Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reader Brilliance - Rediscovering Diversity

Oak Watch readers (note the optimistic use of the plural!) are billiant.  Reader "Eric The Red" commented recently:

"Listening to NPR today and how so many farmers are losing money because of flooding and rain at the wrong time this year. Wrong time for annuals, that is. Thing is - all of those pictures show that the trees (in the background) are doing just fine! Which means that acorns (as well as chestnuts, walnuts, pecans, etc.) do just fine with the highly variable weather!"

Living in Northfield, MN I have seen the recent southeastern Minnesota flooding first hand.

Eric is absolutely right.  Tree crops are not entirely immune from the vagaries of weather; a late frost right when flowers are blooming could be devastating to the crop, and an extended and severe summer drought could of course wipe out a crop (of course it would do the same for cereal crops as well).  HOWEVER,

1. For native trees, grown in the climatic conditions for which they are best suited, a flower killing frost is extremely rare

2. Tree crops are much more resistant and resilient to extreme weather events - flooding (how many 100 year floods have we had this past decade??), hail, etc. than are annual crops

3. I don't think anyone is realistically talking about completely replacing grains with woody crops.  What we are talking about is diversity

We have essentially made farmers slaves to corn and soybeans, and in turn slaves to extreme weather events that can wipe out their crop over night.

Eric's thoughts dovetail perfectly with a section of The Omnivore's Dilemma that I read (re-read, for like the 20th time) last night.  Michael Pollan visited Greene County, IA farmer George Naylor who, reluctantly and grudgingly, does what Iowa farmers seemingly most do these days: Grows corns and soybeans from fence row to fence row. Pollan writes:

"When George Naylor's grandfather was farming, the typical Iowa farm was home to whole families of different plant and animal species, corn being only the fourth most common. Horses were the first, because every farm needed working animals (there were only 225 tractors in all of America in 1920), followed by cattle, chickens, and then corn.  After corn came hogs, apples, hay, oats, potatoes, and cherries; many Iowa farmers also grew wheat, plums, grapes, and pears. This diversity (emphasis mine) allowed the farm not only to substantially feed itself - and by that I don't mean feed only the farmers, but also the soil and the livestock (again bold text mine; keep in mind for future posts) - but to withstand a collapse in the market for any one of those crops. It also produced a completely different landscape than the Iowa of today."

A different Iowa (and Minnesota and Illinois and Kansas and...) landscape.  A landscape with trees producing food (although acorns were still falling on their heads while farms were going broke). A landscape with permanent pasture holding the soil.

And, I'm guessing - not coincidentally - a landscape with several fewer 100 year floods per decade.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but it really does go both ways: A Tree Crop landscape is probably - strike that, is certainly more resistant to extreme weather events, AND without question makes those same extreme events less common in the first place.

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