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Sustainable Food Systems – A Matter of Design

Can we build a perennial agriculture landscape that can adapt to a more unstable climate while producing the fruits, vegetables, lean meats, healthy lives, economies and ecology that we need?

We say yes. But to do so, we must find a new rhythm. One that flows with the seasons, the ecology, and our humane principles. And we have to bring all of these together to build the rural-urban connections needed to scale up a more resilient system across the board: from the engagement of the natural ecology in producing what we need, to the democratization and diversification of system ownership and control, so that everyone has a fair chance to participate in these business management systems and processes. Processes that need to be in place to get the wheels turning and the systems’ products flowing.

First off, we already have proof and know that we can restore landscapes with free range meat and egg poultry. This sub-system alone supports the production of nut bushes and trees, and can be used to finish very high quality pork if adequately scaled.

Chickens

Alongside this intense production nimble use of alley cropping systems advances soil quality and quantity,  increases production through grain rotation like corn and sunflowers, and provides a perfect bird habitat, all while keeping meat poultry as the main business proposition.

Adjacent lands can be fertilized for the production of fruits with manure from shelters while adding either perennial or annual alley crops such as asparagus, onions, garlic and other perennial/annual combinations. For some kinds of fruits (e.g. Elderberries), alley cropping can include perennial grains that are harvested and fed back to the poultry. The options abound once the landscape management system is in place and designed for scalability rather than a farm level project-based strategy.

But this is just the beginning!

The full equation of this system optimizes outputs while almost eliminating outside inputs by interlinking over 14 enterprise sectors with a multitude of potential farming operations. Value added, marketing, distribution and  a host of other opportunities are clustered to optimize outputs and minimize inputs into the system here as well.

All of this means no dangerous pesticides and unnecessary pollutants getting into our landscape from field to fork. And when rain falls, it is not only landing in a non-polluted environment, but enters into a system that slows it down and allows it to replenish our aquifers and wells instead of going down the drain tiles into ditches and rivers.

Perennial root systems increase yields while avoiding soil erosion, allowing it to build up biologically and physically. This increases the capture of CO2 and other gasses in the air by turning them into biomass (cellulosic), or trapping them through the soil biota, exponentially increasing the transformation of this energy into plant food. This helps building the system’s capacity and resiliency through the restoration of full cycles of naturally occurring chemical elements and the restoration of resilient natural nutrient synthesizing processes which happen to be much more efficient than artificially manipulated conventional agriculture systems. The grain yield per acre may be much reduced as compared to conventional monocultures, but the total energy yield of integrated yet specialized and scalable systems will always be greater.

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This conclusion is the result of measuring total inputs and energy outputs, rather than looking at bushels per acre.

Once the lost energy (to hydric and aeolian forces, gasification of elements, loss of restorative and resiliency, lack of improvement of the system on its own, etc.) is subtracted from the gross yield, the reduced yield equation for conventional systems may come as a surprise.

By contrast, the system we’re developing in SE Minnesota produces actual foods rather than raw materials that will require many more units of energy as they make their way into other unnatural chains, for example corn fed to cows and pigs, something that nature never intended to be so energy intensive to begin with.

The net yield per acre is achieved system-wide by aggregating each poultry paddock and each related acreage engaged as part of the chain of enterprises. This is done in ways that allow for specialization and a healthy level of diversity and rotational flexibility.  For example, one single input (poultry feed) delivers poultry meat, edible nuts, fruits, vegetables, fish and feed grains.

With up to three products from the same acreage (poultry, nuts, grains) plus the naturally-produced ground level poultry food, the system gives food production as a process of energy transformation a whole new meaning. Nuts, from both a biomass and an end use value measure, can come close to outcompeting a monoculture soybean acre, while delivering a product of higher value that is also healthier. And most importantly, it is not even the central component of the yield from that same acre, but merely a by-product of the free range poultry system.

The wealth that comes from scalable, integrated, managerially flexible, economically agile systems and their multitude of social, economic and ecological benefits almost sounds too good to be true. Luckily, at Main Street Project, we have built the first prototype of this system integration strategy and are now documenting the specific attributes in order to scientifically test and substantiate these claims through solid data.

_DSC0035Avoiding the high costs of pollution and the export of our local ecological wealth (down the drainage tile, up into the air, losing underground water to contamination, etc.) means we can sustain systems like this for a long time while the system itself grows stronger. Yields increase year after year as inputs are further reduced and system maturity delivers better quality and volumes. But the most important characteristic of this arrangement in the times we are living in is that as a living system it evolves with the changing climate, adapts itself or provides consistent data and indicators so that as systems scientists are better prepared to improve and evolve as well. Compare this approach to our obsession with trying to artificially outpace nature’s billions of years of “evolutionary R&D”.

The challenge: We need all hands on deck – especially landowners and consumers. The opportunity: we think that with clarity of purpose we can build a movement for a new system. It just makes common sense. We can’t fix all of our food issues, but can start by setting the tone and framework for how we can approach these and many other challenges of our time.