Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Why Small-Scale Regenerative Agriculture is so Important

For the last several months, I have been throwing down a whole lot of information. Thank you, loyal readers, for sticking with me. I am going somewhere with this. There are a great number of techniques that can be used to repair our degrading ecosystem, and do so while providing a comfortable living for those doing the repairs. But people need to understand how this all needs to work. We live in a society that is separated to a great extent from nature. In order to fix what needs to be fixed, we need to first bring people back to nature, to help them understand it and learn how to heal it.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. As I mention regularly, this is an engineering blog. I do my best to use engineering problem solving techniques. And the first and foremost among those is this: if you wish to solve a problem, you first have to define the problem. So, what is the problem we are facing? And I don’t mean global warming, degrading farm land, or carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Those are symptoms. What is the problem? Let me offer my viewpoint on this.

The problem, as I see it, is an ultimate flaw with the changes made during the Industrial Revolution. Bear with me here. See, prior to the Industrial Revolution, some 90% of humanity lived a pastoral existence on small family farms. When the Industrial Revolution hit, it needed two things to function and grow: it needed workers, and it needed consumers. It is basic supply and demand. So farmers were encouraged, and sometimes forced, to leave their land and move to the cities. They were promised a better life and more prosperity. For the most part, that prosperity was finally realized during the 50s with an expansion of the middle class.

But it proved to be short-lived. As an economy grows, it builds wealth, actually creates it. For the last 15 years, those gains have largely gone to the elite and the middle class has seen no appreciable increase in earnings. Prices have continued to rise, though, so the difference between the two has caused a contraction of the middle class, with millions of people watching their standard of living decrease with little hope of reversing the slide. 

There is also a more insidious problem. The Industrial Revolution taught us that we could be separated from the land and that even our food production could be automated. The consequences have been disastrous. Ultimately, humans are biological beings and are intimately connected to the environment we live in in ways we are just beginning to understand. Land needs to be managed or the biological processes that keep it alive degrade. 

Industrial agriculture is a great example. If you take farmland with excellent soil containing lots of soil carbon and add synthetic fertilizers, the production goes through the roof. Profits increase wildly. But the reason it becomes so productive is that the synthetic fertilizers increase soil biological activity and they use all that stored soil carbon as a foodsource, burning through it in as little as a few years, or maybe a few decades at the outside. It is a perfect example of short term profit at the expense of long term viability.

So here we are. The profits that can be extracted have been. The rich are richer than they have ever been in the history of the world. They are trying harder and harder to find ways to increase profits. Wages have stagnated to the point that large swathes of humanity are barely making it paycheck-to-paycheck. Our environment is forfeit. We are looking at the looming threat of technological unemployment as more companies try to further cut expenses by automating as many tasks as possible. The outlook is bleak.

Or is it? Maybe this is exactly what we needed right now. See, momentum is the biggest obstacle to change. As long as everything is going along great, people won’t make changes. Comfort is hard to compete with. But discomfort and uncertainty, well, that has people craving change. Heck, a presidential candidate used it as his campaign slogan a couple of years back. The trick is for people to get to a very difficult realization: that they are on their own. As long as you rely on those in power for your livelihood, you are subject their whims and have little control. But when you decide to take control of your own life, that’s where the magic happens.

The question is, how? We live in an urban, and largely suburban, landscape. We like our connected, technological lifestyle. Who wants to give that up to move back to the country and pursue a homestead lifestyle? Well, lots of people, actually, but I am talking to the rest of us here. How can we live our modern lifestyle and still pursue some measure of self-sufficiency. Personally, I think that small-scale regenerative agriculture is the key here.

Small-scale regenerative agriculture is the perfect solution for the predicament we have ourselves in. It solves the problems on pretty much every level. There have been a number of significant advances since the last time we were an agrarian society. And I don’t mean in the technology of the tractors currently tearing up vast swaths of farmland. Things like organic farming (if you think this one is ancient, you probably don’t understand it), aquaponics, and mycoculture have all come a long, long way in the last 200 years or so. Technology can be employed in ways never dreamed of even 30 years ago. With careful layout and design, more food than ever can be grown in a smaller space all while regenerating the environment.

So what can small scale regenerative agriculture do to solve the problems at hand today? Let’s tackle them one by one and see.

Climate Change/Environmental Degradation
This one is probably the easiest to justify. Regenerative agriculture is, by definition, regenerative. This means reducing monoculture, increasing environmental diversity, and building soil. The simple process of building soil means adding carbon to the soil, a process also called Carbon Farming. With enough practitioners of this practice, significant amounts of carbon could be sequestered into the soils of the earth. Plus, the restoration of life to soil helps mitigate pollution and further increases environmental diversity, which will breathe life into ecosystems beyond the farming operation.

