Systems and farming have been on my mind lately. Most of this is probably the result of spending many, many months putting in a new microjet irrigation system. The goal of the system is to better use one of our most precious resources, water. What I didn’t anticipate in this process was the degree to which the system needed to be fine tuned. In the old way, we turned on the pump and simply let the water flood out into the orchard. It was a method of irrigation designed to get the most out of a good thing. And after all, it’s not like we were going to ever run out of water…
But today, we are not so sure. And like a lot of good things that need to happen in order to preserve our future, sometimes we have to be incentivized to make those tough choices now. Enter our new microjet water system. Efficient, manageable, the very expression of conservation. And let’s face it, it doesn’t hurt at the NRCS is providing grants to farmers to install these systems. In fact, thank God they are, because this system has demanded a lot of fine tuning, so much so that my lesser self might have been tempted to throw in the towel if not for the need to meet the NRCS criteria…but I digress. Anyway, that’s not the only system I’ve been thinking about…
The Dehesa is located in central and southern Spain, as well as parts of Portugal. It is, simply put, a system. Or rather, it is an ancient expression of systems and farming. I was introduced to it in Dan Barber’s, The Third Plate, a great read about the shortcomings of industrial agriculture and (gasp) Farm-to-Table efforts in America. It is oak trees and acorns, pigs and poultry, soil and Spanish fighting bulls (think Ferdinand). While a full description would far be too long for this post, suffice it to say that each of the participants in this system, is no more important than the other. And equally, none is less important than the other. The soil feeds the oak, which feeds the pig, which feeds the soil, which feeds the bull, which feeds the soil, which feeds the… you get the picture. This simplification doesn’t come close to describing the intricacy of the system, but it does serve to demonstrate the interdependence.
What really got me thinking wasn’t the system itself, but how the people have found a way to fit into it. And “fit into it” is really the key. Harvesting the cork, managing the pig, enticing the goose (the Dehesa is home to Eduardo Sousa, a story in himself), the farmers of the Dehesa have found a way to become a part of the system. As a result, they have been able to harvest cork from oaks that continue to thrive after 200 years, produce the world’s best ham (Jamon Iberico), and create foie gras from geese without gavage. How this system continues in the modern world is likely a product of its poverty. Poor soil, poor people, poor markets. Perhaps it’s the inability to exploit the system that allows the system persist, or perhaps it’s a necessary reliance on the system that has encouraged the inhabitants to be a part of it. Either way, a partnership exists, with each participant taking something and giving something. The result is a system that has the ability to replenish itself, to produce unparalleled foods, and equally, to demand balance and contribution. In Spain, this system of ecology and climate is referred to as the “tierra.” However, many of us may be more familiar with the French word, “terrior.” It’s more than the sum of its parts, it is everything: soil, climate, animal, plant.
And what has struck me lately is how little this type of system has found it’s way into “modern” agriculture. Rather than seeking to understand, we seek to dominate. If the conditions don’t suit our desired monocultural needs, we irrigate, fumigate and eradicate. Furthermore, we try to bend nature to our will, and then we exploit, first by sterilizing the soil, then by flooding it with petrochemicals to “boost” its productive capacity. Mitigation is key, integration is maligned. We value productivity over quality and measure it in yield not years. In America, more is often better… in a system of farming like the Dehesa, it feels like better is better. We’re working against the clock, they’re working with the clock. We won’t settle for anything less, they’ve learned to settle for less if it preserves the system.
In the end, it brings me back to our little farm. In the past, we opened the valves, flipped the switch and let’er rip. Water poured forth in unmitigated fashion, flooding the orchard from tip to tail. No adjustments, no fine tuning, no adaptation, just unfettered irrigation. If some water was good, more water was better…what could be the harm? But that was then, this is now. We started thinking about the future. And thinking about the future takes time. Like this microjet system, it’s required some adjustments and some fine-tuning. We’ve worked and measured, dialed-in and measured again. We’re trying to do better with less. We’re working on a system, one that will be measured not by how much we use, but by how much we can conserve. So, for 2017, we will be working to better understand our part in the bigger system: the soil and the seeds, the decaying leaves, the cover crop, the chickens and the trees. How can we become a beneficial participant in the bigger system? How can we learn from those who went before? Perhaps, by standing on their shoulders, we can kneel on the ground and dig a little deeper? It should be a great beginning…again.