By James Douglas III, Environmental Program Manager
Above – Photo credit: US Farmers and Ranchers In Action
Indigenous people worldwide have believed in the philosophy of “sustainability” for generations. This way of thinking about preserving the environment for future generations, like the Seventh Generation Principle for Iroquois nations, is gaining momentum in regards to the changing climate and the threats it presents. Nations around the world are attempting to solve problems such as rising global temperatures, energy shortages, diminished natural resources, frequency and severity of storm events, and the general deterioration of the environment. Indigenous communities play a vital role as they provide a unique perspective on the land, water, plants, animals, and relationship with the environment.
With that in mind, the Climate Change Taskforce will highlight some examples of sustainable development and share some tips on what you can do to become more sustainable. This issue will focus on sustainable agricultural practices.
Iroquois peoples have always taken advantage of the complimentary nature of growing the Three Sisters. This method of using different crops to naturally maintain soil integrity, ward off pests, and create ideal growing conditions is a great example of sustainable farming. However, many modern farmers rely on less-sustainable practices such as planting monocultures and using chemical fertilizers. Monoculture farms dry out and deplete nutrients from soil after repeated plantings. Chemical fertilizers applied to dry soil have a tendency to runoff into local waterways, causing eutrophication, harmful algal blooms, and other ecological problems. One solution to these problems is crop rotation.
Crop rotation is the practice of planting several different types of plants on the same land over successive seasons. By rotating crops, a plant that depletes a particular nutrient from the soil can be followed the next season by a plant that returns that same nutrient back to the soil. Some of the environmental benefits of crop rotation include:
Nitrogen Management – improves the availability of natural nitrogen in the soil and reduces the amount of nitrogen fertilizer used.
Reduced Greenhouse Gas Emissions – less nitrogen fertilizer use reduces nitrous oxide (N¬¬¬2¬O) greenhouse gas emissions.
Reduced Water Pollution – a reduction in synthetic fertilizer use leads to less nitrogen runoff into waterways and groundwater.
Improved Soil Structure – diversity in root structures to enhance the chemical, physical and biological structure of the soil.
Reduced Soil Erosion – improvement in soil tilth and microbial communities creates stable soil structure, enhanced water infiltration, and minimized surface runoff.
Pest and Disease Control – differing plants temporarily remove host organisms and disrupt the life cycle of pests, diseases, and weeds.
A good example of this method would require planting cover crops (like winter grasses or legumes) after a corn harvest. The following growing season, a different family of crops will be grown and harvested, followed by another family of crops the next season, and then restarting the rotation. Crop rotation will improve the workability of the soil and crop yields, which leads to more profitability for growers. It will also help farms to become more sustainable and provide food for generations.