Stagnating Wages
In a household budget, there are two sides to the flow of money: income and expenses. Most people are struggling through increases in expenses while their wages have virtually stagnated for decades. It can be very frustrating to find more and more ways to cut expenses just to make ends meet. Introducing solar dollars to the household budget can breathe new life into the flow of money. With new methods and technologies, this can happen with only minimal additional effort on the part of the homeowner, but can result in a much tastier and healthier diet.

Technological Unemployment
As most are aware, machines are going to be taking all the jobs. I have heard projections as high as 60% of jobs will be lost over the next 20 years to automation. Personally, I think this move is highly shortsighted. While there will be a huge savings in production costs, that doesn’t really help if everyone is unemployed and can’t afford to buy gadgets at the new low cost. Regardless of how bad this move will allow companies to shoot themselves in the foot, it is coming. So, what can be done about it?

Simply put, people are going to have to become more self-sufficient. They will need to stop relying on employers for their livelihood. This used to be the way nearly everyone lived before the Industrial Revolution and they did so by living primarily off of solar dollars. Sustainable agriculture allows a return to this paradigm, allowing individuals to reduce or eliminate reliance on employers.

Urban Malaise
I read a comment recently that I thought was spot-on: You don’t hate Mondays. You hate capitalism. Maybe it is capitalism. Maybe it is our lack of connection to the natural world. Maybe it is a lack of meaning in our lives. Maybe it is knowing that we spend our days toiling away to build value for someone else. Maybe it is pollution. Whatever the cause, a general feeling of malaise, discontent, unhappiness, and restlessness are prevalent in our society. Small-scale regenerative agriculture hits pretty much all of those causes head-on. You are building value for yourself on your own land. You are working with and regenerating nature. I don’t think it is that hard to understand why gardeners are a happy lot.

As the nutrients are increasingly extracted from farmland, our food loses its nutritional value. We become disconnected from the nutrient cycle. By regenerating our own land and building nutrient-rich soil, we increase the nutrient content of the foods we eat. And by doing that small-scale, we reconnect ourselves to our own nutrient cycle.

Gardening is a great way to keep active. There is definitely work involved. This can help with fitness and flexibility. Reconnecting our bodies to the natural nutrient cycle will also help as our bodies will be getting all the nutrient-rich foods they need.

The best part of all this is that we don’t need to drop our modern lifestyle to realize all these benefits. Technology can play a big part in reducing the labor on gardening while still improving output. Universal availability of the internet means you can still ply your trade or profession by working part time online throughout the week to bring in additional income. We really can have the best of both worlds.

So, tell me, what did I miss? Are there other ways small-scale urban agriculture can change the world?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Phoenix ASH & Regrowth

For the last several months, I have been hinting at this grand project I have been working on. I have felt it more important thus far to lay the foundation to talk about some of the concepts being implemented onsite. But I think I am in pretty good shape right now in terms of concepts being out there, and before I jump into my next series of posts, I wanted to take a moment to talk about the project I am currently working on.

The site is called Phoenix ASH & Regrowth. It is a half acre site in the Sunnyslope area a little north of downtown Phoenix. The project is an attempt to achieve as high a level of self-sufficiency as possible while simultaneously repairing the ecosystem onsite. The project site will also serve as a demonstration site to help promote these ideas and make significant improvements on a wide variety of fronts including food production, nutrition, flood prevention, urban heat island effect, air pollution, economic resiliency, erosion control, biodiversity, and much more. To achieve this, nearly everything we do onsite is to achieve one of  two goals: 1) Restore soil carbon, and 2) Promote biodiversity. While this may sound a little overly simplistic, these two things, when working in conjunction, cause a cascade of healthy biological functions that achieve everything else.

Let me take a moment to describe how this cascade works. Increasing the amount of carbon in the soil does two things primarily. The first is that it increases absorption of rainwater. This increases biological activity and helps mitigate flooding. The second is that it increases the fertility of the soil. As I have explained previously, carbon in the soil feeds the soil biome and increases the fertility of the soil and the availability of nutrients in the soil. By increasing the available moisture in the soil and fertility of the soil, plant growth is encouraged. Remember, as a gardener, my job is not to take care of the plants. My job is to take care of the soil and the soil takes care of the plants.

Once we have widespread growth of plants, we move to the next level. As I have already mentioned, the driver of ecosystem processes is the cycling of living matter from one organism to the next. This is where diversity comes in. Different organisms make use of different food sources and bring different benefits to the system. Rather than trying to dig through the science of biological systems, most of which doesn’t really exist yet (don’t even get me started on the faults with reductionist thinking employed by modern science), it is best to let the ecosystem find its own healthy equilibrium. We do that by including everything in the whole. There really are no weeds. The only caveat is that they must provide more benefit than they detract. So a pine tree was removed from the site because all it provided was shade. Oleanders were removed because they are highly toxic. And there are a couple of weeds we remove because of toxicity. Otherwise, everything is welcome.

