Notes from Windward: #70

Grain raising and Windward's Sustainability research


Andrew, July 29:

Cereal Grains: An etymological primer

     I like to spend some time with the online etymological dictionary every time I write an article because I am generally confronted with the same words over and over again. Lindsay asked me the other day what I meant when I said "cereal" and "cereal grains". I use this word alot in this article so I thought I would give it some background.

     The word cereal comes from the Latin "Ceres," the name for the Goddess of Agriculture. Both the origin of the words "crescent" and "cereal" are thought to arise from the original Proto-Indo-European word Ker‒meaning "to grow". As grains became an ever greater part of the European diet, "Ceres" became associated more specifically with grain producing agricultural crops, as well as with the products made with the grain.

the delicious grass seeds that we call cereal grains


The ecology of grain raising and Windward's "marginal land"

     In Overshoot, William Catton pretty accurately defines modern till agriculture as "the continual undoing of succession." In order to keep a field producing annual plants such as cereal grains, the soil needs to be continuously disturbed, weeds supressed, and reperations made to the damaged soil. This continual disturbance not only takes loads of energy, but it also prevents and reverses the natural accumulation of energy and life in the form of soil, humus, mulch, and the increasingly complex relationships that tend to stabilize a ecological system. Disrupting this flow also takes energy in the form of higher amounts of watering, and continually reperations made to keep the damaged soil ecology working.

     We live in a steep forested setting, and most of our precipitation falls as snow with a prolonged dry season throughout the summer. The soils are not super rich, nor particularly well drained, and the soil ecology is generally fragile. A flat open area in a warm climate that receives steady amounts of rainfall throughout the entire year would be a more suitable place for grain.

Jon gives scale to a test past of triticale


     Part of our overarching goal of our research involves finding methods and practices for people living on "marginal land". Personally, I think it is kind of demeaning and insulting to call our land "marginal". The life here is incredibly well suited to the conditions, and is very productive in its own way. If you don't believe me, go ask a lichen growing on a rock, or the vetches that are going to seed in the middle of our highly compacted road surfaces, or the squirrels that are out planting oak trees as I write this.

     All things considered, we are "marginal" in terms of growing grain."Traditional" or green-revolution-era agriculture is severely destructive to even the best land, not to mention relying upon intensive hydrocarbon inputs. So, if we wish to simultaneously grow grain on our land AND have a sustainable relationship with it, then it behooves us to find some other way to go about doing it.

     With all of these things considered, I have begun to examine other ways that people have worked around some of the challenges we face. In the discussion to come, I will be borrowing piecemeal from the works of Masanobu Fukuoka, Larry Korn, Frances Moore Lappe, Wendell Berry, and Bill Mollison. All of these people are doing great work, and have a piece of the big puzzle.

No-Till agriculture to "Transform the nature of Work"

     In The One Straw Revolution Fukuoka writes, "There is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song." That says a lot about some farmers relationship to their careers. They work and work and work, supposedly to make a better life for themselves. But are left with little time and mental space to compose even a simple haiku. In the words of John Humphrey Noyes, one of the four goals of the the Oneida community was to "transform the nature of work." A big goal but one that is worth examining.

[If you want to learn more about the Oneida community, and how Windward has taken influence from them, return to the main Notes from Windward page, and run a search for Oneida.]

     In recognition of Fukuoka and Noyes' words, the main goal that we have with any living system here is to be able to do as little "work" as possible. The theory I am trying to put into practice here one of closely observing nature, its relationships and flow of energy, thereby utilizing nature's potential to do the "work" without my effort.

     I have no doubt that nature may inform us that we should not be growing grains as a source of carbohydrate energy on our land. I know that in regions of the world with similar geology, soils, precipitation regimes (such as the Andean people of Chile and Peru) do not grow much grain at all.

     Instead they grow tubers and roots. What I do not want to do is operate with a predilection toward believing that we need to find a way to grow grain. Or that we need to grow any certain food, or behave in a certain way, or whatever. This is not a sustainable nor healthy operating procedure in a community of people trying to get right with nature. What I feel we really need to do is let the land and the plants tell us what to do.


