Q&A: How do I replenish farmland treated with Roundup?

cornfield

Roundup is heavily marketed as a safe, easy-to-use solution for those pesky weeds. Never mind why we’re trying to eradicate these plants for which we’ve created habitat, the marketing & success rate of this product have been an outstanding success. Roundup product sales comprise about half of Monsanto’s profits. Alongside the use of this glyphosate herbicide is the widespread cultivation of genetically-modified “Roundup Ready” crops. Most of our staples – corn, soy, cotton, alfalfa, sugar beets, etc. – are grown as massive monocultures, repeatedly sprayed to decimate any plant not resistant to the herbicide. However, as is the case with these sorts of things, selection pressure has quickly bred “superweeds”, leading to the need for even stronger concentrations, leading to plants with higher resistance… and so on.

The cultivation of Roundup Ready crops has an extreme effect on ecosystems. At the smallest level, they erode topsoil, and kill most healthy soil microorganisms. The monocultures create expansive fodder for herbaceous insects to feast on host plants, prompting the need for pesticides. These chemicals also kill the predator insects that would naturally keep pest levels under control, and the pests, with their shorter life cycles, build resistance more quickly. The honeybee, which is responsible for pollinating most of the food we eat, is experiencing colony collapse disorder due to highly toxic pesticide cocktails. Industrial agriculture creates water runoff pollution, & affects frogs, birds, and has been linked to reproductive defects in humans. However, the amount of money at stake means there are few studies we can trust. On two occasions, the United States EPA has caught scientists deliberately falsifying test results at research laboratories hired by Monsanto to study glyphosate.

Lunaria Gardens helps people disengage from this dangerous, industrialized food system, & begin working with life to meet human needs while benefiting nature. I was recently emailed the following question from a grower in Bucks County, PA.

 

Question:

Hey Kristen,
I have a dilemma that I thought you might be able to help me with… or point me in the right direction. I just moved to a farm that grows GMO corn and soy and applies roundup… I’m going to take a small portion of the field for my own garden but I’m not sure how to 1) replenish and clean the soil and 2) coexist with the farmer, buffering my crops and such. I’m not looking for an organic certification right now, but I may in the future. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

 

Answer:

Without knowing whether you are living/ building on this property too, here’s my overall priority overview:

1. Preserve
2. Buffer
3. Optimize siting/ design
4. Work with water: slow it, sink it, spread it
5. Avoid soil compaction
6. Build organic matter
7. Plant woodies: trees & shrubs
8. Be neighborly

 

1. Preserve:

Preserve any snippets of healthy ecosystem you can. Don’t cut down native species to plant food. Instead, use that unmanaged ecosystem for habitat (toads & birds for integrated pest management), hunting/ foraging, inspiration, & buffer/ screening.

 

2. Buffer: 

Allocate as much land as possible for buffering from the spraying. This is where you’ll try to recreate forested habitat.

 

3. Optimize siting/ design:

Check out the permaculture concept of zones of use. The areas you plan on tending most frequently should be those you walk by on a daily basis.

Rows don't have to be straight. Circles often form sacred gathering spaces. The farmers at Sweetwater Farm, in Hugo, OR, had their wedding ceremony in the middle of this lettuce ring.
Rows don’t have to be straight. Circles often form sacred gathering spaces. The farmers at Sweetwater Farm, in Hugo, OR, had their wedding ceremony in the middle of this lettuce ring.

 

4. Work with water: Slow it, sink it, spread it.

Usually, optimal building siting is midway along a slope elevation, so you can capture fresh rainwater high to gravity feed for potable uses, then divert greywater further downhill for gardens. In this instance, I’m more worried about chemical runoff, so I would try to site high if possible. In any case, look into swales, rain gardens, rainwater collection to best utilize our most precious resource. Ideally, instead of lots of non-point-source pollution, the runoff is biofiltered through plants & soil flora (your preserve/ buffer). Water will help you grow your crops, but will also be providing the necessary catalyst for the bioremediation work of microorganisms.

