Krofting: Farming as if Water, CO2 and Sustainability Really Matter

The following is a guest blog post from Southern Arizona farmer and "krofter" Kyle Young.

I’ve been pleased to participate with Native Seeds/SEARCH on the two-year Heritage Grain Growers Collaborative project by growing Chapalote corn. This project dovetails nicely with my “krofting” approach to farming and I thank NS/S for allowing me this opportunity to write about it here.

Upon reading this, those familiar with their work may detect influences from Ruth Stout, Rudolf Steiner, Sir Albert Howard and Wes Jackson, whose “Land Institute” near Salina, Kansas was just an hour’s drive from where I grew up. Being raised in an extended farming family in Kansas certainly left an indelible agricultural mark on me, but I am indebted to these four people for providing the basis for the agricultural aspects of krofting.

Crofting (with a “c”) is an ancient sustainable farming system that was apparently introduced to the European continent via the Moors after they conquered the Iberian Peninsula (711-718 AD). As a system imposed by landed aristocrats, crofting lacked social amenities. However, tenants holding 5 to 50 hectare crofts within a particular estate only had to pay taxes on the land—usually in the form of a portion of the production from the croft (crops, wool, meat, eggs)—not on any improvements the crofter made. Crofters were also allowed to pass the croft on to their offspring. Often the only means of income for crofters came from their croft and the only thing ever bequeathed to offspring was the croft itself. Crofters didn’t have the luxury of pursuing sustainability as an altruistic goal; for them, sustainability and survival went hand in hand. Poor management could result in hunger, loss of the croft, or leaving a worthless piece of land to pass on to offspring. The latter would have been frowned upon by their landlord and all neighboring crofters.

Resources like the stones, wood or thatch, that crofters used to build homes, barns or fences were derived locally from their own croft, their neighbors’ croft, or a “commons” area that could be used by all the crofters of a particular estate to graze livestock. These constructs birthed a vernacular architectural style that blended in and spoke volumes about a particular place—something sorely lacking in the U.S. Today, there are only about 30 families left that still practice crofting, all in northern Scotland.

Success for crofters was grounded in an intimate, connected, and well-organized approach to working the land—what might be called the “spirit of crofting.” A comparison could be made between the “letter of organic farming” and the “spirit of organic farming” (read on). The “letter” definition of crofting would be: the practice of deriving a living by farming a small land holding within a larger estate. I’ve taken the liberty to change the “c” in crofting to a “k” to create a new word that pays homage to the spirit aspect. I’ve also taken the liberty to broaden the perspective of krofting to denote a shift that brings all the major consumptive aspects of human activity—housing, textiles, transportation, energy and of course and farming—under the umbrella of the “local” movement (the agricultural aspects of krofting being the topic of this blog). In short, a krofter is one who lives sustainably, giving considerable attention to food, housing, clothing, transportation, energy and so on.

Albert Einstein famously said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Obviously a very creative fellow, Einstein often spoke about how intuition and imagination could help find solutions that already exist, but have yet to be seen. Today we quaintly call this “thinking outside the box,” an exercise that seemed to be the forte of Howard, Stout, Steiner and Jackson.

As will be pointed out, modern agriculture has contributed greatly to problematic issues surrounding water and CO2. It would seem that these four people “saw” some things ahead of their time that are now more pertinent than ever.

 

RETAINING WATER

The solar powered pump in my well is only capable of pumping seven gallons per minute under ideal solar conditions. When the sun goes down, so does the pump. On top of that, due to clouds and other factors, my pump only runs at peak capacity during 25% of daylight hours. In short, I’m able to utilize only about 10% of the water I’m allocated. I manage by storing water in the tank seen in the banner photo.

 

After getting the well set up in 1985, I began entertaining visions of fields planted with the historic and nutrient-rich crops that were just then becoming available through NS/S. With ten years of landscape design and installation background I confidently plunged headlong into my first Arivaca garden. The reality of growing crops in this difficult environment was something entirely different than the benign conditions of my Southern California landscape clientele. Disastrous may be overstating how things went, but it was pretty bad. The most memorable crop I grew that first year happened by accident. I had purchased some amaranth seed from NS/S, which I later spilled on the ground near the drip line of the roof of my house.

