The clear majority of the small farmers around the world make their living by growing small amounts of grains, both for subsistence and for sale in the local market. Indeed, the greatest civilizations of world history have depended on the raising of certain types of small grains for their survival; corn in the Mayan Kingdoms of Central America, quinoa in the Incan domains of South America, rice in most of Asia, and wheat throughout much of Europe.
To grow small grains, however, the repeated, annual tillage of the soil is known to cause untold amount of damage to the soil food web, thus diminishing the long-term fertility of the soil.
Many permaculture teachers and practitioners around the world have abandoned all together the raising of small grains, advocating instead for food forests, perennial tree crops, and stacked polycultures.
While these growing strategies certainly do offer a number of benefits, are we simply to expect that the vast majority of the world´s small farmers, the majority of whom are severely economically marginalized, abandon the only form of agriculture that they know?
In this short article, we will look at two specific cases of ancestral cultivation of grains before turning our attention to more modern approaches to growing grains in a sustainable and ecologically friendly manner.
Corn Cultivation in the Mayan Region of Central America
For thousands of years, the Mayan people of Central America have grown corn for their sustenance. Their whole cosmology and worldview is centered around the cultivation of this sacred crop, with the Popul Vuh, a Mayan sacred text, relates how the Mayan people were fashioned by the gods from corn itself.
In the past, the Mayan people practiced slash and burn agriculture; cutting down and burning large patches of the surrounding forest to grow corn and beans. Once the fertility of the land ran out, the communities would leave that patch of forest to recover before heading on to cut down the next patch.
While this practice might look like the essence of destruction and unsustainability to our modern-day eyes, David Pimentel, a researcher at Cornell University, considers this slash and burn style of agriculture to have been the most energy efficient type of agriculture.
The relatively small population and the large land base allowed for the ancient Mayans to manage the forest ecosystem through this periodic burning and planting of grains. The forest quickly recovered its ecological resilience (and subsequent soil fertility) while the Mayan communities had a virtually unlimited resources of fertile soil base for their crops.
Rice Cultivation in Asia
Rice has been the staple of most Asian culture´s diet for thousands of years. Unlike the ancient Mayans, most Asian communities have been dealing with a large population base living on a limited amount of land for thousands of years. Given this demographic reality, Asian cultures, and the Chinese especially, had to develop ways to sustainably a rice crop on a given piece of land year in and year out.
Franklin Hiram King, an American agricultural scientist, traveled to China in the late 1800´s to study the rice cultivation practices of the communities there. After thorough research, he wrote a book titled “Farmers of Forty Centuries”, marveling at the ability of Chinese peasants to maintain the fertility of a small piece of land where they intensely cultivated rice crops. King found that whereas American farmers effectively ruined the fertility of the soil on their farms in under a decade, Chinese peasants maintained high levels of fertility in the rice paddies that their ancestors had been farming for thousands of years. How did they do it?
A combination of leaving the rice straw on the fields as an abundant source of high carbon organic mulch and frequent applications of “night soil” did the trick. “Night soil” was nothing more than human waste (excrement) that was literally carted from the nearby towns and cities and spread over the rice paddies during the night time hours (probably because of the stench). This high nitrogen fertilizer coupled with the carbon content of the rice straw maintained high levels of fertility in rice paddies over thousands of years of cultivation.
Sustainable Small Grain Cultivation Today
The lessons from past civilizations ultimately show that it is entirely possible to grow small grains in a sustainable manner that maintains the soil food web and long term fertility. However, the population density of today´s world makes it unfeasible to continue to practice slash and burn agriculture. Modern-day hygiene and sanitation probably make it unrealistic to allow for the use of fresh human feces on the fields we cultivate. Is it still possible to grow small grains in today´s world?
Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison reportedly doubted for many years that it was possible to continue to grow small grains in a sustainable manner that enhanced the long-term soil fertility until he met Masanobu Fukuoka, a small grain farmer from Japan.
After many years of patient observation and experimentation, Fukuoka came up with a no-till system of small grain cultivation that he called “do-nothing” agriculture. Fukuoka grew a rotation of rice and barley crops (along with small vegetables and a citrus orchard) without ever tilling the soil.
He sewed the succeeding crop directly into the standing straw of the previous crop, using clay pellets to protect the seeds from being eaten by birds. Once sewed, Fukuoka would harvest the standing crop and then cut down the straw as a thick mulch of organic material. The continual addition of large amounts of organic material coupled with a complete lack of cultivation allowed the soil food web to thrive, fertility to increase, and also gave Fukuoka abundant harvests that outperformed those of his neighbor farmers who excessively tilled the soil.
No-Till Farming Today
The lessons from the ancient Mayan and Chinese civilizations coupled with Fukuoka´s method of no-till farming should be enough evidence to show us that it is entirely possible to sustainably grow small grains in today´s world. The addition of abundant amounts of organic, mulch material, other sources of compost and high nitrogen wastes (such as animal manures), no-till methods, and the rotation between two or three different crops in that no-till system will allow any farmer to grow abundant harvests of their traditional grains while increasing the long-term fertility of the soil that sustains them.