Sunday, February 17, 2013

"System of rice intensification" and other notes on agriculture

Here's a Guardian article on some positive developments in Indian rice farming. Apparently these Bihari farmers are using a careful system of seedlings and plant spacing to improve yields. This is an article quite useful to our current classroom discussions about the sustainability of agriculture, since it shows methods by which food production might be increased, without increasing the total area of land used, and possibly decreasing climate emissions.

The particular farming method developed here sounds a lot like the old French Intensive method of vegetable-raising, which I learned many years ago at the Findhorn eco-commune in Scotland. A French priest seems to have been involved early in the development of the system and I wonder if he was influenced by the older theory.

When I first began farming and gardening in Maine I attempted to use the French system, making raised beds and double-digging, then planting geometrically. Eventually I gave up for lack of time and the need for a system that made better use of small scale agro-machinery. Land wasn't the limiting factor. Indeed, we kept expanding the size of our garden, and even today we could still double or triple it again, and not notice any great loss of land for other purposes.

Labor was a limiting factor.

I also found that French Intensive methods encouraged some Maine pests and plant diseases, particularly potato bugs and the late blight. The idea is to plant seedlings and seeds close together and geometrically so you maximize the use of land and so adult plants use up all the available space, inhibiting weed growth. But this allowed potato bugs lots more places to hide, making bug-picking a good deal harder, and it prevented the free flow of air needed to dry out the under-leaves of tomato plants.

Here's what that looked like. You can see the geometric planting in the first photo, and the resultant lush-but-crowded growth in the second.

The blight especially thrived in the damp humid conditions in my tightly planted tomato beds. I love my tomatoes, and the loss of a couple of year's worth of tomato harvests soon had me revising my systems.

I reverted by stages to using straight lines with enough distance between the rows to use my various tillers judiciously, and my yields improved accordingly. The tomatoes dried out and the potato bugs were easier to find and pick. The weeds were still under control (at the cost of an additional gallon or two of gas for the tillers) and the whole thing was achieved with a minimum of the hand cultivation which I really didn't have time for in the first place, especially since a large portion of my summer is spent doing time-consuming fieldwork for wind energy research

Here's the result last season. A little messy, but productive. You can see how much more bare space there is between plants. Regular tilling keeps the weeds down.

I was particularly pleased with the leeks and carrots, two crops that really do seem to prefer rows. Here's the killing of the "fatted leek" for Aimee's favorite leek-and-barley soup.

This more traditional system was in fact the one taught me by my grandfather, an English master gardener, and I soon remembered some of the tricks he taught me, including the use of string lines to keep the rows straight, and the use of knee boards while setting out seedlings to prevent trampling of freshly tilled or dug ground, and, despite Aimee's objections, even began to pinch back my tomato suckers, just as I was shown as a very young boy.

I should mention that row-farming is still technically an intensive system of agriculture. An example of an extensive system might be something like sheep farming in the Australian outback, where a lot of land is used.

But if you have limited land of high fertility, the French system works well for vegetables, especially leaf vegetables. You can control the usual green leaf vegetable pests such as leaf miners and flea beetles with floating row cover. Large yields are possible, and a lot of commercial organic farmers still use it for leafy vegetables. It works well, just not for my current purposes.

I don't see any reason why it wouldn't also work for rice.

How are climate emissions reduced by smaller scale, intensive, organic or traditional agriculture? By reducing the need for large quantities of nitrogenous fertilizer made from natural gas using the Haber-Bosch process, and by reducing the size and scale of agricultural machinery. Local or self-reliant agriculture may also reduce climate emissions due to "food miles," compared to industrial production, although whether or not this is true depends on the efficiency of the particular husbandry and transportation systems being compared.

Smaller scale, intensive, organic or traditional agricultures may also create jobs, revitalize rural life, reduce disease in consumers and farm families, help conserve agricultural land and opportunities for recreation, including access for hunting and fishing, and generally provide a healthy lifestyle.

We'll explore these possibilities next week, beginning by using this video here:

All this talk of farming is making me think about getting ready for spring. The seed order arrived last week, but Aimee hasn't planted any flats of seedlings yet. Of course, lambing will come first, in about four to six week's time. We'll be sure to keep students posted, and have some up to the farm.

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