Food Farming, Water for Sustainability

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly 7-15-20

By Tony Del Plato and Brian Caldwell

The Haudenosaunee have occupied and farmed the Finger Lakes region for over 2000 years. The Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) were part of their cultural and agricultural foundation.

Corn, maize, is recognized as a gift from indigenous America to the world. About 60% of the foods we eat originated in the Americas, including corn, beans, potatoes, amaranth, tomatoes, squash, peppers, chocolate, sunflowers and more.

Much could have been learned from the food production systems that existed in the Western Hemisphere before colonization. Effective, productive methods were in place including complex polycultures, chinampas water gardens, desert farming and the use of fire to manage large areas for tree mast, berries and wild game.

Native peoples in Amazonia produced highly fertile soils using biochar methods hundreds of years ago. Most of this wisdom was ignored by conquerors and destroyed. Instead, farming practices derived from Europe were implemented over millions of acres.

In New York, Cornell was founded 155 years ago and became our land grant university. One of its missions is to enhance NYS agriculture through research and extension. Despite its founding vision as a secular institution, it did not question the prevalent biblical worldview advocating exploitation and subjugation of the earth.

Cornell’s formative ethics were driven by a colonial and industrial methodology. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is thus now deeply invested in biotechnology and the food production system that has helped bring us to the present ecological crisis. Solutions to negative consequences of these practices are sought within an industrial farming mindset.

While some excellent research on organic methods is carried on at Cornell, we need a much stronger investment by the Big Red in organic food systems. We wonder if echoes of “appropriate technology” are heard on campus.

Modern industrial agricultural systems, based on monoculture, heavy inputs of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer and herbicides, are unsustainable. Approximately 50% of applied nitrogen fertilizer is taken up by the plant. The rest is subject to runoff and leaching into streams.

Runoff eventually reaches the Finger Lakes. Phosphorus fertilizers, typically over-applied in inefficient super phosphate form, also make their way into surface waters. Excessive levels of these nutrients from farming is widely accepted as the primary cause of harmful algal blooms (HABs) now seen most years in our lakes.

There are many other negative consequences of industrial agriculture, including pesticide residues in food, health impacts of corn and sugar-based diets, contribution to climate chaos, concentration of land ownership and economic power. Our prized Finger Lakes, though, provide a stark wake-up call that we can all see.

A healthier set of design principles guide organic and biodynamic farming, agro-ecology, permaculture and agroforestry. They have different foci but tend to emphasize biodiversity, perennial crops and the avoidance of chemical inputs like nitrogen fertilizer.

They favor smaller farms and more people working the landscape. And how, for instance, can such farms be productive without chemical nitrogen? By relying heavily on the huge family of legume plants, which naturally take nitrogen from the air and into themselves, their roots and the soil.

Research by Blesh and Drinkwater at Cornell has shown that cropping systems relying heavily on legumes retain nitrogen far more efficiently than those relying on chemical nitrogen.

But these types of farms don’t just happen. We have to support them by buying what they produce. Furthermore, we can call our state and federal legislators and say we stand against subsidies for industrial farming and instead support organic and biologically based farms.

How about recognizing the negative effects of chemical nitrogen and phosphorus by putting a tax on them? How about capping the amount of federal aid that mega-farms can receive at a reasonable level and closing the loopholes?

A sign of sustainability is supporting local farms with our food dollars. Dozens of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organic farms feed people from the Southern Tier to Lake Ontario and beyond.

Farmers markets feature many organic producers. Look also for shiitake mushrooms offered by agro-forestry farms. Organic dairy farms use grazing on legume-grass mixes as a primary practice. They are common in our area and provide non-industrial organic milk sold under the Organic Valley label.

Our region is also seeing the formation of the New York Tree Crops Alliance, a farmer co-op starting to grow hazelnuts and chestnuts — perennial sources of high-quality protein and carbs that don’t require replanting every year.

Edible Finger Lakes and The Finger Lakes Times share stories about the regional culture. They include stories about the benefits of eating locally grown food, recipes and stories about farmers, restaurants and wineries and those who create the culture of the region.

A sharing economy can alleviate food insecurity. Food pantries in area churches and community centers provide access to food for all. Seneca County has partnered with Foodlink and the Ovid Federated Church to provide community wide food supply for those who need it.

Other mobile services are available for those who can’t shop. A sharing culture and continuously linking with the supply lines will ensure that no one goes hungry. STEPS (Seneca Towns Engaging People for Solutions) is a resident-driven health improvement project that facilitates and advocates programs for the health of those who live in rural South Seneca.

How we treat our water and soil will be reflected in our own health and the health of the ecosystems within which we live. Sandra Steingraber, in the first nationwide study of its kind, has revealed an expanding water poverty in America. Ultimately, if we are to meet the need for healthy lakes and healthy people, we need to change the way we eat and shop as well as the way we farm.

Tony Del Plato is a trustee for the village of Interlaken and water commissioner, a member of the Executive Committee of the Cayuga Lake Watershed Intermunicipal Organization, an innkeeper and a former partner and cookbook contributor to Moosewood Restaurant

Brian Caldwell is owner of Hemlock Grove Farm in West Danby, producing certified organic apples. He is retired from Cornell University, where he did research on organic vegetable and grain production.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles