This article first appeared in Birdwatching Magazine September 2017
Half a century ago, a Malaysian friend told me of his dream. He wanted to write, but first needed to earn enough money to buy a small plot of land where he would dig a pond for carp, plant breadfruit trees around it and keep pigs. He would always have water, and food, having carp, pig meat and breadfruit; his dream was of agricultural perpetual motion. Breadfruit would fall from the trees for the pigs to eat, pig manure would keep the trees healthy and shovelled into the pond would feed the carp, any leftovers from the carp would be quickly eaten by pigs!
Not my idea of heaven, even if the breadfruit trees held Broadbills and Bee-eaters, I don’t eat meat, don’t like breadfruit, don’t really fancy shovelling pig dung under the hot sun and the only time I ever ate carp it tasted like mud with bones in! However, it is an ideal sustainable life-style.
Until the industrial revolution every country had its version, here it was a mix of crop rotation, irrigation or drainage and the use of animal and human ‘night soil’. Until relatively recent times, sewage was a blessing not a problem, and land was kept in good heart by its recycling. Pests were kept in check by the continuous switching of crops around the fields. I’m not trying to bring back the night soil men; untreated human waste can carry disease and intestinal worm eggs, but ‘sludge-management’ as it’s called, would save the country millions in imported fertilizer and save the earth from being despoiled and the seas vacuumed clean of all life. However, sludge management would need an upgrade as micro-fibres build up in it from our washing of fleece jackets and microbeads of plastic from exfoliants. Their effects on the land is uncertain.
Sorry if you are enjoying breakfast, but what is it with our use of our toilet bowls as waste disposal units? Eco-conscious city dwellers recycle their Merlot bottles, hang their Harrod’s ‘bag-for-life’ in the crook of their arm and sort their Daily Telegraphs into the paper bin with their shredded restaurant receipts and unpaid tax demands. So why can’t they resist the lure of the flushing maelstrom, but must add to its turbid waters that which cannot rot, so half the country’s sewers are clogged with cotton buds and less mentionable non-recyclables! All too often of course, these eventually flush into our increasingly polluted sea.
I live in ‘Cauliflower City’. Here the fields crow continuous cabbages. Half the crop is rejected by the supermarkets and ploughed back in. Within weeks the same field sports more of the same. When the plough is in action the corvids, gulls and pigeons follow more in hope than expectation. Thereafter, the agri-desert is even devoid of doves.
If you add the cost of fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, wasted seed and unbought crops together the margins are too tight to sustain individual farms, just the combined ‘units’ of land held by massive businesses. Turning back the clock to rotating crops is a no brainer… millions could be saved on the chemicals used to scour land of disease and the return to a healthy, albeit man-managed eco-system would go towards our own well-being. Stepping back to centuries-old methods would not just see wildlife return, but sold direct to local shops would see farming profits return too.
It is often said that to survive farms have to grow in size, cover every type of agriculture and diversify into other activities. But I submit that a backwards step could actually be the key to progressive farming!
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