|MOFGA President Bob Sewall. Jane Lamb photo.
By Bob Sewall, MOFGA President
It’s early July when I write this, and the summer growing season is far ahead of schedule. My blueberries are eight to ten days earlier than in previous years. While one can never plan a season by the calendar, plenty of old sayings help us gauge the progress of our crops. For example: “You can usually hand-pick a quart of blueberries by the fourth of July.” If the berries are earlier, you plan to harvest earlier, or vice versa. This shows the role that observation plays in helping us regulate our schedules around farming.
Observation also helps show us how our farming practices are affecting plant growth, soil fertility, and the general environment on our farm – and how our friends, neighbors and competitors affect the general world around us. All of the little things that we do have an effect, some small and some large.
For years I’ve observed and been concerned about the use of Velpar, an herbicide used in forestry, blueberries, Christmas trees, orchards, under power lines, and elsewhere. This chemical leaves acid-loving plants, but kills almost everything else. The results of one spraying on blueberries can be seen for up to eight years, leaving large, dead, easily eroded patches of soil. Walking through commercial, nonorganic blueberry fields, I’ve seen these dead patches – and no evidence of the once active heathland biosphere. No more wildflowers, pollinators, birds, small mammals or companion plants. This is not a healthy environment; it is one that is stressed.
I recently went to Prince Edward Island and observed huge potato fields that ran right between houses, into small towns, and even to the edge of the ocean. I talked with one man who worked for a large potato grower. He told me that they were now spraying every four days to protect their crops from insects and diseases. This could create huge problems, by stressing the soil, the plants, or the local community. What if a new, fungicide-resistant strain of blight arrived? How fast could it spread? The whole island depends on the potato crop, just as Aroostook County once did. In the 1940s, the County planted over 200,000 acres. Today, 50,000 are planted. The effect on the economy of the County has been devastating as fewer and fewer farmers have survived. Where else in Maine, besides Washington County, is the population decreasing?
So I come back to observation – to the observation that monocultures can have huge, adverse effects on our environment and communities. They can create chemically-dependent farmers, much as drugs can create addicts. Monocultures sacrifice whole biospheres to maximize profits, as with commercial blueberry lands that no longer support the heathland required by migratory birds. Monoculture stresses the soil, the plants, and, I believe, eventually the people who consume the products grown in monocultures.
When we speak of supporting organic agriculture, we mean more than just eating organic food. We mean supporting sustainable agriculture, supporting our biosphere, supporting soil fertility, biodiversity, clean water and air, communities, our own well-being, the local plants and animals – and, most of all, our children and future generations. We need to observe how monocultures are highly destructive and weaken the environment for all of us.
Observation shows me that every living organism has a purpose and in some way supports the whole biosphere. The greater the diversity, the healthier our world is for all of us.
Observation tells me to encourage all living organisms. It also tells me that the practice of stressing crops for production and eradicating insects and non-crop plants is the first step in making our world a smaller place for fewer and fewer species.
Bob is the president of MOFGA’s Board of Directors. He raises blueberries and apples organically in a rich ecosystem in Lincolnville.