Thursday, July 28, 2011

Farming on shares

This spring we decided that our hay field needed to be replanted. We have never invested in planting equipment or in harvesting equipment for anything besides hay. We contacted local farmers to see if anyone was interested in planting our fields on shares. Planting on shares means that we invest the land and some other farmer invests time, seed, fuel for his tractor, fertilizer and herbicide if necessary. Then we share the crop.

We had hoped to plant oats or wheat, feed that we could use for our sheep during lambing, but only one farmer had the time or the interest in our land, and he only wanted soybeans. Roundup ready soybeans, drilled into the ground and sprayed with Roundup to control weeds. Roundup Ready soybeans have had a gene added to their chromosomes that makes them resistant to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate).

We needed the weed control badly, but we had not imagined using a genetically modified seed to do it. The first time our share farmer sprayed for weeds, Dave had marked the edges of the field, but we still lost lilacs, raspberries, walnuts, several apple trees, an apricot tree, and part of our lawn. Last week he sprayed again. The soybean plants were six to twelve inches high and a lush green before the spraying. They were still lush green after the Roundup application, but the weeds in the rows between the bean plants rapidly turned brown and shriveled.

In 2010, the Land Stewardship Newsletter ran an article about Roundup Ready crops that was very disturbing. Glyphosate has been considered safer for the environment than the pre-emergent herbicides that it replaces, based on the belief that it is chemically unstable and only remains in the environment for a short while, not long enough to create human or environmental problems.

Now research implies that the herbicide glyphosate may make the soil itself unhealthy for growing plants. In a summary research paper, Don Huber, a plant pathologist from Purdue University reports that glyphosate changes the nutrient availability and plant efficiency, either directly through toxic effects or by changing soil organisms.

One of the indirect effects of glyphosate use is that it ties up the micronutrients in the soil necessary for healthy plants. The plants seem to mature earlier, thus not gathering as much energy as possible before they shut down. Huber feels that glyphosate does build up in the soil and will continue to cause problems long after it has been applied. He cites research that shows that fields which have been sprayed with glyphosate for ten years yielded 46% less wheat than a field where glyphosate had been used for only one year.

We have found a different farmer to plant shares with for next year. He wants oats or wheat for his animals and will till the soil to control weeds rather than spraying with Roundup. It will be nice to share with a farmer whose agricultural philosophy is closer to ours.

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