Michael Ableman started farming organically in California during the 1970’s and is considered to be a pioneer of the organic farming and urban agriculture movements. He is the author of four books: From the Good Earth, On Good Land, Fields Of Plenty and Street Farm; Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier. Michael has been the head farmer at Foxglove Farm, on Saltspring Island, B.C.,for close to twenty years. I recently asked him about going beyond organic farming.
Beyond Organic Agriculture
“I’m not a book learner. I didn’t study any of this, I have no college education. I have no proper credentials, but I do have 43 years of doing the work and the good fortune of being able to get out and see what other people are doing,” says Abelman.
He suggests that readers seeking scientific data go to the Marin Carbon Project website.
“Certainly we have done an amazing job over the past thirty – forty years of learning how to grow every food stuff without the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, with really positive soil fertility programs, which I think is the critical element. Most of what is identified as organic, in terms of legislation, is merely what we are not doing,”
“I don’t actually talk a lot about organic farming anymore because many years ago many of us figured out how to grow every product on every scale. The mystery of that is an old story. I have been working for many years now on what it means to go beyond organic.”
The Next Frontier
“What are the issues beyond food safety, personal health, health of the land and the environment that were tied to a conventional system that was doing great destruction? What is the next frontier? Certainly there are many social and political issues … associated with how food comes to us. And some much bigger ecological concerns, especially around climate change which is really the realm that is most exciting right now, for me …”
“I think the new frontier, the most exciting frontier … may not be so much to produce an abundance of food and fibre, but in the sequestration of carbon and water. Those of us who control so much land, farmers, and have learned various lessons in terms of our soils, protecting them, now are learning that with a little bit more we can actually have a profound impact on locking carbon into our soils and slowing water and allowing it to sink and spread and do what it is supposed to do.”
In the podcast above, Abelman talks about:
- His first farm (and book) in California
- What he saw on agricultural sites around the world.
- How small farmers are much more productive than industrial scale farms.
- How farmers can be a powerful weapon in the fight against climate change.
- Feeding the soil.
- The importance of fallow land and pasture.
- Feeding the world’s expanding population.
- Making farming a vocation.
The Need For Water
Ableman describes British Columbia’s West Coast as “essentially a Mediterranean climate”
“The rains all come within a restricted period of time during about eight months of the year and the rest of the year we are extremely dry and as such we need water. Our populations have increased, the demand for the water resource has increased. We have a significant water issue, somewhat hidden if you are not working on the land and dependant on water, or are not actually studying these issues. It is a big deal. Salt Spring has water issues, all the Gulf Islands have water issues. I’m guessing Cortes Island has them, even though they may not be expressed.”
“Beyond our actual human need for fresh clean water, is another level of responsibility. When water hits the land, it should not be racing off carrying the soil and pollutants and God knows what. It is everyone’s responsibility to know that when it leaves your land, it leaves clean. That goes beyond [the] particular needs of a growing population.”
“California is certainly viewed as the extreme front line of this issue, but I would say that every place in the world right now has to really think about water as an extremely critical resource. People get hung up on oil: you can grow food and survive without another drop of oil but you cannot without water, you can’t without good soil and you can’t without some basic other nutrients like phosphorus and things like that which are also disappearing.”
Top photograph – courtesy Foxglove Farm