By the end of the following monsoon, I was rewarded with a crop of vigorous volunteer amaranth containing one primary, but very heavy seed head, borne on a short, stout stalk. To say that this variety withstood lodging would be like saying an oak tree withstands lodging. To this day I have yet to grow amaranth that was as productive as that happy accident growing in unamended soil with just a little extra rainfall runoff. It seems likely that this is the type of fateful fluke that has caused many “aha” moments in agriculture throughout history. It was no less so for me. And Einstein said, “Amen.”

I’ve always admired the farming ability of Native Americans who for millennia wisely allowed weather and topography to dictate their farming practices. When Cortez and Columbus landed here they found a continent untouched by a plow. Yet at the time, Tenochtitlan (now Mexico city) was larger than London and the greater Nahuatl-speaking region was one of the most populous on earth. Those early krofters were highly adept at blending agriculture into existing ecosystems in a non-intrusive fashion to produce an abundance of nutrient-dense food. Their legacy remains today in the form of Mexican milpas, a fine example of agricultural krofting.

We are all dependent on the magnificent legacy of our ancient agricultural forebears. Using tried and true systems developed over many millennia, they have provided us with a wildly diverse array of grains, legumes, seed and livestock. We heed not their insightful, water-thrifty systems at our peril.

Determinations of what we eat and in what season we eat it was once the moral province of the farmers who lived on and worked the land for generations and who understood better than anyone what can be grown and in what season it should be grown. Much of what is wrong with agriculture today is that this formerly intimate decision-making process has been usurped by a handful of elite agri-tech industrialists. The powerful influence of their vast wealth has created a virtual tsunami that has swept along most farmers, including many who once stridently embraced the “spirit” of the organic approach.

For many in this latter group the only option seemed to be: adapt to the new market demands, or fail. Crops formerly grown in a sustainable fashion are now grown in an unsustainable way, transported halfway around the globe and greenwashed as certified organic. By voting with our dollars, we have all participated in outsourcing the decision of what appears on our plate and when it does so. The trend has been for ever-increasing numbers of items to appear year round, organic or not. The amount of wastewater and CO2 generated pulling that off is mindboggling.

A good example of agricultural greenwashing is the recent proliferation of energy intensive, waste-producing greenhouses (a new 13-acre one has just gone in near Amado). The plastic (largely an oil-based product) from these structures has to be replaced often and is accumulating in landfills. These greenhouses serve to reinforce their own artificially-created demand for “out-of-season” crops. They’re also used to supply “local” versions of crops that otherwise cannot be grown in a particular region due to climatic restrictions.

 

 

 

 

 

Perusing the selection of seeds available through NS/S provides ample evidence that a plethora of crops exists that can be grown year round here in Pimeria Alta, without the need to create an artificial, unsustainable environment.

One of the side benefits of going down this krofting path is the flowering of a distinctly regional cuisine. Some regions are already moving in this direction. Seasonal and native wildcrafted foods are gaining ground in the Pacific Northwest as the folly of being able to eat what you want, when you want it, becomes apparent. Now, with the recent publication of its first issue, Edible Baja Arizona is putting Pimeria Alta on the sustainable food map.

Lest we fail to vote with our dollars and return local, sustainable farmers to their proper status as arbitrators of what should be eaten and when, we face an ever-increasing downward spiral in water scarcity—not to mention food quality and diversity.

