Sustainability Fair looks long-term for managing resources

Posted 1 September 2015 at 12:00 am


On Sept. 15, Albion’s Holy Family Parish will host a “Sustainability Fair” beginning at 5:30 p.m. in its Lyceum.

Sustainability is a term that is used quite a bit though understandings of its meaning are often left to context or imagination.

Is water use in America sustainable? Are the methods by which we heat and cool our homes sustainable? Is our food production system sustainable? Are our transportation systems sustainable? What would it take to make them more sustainable?

To me, these are “sustainable” if we can continue to approach them the same way, long term, without unacceptable, adverse consequences.

Did land use patterns on the Great Plains prove unsustainable because they contributed to the “Dust Bowl” in the 1930s?

If the way we approach our lives generally contributes to significant climate change are the approaches we are using to satisfy our needs something that we can continue indefinitely?

Methods of food production are critical to our existence. How might one improve the sustainability of agriculture? Crop rotation that promotes soil enrichment comes to mind.

Different crops tax soil in different ways. In the 19th century, repeated planting of one crop in Ireland helped produce the “potato famine.” Cabbage used to require ground that that hadn’t seen cabbage in, as I recall, seven years. Scientific research has resulted in greater sustainability, but the verdict still isn’t in on whether such gains may last without adverse consequences.

On Allen’s Bridge Road, both north and south of the railroad tracks, green beans reappeared this summer after a three-year absence. In the interim, high corn prices and ease of cultivation favored corn. Soybeans were the leguminous alternative.

Agricultural science and mechanization make large scale green bean cultivation vastly different from the 2-3 40′ rows of wax beans and green beans in our vegetable garden. Whereas we pick beans repeatedly (ten times or more) over 3 weeks, a field crop is harvested once with machines resembling grain combines.

We roll the dice with regard to fungus, for example, attempting to limit it by picking only when the plants are dry. When hundreds of acres are involved, fungicide use, well in advance of harvest (and regulations govern such use), is relatively non-controversial.

Unlike the fields north of the railroad, the farmer growing a hundred acres of beans south of the railroad rents, rather than owns, the land. Fields north of the railroad, unlike those to the south, were tiled this year.

The fields north and south were prepared for planting to an extent unheard of in corn cultivation – at considerable expense. Exhaustive efforts were made to remove stones and level the ground prior to planting. Failure to remove stones might very well have resulted in equipment damage that would be unsustainable. After planting, the newly seeded fields north of the tracks were rolled.

Based on what was left in the fields following harvest, the differences in yield, south versus north, appear to have been striking. Where the fields were tiled and rolled, the amount of beans left behind following harvest was negligible. In fields that were not tiled and rolled after planting, the amount left behind was extraordinary.

This appears to have been, in part, attributable to the inability of the wet ground to support heavy harvesters evenly. In some instances, sections of entire rows were missed. In others, the off-kilter picker skimmed the top of hundreds of feet of row.

Without a system for recovering the beans missed in mechanical harvesting, cultivating green beans on untiled ground, under wet conditions, appears less sustainable. For one thing, yield might be compromised so much that a farmer would not get enough return on a big investment.

With no provision for recovering beans missed by mechanical harvesters, the resulting waste would seem unsustainable for both farmers and potential consumers. A recovery system would have important public relations value that might provide the farmer with some benefit to compensate for poor yield.

To some degree, sustainability is a function of how much you get out for what you put in. The more you get, the more economically sustainable your efforts would be. Agriculture is a business that has proven time and again to be unsustainable as a means of making a living without a reward that makes the investment needed to bring in a crop pay off.

Regardless of how unsustainable our current land, water, and energy uses may be, we often prefer not to think of them in terms of how sustainable they are.

Sincerely yours,

Gary F. Kent