What We Reap Transcript


  • 04:51 Unsustainability
  • 06:25 Can Anyone Farm?
  • 08:17 What is Topsoil?
  • 13:12 Soil: Bacteria
  • 13:54 Soil: Fungus
  • 16:15 Pear Tree from the Ashes
  • 18:17 Chemical Revolution
  • 20:42 Soil: Nitrogen
  • 26:30 Overshoot and Carrying Capacity
  • 29:45 Industrial Agriculture
  • 34:23 Debt Cycle of Fear
  • 36:50 Financial Resiliency
  • 39:19 Balancing Large and Small
  • 40:55 Organic Profitability
  • 43:49 Input Costs
  • 44:28 Phosphorous
  • 45:43 Diversity
  • 46:48 Weeds
  • 50:41 Monoculture
  • 51:27 Honeybees
  • 56:47 Plant Nutrition
  • 59:33 Soil Nutrition
  • 1:01:21 Wine
  • 1:03:00 Climate Change: Soil Loss
  • 1:04:50 Climate Change: Heat
  • 1:06:15 Year Round Growing
  • 1:08:47 Variability
  • 1:09:48 Hope?
  • 1:14:58 Thinking About Technology
  • 1:18:59 Exponential Growth
  • 1:21:14 Diversity and Integration
  • 1:23:52 What is Productive
  • 1:25:03 Supporting Farming
  • 1:28:00 The Most Important Question
  • 1:28:35 More About Chris

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David Torcivia:

[0:00] I'm David Torcivia.

Daniel Forkner:

[0:02] I'm Daniel Forkner.

David Torcivia:

[0:04] And this is Ashes Ashes, a podcast about to systemic issues, cracks in civilization, collapse of the environment, and if we're unlucky the end of the world.

Daniel Forkner:

[0:13] But if we learn from all this maybe we can stop that. The world might be broken but it doesn't have to be.

David Torcivia:

[0:20] At the root of our global civilization is a foundation held in common. From this foundation life springs, and upon it all our modern systems depend. This is of course the soil itself; the very ground we stand upon. And without healthy soil, life as we know it cannot be sustained. 95% of all food comes from the soil, and despite this reality modern agriculture practices have teamed up with climate change to put us on the precipice of what could be the greatest soil crisis the world has ever seen.

On much of the best crop land in the United States soil erosion is occurring at 25 x the natural rate. Globally, a third of all topsoil has been destroyed, and with current trends remaining topsoil is expected to be depleted within just 60 years.

The modern industrial nature of our agriculture and food systems cannot sustain themselves, and they will not sustain themselves.

[1:13] We have two options: change course or collapse.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:17] Today, joining us in studio is someone who represents a better path in the face of that choice. Someone who worked with some of the modern unsustainable techniques being used in agriculture, and decided not only do we need to change, but that he would take part in that change and join the ranks of the men and women re-learning what it means to develop a regenerative relationship with the soil, as opposed to one of extraction and destruction.

Chris D’Allesandro, welcome to Ashes Ashes.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:47] Thank you Daniel and David for having me I’m happy to be here.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:49] We're happy to have you, and Chris you let me come by a couple days ago to your farm – I appreciate you showing me around - I was really fascinated by some of the things you’re doing there, and some of the things you got going on, so why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing and how you got involved in permaculture.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[2:05] So a really all started with nutrition was sort of how I got involved in all this. I really was Interested in giving my body the best food that I could find, and so that sort of led me into organics, and then from there I sort of got interested in finding locally produced food, and I guess I from an early point I sort of realized the connection between the way the food was grown and then the nutritional makeup of it.

I understood that early on but I really knew nothing about growing food, and so I found in my area a local farm, and I went just to kind of check out what was going on. It was an older gentleman who was running the farm, and he had blueberry bushes, and fig trees, and a garden, and so I started working with him and that really was my first experience working in a garden and working with the soil.

But a few things kind of you know raised a little red flag for me from the beginning and that was the excessive cultivation of the soil that we were using in the garden to keep out the weeds. So basically we were rototilling the garden, we were putting in plants, and then we were rototilling it to keep the weeds out, and I saw the consequence of that; would happen when it would rain and we’d get mud everywhere, and then when it would be dry and the soil would sort of crack and get really hard.

[3:15] And we were also using chemicals to maintain the landscape, we were spraying weeds with weed killer, we were spraying insecticides on plants to keep the moths and everything off of them, and so you know I was intrigued by this idea of growing food, but I really wasn't interested in the way that it was being done in this model. So I started asking questions of the gentleman here in the farm: you know “what if we made some compost, what if we found a way to kind of reduce the tillage of the soil?” and these are all questions again I had the question but I really didn't know enough at that time to kind of argue with him, and he basically said that wouldn't work.

