Far from pursuing the American vision of “amber waves of grain”, this farmer from the south west of England has been growing 500 different types of food for 20 years in what appears to be a temperate forest.
Known as “agroforestry,” Martin Crawford’s garden is wild yet domesticated – a forest capable of producing tons of food with just a few hours of work a month.
“What we consider normal in terms of food production is actually not normal at all,” explains Crawford in a National Geographic short about his wonderfully tangled forest garden.
Annuals are very rare in nature, yet most of our agricultural fields are full of annuals. The normal is a wooded or semi-wooded system ”.
The word ‘system’ here is important, because while normal farmers seek to isolate certain parts of natural systems for complete control (a tactic that has become incredibly successful thus far), the success of Crawford’s garden depends on it being keep as a fully functional and complex place. ecosystem.
Getting back to normal
These could be food-producing crops, but also what he calls system plants, those that aid in nitrogen distribution or mineral buildup, or others that attract pollinating species that eat pests.
In addition, it cultivates utilitarian plants such as those for weaving fibers, basketry, medicinal plants and also plants for fine woods. It even has fruit bushes spliced in Soviet Cold War-era labs.
“It can seem a bit overwhelming, there are so many different species,” he admits. “You shouldn’t let that stop you from starting a project because you don’t have to know everything to get started, just get started, plant some trees, and go from there.”
However, over time, agroforestry systems become so large and perennial that they naturally eliminate most of the work one associates with farming or gardening. Since everything is there to stay, there is no need to till and re-till the soil, add manure, fertilizer or nitrogen.
The canopy will retain moisture in the weed, which means that eventually, you won’t even need to water your garden.
A more sustainable system
This lack of tillage pressure eliminates one of the major land use changes associated with human carbon emissions. “Because, of course, when [till] to the ground, a carbon load goes into the air, “explains Crawford in another film about his farm.
Furthermore, it releases micronutrients and exposes fungi, bacteria and other vital microorganisms to sunlight, often killing them, reducing the biodiversity of soil particles.
But the real sustainability of an agroforestry system comes from its diversity of species.
“It is not the gradual increase in temperatures that damages plants, it is the increase in extreme events,” he explains in the Nat Geo film. “By having a very diverse system, whatever happens with the weather, most of your crops will probably do well; some will fail, others may do better.”
That’s very important, Crawford explains, because for the next 30 years farmers will be under constant threat from a changing climate and will have to be able to quickly identify which species of fruits and vegetables are capable of withstanding such threats.
A growing global movement
Agroforestry is planting firm roots and growing strongly in farm families in Europe and North America. Some are even attempt to bring the practice to infamously destructive oil palm plantations in the tropics.
At the beginning of this year, GNN reported that 59,400 square miles of land (15.4 million hectares) are currently used in Europe for agroforestry, of which 15.1 million are livestock agroforestry, while in the US, the 2017 Census of Agriculture found more than 30,000 farms using agroforestry practices, in states as varied as Texas, Virginia, Oregon, Missouri and Pennsylvania.
“In this country [the UK] In particular, you know, farmers don’t usually know much about trees and foresters don’t know much about agriculture. And agroforestry, which is in the middle of the two, therefore seems quite difficult for people like farmers to access because they are not comfortable with trees, so that’s a potential problem, ”Crawford said in a movie about his garden from 2010.
It may be necessary for them to do so. Agroforestry systems can produce varying amounts of a huge variety of foods; its three-dimensional nature compensates for the lack of production potential of a traditional farm.
However, organic farming, which is often seen as an effective alternative, require an average of 500% more land to feed the UK current yields, while undesirably producing 170% more greenhouse gases due to the need to use land abroad, create natural fertilizers and import the difference in lost production.
Hopefully, Martin Crawford can inspire a generation of forest farmers through his groundbreaking work, attracting both dedicated farmers and lazy people who only feel like working a few hours a month.
(WATCH the National Geographic short on Martin below).
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