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Monday, January 5, 2009

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Here in Marion County, Oregon's top ag county, we are blessed to still have a vibrant agricultural community and, mostly, supportive laws that make loss of farm and forest land far less common than it would otherwise be.

But we are far from food secure. There is still hunger in Salem and the Valley, and we live in a country that is teetering on the brink of an economic abyss, as we learn that empires that squander all their money on military exploits and posts in distant lands come undone at the center, when their currencies no longer command respect and their disregard for agriculture, the basic project of civilization, comes back to haunt them.

Here is a great piece by two giants, guiding us to the right path. The message is clear and correct--cities like Salem will be, and can be, no healthier than the agricultural lands that support them.

A 50-Year Farm Bill

THE extraordinary rainstorms last June caused catastrophic soil erosion in the grain lands of Iowa, where there were gullies 200 feet wide. But even worse damage is done over the long term under normal rainfall — by the little rills and sheets of erosion on incompletely covered or denuded cropland, and by various degradations resulting from industrial procedures and technologies alien to both agriculture and nature.

Soil that is used and abused in this way is as nonrenewable as (and far more valuable than) oil. Unlike oil, it has no technological substitute — and no powerful friends in the halls of government.

Agriculture has too often involved an insupportable abuse and waste of soil, ever since the first farmers took away the soil-saving cover and roots of perennial plants. Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice.

To the problem of soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has added pollution by toxic chemicals, now universally present in our farmlands and streams. Some of this toxicity is associated with the widely acclaimed method of minimum tillage. We should not poison our soils to save them.

Industrial agricultural has made our food supply entirely dependent on fossil fuels and, by substituting technological “solutions” for human work and care, has virtually destroyed the cultures of husbandry (imperfect as they may have been) once indigenous to family farms and farming neighborhoods.

Clearly, our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable. We must restore ecological health to our agricultural landscapes, as well as economic and cultural stability to our rural communities.

For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. That is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billons of dollars to the agribusiness corporations.

Any restorations will require, above all else, a substantial increase in the acreages of perennial plants. The most immediately practicable way of doing this is to go back to crop rotations that include hay, pasture and grazing animals.

But a more radical response is necessary if we are to keep eating and preserve our land at the same time. In fact, research in Canada, Australia, China and the United States over the last 30 years suggests that perennialization of the major grain crops like wheat, rice, sorghum and sunflowers can be developed in the foreseeable future. By increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can better protect the soil and substantially reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use and toxic pollution.

Carbon sequestration would increase, and the husbandry of water and soil nutrients would become much more efficient. And with an increase in the use of perennial plants and grazing animals would come more employment opportunities in agriculture — provided, of course, that farmers would be paid justly for their work and their goods.

Thoughtful farmers and consumers everywhere are already making many necessary changes in the production and marketing of food. But we also need a national agricultural policy that is based upon ecological principles. We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities.

This is a political issue, certainly, but it far transcends the farm politics we are used to. It is an issue as close to every one of us as our own stomachs.

Wes Jackson is a plant geneticist and president of The Land Institute in Salina, Kan. Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer in Port Royal, Ky.

Our dire situation

Salem seethes with discontent about its livability, most of which is traceable to our sprawled-out footprint and our failure to overcome the consequences of auto-sprawl, which reduces quality of health and enjoyment of life throughout the city. The only answer the traffic engineers and planners have to the problems they have caused by putting the needs of cars ahead of everything else is to do more of it --- more lanes, more bridges, more signals, you name it. If you were to look at how Salem and most other cities actually spend money and set priorities, you could be forgiven for thinking that USA stands for United States of Automobility.

The folks who choose to live in Polk County, many in West Salem, deem themselves entitled to a $600+ million dollar bridge because, for a short period each weekday, traversing the Marion/Center span isn't instantaneous. Yet, stand at those bridges at rush "hour" (closer to 1/2 hour) some weekday and count the number of cars with just one occupant -- it's the vast majority.

Meanwhile, a city resident thinks that keeping some weekend bus service is a "frill."

So in the same paper we have folks complaining about the costs of providing transit services with property taxes and yet calling for hundreds of millions to be taken from all property owners to build a new bridge.

Luckily, the collapse of the Ponzi-economy has probably eliminated the fantasy that Salem can afford any part of the bridge scheme. Thanks to the credit collapse, it will be quite hard to fund anything--- even worthwhile projects that would reduce our carbon footprint and provide meaningful investment for the long term (rather than just a short term bump for bridge building). So a new Willamette River Bridge is probably not in the cards. The only question is how long it takes for ODOT and the local folks to wake up from the dream of ever-expanding pavement and to start facing up to the real task of the 21st C.: how to modify and improve the infrastructure left over from the massive buildout of sprawl in the last half of the 20th C. so that cars become optional again.

Bellingham & Whatcom County leading in race to prepare

Government and business leaders in Whatcom County, and around the world, are looking toward weaning the country off its reliance on oil. That means some local residents are looking to generate their own power as well as their own food. Bellingham Herald 01/04/2009

Still Time to Join

Northwest Earth Institute study/discussion groups are excellent ways to meet interesting people, increase your knowledge and sustainability resources, and to build connections in the community.

Menu for the Future: Northwest Earth Institute Discussion Groups in Salem - Winter 2009

Tuesdays – January 13th to March 3rd 2009, 6:30PM to 8PM at the Tea Party Bookshop

Saturdays – January 17th to March 7th 2009, 9:30AM to 11AM at the Marion-Polk Food Share

To register, call Melissa at (503) 566-4159, or e-mail community.dreamer@yahoo.com

$20 refundable book deposit