[3:49] And so that's really all I knew and then it ended up actually turning out that he put this property up for sale. Long story short my grandfather purchased it and basically gave me the opportunity to sort of do some of the experimentation that I've been doing there and trying to figure out what a sustainable system really looks like.

That's what I’d say was my first foray into it was just checking out this farm in my area, seeing some potential issues, and then kind of figuring out “what do I do about that? How am I going to grow food?”

Once I knew that I was going to be able to farm this property then the question really became “what am I going to do?” You know it’s sort of like a blank slate at this point. It's been farmed for the past two decades in a rather unsustainable way, so how am I going to tackle this? Again it just sort of was a natural progression from going into organics, looking at composting, soil health, and then a natural progression from there into permaculture, regenerative agriculture, some degree of biodynamics, biomimicry, these sort of terms and ideas definitely resonated with me. And once I found them I sort of just hit the ground running and trying to implement as many different things as I could to see what would work.


David Torcivia:

[4:51] That's great. I really want to take that thing that you said there about regenerative agriculture, because you mentioned that this farm have been farmed for a couple decades unsustainably.

[5:01] For people who are listening in and who don't know much about farming, could you explain maybe a little bit about what unsustainable agriculture is, and also provide hope that maybe there are ways that we can bring this land back to a way that is productive again?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[5:15] Absolutely so I think the good news - maybe this is a good place to start - is that there's going to be a lot of bad news but the good news is that we can actually do a lot of good, and if we're intelligent in the way that we work with some of these landscapes and ecosystems, I think that there's a lot of potential for us to really turn things around, because we've been in a hurry to kind of deplete these landscapes of their natural fertility, and so I guess big picture I would say unsustainable farming is anything that's really taking more than it's giving back.

[5:42] And so in my mind when I think of regenerative agriculture I'm thinking of we’re able to actually harvest food, and we're able to return more to the land in terms of nutrients than we actually are taking out. That can be a somewhat difficult system to achieve, and so I've looked at different ways of doing that. I'd say the biggest issues that I see that make an agriculture unsustainable are the over-cultivation of the soil, and the overuse of petrochemicals and other poisons basically to try to manipulate the landscape and to manipulate insect populations.

So I'm definitely in favor of a much more holistic view and I think the soil cultivation is probably the biggest one that's leading to really unsustainable loss of topsoil.

Can Anyone Farm?

Daniel Forkner:

[6:26] And you've been growing some really incredible things on your farm. One thing that really strikes me is that you kind of got into this just kind of learning on your own a little bit right? I mean you had some experience under this farmer who told you basically “hey you don't know what you're doing you can't do it the way you want to do it.”

When you went into this how confident were you that you'd be able to figure it out?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[6:47] You know I definitely had a little crisis of faith there, and I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to do it and again this is where it goes back to what this whole process has sort of taught me that there is hope and that you really don't have to be...

[7:00] You know this farming stuff it's not particle physics; it's not rocket surgery; it's pretty simple. I mean really when you get down to it it's not that complicated, and it's fairly intuitive and I think kind of a common-sense almost.

I think that a lot of the problems that we're trying to struggle with, to grapple with in agriculture, really come out of the practice, how we're farming. We create some issues, and then we try to deal with them in a way that I feel is sort of like a Band-Aid type of approach.

And so yeah I think the good news is you don't have to be an expert in this, really sometimes it takes just walking outside, observing, kind of reconnecting a little bit.

[7:36] You know again I grew up in the suburbs playing video games, so my experience outside was limited, and beyond that I really wasn't thinking in terms of landscapes and ecology. I was outside just being a kid having fun.

Daniel Forkner:

[7:49] Oh well I'm glad someone with the same background as me can get into this because playing video games is all I did as a kid.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[7:56] It’s good for hand-eye coordination, helping to pull weeds, and run the tractor and everything. It’s definitely helpful.

David Torcivia:

[8:01] There’s that farm simulator video game that have you guys seen that? It's people spending hours farming virtual farms, so maybe there is interest in this.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[8:10] Maybe we can transfer some of that energy into farming some real farms and get some food produced.

Daniel Forkner:

[8:16] Yeah for sure.

What Is Topsoil?

David Torcivia:

[8:17] Now you mentioned soil and how important that is to farming so let's take a look at topsoil for a second.