Once the plants are growing, each one is valued for the benefits it brings. Edibles are harvested for human consumption. Grass and forbs are used for forage for the animals. Dead leaves and grass are harvested for compost. Trees are pollarded to provide wood to build more soil. At each level, the plant material runs through its cycle and is returned to the soil, increasing soil carbon and helping plant growth and diversity.

So let me talk for a moment about the various methods we employ onsite to achieve all of this:

Holistic Management, as taught by the Savory Institute, is more of a guiding principle. Everything we do is viewed through the lens of Holistic Management and its principles. It is through Holistic Management that we can make the best decisions for how to weave the myriad methods together into one cohesive structure. The site also serves as the Arizona Savory Hub (ASH) and the first urban demonstration site for the Savory Institute. We are very excited to demonstrate that Holistic Range Management, which is typically managed on large tracts of land in rural areas, can be applied in an urban setting.

Permaculture is another guiding principle. The permaculture core principles are also core values and guide what we do and how we rebuild a complete ecosystem onsite.

Animal Impact, as described in Holistic Management is an important part of how nutrients are cycled through plants and back into soil. Right now, we just have chickens and are using them to process forage and create compost. However, long term plans include goats and sheep, and maybe even miniature cows or rabbits. Each animal will have its own impact on the ecosystem, improving diversity and nutrient cycling.

Organic gardening, in its ideal form, builds soil carbon, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. By not using chemistry to manage a biological system, the biological system is allowed to flourish, encouraging diversity and growing topsoil. Everything we do onsite at Phoenix ASH & Regrowth is organic.

While some of the organic matter is either processed in place (as in animal impact) or allowed to lie where it falls, much of the organic matter produced onsite is processed through the composting facility onsite. This turns decaying organic matter into high quality topsoil more rapidly so it can be spread back out where it is needed most. In addition, we use the chickens (Animal Impact) to process the compost. This allows the chickens to feed off of whatever they deem edible in the compost, including insects that are attracted to the rotting material. It also allows their droppings to be immediately incorporated into the compost. This helps the compost get hot and complete its cycle quickly. And when it is time for the compost to be turned? The chickens help with that, too.

At just 9” of rain a year, Phoenix is a desert. But with careful planning and a little infrastructure, the rain can be stretched really far. To do, this, we use two primary strategies at Phoenix ASH & Regrowth. The first is rainwater barrels. There are two rainwater barrels on each of the three buildings onsite. The two smaller buildings have smaller, flattened barrels that sit up against the building. These each hold a little over 500 gallons. On the largest building, there are two larger barrels, each holding about 2600 gallons. The smaller tanks are perhaps a little undersized for the areas they catch, and the larger tanks are a bit oversized. However, with a little planning and some plumbing, we are able to drain the smaller tanks into the larger as they fill up, assuring that no rain is lost. This water is used to water the gardens.

The second type of rainwater harvesting comes from offsite flow, or water that is flowing onto the property. The property has a wash flowing through it. While this was a major problem for previous owners, it is seen as an advantage at Phoenix ASH & Regrowth. With a little regrading, the site was turned into a series of retention basins. As each retention basin fills, it overtops into the basin below it. By doing this, all, or nearly all, of the offsite flow can be captured and stored in the ground. This has the added benefit of reducing downstream flooding. The best part is that the first basins built are already growing lots of vegetation and thus building soil carbon. The change in water infiltration is already visible, with no water standing in these basins a mere 24 hours after a big rain. The newer basins, which haven’t had much of a chance to grow vegetation yet, take 3 or 4 days to drain, even though they get less water.

Nitrogen Producing Trees
In desert ecosystems, and in particular degraded desert ecosystems, there is often a lack of nitrogen in the soil. This can be a limiting factor for the growth of plants and thus the ecosystem as a whole. Nitrogen producing trees, such as palo verde, acacia, and mesquite can make a big difference in this area. Not only do they fix nitrogen from the air and make it into a usable form, but many are well adapted to dry climates with poor soil. They are drought tolerant and fast growing.

As the trees grow, they produce a great amount of biomass. Every two years, the trees at Phoenix ASH & Regrowth are pollarded, and a few select trees are coppiced. The branches and twigs that are cut off are used for a variety of purposes. They are used as feedstock for growing mushrooms, some are used to produce biochar. The bulk are chipped to either produce mulch for various areas around the site or as a bulk carbon source in the compost bins. The biomass produced by pollarding and coppicing becomes a large portion of the biomass we use to feed the soil.

