Farm Club looks to the future
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, more than 21 million Americans — 15 percent of the total U.S. Workforce — produce, process and sell the nation’s agricultural resources. But that number may not be sustainable.
The Environmental Protection Agency reported that about 3,000 acres of productive farmland are lost to development alone every day in the U.S.
There are a number of other factors that damage farmland, as well, said Youssef Darwich, president of the Grand Valley State University Farm Club. Among these are climate change, soil erosion, industrial pollution, soil compaction, overgrazing, and irrigation in arid environments, which causes salt accumulation.
Industrial pollution and removing biomass, typically through slash and burning, also contribute to farmland damage, Darwich said.
“This is especially important in rain forests because all the nutrients lie in the biomass and not the soil,” he said.
Biomass is the organic material found in an area, and Darwich is just one of many people interested in preserving that material, as well as restoring it in places where crops can no longer grow.
GVSU owns more than 100 acres of land on Luce Street, surrounding the Sustainable Agriculture Project. Darwich is working on a plan to restore arability, or the ability to grow crops, to 40 of those acres.
“It’s hypothetical (right now), but I want it implemented,” he said. “The building may not be practical, simply because of costs, but the planting techniques are.”
The land in question used to be industrially farmed, and through poor farming techniques, it was rendered useless for farming.
“The practices of the conventional agriculture have caused severe soil compaction, which isn’t a quick or easy fix,” Darwich said.
Two of the main things needed to be done are cover cropping and double digging to restore the land. Double digging is a process that breaks up compacted soil and allows air, nutrients and plant roots to move through it easier.
“On a larger area, we need to plant more cover crops and guide succession towards more trees,” Darwich said. Cover cropping represses weeds, protects the soil from deterioration by rain, and restores nutrients to the soil. When decomposed, the cover crops break down into essential compounds necessary for food crops to grow.
“Restoration projects tend to be dependent on the particular location in question and the extent of the damage done,” said Erin Shelly, a member of the Farm Club. “On a case-by-case basis, that can vary widely both in methods and time required. Generally, however, strictly regarding soil restoration, it would be necessary to incorporate a significant amount of nutrient-rich organic elements — vegetation waste, either straight or composted if you want to speed up the process — and let it lie for a while; years, possibly, to build up a stable and dense microbiotic community that will return the soil structure to a productive state.”
Unfortunately, it is difficult to gauge the arability of farmland — and with less than 1 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product coming from the agricultural industry, according to WorldBank.org, it seems unlikely that the process will be made easier any time soon.
“There is no standard measure, except for the outputs,” Darwich said. “The type of agriculture is also very important. Rocky land may not be suitable for industrial corn production, but it can be great for trees. Any land can be restored and used for agriculture; some areas are simply easier to work with than others.”
Perhaps the biggest hindrance to solving the problem is that degradation takes many years to reverse, and prevention, though preferred, is not always easier.
“In many instances, proper management can solve problems in a matter of five to 10 years,” Darwich said. “(We must) use agriculture that is appropriate to the biophysical climate of the area. This requires observing what nature is already doing and designing our systems accordingly.”
Many states are working to conserve their farmland through various programs, and groups such as the EPA and American Farmland Trust are also working to maintain the integrity of U.S. farms.
For more information on the SAP and the Farm Club, visit www.gvsu.edu/sustainableagproject.