[8:21] Now it's easy to get lost in all the technological achievements of society, especially as we increasingly move to urban areas and lose touch with the real world that supports our high-tech lifestyle, but in the end we owe all the success and growth of civilization to just two things - and now I think the Farm Equipment Association of Minnesota and South Dakota summarizes it the best:

Despite all our achievements, we owe our entire existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.

[8:49] But then the question becomes “what happens when that topsoil is gone?” That may seem like a weird question, and an impossible event, but it's actually a serious concern.

As we mentioned, the UN estimates we only have 60 years of topsoil left at current rates of use, and spoiler alert: those rates are increasing.

But before we get too far into this let's take a second and step back to briefly understand what soil is.

[9:12] If I'm being honest Chris when I started looking into soil I was dreading it a little bit. I knew it's important; I knew there's like pH and nutrients and these things all play into this but in the end it's soil; I don’t know how interesting it could be.

But as I researched I got more and more interested, and maybe a little obsessed with is something I think you can relate to Chris yea?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[9:30] Absolutely, yeah.

David Torcivia:

[9:31] Let me try and briefly sum up topsoil here and you can tell me if I'm right or wrong with this.

The very brief version is that topsoil - the part that's really important to agriculture - is the top 6 to 8 inches or so (some places are much more, and some places don't have any) of soil, and this is where all the action occurs so to speak in plant growth.

This is where the roots go down, and the plants extract all their nutrients and do a variety of chemical reactions to grow sustain life. Now a good topsoil is rich and diverse, and filled with tens of thousands of microbes that are all balanced in doing a variety of jobs. We can think of these microbes almost like the bacteria in our own digestive system, at least in terms of how plants use them.

Healthy soil protects the immune system of the plant, provides all the nutrients, things like carbon, nitrogen, and ensures robust growth. Right?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[10:17] Absolutely that's correct yes.

David Torcivia:

[10:18] But the healthy rich soil is looking more and more like a thing of the past. This is due to a variety of threats.

Over-farming can exhaust soil and force the use of lots of fertilizer to make up for this, but that harms the microbes in this process, and those big industrial machines… well they crush the soil making it even worse. Monoculture limits the variety of the microbes in the soil, hurting plant health and yields, and poor land management means that tons and tons of valuable soil is literally just washed away in the rain.

Globally that's at a rate of 30 soccer fields per minute - that's a lot of topsoil loss. And the problem with that is that topsoil generates at - depending on what source you're looking at - something like 500 to 1000 years to generate just one inch of healthy, rich topsoil. Now that’s a problem, this all adds up to serious effects.

[11:05] Over the past 40 years, an area larger than the US and Mexico combined has been quote “degraded,” a technical term meaning agriculture is worse there, all because of human activities. And 30% of all arable land has become completely unproductive - all this while we need to double food production over the next 40 years to feed our rapidly expanding population.

[11:26] Now you don't have to be a farmer or rocket scientist to realize that this is going to be a problem.

So Chris tell us a little bit about soil.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[11:35] I think you're absolutely right David that unfortunately topsoil in nature is really not a renewable resource, but the good news is, again I think that if we're able to come in and sort of understand the system, the process, by which topsoil is made, we can sort of hack that system. And instead of taking a thousand years , 500 to 1000 years, we can actually replenish landscapes really quickly.

So an example I like to give is you know, where we're growing most of our grain in this country right now used to have quite a depth of topsoil there, and that topsoil probably would have been built through a very important piece that's missing from today's agriculture, and that would be through these ecosystems engineers. Animal interactions basically in the ecosystem. So things like bison, birds, all of these animals would be interacting with this ecosystem and, adding nutrients to the soil. Keeping these nutrient cycles happening, they would be sequestering carbon, they would be grazing and manipulating plant matter, some of these larger animals like moose, and elk, bison…

[12:35] Other large herbivores could be potentially clearing forests, removing underbrush, so the animals played actually a really important role in building and maintaining these ecosystems, and so in today's modern agriculture we sort of isolate and segregate everything.

The animals are kept confined away from the grain fields, and the manure that would have traditionally been fertilizing those lands, now sort of is sitting in cesspools, and then we also simultaneously are having a fertility crisis on the farms where we're worried about the future of phosphorous; we’re worried about the long-term effects of chemical fertilizer on the land and especially in our waterways.

David Torcivia:

[13:10] Which are things we'll discuss later in this episode.

Soil: Bacteria

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[13:13] So yeah I think soil to me is really, there's a few things that are really key about soil, and one of the things I like to point out to people is that bacteria are very, very important. As you mentioned, just like our own guts we need probiotics, you know it seems like some of the research on probiotics they don't really even fully understand exactly what all these organisms are doing, and it's a lot of the same way in the soil you know nematodes, and all these different bacterias… Some of them we don't know exactly what they're doing but my understanding is essentially that plants have nutritional needs, and they will use these microorganisms basically to shuttle nutrients around the soil.

Soil: Fungus

Another key piece of moving nutrients around through the soil - in addition to bacteria - is also fungus. In my experience in my work at my farm, I find fungus to be one of the most important partnership to develop, because I'm focusing a lot on perennials – woody perennials, trees, shrubs - and in those sort of environments, just like in a forest you would have decomposing leaf litter; you would have rotting logs breaking down; the primary decomposers of those things would be the fungus, and to a certain extent bacteria, earthworms, other little critters, but I think the fungus is a really important and overlooked piece of soil health because it's able to transfer nutrients directly to the roots of plants in the same way that some of these bacteria are.

[14:32] That's a really key piece that I think is missing from a lot of our food production today is that we don't really have a way to return - an effective way in my opinion - to return a lot of these nutrients to the soil and close some of these nutrient cycles, and that's really what the purpose of the fungus is. To break down a fallen tree and turn it back into topsoil. And so in some sort of ecosystem where you have degrading material that's being broken down and decomposed, you're going to find fungus, and that fungus is always going to benefit the soil in a good way, and there's a lot of fear I think that comes out of fungus. You see mushrooms popping up in your garden and you're not really sure “is this good? Is this bad?”

I was definitely unsure, there's some really strange looking mushrooms that have popped up, but you know in my experience the relationship has always been beneficial, and I've seen very little evidence that adding these sort of materials - whether it's woodchips which I'm a huge fan of or leaves, or some other sort of carbon - I think it's really beneficial.

Daniel Forkner:

[15:26] Well I definitely saw this when I visited the farm; I remember just like walking on to the garden area and I literally felt like I was stepping onto like a different planet or something, or at least something that was alive. This soil is so spongy it felt like I was walking on something that was breathing, and you showed me how you can dig into the soil and just by pulling up a little bit of the soil we see all the fungus in the soil, interacting with the roots and the plants.

I like how you compare that to the gut biome, because I think it's just something that we just haven't really understood right? We've been pumping chemicals into the soil which seems to give us some short-term benefit, but some of those chemicals impact those microbes that are living there. I think I read somewhere that you can get a small patch of ground and there could be over 10,000 species that are interacting with that soil.

Pear Tree From The Ashes

As an example of that, you showed me a pear tree, and it’s 25 feet tall, it’s beautiful. But it didn’t look that way two years ago right? Tell us about that.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[16:24] That's correct so this is an heirloom variety of pear that was not really a new cultivar that's been bred to be resistant to some of the blights and diseases, and so it got fireblight and basically the whole tree turned black - it looked like somebody had just charred it. And so I thought that at that point the tree was dead, so I cut it down right at the ground level with a chainsaw and hauled it out of there, and was planning on waiting for the stump to rot a little bit and to replant it with something else.

[16:49] And a few months later there comes a huge shoot coming right out of the ground, then within two years the tree is now 25 ft tall. Just shot right up from that established root system and the tree is healthy; and so when I saw this shoot happening - again I was very surprised I thought the tree was dead - I immediately brought in some mulch, and I brought in some rotting logs and some carbon base material, piled it up around the tree, and so far in those two years we haven't had any issues with disease on that particular tree, and it's very healthy.

Daniel Forkner:

[17:16] And you can you can literally take some of those logs that you set there and you roll them out, and you can see how some of those roots are actually growing into those rotting logs and I guess deriving nutrients from it.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[17:26] That's right so the log provides a nice cool and moist microclimate for the soil, worms, and other animals, little lizards, geckos, and all sorts of things will congregate under there and make their home. And the biggest benefit really is that as that log is being decomposed by the fungus, the roots of the tree will grow right into it, the fungus will shuttle nutrients to them, and another key component of this - I guess that you guys mentioned water, and with some of these systems we’re able to reduce our reliance on traditional irrigation simply by really getting carbon and organic matter into the soil.

[17:59] I see a lot of focus in agriculture is placed on nitrogen in the soil, which obviously is important and plants need, but sort of the unspoken and is now coming into the mainstream thought, is that really carbon is a huge, huge importance in the soil, and that if you have nitrogen without carbon you’re sort of out of balance. You really need both in the soil to be present.

Chemical Revolution

David Torcivia:

[18:18] Those are really interesting points Chris, and brings up something I think we really want to talk about here and drive home, and that's the chemical relationship that we have with modern industrial farming, and there's really three elements that are the big part of this. It’s shortened down to NPK, and that stands for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The big key on this - the first one we’re going to focus on is nitrogen - and if we go back almost a hundred years ago mankind was facing a crisis. Population was growing at a rate that had never been seen before, and agriculture just wasn't able to keep up.

There were question saying “well if we keep going at this rate are we going to be able to continue to feed ourselves?” And the problem was that there just wasn't enough nitrogen fertilizer in order to maintain this level of industrial-scale agriculture. Up to this point they have been using things like bat guano, which originally were in huge piles 30 m deep from South America, from places like that, imported all across Europe, but that resource began to run out, and people started panicking “what are we going to do?”

Lots of research was put into figuring out “well how can we pull this nitrogen that's in the air” - it's a majority of the air we breathe, 70% - “and get that into the ground in a form that plants can use in ammonia or something?”

[19:24] And it all came down to a German chemist named Fritz Haber who realized that there was a simple way, though energy-intensive, to pull this nitrogen out of the air and put it back into the ground. And this process revolutionized agriculture, and revolutionized our world as we know it today, to take the world from a little over one and a half billion people to seven and a half billion people today.

But increasingly there were concerns that nitrogen may in fact be bad for the environment in a variety of ways, something we'll discuss a little bit later.

So Chris, maybe you want to discuss a little bit about your farm’s relationship with fertilizers, and what you think that might be able to carry out to agriculture as a whole.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[20:00] Sure so my farm we don't actually purchase any fertilizer, and basically when I set out in the beginning I wanted to try to create a system that had as few inputs coming to the farm as possible, and as many outputs. So I was interested in diversity, but also in minimizing the amount of things I needed to spend money on to actually make food grow.

David Torcivia:

[20:19] And now nitrogen fixation is actually a natural process that occurs in the soil if you have healthy soil. It's just industrial agriculture as I understand it, they add so much food to the land, and they overshoot the carrying capacity of the soil that they have to artificially inflate it back up because they’re not treating their soil in a responsible and sustainable way, so what are you doing in order to allow your soil to be done sustainable?

Soil: Nitrogen

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[20:42] Okay that's a great question I mean just really quickly I'll point out that I'm not an expert in anyway in how some of these processes work, and frankly some of the chemistry is a little above my head, but my understanding is basically that this particular form of nitrogen – this soluble nitrogen from these salt based fertilizers is - the analogy that I gave Daniel the other day was that it’s sort of like if you’re thirsty, the difference between me pouring a gallon of water over your head as opposed to giving you a gallon of water for you to drink at your leisure, and that's sort of what these chemical fertilizers will do. The plants will uptake as much as they can, but then there's only so much they can use at that time, and so the rest of it will sort of basically get washed out either into the groundwater and into waterways.

In that sense it's somewhat I think a little inefficient with a lot of these applications of fertilizers. You got to be really careful about your timing, you don't want to use too much you can burn your plants, and so it's sort of a little bit of a fragile system in my opinion. If you can progress towards something what's called free-living nitrogen in the soil, where basically certain plants will have a sort of symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria like leguminous trees, like black locust, or siberian peashrub, but other plants like wheat and corn are not able to form the symbiotic relationships, but if you have free living nitrogen fixing bacteria in your soil, they don't actually have to form a symbiotic relationship they're just making nitrogen available to the plants.

That basically goes back to plant probiotics; you can actually buy these organisms, and you can inoculate your soil with them, or there's natural processes by which you can get them in your soil, and basically that is through increasing your carbon content and providing basically an environment in which these sort of microbes are going to thrive, and that sort of environment doesn't involve soil tillage or cultivation of the soil generally speaking.

When I first started farming I was very staunchly anti-tilling, and I would as a point of extreme belief I would not plow my soil or do anything to it of that nature, and now I sort of backed off of that a little bit because I see that there could be potential applications for it.

[22:42] But basically to get back to the question of how we fertilize things, I'm sort of in into this practice of biodynamic composting, and there's a lot of folklore that goes into biodynamic composting that I don't really do so much of, but to me the principal is basically that we're going to make the compost out of as many different parts and inputs as we can. So when I started farming I tried to look to the different nutrient profiles and breakdowns of different animal manure, and I noticed that there were some discrepancies and differences among the different types of animal manures, and applications for each of those.

I came across rabbits, it was an interesting discovery for me, that rabbit manure, unlike other manures is not considered quote “hot,” meaning it is not too high in nitrogen so that it'll burn your plants, and you can actually use it in your garden and around your trees and shrubs without composting it. It's very high in phosphorus, high in nitrogen, and so I learned about that and I thought “you and this is a great way that we could produce our own fertilizer and relatively cheaply,” because of course we have to pay to feed the rabbits, but the rabbits we’re also able to supplement a great portion of their diet with the produce that we grow, with just weeds and grasses, so that's one way and I think that a lot of the fertility issues on farms today, I think they're because we segregated some of these systems.