In my youth, I thought that the thousands of miles of terraces, swales, and shelter belts that the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Work Progress Administration constructed on the farms of my Kansas ancestors in the late ‘30s that helped bring an end to the Dust Bowl were the first of their kind. I was surprised while hiking around Flagstaff and the four corners area in the early ‘70s to find numerous rain water catchments built by Native Americans many hundreds of years before the ones on our farm. Even more interesting was how many were still intact and functioning as originally intended. I later learned that archeologists have discovered similar ancient constructs all over the world. Apparently, to indigenous people everywhere catching rainwater for crop production comes as naturally as butterflies to buttercups. After dropping some amaranth seed near the drip line of my house twenty-eight years ago, it’s easy to imagine how disparate tribes around the world came to view rainwater harvesting as a natural solution to growing crops in marginally arid areas.

Now, hundreds of catchments, check dams, swales, brush diversions, gabions and urbanite terraces later, I’m finally beginning to see the fruits of my own efforts at soil and water conservation in this badly overgrazed and eroded environment.

In the late ‘90s while working in Mexico with the Canelo Project and Fundacion Apoyo del Infantil introducing bamboo as a sustainable crop for building materials, I stumbled across a resource that has become the focus of my approach for building rainwater harvesting systems: broken up slabs of concrete which I affectionately call urbanite. For those who have the means to haul it, this underutilized resource can usually be had for free. Given that the worldwide production of cement accounts for nearly 10% of all greenhouse gasses, reducing the use of new cement and recycling old concrete is a good thing.

The first photo (Page 1) shows the Chapalote corn I grew last summer as part of the NS/S Heritage Grain collaboration project. There you can see a flat “crop terrace” at the base of a small horseshoe-shaped watershed. The minaret water tank sits at the top of the watershed. Note that the corn is heavily mulched with straw. I’ll get back to that.

The second photo (Page 2) shows the urbanite retaining wall of the catchment in the banner photo. Soil was taken from the high end and moved to fill in the low end behind the retaining wall to create a level terrace which allows runoff from the small watershed to spread out and percolate into the crop area where it’s retained in a well mulched, high-capacity soil. By planting Chapalote as the tribes of this region historically did with the advent of the monsoon, aside from initial irrigation to enhance germination, supplemental irrigation was only needed three times during the growing season. Using supplemental irrigation solely to stimulate germination, I’ve grown amaranth in similar catchments without any further irrigation.

Although drip irrigation is considered the ultimate water-conserving way to irrigate, I find it has disadvantages when incorporated into a krofting program. A brief explanation of the cultivation cycle: When virgin soil is turned, billions of members of the wildly diverse soil biome are destroyed with their decomposition resulting in a few brief years of fertility and a release of CO2 into the atmosphere. Ongoing cultivation results in an ever-decreasing community of soil life and an increase in soil density. Density benefits soil capillarity. This is the situation for which drip was designed. I’ve found that heavily mulched, undisturbed (mature) soils riddled with the tunnels of various fauna and decomposed roots often lacks sufficient capillarity for drip to function well. And I want those tunnels intact because they allow water to penetrate well beyond a rototillers reach, enhancing retention capacity.

The other drawback to drip occurs when using it in conjunction with mulch. For humus to form and a healthy soil biome to thrive, mulch wants to be moistened unilaterally from above, as would occur from rain. Drip cannot accomplish this. Drip tape or drip emitters wet only the spot where they are dripping water, leaving the rest of the mulch bone dry—useless for humus production, the greater soil biome, and crops grown in it.

Conventional overhead irrigation overcomes the drip dilemma, but typical overhead irrigation has its own pitfall: typical sprinklers atomize water into very small droplets that increases surface area and hence, evaporation. On a hot, dry, windy day as much as 30% of water can be lost to evaporation before hitting the ground, leaving water that makes it to the ground more alkali. This issue led many of us to adopt drip.

The solution for me has been the use of micro rotary sprinklers that run off of drip tubing. The better ones are designed to throw out nice, fat droplets while minimizing atomization. I strive to keep them as close to the ground as the crop will allow and run the system after sunset, reducing evaporation rates to a negligible level. This also provides crops with an entire dark, cool night to reach full turgidity.

