By Jean English
Congratulations to Heather Burt and Bates College for putting on a successful conference about using alternative fibers for paper. The conference, covered in this issue of The MOF&G, provided an important first step in coordinating groups and individuals in Maine who want to raise crops, preserve forests, and use papers that are produced with fibers grown in ways that minimally harm the environment – and can even enhance it.
Three aspects of this conference were striking. First, it was organized and attended by so many young people. As Maine’s farming population and MOFGA’s membership reach for the organic equivalent of Grecian Formula – or just let the gray show – many of us involved in agriculture have wondered and worried whether anyone would be taking over for us. The youthful energy at the alternative papers conference proved that an earnest and energetic population is taking up the reigns.
Second, the lunch served by Bates was beautifully arranged, healthful – and even explained! The chef who had prepared the vegetarian meal told us that Bates’ student population is 20% vegetarian and that such spreads are everyday fare there. He talked about various dishes, how they were prepared and why, as we went through the self- service line. Russ Libby, MOFGA’s executive director, has been working with Bates to get more local produce into the dining halls, and a consciousness about the value of food is clearly present at that college.
Third, the ideas presented at Bates about growing alternative paper-making fibers meshed beautifully those presented by Matt Liebman of the University of Maine about raising cereal grains in Maine. That talk, presented at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show, is also covered in this MOF&G. Read about alternative fiber crops – barley, wheat, flax, hemp, and others – and about cereal crops – barley, wheat and others – and you’ll see the connection. Matt described three possible rotations that growers could use with cereal grains undersown with nitrogen-fixing legumes. The grain would be harvested, after which the legume would continue to fix nitrogen and hold the soil over winter. And what of the stalks from the cereal crops? Couldn’t they be made into paper? And couldn’t hemp fit into this rotation in an environmentally sound manner? Some conference participants worried about the possibility of destroying soil structure or depleting soil fertility by growing annual fiber crops, but by growing them in rotation with cereals and legumes – maybe even intercropping legumes with hemp, at least in its early stage of growth, and then succession cropping with legumes as soon as the hemp is harvested – we should be able to grow these crops without damaging the soil. We may even reduce the amounts of fertilizers and pesticides used on farms by incorporating legumes and weed-suppressing crops such as hemp into rotations. (If growing hemp sounds like a pipe dream, consider that Canada is growing hemp commercially as I type this – as are 29 other nations. Andy Kerr predicted at the paper conference that the United States would be producing the crop within two years.)
Not only do cereal-legume-paper cropping systems hold appeal in themselves, but they may help satisfy Maine’s increasing demand for organic grain that is occurring as dairy farmers find that offering organic products is one of the best ways to keep their enterprises going. The production of certified-organic dairy products has increased the demand for certified-organic grains – and should increase the availability of fibrous stalks as well.
Sometimes ideas and events converge in a way that is tremendously satisfying, like putting the last piece into a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Such was the case at Bates. I hope to see many of you at the Second Annual Alternative Papers Conference.