In addition, trees typically have a root structure that mimics the size and extent of the canopy above. When the tree is trimmed back, the tree abandons roots and pulls back, adding as much carbon down in the soil as is harvested from above.

Some of the branches that are either trimmed out or are the result of random pruning throughout the year are used to create new garden beds. This use of hugelkultur adds a long-lasting source of carbon to the soil and provides a lasting source of food for the soil biome where it is needed most.

Woody debris that is too big for the chipper, unusable for mushroom feedstock, or otherwise scrap material is processed into biochar. The biochar is added to the compost. Once there, it collects nutrients through the processing process. Then it is added to the soil with the rest of the compost where it is used to improve soil quality in perpetuity.

Growing mushrooms is difficult in the desert, but it can be managed. Mushrooms are used in the intermediary process between wood chips and soil creation and provide an additional product. We are also working to find ways to use mushrooms to improve degraded areas of the site. This is a technology that has a lot of potential and we are working on finding a way around the challenges to best make it work.

Phoenix ASH & Rebirth is located in a very brittle environment and the bulk of the site is being managed with this in mind. However, many of our common vegetables require quite a bit more water, thus necessitating a non-brittle microclimate. In this interest, we are looking for technologies that help use the water resources available onsite to their maximum utility. Aquaponics has some great potential in this respect, being particularly efficient with both water and nutrients. However, as a soil-less technology, it doesn’t fit as well with the goals of the site. We are exploring other options to improve the technology to be more organic.

As you can see, we have a whole lot going on for just a half acre. But combined, these techniques work closely together to make some significant changes in a degraded environment. Please help me in spreading the word. If we can turn a half acre in downtown Phoenix into a productive food forest and organic farm, it can be done anywhere. We just have to have a way to get these concepts out there and teach people to implement them. This world is fixable, and it can be done using the techniques provided to us by nature. Let’s get on this.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Composting with Chickens

Chicken compost structure
I love an elegant design. But what is an elegant design? Elegant is defined as pleasingly ingenious and simple. From an engineering standpoint, an elegant design is typically a design that achieves multiple functions through simplicity rather than complexity. This is easily accomplished with biological systems with just a little thought. Think about the process happening. Is there work you are doing that something else would happily do for you? Are there organisms that could be inserted into the process that would provide benefit without any real loss?

While I have tried to achieve this with my living systems since I was a teenager, one of the best examples I found was from Paul Stamets. He explained that if you compost wood chips, you can get compost, albeit slowly. If you grow mushrooms on the wood chips first, you get mushrooms. Then the spent mushroom blocks can be composted to still get compost, and faster. The addition of the right organism in the middle of the process makes all the difference.

Such is the way with chickens and compost. Chickens are omnivores. Their natural diet is a mixture of plants and bugs, with a healthy mixture of seeds thrown in. Commercial chicken feeds are mostly grain based. They give the chickens the basic nutritional needs, but don't really give them anything extra. Allowing the chickens to process compost on the other hand, is a natural fit that achieves multiple functions.

Chicken compost structure from the inside
For our purposes, we took an existing structure that was built for compost. It was constructed out of PVC pipe and wire and measured 11' by 14' and tall enough to stand comfortably in. We moved it into a corner that was out of the way and put an existing chicken coop inside. The coop gave the chickens a place to roost and lay and gave them protection from the rain and sun. Then we built four compost bins, one cubic yard each, using the same PVC pipe and wire techniques. The doors on the front of the bins rotate down. Then, since this is Phoenix and it is hot here, I installed a mister system over the compost bins to keep the compost wet and the chickens comfortable in the summer. 

To feed the chickens, I toss compost out into the open area. I also wander around and harvest a big bucket of weeds daily for the chickens to eat. Grain is given supplementally as needed and just to make sure they have enough food. The chickens pick through the weeds and kitchen scraps and eat what they want. The rest becomes litter under their feet and they manure on it. When the litter layer builds up enough, we scoop it up and toss it in one of the bins. Then we spread out a starter layer of straw or drier weeds and start the process over again. I hope to use wood chips soon as well. 

Once the compost is in the bins, it heats up to hot compost range within a few days. Once a week, we drop the front gate to the bin, and spread the compost out a little. The chickens dive right in and hunt for bugs. After a day or so, we scoop it up, water it a little, and mound it back up in a different bin. The process produces compost remarkably rapidly. We are actually having trouble keeping the temperature down enough on the compost bins. We don't want them so hot that they are essentially burning off the carbon we are trying to capture. 

