A Re-Imagined California Agriculture


If there is one take away from 2015 being named The International Year of Soil it is this – the Mother is modest; she likes to keep herself covered. This is well demonstrated by how readily exposed (tilled) soils cover themselves with annual “weeds”. Consider that our Mother abhors a vacuum, and is well aware that disrupted soil both takes down the soil food web (nature’s internet of soil flora voraciously transforming and exchanging nutrients) and bleeds carbon into the atmosphere (agriculture is a major contributor to excess CO2). The question is: how do we grow food with minimum soil disruption?

Our guidebook is the perennial poly culture at the foundation of every terrestrial ecosystem. Here in California, the oak trees and perennial grasses grazed on by ruminants remained productive for thousands of years with increasing fertility. With the fluctuations of being grazed, perennial grass root systems grow and die rapidly, in bedding massive amounts of carbon in the soil with no exposure or disruption of the soil food web. This is the foundation of fertility in a temperate grassland system.

Perennial grasses need to be grazed to remain healthy and sequester more carbon from the atmosphere then forests. Cows, sheep, goats (and to a lesser degree chickens, turkeys) are our partners in updating the oak savanna to human needs (along with chestnuts, pecans, walnuts, figs, olives, etc.). In my re-imagined Central Valley, I see a landscape of food forest hedgerows inter planted with alleys of grasses that are occasionally (every 2-3 years and if the grade allows) planted to annuals (grains and vegetables) with minimal tillage. This would require that we change our eating habits towards more perennial (crops that don’t need to be planted every year) foods. All our meat and dairy would be grass fed, pork and poultry would be “chestnut raised” (chestnuts are the temperate grain of the future, purported to produce a similar amount of calories per acre to corn without tilling or inputs and lasting for hundreds of years).

Food scientists would figure out how to make bread, tacos and chips out of chestnut flour as they have with quinoa of late. Rather than being slaves of high input, lots of sweat, annual agriculture (which has been hemorrhaging participants for generations- only 2% of us are farmers), we could shift towards a less labor-intensive model. It is good to remember that no civilization based on annual agriculture has ever lasted. An exhausted mother has always demanded a rest, famine, and collapse. At Be Love Farm (my regenerative agricultural experiment station in Pleasant Valley, CA) our motto is “Annuals under the protection of trees, with the redemption of grasses”.

In this new model parents could champion a generation of pastoralist agro-foresters to be stewards of a clothed landscaped orchestrating the drawdown of excess CO2, cooling the planet, improving our water security (best water storage strategy is increasing soil organic matter) and producing nourishment free of synthetics.

Words and photo provided by Matthew Engelhart, founder/owner of Cafe Gratitude and Kiss the Ground adviser