The animals are not able to sort of interact with the landscape in such a way; we've sort of created these farms where we push out everything, we don't want anything to live or grow there except for our one particular crop. We don't want birds, we don't want insects, we don't want anything, we just want a nice beautiful field of hundreds of acres of grain.

[24:10] And you know obviously there's problems that come along with that, so my big thing was making compost out of a lot of different inputs, and sort of covering all your bases just like investing. I think that diversity is always good, you get as many different inputs as you can, and really have your nutrient bases covered. The other big thing was of course keeping the soil covered. This is like a really foundational piece that I think is sort of broken in agriculture is that when the soil is uncovered, it's really vulnerable; it's vulnerable to being eroded by wind and rain, it's vulnerable to being dried out by the sun, and these sort of beneficial bacteria - these free living nitrogen fixing bacteria - don't really like that sort of environment. In the long term it can lead to the soil being compacted and the depletion of organic matter in topsoil.

So that was a big thing for me is to cover the soil, keep it protected, and always add way more than I'm going to be taking out. So every plant that grows in the ground at my farm is getting amended heavily with compost that we've made on farm from the inclusion of different animal manures. And I will say just really quickly as to the process of how we make that.

[25:12] There's a lot of different schools of thought as to how compost gets made; there's many different methods. Basically boil it down to a nutshell, we just use chickens and their natural scratching instinct to basically keep the material aerated. So we'll bed an area with something like wood chips, sawdust, leaves, really whatever carbon-based material we can get our hands on.

[25:32] And then we’ll corporate chickens into the area for however long we need, and the inclusion of their manure and that scratching and aeration, they really create a very very rich soil very quickly. In some cases we've actually enclosed chickens in areas where we planned on gardening, or planting things, and allowed them to build the soil there in place and then move them off that site, and gardened it and planted things, and then in other cases we've had them build soil in an area and then we've gone in with screens and wheelbarrows and we’ve shoveled that material and screened it and sifted it, and then brought it into another location, into a garden or somewhere else.

There’s obviously many ways to go about getting these nutrients back in the soil, and that's just the method that I went with, is using these very intelligent animals who have these sort of intrinsic desires to - whether they realize it or not - they're basically building incredible incredible compost. And just sort of by working with them and letting them express their natural Instincts, we’re able to really make sure that we don't have a fertility crisis on our farm.

Overshoot And Carrying Capacity

Daniel Forkner:

[26:30] That's so interesting, and you brought up Chris two thing specifically that I think we really need to come back to and we'll hit later in the show is both: Diversity of species, integrating these, and this concept of segregating things on a farm which I think we can translate to a lot of areas of life.

But before we go on, David you mentioned overshoot and how the nitrogen revolution played a role in this population explosion that we've experienced over the past hundred years or so and I think this concept, this concept of overshoot and carrying capacity, is not something that we've really addressed in detail in any of our shows yet, but it's central to the ideas of sustainability and the risk of collapse and something we’ll definitely dig into deeper in another show but just really briefly, to go over this as a concept:

[27:12] A species cannot grow and expand without the inputs of energy and food. When resources are more freely available, growth can occur; as resources decline, so do populations. The level of resources - and resources encompasses a variety of things depending on the species: light; space; prey; plants; shelter - these things define the carrying capacity for a species in a given environment. So carrying capacity is the maximum size of a population that can be supported by the environment given: a) the rate at which the species consumes resources, and b) the rate at which those resources can be regenerated. What's important about that function is the critical role time plays; so as long as the rate of change in the availability of resources is such that a species has time to respond, and so long as consumption of those resources does not exceed the regeneration rate, a population size will adjust to meet the carrying capacity.

But this balance can be disrupted and result in something called overshoot.

We see examples of this in the real world. Put a bunch of nutrients in a pitri dish and introduce a couple bacteria cells. These cells will divide and grow exponentially, consuming the plentiful source of food, until the population has doubled to a size unsustainable in your dish environment and the population collapses.

David Torcivia:

[28:38] Yeah algae blooms do the same exact thing in response to large quantities of nitrogen runoff which is something we’ll talk about in just a little bit.

