Red Shoulder Hawk

Red Shoulder Hawk

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Bare Earth Farming

Driving along Hwy 120 between Manteca and Oakdale these past months, I've been watching the corn and almond crops. Signs are posted clearly showing the corn is a Eureka hybrid, and a quick visit to their website suggests all their hybrid seeds are GMOs. Driving that stretch of road, it's like twenty miles of scraping my fingernails on a chalkboard.
The uniform, emerald green of 12-foot-tall corn, ears held close to stalks, gave way last week to fields stripped bare. The fields are now upon row of clay-colored dirt, with fragments of leaves blowing about. The signs are gone. A fine dust fills the air. Is the corn being processed into tortillas? Ethanol? I don't know.

The road and sky are dustier still as I pass the almond groves. Great columns of dirt fill the sky. I cannot see the machine inside the maelstrom, but it appears that it is designed to scrap the meager bit of grass off the ground, a sort of mechanized goat, leaving bare earth between the almond trees. I know grass steals nutrients from trees with shallow feeder roots... but what nutrients are in this soil? It's scarcely soil at all!

I am so glad to get back to my own garden. We're harvesting tomatoes like crazy, there are plenty of greens to saute, our tubers are tubering, fresh herbs jump out all over the place, squash and beans are over-ripening, the strawberries are giving up their last fruit of the year and there is no bare soil. There is no room for weeds, with everything growing all amongst each other, mutually supporting each other, nitrogen fixers next to nitrogen feeders, and the soil is so rich you almost want to eat it.

I admit there is currently no way a farmer could plant the way we have and create a harvestable crop; our garden is designed for frequent harvesting, allowing the plants to act as our larder, giving up their bounty in a near constant trickle. But I look at the soil going into the sky, and I look at the complete removal of biomatter from the field, and I look at the dead earth between the almond trees, and I wonder if even a little bit of intercropping would be beneficial?

How nutritious can those almonds possibly be? An almond tree in its natural environment is part of an entire guild of plants. Although I shudder to adopt a reductionist tactic, aren't there two or three plants that could be grown along with the almonds, sheltering the earth, supporting the health of the trees, and even offering additional income streams to the farmer?

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