The so-called Green Revolution of the mid-20th century was a wonderful human achievement in some respects, enhancing world food security substantially and credited with saving more than a billion people to date from starvation. But it has had myriad scary unintended consequences as well. For one, it gave rise to massive consolidation of agribusiness, with mega-corporations like Monsanto driving huge numbers of people out of family farming through near-monopolistic control of seed supplies, deliberately hybridized to bear “mules” or sterile offspring to discourage seed-saving.
Heavy dependence of modern farmers on the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and the proliferation of genetically modified crops have been implicated in the disastrous recent die-offs of honeybee populations needed for pollination, along with spikes in the occurrence of certain human and livestock diseases and birth defects to levels previously unseen. Production of those chemicals, largely derived from fossil fuels, also exacerbates our problems with elevated levels of atmospheric CO2 and resultant climate change.
Happily – and if we are lucky, not too late for our species’ survival – the pendulum has begun to swing back in the other direction. Recent trends in agricultural technology emphasize a return to low-tech, low-impact, sustainable solutions that have worked for farmers for millennia. And more and more people are making it a priority that the food that they ingest be grown on farms that avoid factory-farming techniques and heavy chemical applications.
So how do you keep bugs and weeds from ruining your harvest without resorting to poisons? One farmer/scientist, Dr. Gary Kleppel – a professor of Biology who is director of the Biodiversity, Conservation and Policy Program at SUNY-Albany – puts contemporary theory into practice at Longfield Farm in Altamont, where he and his wife Pam produce grass-fed lamb, wool, free-range chickens and eggs and artisanal breads. He is experiencing great success with a weed-control program that qualifies as experimental for our times, but has in essence been around since humans first started domesticating animals and cultivating food plants back in the late Neolithic. Kleppel calls it “targeted grazing.”
Simply put, the approach involves herding his sheep in the direction of invasive weeds like purple loosestrife, mile-a-minute vine, multiflora rose and giant hogweed, the latter of which causes severe blistering if humans try to uproot it by hand. But sheep don’t react to the toxin, and consume giant hogweed readily. “The plant has as much as 20 percent protein, which is better than the best feed I can possibly get,” Kleppel has commented.
Targeted grazing is but one of many rediscovered pre-industrial farming techniques with great promise for post-industrial food production that Kleppel has tested and documented in both scientific papers and blogs on sustainable agriculture and locavorism websites like Slow Food USA. Philadelphia-based New Society Publishers have recently collected 14 of his thematic essays on sustainability, viewed through the lens of farming, into a book titled The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability and the Return of the Local Economy.
Gary Kleppel is now touring bookstores in support of the new publication, and will appear for a 9 a.m. reading and signing at the New York State Sheep and Wool Festival at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds on Saturday, October 18. He will also give a talk at the Inquiring Minds Bookstore in New Paltz on Sunday, October 26 at 4 p.m. Find out more about these new/old paradigms for agriculture as this respected ecologist and working farmer makes the case for a locally based food system that is “stable in the face of economic uncertainty, resilient in the face of environmental variability, grounded in stewardship of the land, on attaching value to food and the craft involved in producing it and on respecting the dignity of farmers, consumers and livestock.”
For more information about the reading/signing at Inquiring Minds, call (845) 255-8300 or visit www.inquiringbooks.com/new-paltz-bookstore. For more on The Emergent Agriculture, visit www.newsociety.com/books/e/the-emergent-agriculture.
The Emergent Agriculture author Gary Kleppel, Sunday, October 26, 4 p.m., free, Inquiring Minds Bookstore, 6 Church Street, New Paltz; (845) 255-8300, www.inquiringbooks.com.