The Problem of Agriculture
Much attention has been given to implicating agriculture in the greatest problems of our time: mass extinction, climate chaos, and environmental injustices. With important exceptions, little attention has been given to developing solutions that address the root causes of these problems. Most efforts have instead relied on incremental improvements to mitigate biodiversity loss, carbon emissions, and soil and water resource degradation. These are problems in agriculture.
The problem of agriculture, as Wes Jackson put it, however, may be the system itself: annual crops grown in monocultures that require massive fossil inputs. By radically reworking these components of dominant agricultural production systems, our mission is to fix the problem of agriculture.
Looking to nature
Our basic strategy is to develop agricultural systems modeled after an exceptionally productive ecosystem: the savanna. In natural savannas, once common throughout the corn belts and bread baskets of the world, life flourishes in diversity. Savannas protect soil, regenerate nutrients, filter water, sequester carbon, harbor wildlife, and contribute to human well-being. Our premise is that agricultural savannas can also function this way, taking the form of natural savannas, but with intentionally-designed and intensively-managed combinations of plants and animals that are valuable to humans for food, fuel, and fiber.
We are not starting from scratch, nor are we alone in this vision. We call our savanna-mimicking agriculture “production agroforestry,” since a body of research and policy already uses this terminology. A pivotal goal of this emerging, integrated paradigm is replacement of annual grains grown in monoculture – which supply the bulk of the human diet and commodity demand – with calories harvested in staple quantities from perennial plants grown in polyculture with integrated livestock. Nature works this way, powered by linked cyclical systems, without fossil inputs. Our agriculture must aim to do likewise.
[ an example of a Midwestern oak savanna ]
Production agroforestry is a novel, transformative solution to the problem of agriculture. It leverages highly productive tree and shrub crops grown in polyculture with integrated livestock. This integrated system can provide many economic and ecological advantages over the conventional production agriculture system.
Key economic drivers include:
- Overyielding: more production per acre by
growing multiple crops in the same field
- Crop analogs: existing annual crop value
chains leveraged for new perennial crops
- Resilience via product diversification
Key ecological benefits include:
- Carbon sequestration
- Soil and nutrient stabilization
- Biodiversity enhancement
- Resilience to ecological pressures
[ Production Agroforestry at New Forest Farm in Southwest Wisconsin ]
Two Highlighted Tree Crops
While production agroforestry farms can leverage a wide diversity of tree and shrub crops, two crops that are most often discussed in the Midwest are chestnut and hazelnut. These two tree crops constitute a complimentary pair analagous to the corn-soybean combination that currently dominates the Midwestern landscape.
High-starch nut from a non-masting canopy tree species that is functionally analogous to corn.
High-protein and high-oil nut from a large shrub that is functionally analogous to soybean.