Daniel Forkner:

[28:45] So once a species has grown beyond the carrying capacity, then it will necessarily shrink. There's no preventing this. It can happen in a slow and managed way if populations respond quick enough, but when there are delays in perceiving and adapting to an overshoot of the ecological footprint, it can result in devastation. And the reason delays are so dangerous is because of exponential growth. When an economy or population is doubling every so many years, the change can seem small at first, but the last one or two doublings before collapse come on so fast that responding and adapting become impossible in the final hours. Right now, our economy still perceives exponential growth to be the highest goal.

David Torcivia:

[29:32] These are really important points, and something that we're going to dedicate an entire episode, if not multiple episodes to, in upcoming weeks and months. But in the meantime, Daniel maybe we can discuss how we got into this unsustainable position in the first place.

Industrial Agriculture

Daniel Forkner:

[29:45] Yeah okay and to do that we really have to look at the history of Agriculture as an industry.

[29:51] The development of Agriculture in the United States has a long and storied history, beginning with mostly subsistence farming during early settlement, to periods of rapid expansion and new markets made possible by technology and railroads. High demand for US exports during WWI led to a boom for farmers who took on massive debt to buy out their neighbors, and consolidate operations. This led to overproduction after the war when European agricultural activity resumed, causing land prices to collapse, and many farmers to go bankrupt. This set in motion a series of govt programs aimed at providing financial security for farmers through price controls, subsidies, and loans. Following WWII, the industry continued to benefit from advancements in technology, both mechanically (electric pumps for irrigation; tractors and combines; grain elevators; all kinds of stuff) and also chemically - fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide, these things really took off, and from 1945 onward the agriculture industry saw unprecedented productivity gains, and farms continued to get bigger and to consolidate.

[31:07] And I want to focus on just one aspect of this history for a second, and that's the role that debt and investment has played. You know the economic boom and subsequent bust of farmers in the twenties is very interesting, and that's because it's not historically unique.

So let me read a quote from a book that was first published in the 50s describing the period between 1815 to 1821.


Resumption of importations hurt US manufacturing, but the downtrend was checked by European demand for American farm staples. As farm commodities soared and bank credit was liberalized, a wave of land speculation occurred. However, with the collapse of foreign markets, prices broke .... Land values sank rapidly, and numerous banks ... failed.

David Torcivia:

[31:54] That sounds like it could come from just about any decade in history not just 1815 to 1821.

Daniel Forkner:

[32:00] Well no doubt, I mean this cycle actually repeated itself 3 times leading up to just 1929, the Great Depression, and it's super important to be aware of how financial incentives can pervert the system because it's not just terrible for the farmers themselves - and it really is terrible I mean not only can debt expose a farmer to financial shocks, but the stress associated with it can lead to mental and physical problems, it can strain marriages and families, I mean these are the types of things we don't typically think about but it is important to keep sight of the human element here.

But as bad as those cycles are for farmers, it's bad for all of us, because it disrupts that balance that we mentioned earlier related to overshoot and natural carrying capacity. It does this by putting massive pressure on the consumption side of the resource equation, while neglecting and even weakening long-term destruction on the regenerative side.

David Torcivia:

[32:54] Let me illustrate with Daniels talking about. In the 1970s and 80s, high inflation and other financial considerations but massive pressure on farmers to dramatically increase yields, and ramp up production. And now when the bank requires you to pay a 12% loan, and your grain doesn't grow at 12% compound interest what do you do?

The fastest way to increase production is to simply acquire more land. Small farms get bought out, farms are consolidated, and all that competition raises land prices driving everyone in the system to take on even more debt. Additionally, money is poured into yield raising technology and chemicals.

Daniel Forkner:

[33:28] And all these factors combine and they lead to diminishing returns, and the destruction of the environment, undermining our ability to grow food in the future. These are things like the conversion of forests, swamps, and other low productivity land that are important ecosystems, but would normally be cost-prohibitive to farm - these lands are converted to farmland, and huge inputs of energy and costs are pumped in to raise their productivity.

[33:54] These fertilizers and chemicals destroy those microbes in the soil that we talked about; heavy equipment compacts the soil, and these efforts to squeeze every ounce of production from the soil and as fast as possible - driving down yield as well as polluting and destroying ecosystems we depend on - these efforts ignore concepts like carrying capacity, and put us into overshoot territory.

Debt Cycle Of Fear

Chris do you see debt play a role in some of the struggles that modern farmers are facing?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[34:23] Absolutely, I think a lot of probably - you know I sort of would defer to Joel Salatin on this, he's a pretty big name, and he talks a lot about this. Basically that farmers today are sort of saddled by this debt, which also corresponds to this fear, and you know sometimes I wonder like why not just change your methods? You know if you know that what you're doing is probably not going to work in the long-term why not just change? Why not try to switch over to something that's more regenerative or more sustainable?

