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What does true sovereignty embody in the context of our agricultural systems? Perennial Tree Crop Agriculture and Sovereign Rural Hinterlands: An Exploration of the Possible

March 2, 2017

Part One — The Urban/Rural Dichotomy

In terms of what might be called our “material reality,” human civilization comprises the rise and growth of both cities and rural agriculture, in mutual conjunction. You can’t have more people in the city without more food being produced in rural areas to feed them. (I fully support urban agriculture, especially when it is inspiring young people and building community, but the amount of staple human calories produced inside of the city is miniscule).

Constantly, every single day, all cities require the perpetual importation of resources from outside of the city. This means food, building materials, energy, and other supplies—all for consumption in the city. In a globalized economy, this means receiving products from all over the world.

Beginning with this basic premise, and in the spirit of a healthy discussion about what sovereignty embodies, I would ask the reader to grapple with the question: Is true sovereignty achievable inside the confines of a city? Is true sovereignty achievable when one is dependent upon the vast intricacies of the global economic system?

Total community sovereignty can only exist if there is direct, profound control and ownership over the land and the local food system that provide all necessary human calories.

Inside of this definition, is there room for a larger “bioregional” food system and trading? Yes, but food sovereignty begins with the autonomous community that presides over a land base and their local food systems first, and then decide what their relationship to neighboring communities and the larger region will be.

PART TWO — Annual Staple Crop Agriculture and Synthetic Nitrogen Fertilizer

Annual staple crop agriculture (in the United States this is primarily corn, soybeans, and wheat) degrades soil health and fertility. Annual means that the crop is planted and harvested all in one growing season. Annual tillage (using a tractor to break up the soil and prepare it) damages soil structure and also leads to massive amounts of topsoil run-off, whereby our precious soil flows into waterways.

The element Nitrogen is critical for robust plant growth. To supplement this loss of fertility in our soils due to annual staple crops, nitrogen fertilizer is added to agricultural fields. In a natural farm system, this can come in the form of decomposed cow poop.

However, in 1909, the scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed a way to produce “synthetic” nitrogen fertilizer, a process that requires high pressure and high temperature. This discovery changed the course of history by dramatically increasing agricultural production, and led to the 20th century explosion in human population. “Now, roughly a third of all the protein (animal and vegetable) consumed by humankind is derived from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.”[1]

To feed the global demand for synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, three to five percent of the world’s natural gas production is burned in the manufacturing process.[2]

Let that sink in. Food for thought: How sovereign can the human species really be when such a huge portion of our caloric intake is directly dependent upon the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer? The production of which requires vast amounts of natural gas, a non-renewable, finite resource.

Not to mention, the massive amount of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer doused on agricultural fields spill into waterways, which creates a toxic imbalance, and causes “dead zones” in our rivers.

So we are up a creek, but is there a paddle?

PART THREE — Perennial Staple Tree Crop Agriculture

Humanity needs staple food crops to survive. Vegetables are not what we define as “staple crops,” though they do provide important nutrients to the human diet. Staple crops (corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, soybeans, sweet potatoes, sorghum, dry beans) provide a significant portion of essential human calories.

Unfortunately, all of the above are annuals, and have the aforementioned problems.

However, in the plant world, there also exist “perennial” plants, which can live for many years, decades, and sometimes centuries. Bushes and trees fall into this category.

To avoid the pitfalls of annual staple crop agriculture, there is an emerging agricultural philosophy that proposes the development of perennial, staple crops to feed humanity critical calories.

Philip Rutter is 67 years old. He completed his coursework for a PhD in evolutionary biology from the University of Minnesota in the 1970s. Instead of writing his thesis, he elected to buy a 160-acre farm in southern Minnesota and began his life’s work of breeding and growing hazelnuts and chestnuts.

He foresaw the unsustainable nature of annual corn and soybean agriculture long ago, and he decided to try to do something about it.

Philip’s vision has always been to make these perennial nut trees into serious staple crop contenders. His breeding process is rigorous and scientific, and he has gone through multiple rounds of selection over the past 35 years. He has selected for disease and insect resistance, productivity, particular growth habits, drought resistance, and more.