Store bought eggs mixed with
eggs from our chickens
The best part is the change in the chickens. They have a habitat that is full of vertical relief to explore, attractive to bugs, and gives them lots of room to scratch around in. They have been much happier and engaged since moving into the compost bin. Plus, the change in the eggs has been remarkable. See, the color of the yolk is a good indicator of how healthy the chicken's diet is. Pale yellow yolks indicate a poor diet, usually of mostly grains. Darker yellow to orange means the diet is significantly improved. I hear that with attention to a great diet, the egg yolks can be almost made red. I haven't gotten there yet. 

Personally, I think that this could be done on a larger scale to take advantage of large scale food waste. Restaurants could collect food waste separately and they could be collected daily, or every few days at the least. Then the food scraps could be dumped into a chicken compost facility with several hundred chickens. They will eat what appeals to them. The remnants could be mixed with wood chips, also from municipal waste, and composted. The chickens could be brought back once a week or so to further pick through the composting material, keeping bugs down and helping it compost. At the end of the product, there is great compost produced, happy chickens, healthy eggs, and a reduction of the trash stream.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Holistic Management Concepts – Solar Dollars

Maturing solar dollars in home made mineral dollars
Holistic Management is an interesting set of concepts, techniques and methodologies. While the application is typically used to make ranches profitable and regenerative, it actually has broad applicability. Many of the other concepts have great potential beyond the ranch. Of these, perhaps my favorite is the concept of solar dollars.

According to Holistic Management, there are three kinds of wealth: mineral dollars, solar dollars, and paper dollars. Paper dollars are the easiest to understand. That is the actual money we are all familiar with. Mineral dollars are resources you have, like water, soil, rock, maybe even gold if you are lucky enough to have a gold mine on your property. Some mineral dollars are renewable, like fertile soil and water, while others are not, like that gold mine. Solar dollars, though, are the product of photosynthesis. Fruits, vegetables, wood, stuff like that. You use your mineral dollars to create your solar dollars.

This seems like a pretty simple concept. So why, of all the important concepts of Holistic Management, did I pick this one to expound on? This concept is really important when it comes to the application of everything else I am talking about. See, where this concept really becomes important is in the area of resource conversion.

Harvesting solar dollars (pollarding) to create more solar
dollars and more mineral dollars
Resource conversion is the conversion of one form of dollar into another. For example, you can buy a bag of composted steer manure with your paper dollars to help build your mineral dollars in the form of soil. You can then use that investment in mineral dollars to create solar dollars in the form of fruit from your fruit trees. Then you can pollard the fruit trees, harvesting solar dollars in another form. You can then chip them and convert them to another form of solar dollars: mushrooms. When the sawdust block is finished producing mushrooms, you can compost it and create mineral dollars in the form of improved soil.

The thing is, there are hundreds of ways to create and utilize solar and mineral dollars. It is really up to you to determine what is the best way to use them on your property. The important thing to realize is that these things have value, and not just some pie-in-the-sky theoretical value. In some cases, they give you a product to sell, and in others they prevent you from having to spend your hard-earned paper dollars, and in yet others, they give you a measure of resiliency.

Take a look around at your yard. What are you doing to preserve and earn solar dollars? Are you composting? Are you maximizing the production potential of the land you have through food forests? What can you do better? Remember, there is more than one way to earn income.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Holistic Management Concepts - Animal Impact

These guys right here
As those of you who are frequent readers of my blog probably know, my hobby is engineering with biological systems. In everything I do, I do my best to be holistic. Each organism in an ecosystem has a job and the whole works as a whole when all of the necessary pieces are where they are supposed to be and doing the job they evolved to do. The problem with the modern world is that our ecosystems are so degraded that the animals are often absent completely or at the least rarely seen in natural systems. As such, it is so easy to forget that they are an integral part and are often seen as pests or otherwise harmful. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Animals are an integral part of the nutrient cycling function of a healthy ecosystem. The tricky part, though is to manage the animals. It's important to choose the right animals (or encourage the right ones to come to you) and help them have the right impact.

There is no place this axiom is more true than in a brittle ecosystem. The inconsistency of moisture in an area that has distinct rainy and non-rainy seasons means that the organic matter (typically perennial bunching grasses) cannot break down into its component nutrients when exposed to open air like it does in a non-brittle environment, one with constant exposure to moisture. But the cycling of nutrients is critical for any ecosystem to function. It is how each and every organism functions within the ecosystem. For the plant, the fungus, the bacteria, and the animal each, it is their food source.

In a brittle environment, the dead grasses still need to be removed so the plants have room to grow at the beginning of the next rainy season. As any gardener knows, the best thing for all that grass is to finely chop it, compost it in a warm, moist environment, and deposit the finished compost back on the ground where it can be worked into the soil. Being a bit of a mad scientist, I propose we automate the process. Let’s make the composting unit mobile, something that moves around  and continually collects the grasses. I think I will call this new invention a “cow.”

