Ecological Agriculture and Indulgence

In his controversial article, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, Jared Diamond contends that agriculture has set humanity on a doomed path, blaming the invention of farming for the advent of social inequality, disease, despotism, and not least of all, the destruction of our planet. With the profusion of stories about food monopolies, contamination, GMO debates, and Monsanto’s evils in recent years, you might be tempted to agree.

But can agriculture ever be inherently good? Not just an improvement upon the industrial model that has done so much damage, but an actual solution? Increasingly, agriculturalists, academics, and experts have hope that it can.

 Design of a 3D ocean farming system. Photo courtesy of Green Wave.

Design of a 3D ocean farming system. Photo courtesy of Green Wave.

Ecological farming takes a systems approach to agriculture, wherein the desired end product (be it wine, oysters, or even foie gras) is only a small part of a larger ecosystem, and producers truly become stewards of the land and sea. Take, for example, Bren Smith of Thimble Island Oyster Company in Connecticut who uses “3D ocean farming” to replicate (or improve upon) a natural ocean ecosystem. Smith’s vertical farm raises shellfish and kelp, absorbs excess nitrogen and carbon, and (incidentally) serves as a sort of artificial reef that attracts over 150 species in the middle of a formerly barren patch of ocean.

 Sousa's "foie farm." Photo courtesy of Lauren Frayer, of NPR. 

Sousa's "foie farm." Photo courtesy of Lauren Frayer, of NPR. 

Another paragon of ecosystemic thinking, Eduardo Sousa, has a farm outside of Pallares, Spain which is so idyllic that migrating wild geese will touch down and call it home. Sousa became famous in 2006, when his foie gras won the Coup de Coeur outraging the French not only because Sousa is Spanish, but also because his geese are not force-fed. In fact, they are fed hardly at all, allowed to forage the pastures and olive orchards eating what they please (namely, Sousa’s other crops and sources of income).

 Sheep grazing at Bonterra's Veinyards. Photos courtesy of Bonterra.

Sheep grazing at Bonterra's Veinyards. Photos courtesy of Bonterra.

While an oyster plucked from the sea or a goose waddling in a pasture seems clearly embedded in their habitats, wine can appear far removed from nature because of the processes it undergoes to arrive at our table. But this doesn’t mean that wine cannot play a roll in regenerating natural ecosystems as well. At Bonterra Vineyards in Hopland, California, viticulturists encourage interspecies relationships to maintain vineyard health. Bees pollinate native plants like clover and mustard that serve as cover crops and help restore nutrients to the soil, sheep in turn “mow” these crops come spring, chickens and wild blue herons help manage pests, and all of the above naturally “fertilize” the soil in the process.

Meanwhile, Bonterra’s sister company, Fetzer Vineyards takes a micro-approach using an innovative BIDA® Biofiltro system that harnesses the power of worms and microbes to treat greywater and generate compost. Additionally, as a Zero Waste certified winery, Fetzer reintroduces tons of grape skins, stems, and seeds into the vineyards each year to practice a regenerative agriculture that improves upon the land rather than depleting it.

 How the BIDA Biofiltro system works. Infographic courtesy of Fetzer Vineyards.

How the BIDA Biofiltro system works. Infographic courtesy of Fetzer Vineyards.

In all of these cases, the health of the overall system – judged by soil health, water filtration, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity – is paramount. However, the trickiest thing about ecological agriculture is that nature has no formula. There is no one size fits all, surefire solution that works for every ecosystem, which is why most people who practice this form of farming must balance agriculture, biology, business, and sometimes a dash of intuition to find a solution that is environmentally as well as economically sustainable.

Ecological agriculture is part science, part philosophy, encouraging an approach that builds on natural assets and relationships. Ultimately, it is about the realization that we are but a small part of a much larger, more complex web of life. It makes clear that (to paraphrase John Muir) when we try to pick at any one thing in nature, “we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”


All the Swirl is a collection of thoughts and opinions assembled by the staff and industry friends of Charles Communications Associates, a marketing communications firm with its headquarters in San Francisco, California. We invite you to explore more about our company and clients by visiting www.charlescomm.com.