My niece Ellie inspecting her mom's diverse vegetable garden.
How do we feed a growing population while still feeding the soil what it needs to truly produce nutritious and delicious food? Since starting to farm 6 years ago, this has been a question that I ponder frequently.
For me, it all comes back to diversity in farming. Nutrition, flavour, health, everything all needs diversity in order to thrive. It's just like the human race, my grandma always says how boring would it be if we were all the same. Diversity is what makes us thrive and flourish and grow. Imagine eating potatoes every day for the rest of your life. You'd get tired of them pretty quick. We need diversity in our diets to be satisfied and healthy. The soil is the same way. It needs a diverse variety of crops and animals in order to thrive, stay satisfied and optimally healthy. I don't think the way that our current widespread or 'mainstream' system of farming is set up incorporates enough diversity - whether organic or conventional. Most soil in Saskatchewan gets a rotation that looks something like this: wheat, canola, barley with some rye and flax thrown in there somewhere in the mix. That's like you eating potatoes, corn and chicken every day with a little rice and milk thrown in there every now and then. To me that sounds downright awful. I love different types of food and I know my body needs different types of food to really thrive. We need a huge array of minerals every day in order to really thrive. The same can be said for our soil and for our oceans. I would get bored with the lack of flavour in my food, and my body would also get depleted pretty quick without a wide variety of vitamins and minerals hitting me every day to help every part of my body flourish. I think our soil is suffering from some serious boredom and depletion.
I visited BC this summer, and that province always strikes a bit of awe in me. As a whole, they are far more appreciative of nature than we are in Saskatchewan. You can get a $2000 fine for littering - there's not much litter around out there. Very different from here, where I often see fast food bags and beer bottles littering the ditches. I've noticed this before, how the air feels cleaner out there, the people seem more connected - they're out hiking, biking, swimming, cliff jumping, adventuring! But this time, I really started to ponder on this and think of why there is this stark contrast between the two provinces. I think a huge part of it is that we are so much less connected to nature. In BC, nature is wild! The trees are tall, there's ferns and shrubs and wildflowers almost everywhere you look. We saw lots of deer, a bear, some wild horses. There are of course patches of forest that are controlled by logging etc, but I didn't see much of that on our drive through the mountains. What I saw was wild, beautiful and raw nature. Nature that makes you stop and really take a minute to appreciate your surroundings.
We don't have much nature like that here in Saskatchewan. As soon as we popped out of the mountains back on to the open plains, I started to notice the control popping up. Endless fields of yellow canola and green waves of wheat. That's not nature in the raw, that's very much controlled. And honestly, there is no one to blame for this. The reality is the world needs to eat and the prairie provinces are a great place to plant millions of acres of wheat, canola etc. to meet this very important demand. If it were up to me, everyone would have enough to eat, enough to drink and a safe place to sleep every night. Perhaps we can get there, perhaps we can't but I choose to believe that a world that beautiful is possible. And in all this thinking I've been doing about wild and raw nature, about how the world needs to eat, I'm starting to really believe that what we need to not only feed our growing population but to also maintain or re-create our connection with nature is more diversity.
Mono-cropping came about in the 1950s, and it came out of very pure intentions. Hunger was a very real and very pressing issue at that time - as it still is today - and Dr. Norman Borlaug came up with a way to help deal with this issue. He was a wheat breeder, and he found a Japanese dwarf wheat that he cross bred with to create a shorter wheat. Then, he added a chemical fertilizer to pump up the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to create larger yields. It was of course far more complicated than that I'm sure, but that's the basic gist of what happened. The results were huge! Harvests doubled, almost tripled the first couple of years. It is said that Dr. Borlaug saved 1 billion lives with this new revolution in farming. That is absolutely phenomenal! For awhile, it likely seemed that all the worry about hunger was gone. The harvests were bountiful and many of the hungry were fed. Life was good. But the thing is, in doubling or tripling the harvest yield, what they also did was double or triple the amount that they took from the soil every year. For a more bountiful harvest, more is needed from the soil. With the wheat stalks being shorter, less was being given back to the soil every year. While we were happily feeding ourselves and our neighbours, the soil was slowly dying. But with no voice, no advocate, and no way to really communicate that with the world, it went unnoticed for quite some time. I'm sure there were a few farmers back then who thought of this, in fact I know there were. These were the farmers that I descended from. I'm not certain I would have said no to the new varieties of wheat and the chemicals that could double your yields had I been a farmer back then. Higher yields means more income for a farmer, and of course all those hungry people! What I'm still learning and realizing is how important the health of our soil is. My dad knows this, it seems as if he's always known this. My family who farmed our land before him must have known this too. Somehow, they just had it figured out - like they could see the future and knew that if the soil got depleted, we would be feeding our growing population but the food would be depleted just like the soil and we would see a whole host of new problems pop up. Problems like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, ADHD, autism, SIDS, dementia and the list goes on. Our North American population has an alarming amount of health problems and they sure don't seem to be getting any better. Could it be that these health problems are directly related to our malnutritioned soil? From where I'm standing, it looks like these two things are definitely related. Now the real question is, how do we continue to feed a growing population, while also feeding our soil. Here we are again, back at diversity. It is my current answer for everything.
Before the dawn of mono-cropping, farms looked very different. There were many more of them around, and they had a lot more diversity. There would be a huge vegetable garden, some chickens, cows, and pigs, and of course some wheat. And all of these things would be rotated around the farm in a very specific and very important way. That type of farm is essentially it's own little ecosystem, if it's done properly. It can produce nutritious and flavourful food. Imagine milk fresh from the cow, or butter that's been freshly churned. Eggs fresh from the hen and carrots just plucked from the ground. Food like that is seriously delicious. I always anxiously await my first garden fresh tomato because it is so much better than what I can get in the store. Fresh food simply tastes better. And that can be said about all food, including our staple grain - wheat.
So my question remains: how do we feed a growing population while still feeding the soil what it needs to truly produce nutritious and delicious food? I still don't have the answer, because there are a lot of people in this world and I am but one person. I cannot feed everyone on this earth. But what I can do, is create as much diversity on my farm as I possibly can to produce the absolute best grain that I can. There is so much to learn and understand about nature and how to properly care for land. The more I learn about it, the more I realize that I have to learn. I'm sure my view of how to nurture the land will change and grow over the years and perhaps my current view is not right at all. I strive to maintain an open mind and am constantly looking for ways to improve my impact on the world around me - specifically the land that has been entrusted to my care.
On our farm, my family strives to not only produce healthy, bountiful crops but to also positively impact the ecosystem that we are a part of. This is the way it has always been done since my great grandfather MacKenzie homesteaded here in 1890 and this is the way I hope it is always done. There is a beautiful, humbling feeling that comes with connecting with the world around us. To me it really is an honour to carry on our family's tradition of striving to care for nature in the best way possible while still feeding our families and our bank accounts.
Feel free to comment below as to whether you agree or disagree! Parts of this piece were inspired by a talk by Dan Barber that you can view by clicking here.