This is basically how a ruminant works. They are mobile organic matter collection and composting units. They provide the moisture needed to break the plant matter down and keep the food web going. Remember, those grade school science books downplayed the importance of poop in the nutrient cycling of an ecosystem. In reality so many more nutrients are cycled through dung than through dead bodies.

Ecosystems develop through an intricate process called “evolution.” Often, evolution picks some minor function, one often overlooked, and makes it an integral part of the whole. This is absolutely true with the animal impact on a grassland. Yes, the cow eats the grass, but they miss a lot. They dung and urinate all over everything and tend to not eat the contaminated vegetation. But all of the vegetation needs to be lowered to ground level.

Also, bare ground is pretty much the biggest problem in a brittle environment. As ground sits bare (nothing growing from it and no plant litter covering it), there is nothing to replenish the soil carbon content and it just bakes in the sun. Bare soil loses its carbon content eventually and forms a hydrophobic (water repelling) crust. This crust matures over time, becoming more and more effective at repelling what rain comes to it. As the environment further degrades, the soil crust forms a permanent crust, grows a sad layer of algae and gets protection in a state park from people who can’t tell the difference between a healthy ecosystem and a biological response to extreme environmental degradation.

In order to keep the grassland healthy, the soil crust needs to be broken regularly and the uneaten litter scattered over the surface, along with a healthy dose of dung and urine applied. But this process breaks down when the cattle spread out across the landscape, grazing peacefully. The hooves naturally break the crust, but not when they step gingerly. The weight of the animals crushes the dead clumps of grass and scatters the remnants across the bare soil, but not when they walk carefully between the grasses. The piles of dung help fertilize, but not when they are twenty or thirty feet apart.

See, the ecosystem doesn’t respond specifically as a single block. Each clump of grass responds to the pressures and stimuli it is subjected to. Grass is overgrazed a clump at a time. Grass is undergrazed a clump at a time. And the two can be right next to each other. When cows are allowed to live a leisurely, spread out life with plenty of room to wander and plenty of time to pick and choose what they eat, they do exactly that.

It is the natural system of predator and prey that brings the whole thing together. In the wild, the great herds of ungulates are subjected to the predation of pack hunting predators like lions and wolves. The herds bunch together for safety. But in bunching, they eat huge amounts of food and leave behind huge amounts of dung and urine. In the excitement of being bunched and worrying about predators, they aren’t careful about where they step and trample the bunches of grass and break up the soil crust.

See, it is only the original system that works completely to maintain the grassland ecosystem. The herds have to be big enough that they can eat or spoil the food, then move on before the grass starts growing back. They have to be bunched and excited to disturb the ground just right to get the benefits.

The problem is that those great herds are largely gone, as are their pack hunting predators. But if the land dies without them, what are we going to do?

It turns out that Allan Savory has worked out a way to mimic the impact of the animals and built a whole system around it. The system is called Holistic Management. It uses smaller paddock sizes to mimic the bunching and manage the time spent grazing. It even turns out that the excitement and trampling can be mimicked without the stress of predators. Ivan Aguirre, a rancher in Mexico, uses mesquite hulls, the parts filtered out after the milling of mesquite pods, as a treat. Mesquite pods are naturally sweet and the cows get so excited about their treat (a waste product, really), that they trample everything to get to the hulls.

Unfortunately, it is likely that the great herds are gone forever. However, with enough dedicated people and the will to make a difference, we have the tools to restore the grasslands of the world to some of the most productive ecosystems in the world.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Holistic Management Concepts - Brittleness Factor

A brittle environment in the dry season, complete with
happy cows
As I began to delve deeper into Holistic Management, there were several concepts I thought were just brilliant. The first one is the Brittleness Scale. It is quite simple, really, it is just a scale from one to ten that describes the inconsistency of moisture throughout the year. A rainforest, where it rains almost every day, would be a one. A deep desert, on the other hand, where it only rains a few weeks out of the year, would be a 10.

On the surface, this seems pretty simple of a concept, and not really worthy of a whole blog post. However, like many simple concepts, just a little bit of digging into the impacts reveals just how important of a concept it is.

Do me a favor. Go look up Google Earth. Keep it at a global level. Scroll around a little and look at the little blue-green-tan orb we live on. I’ll wait. Did you notice how the land masses of the world are predominantly either green or tan in color? That is your brittleness scale right there. For the most part, the green areas are non-brittle, and the tan ones are brittle. Obviously, it is a scale, but it’s a good general rule. Now think about the population centers of the world. Where do all the people live? Southeast Asia. Europe. Eastern United States. The west coast of Australia. Japan. The list goes on. These areas are predominantly green. The only significant exception to this rule is the Middle East, but those civilizations started in the river valleys, primarily of the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, prone to seasonal flooding and deposits of rich soils.