August 30: continuing the experiment

     Given all that was stated above, I ask myself, how can we decrease the amount of management, and still get good results? How have others done it?

     My conclusion is simple, Where we can make up the difference, is in creating a polycultural context. We can lower the amount of energy inputs by trying to simulate nature and the balancing structures that hold ecosystems in dynamic equilibrium. In doing so we may ultimately sacrifice the productivity of any one species or individual plant but we wont need to manage it to intensely, and the system can then be providing many survaces. Because we can have a multi-function situation, there can still be a high degree of group productivity.Productive capacity of the system is diffused throughout the ecosystem, not focuesd on one indiviudal or species.

     By growing more than just one crop in an area, we can ultimately

  1. lower the overall amount of management,

  2. increase overall energy being captured

  3. diversify the nutrition derived from the same area of land, and thus

  4. better balance the environmental load.

     Sounds good, but what does that that look like? The goals of creating a polyculture in the forest which includes grains is still along ways in the future. As a step in that direction I have worked out an experiment over the next year to see a mixed pasture/forest setting affects the growth and productivity of our grains. the main question I am concerned with is how productive are grains in shady environments?

Whats up for next year

     As a part of developing a more holistic grazing system for our animals, I will be seeding the summer pen with a pasture seed mixture of grasses, legumes and herbs whose seed I have been collecting this year. In order for the grass to get established, the pasture will need at least a year to rest and grow before it is grazed.

     I asked Walt to buy 5 pounds of alfalfa seed for another experiment we will be conducting. But, being Walt, he came home with about 10 additional pounds of forage grass and legume seeds. So, I decided to change the experiment a little and see the difference between grain production with/without a legumes. If you dont know, legumes (member of fabaceae family of flowering plants) have nodules in their roots that host bacteria which can convert atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into Ammonia (NH3) which plants can then take up and used to make proteins and leafy green-ness. Legumes void the necessity to add any addition nitrogen to the soil.

     In a sense, I already know how the experiment is going to turn out with regards to legumes. The mixed plots are going to be greener, bigger and possibly more nutritious. But, just for the heck of it, we will see what happens.

break down of the experimental plots and shade/sun zones


     The test plots are going to be set up like so.

  • Plot 1. The best Triticale that we harvested from, no legumes

  • Plot 2. Naturalized grain (looks like triticale) harvested from dirt lot in Goldendale. No legume

  • Plot 3. Windward Triticale, with legume (Hairy Vetch, Vicia villosa)

  • Plot 4. Godendale Triticale, with legume (Hairy Vetch, Vicia Villosa)

     The pasture is located on an east facing slope, with three distinct regions.

  • Region 1 is a flat area in full sun at the bottom where snowmelt runoff collects in the spring time.

  • Region 2 is partially forested and within it their begins an incline of about 35 degrees.

  • Region 3 constitutes almost half of the pasture, and the most densely forested area heavily forested. This region is also inclined at about 35 degrees, and is shady in late afternoon/evening.

Zones and side perspective of summer pasture


     I am intrigued by what happens on the north facing and east facing sloped on our property. These slopes get less or no direct sunlight, and are generally more sheltered from the wind. These areas are more moist and have more high water demand plants such as Douglas Fir, Oceanspray, Beaked Hazelnut, Serviceberry, Snowberry than slopes with other orientations. Also, many perennial grasses that are rarely seen. This lead me to think of this experiment in our Summer pasture.

     In the summer months (when grain is needing the sunlight), the pasture receives light throughout all three regions in the early morning through noon (appx. 6 hours of direct sunlight). Once the sun has past the mid-day mark, the forested area (region 3) is in full shade, and the pines shadows creep along the open area moving from northwest to southeast until casting the entire pasture in shadow for 2 or three hours before twilight.

another perspective on the whole sheep pen system, including test plots


     As you move down the slope, there is a natural increase in the time availability of sunlight. This dynamic makes the pasture a great place to test the limits of growing grains in a limited light setting.

     With this experiment, coupled with the work being down around it in the pasture I hope to learn and experiment more with the dynamics between available water and sunlight. As well as put into practice principles of water retention, guild planting, and soil building that we can then be utilize in other areas of our forest.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 70