Another big issue faced by farmers in the southwest is illuviation. This is the process by which colloids (clays so fine they remain in suspension in water) and mineral salts are washed down from one layer of soil to a lower layer. It’s caused by the combination of ongoing tillage and irrigation and leads to the development of alkaline soil and a “hard pan” at the bottom reach of tillage equipment. One of the most important services that untilled, well mulched soil performs for me is to keep colloids and mineral salts in suspension, which keeps the soil ph in balance and prevents a hard pan from developing.

CO2 SEQUESTRATION

From production through processing, distribution, refrigeration and cooking, nearly one-fifth of the energy we use in the U.S. goes to putting food on our table. Given that 40% of the food grown in the U.S. gets thrown out, right off the top we could save 40% of that one-fifth by reducing food loss to zero. Much of that loss can be traced directly to our overly complex food system, one that seems to be more efficient at producing CO2 than putting food on our table.

Soil contains more CO2 than the atmosphere and all vegetative matter on earth combined. The capacity of soil to sequester CO2 is enormous. The Rodale Institute states that worldwide regenerative agricultural practices could sequester up to 40% of all CO2 in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, on a planetary scale, the current agricultural paradigm of creating CO2 by burning fossil fuel in farm equipment to release even more CO2 by destroying humus is a major contributor to global warming. As a really small farmer, the amount of CO2 I sequester by krofting amounts to spit in the wind. However, millions of small- to medium-size farmers (the vast majority of us) doing the same thing all over the world could sequester enough CO2 to have a significant effect. And when the vision spreads beyond agriculture to encompass the big picture (housing, textiles, transportation and energy) the effect is compounded by factors too complex to go into here.

Here’s how it works for agriculture. The banner photo shows gleanings from my chicken coops being used to mulch the young Chapalote crop. As this mulch decomposes, it forms humus. As long as humus remains undisturbed it functions as a stable form of carbon sequestration. To turn humus under with a rototiller, a plow, or a shovel releases much of that carbon into the air as CO2, which, as we all know, is the primary contributor to global warming. This is just one of the reasons that, once a catchment is constructed, I never, ever, turn the soil. Following nature’s lead, I simply add carbon (mulch) to the surface of the soil where it becomes sequestered as humus. Mulch also provides great habitat for soil flora and fauna to do their magic—create incredibly fertile soil and sequester even more CO2 within the greater soil biome.

When I probed a little deeper into soil ecology, I found that mycelium—that great conductor of the symphony that is soil fertility—suffers more than most soil components under a tillage regime. (Mycelium are to mushrooms what fruit trees are to their fruit.) In terms of acerage covered, intact mycelium cultures represent some of the largest organisms on earth, taking hundreds, possibly even thousands of years to reach that size.

Various species of mycelium have established symbiotic relationships with many plants, including some crop plants, by intermingling with plant roots on a cellular level to exchange water and nutrients. This means an intact, mature culture covering hundreds (possibly even thousands) of acres has a lot of resources at its disposal. Pulling a plow or running a rototiller across a mature mycelium culture will literally tear it asunder, severing interdependent relationships that may have taken thousands of years to develop. Yes, the soil is most definitely a living thing.

On a planetary scale, mycelium sequesters tremendous amounts of CO2 by producing polysaccharides, a dense form of carbon. The ever-increasing destruction of mycelium by tillage amounts to another implication of farming as a major contributor to global warming. In terms of CO2 production, the use of fossil-fueled farm equipment for tillage is akin to throwing gas on a fire. Another insight about cultivation for me was this: Mycelium, humus and the atmosphere care not one whit about my philosophical bent. A given tractor puling an implement over a given acerage on a conventional farm destroys as much mycelium and contributes as much CO2 to the atmosphere as the same tractor and implement used on the same acerage on an organic farm. I once thought I was a frugal fellow using my small tractor to grow organic crops. I’m now loath to spend time, money, and finite planetary resources using tillage systems that destroy a natural process upon which I cannot improve.

