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A monoculture is ugly!

Grazing with Steve Kenyon

Yes, I said it. I know, this goes against every fibre in your body. It goes against everything you learned in college. It goes against what your agrologist tells you. It goes against what your neighbours say and it definitely goes against what your salesman tells you. If that offends you, I am sorry but nature agrees with me. A monoculture is a crop that consists of only one species and very rarely does that occur naturally.

It is human nature for us to be organized and have everything looking pretty and in order. We are trained to do this right from childhood. Life is planned with straight lines, straight roads, straight fences and everything-grouped-together order. Some people are more so than others of course, but that comes down to our upbringing and our personality. If you have attended my school you will know that 70 per cent of the farmers fit into the personality style of an “ant.” They are hard-working, dependable people who are also very resistant to change. This high percentage of one personality type is why most farmers like to do things the same as they have always done. It is hard for us to jump out of a paradigm.

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Then, if you are a “bumblebee,” it’s all about perfect order. Things have to be straight and organized.

The rest of us, the “dragonflies” and “butterflies” are not as hung up these things as we like a little chaos. But we are out numbered in agriculture by a huge margin compared to the “ants” and the “bumblebees.”

My point is, farmers like things to look nice. We are criticized for every crooked fence or for every weed in our field. We are trained that it has to look pretty.

I have a neighbour who is retired and he has been renting out his hayland for many years now. I love going to visit with him as we have some fantastic conversations about old school organic farming. He speaks of his involvement on the organic board back in the day and he always has new (usually old) and interesting information for me to learn. I was floored the last time I stopped in to chat as he is now renting his hayfield out to a conventional “min-till” grain farmer. The hay has been sprayed out and it will be cultivated up very soon. He was convinced by the grain farmer that he would be very happy with how the field will look. All the weeds along the fencelines would be gone, and the field will look perfect. It will look pretty because it will be a monoculture. My argument is, nature does not like a monoculture, and it does not work in straight lines. It is the variety and diversity of species that make the forest beautiful. Native prairies have numerous different types of plants, sometimes hundreds of different species.

Here is the big deal: A polyculture of plants will give you a polyculture of root systems, which gives you a polyculture of soil organisms. And this is when the magic happens. A truly healthy soil that is full of soil bacteria, fungus, earthworms, nematodes, yeasts, protozoa, algae and dung beetles will never need added fertility. Nowhere in nature do you see a nitrogen-deficient plant. This only occurs under our agriculture management. Even if this article offended you already, that’s got to make you wonder why.

A healthy soil is an incredibly complex ecosystem. There are millions and millions of interactions that occur within our soils. If you recall, I call this “my secret underground black market” and it is controlled by the mob! The mob (the plants) produce and control all of the currency (sugar). Everyone in the soil wants sugar. There are millions of soil organisms that constantly broker deals with the mob in the quest to get sugar. For example, a bacteria will produce a molecule of nitrogen and trade it for a molecule of sugar. So the more complex the polyculture of soil organism is, the more fertility your plants are able to receive in exchange for the life-giving sugar. This is a good deal for both sides.

How does this all start? Oh, right. We need to provide a polyculture of plants. So I will say it again: A monoculture is ugly. By removing that polyculture hayfield by chemical control and tillage, how many different species are killed? How many birds, insects, pollinators, earthworms, spiders and bacteria are gone? (Just to name a few.) The big loss is also in the destruction of the mycorrhizae fungi. This is a vast network of arbuscules that act like root extensions for the transportation of nutrients throughout the soil. There goes all our free fertility. Now we have to import it and pay for it.

Just so you know, nature will never stop fighting to get rid of a monoculture. She will send in weeds or pests to revert the ecosystem back to a polyculture. She will fight you with a disease or a fungus to revert the ecosystem back to a polyculture. And she will keep doing it. She will never stop. I can’t afford to fight against her. I almost guarantee that for every battle against the monoculture that nature has for us, someone has developed a magic bullet that you can buy to fight her. It will most likely come in a box, a bag or a bottle.

Don’t take this the wrong way; I do not dispute any product claims and I am not putting down any companies. The question I always ask myself is: how can I work with nature to solve this problem. Because I know it is costly to work against her.

We can see the results of our increased battle against nature in the research done by Darrin Qualman. Take a peek at Darrin’s work at his website here.

His graph (below) shows the gross and net Canadian farm incomes from 1926 to 2016. It is very clear to see that over the years, the proportion of profit for the farmer has been getting smaller while the ag business portion has been getting bigger. Quick fixes and magic bullets don’t make you more money. Wouldn’t it be neat if the farmer could actually make the profit in farming?

photo: Supplied

So how do you get away from the monoculture? Your perennial polyculture is the most natural crop we have, but I am not saying we need to put an end to grain farming. We still need it, but there is lots of work being done on cover crops, inter-cropping, perennial grains and poly-crops. You just need to Google it. Developing a good rotation of polycultures that can be harvested with limited tillage or limited chemicals is not out of the question. They are even working with zero-till organic systems now using a roller-crimper. We also need to integrate livestock back onto the land.

The crop rejuvenation application process from livestock is very important to building a healthy soil. I know this article might offend some producers and I do apologize. I just wanted to make a point that when we try to out-compete nature, it costs us in the long run. Next time you drive by a field and criticize your neighbour, remember: a polyculture is pretty, it is the monoculture that is ugly!

About the author

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Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta., www.greenerpasturesranching.com, or call 780-307-6500.

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