Friday, 31 March 2017

Food from the land - Growing domesticated crops

This post is a part of the series An Acre of Sunshine.

Domesticated crop plants are quite peculiar. As was discussed in my hunting and gathering post, wild plants don't tend to produce very much human food. The selection pressures that are in place on wild plants are for their own survival and reproduction, and while they often have edible seeds, fruits or roots, how good a food they are for people was a non-factor in their survival. The adoption of agriculture changed plant selection drastically as it became people doing the hard work of ensuring the survival and reproduction of their crops, while selection pressures were refocused on making bigger, better, and more nutritious edible parts that are easier to harvest. And when you look at today's crop plants, they look downright bizarre compared to their wild counterparts. All of the parts that we like to eat and use are comically large when compared to those of their wild brethren. A typical corncob is close to a foot long and weighs over a pound, whereas for corn's wild ancestor teosinte, you could hardly call the tiny seed pods a cob (see picture below). Modern corn is amazingly good at providing food for people, but would not fare well for long without people to plant and tend to it.  And of course this sort of breeding change for size is only one of a multitude of ways in which people have changed both plants and their growing environment.

Image courtesy of

While plant harvest often focuses on seeds and fruits, it can also be based on many other parts of a plant. Cabbage provides a wonderful example of how a single wild plant can be bred for many different foods, and wild cabbage is the progenitor of a dozen different vegetables today. Broccoli and cauliflower are flower clusters, kohlrabi is a part of a stem, while cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale and others are all modified leaves.  Really any part of a plant that grows in such a way as to have edible sugars, fats and proteins is viable as human food. And then there are the crops for non-food purposes like fiber or oil.

 Farming and yields

Whether organic or not, mechanized or not, genetically modified or heritage breed, the goal of farming is generally to have the highest possible yield per acre. This generally means creating a relatively simple ecosystem that provides the crop plants as close as possible to 'perfect' growing conditions. Important considerations include:
-Maintaining good nutrient levels, often with fertilization of some sort.
-Maintaining proper amounts of moisture, sometimes with irrigation.
-Reducing competition between desired plants and other plant species. While there are many ways to achieve this, the most common are some form of weeding or herbicides.
-Reducing predation on the crop plants from insects, birds and mammals.
-Reducing the detrimental effects of microorganisms, be they bacterial, viral, or fungal.

The vast majority of farming today in the western world uses a very technology heavy approach, with large tractors and implements, and heavy loads of fertilizers and pesticides. Traditional small-scale farming, and such modern reinventions of it as Permaculture, have a very difficult time competing economically with these conventional broadscale farming practices. These traditional techniques generally require large amounts of human labor, and don't benefit from the economies of scale that can be gained when farming 500 acres instead of just a few. And these modern farming techniques are only increasing their yields. See below for a graph of the yield trends for a number of major staple crops.
Graph courtesy of Math Encounters Blog

Our farm and its crops

Our own farm and those around it were first developed in the last decades of the nineteenth century by Irish immigrant farmers. The Moran family founded our farm, and the neighbors had names such as Flynn, Egan, and Brennan. They arrived with, or soon after, the wave of loggers coming up the Gatineau River. In those early days the first step was to open up the forest to create fields, which required cutting down any trees remaining after the loggers passed through, followed by digging out all of the stumps in order to make it possible to till the soil. They were probably only able to open one or two acres per year, and on our property they converted a total of 18 acres of some of the less hilly terrain on our property over to fields.

The early days of our farm mixed subsistence and market farming, growing a little bit of everything, plant and animal, to provide for the needs of the family. Any excess could then be sold on to the logging camps or down to the Ottawa area. At this time, the farmers grew a wide variety of crops, from garden vegetables to row crops like wheat. Since they were growing most or all of their own food, it was absolutely necessary to maintain variety so as to have a relatively balanced diet throughout the year.

An abandoned wheat thresher on the author's property

As with small family farms all over North America, this model began to make less and less sense as the twentieth century progressed. With mechanization and additives like pesticides and fertilizers, small-scale farms just couldn't compete. This was especially true in an area like ours, with hilly and relatively infertile soil that didn't have as high of yields and was much less conducive to industrialized farming techniques. The farms in our local area slowly consolidated so that many fewer farmers each farmed much more land, and shifted to one of the only models that remained economically viable, beef cattle farming. So while our farm isn't likely to go back to annual crops anytime soon, no discussion of land use would be complete without them.

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