasing soil carbon when the soil is plowed or discarded (in the same way you might turn the soil over in your own garden with a fork).
There is also exposure to the elements and erosion with the soil laid bare and large amounts of diesel being expended to operate large machinery in a field, resulting in more carbon dioxide being expelled and over soil compaction than what would happen if you sprayed a pen.
Likewise, what is the “right” way to feed people when the cost of food and global hunger are a major issue? Should you spray with a fungicide to make sure the crop will ripen safely, or not spray with the risk of a devastating fungal infection leading to complete crop failure?
Should you plant a hectare that grows 1-2 tonnes of organic wheat that feeds those who can afford it, or a hectare of conventionally grown wheat that provides 10-12 tonnes more affordable? When does “sustainable” agriculture become a misuse of land due to incredibly low yields, and what does “sustainable” even mean? Less chemicals, less soil disturbance or less carbon dioxide?
It is a difficult debate and one that it is perhaps too easy to comment on food production and the rights and harms of agriculture. It is much more difficult to grasp a true understanding of all the moving parts, and even more difficult to implement afterwards.
In the meantime, like many others, we will continue to experiment and share our victories and defeats.