The non-brittle environments are easy places to be successful in agriculture. There is always plenty of water for humans and our crops. The soil is always trying to build itself up. Heck, just leave it fallow for a couple of years, and the weeds move in and build the soil back for us. Because of this, these areas are where we had the stability and prosperity to settle down and develop civilization, including institutions of higher learning. They are where science was developed. They are where that science was used to study the best way to maintain crops and soil fertility.

So what’s the big deal? Why is this such an important idea? Well, the first thing is a subtle point, but like most subtle points, makes all the difference in the world. Brittleness doesn’t indicate the amount of water an environment receives, but rather the consistency of available moisture, including humidity. See, an environment functions by breaking down organic matter from one organism to another until it is returned to its constituent parts, returned to the soil, then upcycled into plants to begin the process again. Every level of this process requires available moisture to break down organic material.

When I first moved to Prescott, AZ in 2002, there was a rather large tree, probably 30’ tall, that was right next to a highway I traveled regularly. The tree had already been dead long enough that it had lost all of its bark and all of its small branches. But the large branches and the trunk remained. It wasn’t for another 4 or 5 years that it really started losing the big branches in earnest. It was probably around 2010 that the tree finally lost its last branch and a little after that that it fell over. In a nonbrittle environment, this process wouldn’t have taken more than a few years rather than the probably 15 or more it took in this brittle environment. And Prescott is probably a 7 on the brittleness scale.

When an environment is extremely dry and has little to no rain for long periods (Prescott can go 5 to 6 months at a time with no rain at all), the biological processes that drive can only operate for, at most, a couple of months out of the year. So how does the ecosystem function without the extra moisture?

It turns out that nature is extremely adaptable, and perennial bunching grasses end up being key to brittle ecosystems. They do several things for the ecosystem. At the beginning of the rainy season, the grasses expend stored energy from their roots, sacrificing the roots and pushing their blades skyward as fast as possible. Once they are full grown, they make use of the fertility in the soil, the available rain, and plentiful sunshine to replenish the stored energy in their roots. Once the roots are ready, they produce seed heads and go dormant, usually about the time their rainy season is over. There they will sit until the next rainy season.

But they have some pretty strict requirements. They can be grazed during the rainy season, but if they are overgrazed during this time, they won’t have the energy to store in their roots and take full advantage of next year’s rainy season. They also need to be grazed completely before next year’s rainy season. If the dead foliage isn’t removed, the new foliage will be choked out just as it is trying to grow. Lastly, it needs a heavy dose of fertilizer. I’ll get into the animal impact needed to make this happen in my next post.

One of the most important impacts of this environment is how it manages its own water. The annual cycle of the grasses sacrificing their roots and growing new ones has the effect of “pumping” carbon into the soil. That carbon feeds the soil microbes and increases fertility. More importantly, for every 1% increase in soil carbon, every acre has the ability to store an ADDITIONAL 60,000 gallons of water. So if there is only one percent carbon in a field, it can only store 60,000 gallons of water when the rains come. But if you can get that number up to 5%, the same acre of land can store 300,000 gallons of water. And the prairie grasses can send their roots 6 feet or more into the soil, helping that water penetrate deep into the soil, where it will be stored.

Most brittle environments are prone to heavy rains when the rains do come. Without this natural cycle and a healthy grassland ecosystem, the soil carbon is lost and the water runs off, causing erosion as well as lost moisture. When the grasslands are restored to a more natural system, so much water is stored that ephemeral streams often start flowing again, providing a permanent supply of water to the animals that roam in these environments.

Grassland ecosystems can be some of the most productive on the planet, but only if the natural processes that make them so are fully understood and upheld. If the right level of animal impact is fostered, these ecosystems can begin the process of self-repair in just a couple of years and provide a great source of solar dollars (I’ll talk about that one in two posts).

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Holistic Management

La Inmaculada Ranch, Hermosillo Mexico before Holistic
Management - 77% bare soil, 23% soil crust, 3 species of
perennial grasses
Every now and then I find a concept that just blows my mind. Not because it is difficult to understand, but because it shifts my worldview and causes me to see the world around me in a whole new light. Often, the new information latches onto a generally accepted concept that just bothers me. It nags at the back of my mind because it doesn’t feel true, but everyone accepts it as true because they have been told it is. But then this new idea comes along and adds clarity to the issue.

