Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
The Truth is Out There: Keep It Natural, Smarty!

Publications \ The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener \ Spring 2010 \ English Editorial

By Jean English
Editor, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener

The KISS design principle – Keep It Simple, Stupid – does not translate to farming and gardening. To farm and garden in environmentally sound ways requires intelligence; complexity in planting plans; and observing nature as a working model. KINS – Keep It Natural, Smarty.

A few years ago Evaggelos Vallianatos wrote in This Land is Their Land – How Corporate Farms Threaten the World ((2006, Common Courage Press, about peasants in Chiapas, Mexico, who raise 2 tons of corn per hectare, compared with 6 tons per hectare on local industrial farms. But – on that hectare, the peasants also raise beans, squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, other vegetables, fruits and medicinal herbs. Some of this food is sold; the rest feeds the family, chickens and cattle. That hectare produces more than 15 tons of food “without commercial fertilizers or pesticides and no assistance from banks or governments or transnational corporations,” said Vallianatos.

Professor Ann Clark had a similar message in her keynote speech at MOFGA and Maine Cooperative Extension’s Farmer to Farmer Conference this winter when she described the damage done to soils and waters by monocropping and by repetitive annual cropping, versus the benefits accrued by more complex farming that includes perennial crops and animals. In her speech, reported in this MOF&G, she gave examples: of running laying hens through a raspberry planting; grazing pigs on the wooded edges of pastures; raising hogs and red clover between grain crops; and combining sheep with an apple orchard.

In an article in The Nation (“Regreening Africa,” Nov. 19, 2009;, Mark Hertsgaard gives a powerful example of the value of paying attention to the plants and animals that nurture soils. He writes about a Burkina Faso farmer named Yacouba Sawadogo, “a pioneer of a tree-based approach to farming that has transformed the western Sahel in recent years, while providing one of the most hopeful examples on earth of how even very poor people can adapt to the ravages of climate change.”

After severe droughts in the 1980s, Sawadogo combined the traditional practice of planting his sorghum and millet in zai – shallow pits that collect rainwater – enriched with livestock manure and supporting native trees (thanks to seeds germinating from the manure). The animal-enriched agroforestry combination has increased crop yields and ensured food security for Sawadogo and his family regardless of the weather. This productive farming method – more complex than, say, growing corn engineered to tolerate drought – has spread across large parts of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, so that now satellite photos clearly show what Hertsgaard calls “the quiet green miracle.”

A geographer working in the area told Hertsgaard, "This is probably the largest positive environmental transformation in the Sahel and perhaps in all of Africa.” It has even caused water tables to rise by as much as 17 meters in some places.

Hertsgaard emphasizes how valuable this cultural information is – because farmers own “the technology” and because the technology is free. And easily spread. And highly productive.

The truth about feeding the world without ruining the earth and its inhabitants is out there, on farms that mimic nature. The truth about looking for simple fixes in the form of genetically engineered crops is also coming to light, as more and more studies reveal increased herbicide use with GE crops, increased resistance of weeds to herbicides, harmful health effects of GE corn, increased costs for GE seed, and more (described in the News section of this MOF&G – after The Good News).

Here’s to a complex, productive, organic, KINS-y growing season!
MOF&G Cover Spring 2010