 

5. Avoid soil compaction: 

Soil bacteria & fungi are who to thank for neutralizing toxicity. When we talk about certain plants being good for filtration, it’s really their symbiotic relationships with microorganisms. Healthy soil has organic matter, water, inorganic matter (subsoil/ minerals), air, and living things: plants, bacteria, fungus, bugs, burrowing animals.

Air is the huge component most people overlook. After years of erosion and being driven over with heavy equipment, your soil will have very little resemblance to healthy soil, but compaction is something that isn’t easily undone. Plan your growing area to minimize soil compaction as much as possible. Plan for vehicle access, wheelbarrow access, and human access in the appropriate areas. Check out keyhole beds.

I don’t recommend tilling, as I think encouraging plants and animals to do that work will be better, and it’s far easier to dump good things on top.

 

6. Build organic matter:

Build up as much as possible, as soon as possible. Truck in any organic matter you can get. Luckily it’s fall leaf season. To grow immediately, lay down cardboard and dump soil on top of it to get around the compaction issue. If there’s woody debris, look up hugelkulture – basically piling wood/ branches and dumping soil on top and letting the wood soak up and store moisture, improve fungal activity.

On a larger scale, just try to encourage lots of growth, biomass, topsoil regeneration, and dynamic accumulation. You’re trying to accelerate natural succession, which is natures attempt to heal disturbed areas. So encourage what we would consider weeds, the plants with taproots that draw nutrients up from subsoil, reduce compaction, and decompose and mulch their foliage to let other plants access those nutrients. These are called dynamic accumulators. Dandelion, chicory, dock, horseradish, apiaciae (carrot family), comfrey are all good stuff for soil healing. You can plant native seed mixes, plant perennials, or just let stuff grow. You’re just trying to encourage as much natural biodiversity as possible. Start that ASAP, like this fall. Simply avoid mowing, or seed to get things off to a good start.

Integrate animals. They’ll graze all this fodder while fertilizing the fields for optimal soil activity. Pigs are nature’s rototillers, sheep the lawn mowers, goats the poison ivy eaters. Take advantage of their voracious appetites.

Sheep are great for integrating with orchards, as they mow the grass that competes with tree roots, and eat fallen fruit which harbors pest larvae. The breed shown here is Tunis, a colonial American breed with North African origins, as well as one Jacob sheep, a primitive, spotted & horned breed.
Sheep are great for integrating with orchards, as they mow the grass that competes with tree roots, and eat fallen fruit which harbors pest larvae. The breed shown here is Tunis, a colonial American breed with North African origins, as well as one Jacob sheep, a primitive, spotted & horned breed.

 

7. Plant woodies: trees & shrubs

Most agriculture is based on annual crops because there’s a quick return on investment. There are some issues with this mode of operation, however. It requires continuous labor inputs season after season. Annual ecosystems only occur briefly after major environmental disturbance; our native ecosystems naturally rely on a balance including far more perennials & woodies.

I don’t think your plot of land can ever really heal so long as native trees & shrubs are absent.

I’m not against growing tomatoes or basil, but I believe in planning for the joy of producing blueberries & paw paws and persimmons – some of our native foods that have a role in ecosystem health. I recommend planting some initial edible forest garden trees, and then shrubs, then herbs, groundcovers. Inoculate logs or wood chips with mushroom spawn. Try to encourage fungal growth, it’s a really crucial component of mature natural systems that scientists are just staring to figure out. These plantings can provide human uses: food, fiber, fodder, farmaceutecals; and lots of indirect uses.

 

8. Be neighborly:

You’re going to interact with your farmer neighbor a lot. You might as well start it off right by being non-judgemental & helpful. You probably think differently in a lot of ways, but offer to lend a hand, or share a meal, and I think you’ll learn a lot from each other and form an appreciation for each other’s expertise & resources. Interdependence is stronger than independence.

I realized after I wrote this response, that the steps outlined are the same ones I would recommend to anyone who wants to make informed decisions about interacting with the land, because the steps are based in the principles of permaculture. Readers, how have you coped with Roundup-damaged soil & GMO-growing neighbors?

 

Related posts:
Notes from Forest Gardening Workshop with Eric Toensmeier
Q&A: Should I Buy a Tumbler for Winter Composting?

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