Chestnuts are erect trees that grow to 30-40 feet tall. They can be made into a flour, which is comparable to corn meal, but much healthier for humans. Hazelnuts are a perennial bushing plant, with many wooden shoots that branch out from the crown (the crown sits atop the roots right below the soil surface). Hazelnuts are 60-70% oil; soybeans, an annual staple that is comparable hazelnuts, also have high oil content. Though again, the hazels are much healthier for humans. With the proper economy of scale, harvesting machinery, and processing equipment, Philip believes hazelnuts could replace soybeans today.

The tree cropping system that he has developed does not use pesticides (which kill insects) or herbicides (which kill weeds). In addition to the issues with annual staple crops previously discussed, the corn and soybean growing methods in the United States use immense amounts of chemicals to kill insects and weeds, and are essentially “anti-nature.” Philip’s agro-ecological method of growing hazelnuts and chestnuts works with nature, and develops hardy plants in a quasi-wild ecosystem. Farm animals can graze on the grass that grows between the rows of trees and bushes, and the manure they drop feeds natural nitrogen to the trees.

The potential impact of these perennial staple tree crops is huge, but Philip says it will take the dedication of small farmers learning, organizing, and rallying around each other to make it happen.

PART FOUR — Perennial Agriculture and Climate Change

Climate change is also very relevant here. Philip Rutter’s book on growing Hazelnuts has the subtitle: “The New Resilient Crop for a Changing Climate.” Simply put, annual staple crops are much more vulnerable to drought and other freakish weather events. There have been years where Philip’s neighbors’ corn crop has died because of lack of rain, but Philip’s hazelnuts still put off a good harvest. These tree crops are tough, robust, and stand a good chance in our volatile times.

Below is an important quote from an assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

“A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 [carbon] emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale, except in the case of a large net removal of CO2 [carbon] from the atmosphere over a sustained period.”[3]

Basically, this means that the greenhouse gases that humanity has burned over the last couple hundred years, which are causing global warming, must be removed from the atmosphere to halt catastrophe. Where can these gases go? Well, perennial tree crop agriculture actually sequesters carbon (same thing as greenhouse gases) in the soil as well as the wood and roots of the plants. So in addition to these plants being more resilient, we can actually be fighting climate change with greenhouse gas-sucking tree crop farm systems! Bam!

It is also important to note that tilling soil actually releases carbon into the atmosphere.

PART FIVE — Connecting the Dots

Philip Rutter’s grand vision has been about replacing corn and soybeans with chestnuts and hazelnuts: he has sought to accomplish this by proving to existing farmers that they can make money by switching over to these perennials.

Even in the absence of a complete farm paradigm shift, these tree crops can undergird sovereign, alternative communities.

In the rural hinterlands there exists the opportunity for autonomous communities to build sovereign, hyper-local food systems, on a land base that they control and own. A truly sovereign food system cannot rely upon outside inputs, like synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, for soil fertility. With the myriad reasons presented in this piece, hazelnuts and chestnuts have the potential to be perennial, staple crops that are resilient and sustainable for the long haul.

Environmentally, socially, and politically, the times we live in are turbulent. Philip Rutter chose these two tree crops in part because, as he told me personally, “they can survive war.” Hazelnuts and chestnuts coppice very well, which means they can be cut or burned to the ground and they will grow back—they are difficult to kill. In an unstable world, these are stable, durable plants.

Our society is largely predicated on corporate efficiency and the bottom line, and from this many and far-ranging hierarchical and exploitative relationships persist. With the development of new, perennial staple crops, there is an opportunity to build social models based on cooperation and communalism that flow directly from them. This is exciting!

To achieve radical community sovereignty, let’s build communal homesteads with hazelnuts and chestnuts. We can fight climate change, build healthy farm ecosystems, and feed humanity. I’ll see you in the shade.

[1] Mann, Charles C. (2013). State of the Species. Orion Magazine https://orionmagazine.org/article/state-of-the-species/

[2] Smil, Vaclav (2004). Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262693134

[3] IPCC, 2013: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.[http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg1/WG1AR5_SPM_FINAL.pdf]

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