All of this has altered my perspective of soil. Previously, I considered soil a wonderfully malleable medium that served at my discretion. Now when I look at soil, I’m thinking about three things: 1) how to make it hold more water, 2) how to sequester more CO2 within it, and 3) how accomplishing the first two fulfills my ultimate goal of growing the most nourishing food possible.

I’ve come full circle; I now serve soil at its discretion. It has become my teacher. Its relationship with all living beings, its interaction with the atmosphere, and its links to the planetary crust beneath it are all so complex I can only hope to catch a glimpse of understanding before I rejoin it.

So what about those catchments I build that are essentially large zones of soil destruction? While constructing one sizable urbanite catchment garden in 2002, fate intervened again. In an attempt to reduce the amount of soil that I would need to backfill behind the new urbanite retaining wall, I tossed in a number of mesquite branches and old bamboo poles and other organic material and buried the lot. The following monsoon season an impressive flush of mushrooms erupted above the buried material. I didn’t make the connection until that fall when I decided to expand the catchment. While digging, I discovered that the buried branches and poles were highly degraded and riddled with mycelium. I had inadvertently stumbled across nature’s way to rapidly recharge a highly disturbed area with mycelium. Upon pondering this, it makes sense that nature would have a built in recovery system in the event of major landslides, earthquakes and volcanos. Charging the soil with mycelium substrate speeds up mycelium recolonization in disturbed soils by factors that are probably counted in decades.

Upon completion of a garden catchment I like to apply what many regard as the most cantatory of CO2 sequestration materials; biochar (see www.biochar-international.org). Biochar is followed by gleanings from my chicken coop and alpacas. Alpacas are ruminates that, in addition to providing a carbon stable crop of fiber, also serve to compound native effective microorganisms (EMs) via their manure. By the end of the first year, I have some very fertile soil. Fertility is maintained with rotations of leguminous crops and, as mycelium matures and humus develops, ever lighter annual applications of mulch and gleanings from the livestock.

With no tillage equipment, I could not grow row crops without chickens. The chicken coop is centrally located to the four crop areas and a two-acre native pasture. I rotate them into various crop areas as needed or put them out to pasture when the crop areas are in production. This system provides them with fresh forage all year. Chickens scratch to a shallow depth that does little harm to mycelium and, as long as they’re not too long in one area they help create humus. Too long, and they begin to degrade humus.

As my alpaca herd grows, fiber becomes more of a focus here. Because animal fiber degrades very slowly (more slowly than cotton), fiber from fleece-bearing livestock may be the ultimate carbon-stable crop. This is further enhanced when alpacas, which produce the most durable natural fiber, do so by browsing intact native ecosystems that require no cultivation, fertilizer, pesticides or irrigation. Most alpaca fiber produced in the U.S. today is being processed locally. Arizona's thirstiest crop—cotton—ranks near the top in terms of crops that contribute the most to CO2 production. Cotton’s need for excessive cultivation, water, fertilizers, and pesticides is only part of its huge contribution to atmospheric CO2. A large percentage of that footprint is due to most of it being shipped overseas to be made into textiles that are then shipped back to us as clothing, bedding, and towels. And we thought our food traveled a long way!

We have been bequeathed a tremendously important resource that has taken countless generations to perfect. NS/S has become the steward of this resource. Let’s make judicious use of it.

Thanks to the early crofters, as well as the ancient tribal krofters of the Pimeria Alta, and to Wes, Ruth, Sir Albert and Rudolf. Krofting began with all of you.

Kyle Young lives in a passive solar cob house on an 18-acre “off-grid” kroft near Arivaca, Arizona where he raises alpacas on native habitat and is developing a new breed of chicken for the Southwest. He grows much of his own chicken feed and keeps a subsistence garden. His krofting philosophy came about while trying to define what constitutes a truly sustainable lifestyle. Look for his upcoming book on krofting in early 2014. He is available to do on-site evaluations for rainwater harvesting and to provide krofting consultations. To contact Kyle and to learn more about krofting and upcoming workshops go to www.erdakroft.com.