In this case, the idea that never made sense to me is that agriculture, particularly the raising of cattle, is responsible for some huge percentage, about 9%, of global production of greenhouse gasses. In reading most articles, the assumption is that it isn’t just poorly managed stocks. Most make the assumption that it is the cows themselves and it couldn’t possibly be any other way. That makes no sense to me. Pretty much all of the grasslands of the world were home to great herds of large hoofed animals before man came along. Herds of bison in the North American Great Plains were reported to be in the tens of millions of animals. So how could it possibly be that the natural, healthy condition was home to that many large animals, but now we can’t possibly handle a similar number without doing severe damage to our atmosphere and environment?

The answer came from a biologist named Allan Savory. I have written about him before, but have since learned much more about his ideas and methods and I have to say that I am sold. The answer is quite simply that, as humans, our centers of population and learning are mostly in areas that have consistent moisture throughout the year. These are very productive ecosystems that support large populations and we know well how to keep them healthy and productive. They also tend to be conducive to growing forests.

The grasslands of the world, on the other hand, operate completely differently.  The inconsistent moisture won’t support as many trees, but rather favors a completely different type of environment, one dominated by perennial grasses. As I mentioned before, this cycle of plant growth and decomposition is the primary cycling of nutrients in an ecosystem, and the primary driver of life. Because of the inconsistent availability of moisture, the moisture required to biologically break down organic matter and foster the creation of the soil is simply not present for much of the year. This means that as a plant (in this case, the grasses) grows during the wet season, it produces body mass. As it runs through its annual cycle and sheds biomass, the biomass doesn’t simply fall to the ground and decompose.  So how does the grassland ecosystem function?

It turns out that a completely different method of decomposition is utilized by the grasslands. The decaying grasses get the moisture they need to decompose in the gut of large ruminant animals, such as cows and bison. The animals then deposit the proto-soil in the form of urine and dung. This then continues to decompose and fertilize the soil.

Same location as above, after 36 years of using Holistic
Management practices. 25% bare soil, 1% soil crust, 11
species of perennial grasses
However, the whole process is very fragile and is contingent on several factors. The right kind of animal impact needs to be maintained. The grasses rely heavily on the top of the plant being removed by the animals between the completion of the growing season and the beginning of the next growing season. Some of this happens via eating and some happens via trampling. This happens best in the presence of huge herds that are bunched and excited because of the presence of pack hunting predators, such as lions. In this configuration, huge numbers of animals are constantly on the move. They consume the bulk of the tops of the plants, trample on the rest, and fertilize what’s left. When the next rainy season comes around, the perennial grasses are ready to leap off and complete their life cycle.

But when this cycle is disrupted, such as is the case over most of the land masses on the planet, the grasses don’t get the cycle of stress and rest they need to best complete their life cycle. Most of the grasslands of the world are either overgrazed or over-rested, both equally damaging to the perennial bunching grass.

This is an important environmental factor. As I mentioned previously, the soil is a living thing. It needs to be fed, and it eats decomposing organic matter, mostly plant. In the grasslands, a small percentage of this comes from the animal dung, but really, the bulk of it comes from the grasses themselves. See, in order to take advantage of the brief rainy season, the grasses store a huge amount of energy in their roots. At the start of the rains, the grasses shoot skyward, sacrificing those roots. They pull the energy from the roots and allow them to die. Once the grass is to the proper height, they begin the process of storing energy, growing new roots. The old roots then decompose and feed the soil. This happens every year. The bunch grasses in essence pump carbon into the ground to feed the soil.

As you might imagine, this is the single biggest carbon sink on the planet, one that is currently not functioning, causing the soils to lose carbon to the atmosphere rather than storing it in almost every grassland on the planet (about 60% of Earth’s landmasses). But the effects aren’t just damaging to global warming. See, the carbon in the soil, stored as humus, turns the soil into a giant sponge. When the monsoon rains come, healthy grasslands with heavy amounts of humus in the soil soak up the bulk of the rain. This stores the water in the soil, allowing more and healthier grass to grow and creating a positive feedback loop. But when the process is disrupted, the carbon disappears from the soils, causing the soils to form a water-repelling crust, which increases flooding and erosion while exacerbating the problem.

Holistic Management was developed by Allan Savory as a series of techniques to best replicate the impact of the great herds without actually restoring the great herds. Cows, sheep, and goats are typically used to create the restoration, but have to be managed carefully to simulate the correct type of impact.

There are a bunch of really important concepts from Holistic Management, many more than can be outlined on a blog. I’ll select a couple of the more important concepts to delve deeper into over the next several blog posts. Over the next couple of posts, I will talk about the Brittleness Scale, Animal Impact, and the concept of Solar Dollars. After that , I can delve into some of the possible ways Holistic Management can be used to make real, positive change in the world.