And I think the answer probably is in a lot of cases it has to do with debt and fear, because these people are hard-working people that could theoretically lose their land lose their livelihood if they don't continue to produce, and so I think there's a fear aspect, you know “why not go to organic? Well if we do and we don't produce food then we're going to lose our farm” so I think that's a huge thing, and the other thing is it's really a huge barrier to entry.

Most people are not going to get into farming because if you want to become a chicken farmer for instance you're going to need a loan and a contract with a chicken supplier who's going to basically saddle you with a mortgage for a quarter of a million dollars or more to build a chicken house, and so if you can get into the farming game without having to saddle yourself with debt… We raise chickens using pallet structures - we’re talking upcycling junk basically that doesn't cost anything - and of course, again it's not on the same scale, we're not raising tens of thousands of meat chickens in a little tiny footprint, but the concept is that we can still make a great living, and we don't have to subscribe to that model, and it can also be regenerative and not have to go into debt.

[35:54] I would say probably right now the biggest thing preventing young people from getting into farming would be the cost of land, but the good news is there's other ways for them to get into the game so to speak, you know you can work on farms, you can rent land, there's lots of options of family land. A lot of farmers I know are either working on family land or it's rented land.

David Torcivia:

[36:13] Yeah and this is one of the ways actually that this debt cycle continues today. 40% of all crop land in the United States is that rented cropland like Chris just mentioned. So that means it's investor-owned, but they lease it out to farmers to farm for them, and many of these times the owners live hundreds of miles away, or even in different countries. The amount of foreign owned US farmland has doubled between 2004 and 2014, and we're seeing consolidation increase. According to the Census of Agriculture in 2012 (it's something done every 5 years, so we're about to get the new one), the percentage of cropland acres operated by farms over 2,000 acres grew significantly in the past decade.

Daniel Forkner:

[36:51] Meanwhile large financial institutions like those pension funds that are hungry for yields that we talked about David, they're also pumping more money into agriculture as a vehicle for investment, and with that investment comes the expectation of high returns - 12% some cases.

Financial Resiliency

And what's interesting is that while debt and financial pressures push many of these commercial farms into using unsustainable practices because of that fear, that fear that “hey I have to produce because if I don't I'm going to lose my farm,” like you're talking about Chris, well small farms that aren't inundated with debt who use older but wiser practices and are diversified - whether they’re part-time or full-time - they seem better equipped to withstand financial shocks and weather variability.

Farms with lower levels of debt can raise food cheaper than huge farms can, and that calls into question the economies of scale and efficiency of those large operations.

Because a lot of the inputs you use on your farm are made by yourself, and grown on your farm, do you feel like you can ultimately - weather now or in the future - grow crops cheaper than someone who is relying on big equipment, investments, and debt to do larger scale things?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[38:03] I would say that the profitability is definitely there, so I mean I could really make a decent living on 5 acres and I think a lot of people could.

There's some farmers that the literature is out there: they're pulling in six figures on an acre and a half to 2 acres vegetable farming. So you know they're different models out there but I think that there's no reason that you can't be financially sustainable on a small scale, and so the idea that you need to scale to such a large degree, obviously we needed that to maintain the food supply in some degree, but I think this congregation of land and being wound up in industrial agriculture and these large agribusinesses - before that all of the food was really being grown on a more diversified small-scale type of environment where people farming anywhere from 5 to 50 acres are producing most of the food because there's a lot more of them, and then that consolidation happened that you guys referred to.

David Torcivia:

[38:56] And not just farms; I actually saw a stat today that back in the 40s during World War II when the government was pushing people to start growing their own veggies and things like that, I mean everyone had these small little Victory Gardens, and 93% of all Americans had Victory Gardens, and it constituted a not insignificant portion of the entire amount of food that was being eaten in the United States at that time. It's something that has worked in the past and has shown to be sustainable.

Balancing Large And Small

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[39:20] Absolutely and so I think there's a happy balance. You can have a balance of you know people producing their own food, for instance you know I see a lot of on the roadsides alone in this country, we probably have almost as much acreage as there is in national parks; we've got lawns which is another subject, but basically the lawn culture in this country is a very resource intensive debacle. It doesn't produce any food, and we spend all this time and money sort of feeding into it, and you know if those spaces were converted into food productivity, I'm not going to say that it would totally eliminate our dependence on these sort of commercially grown foods, but it could really as you said, it could be a not-insignificant contributor to the food system.

Daniel Forkner:

[39:57] Well good luck going up against the big grass industry am I right?

David Torcivia:

[40:01] Yeah or even worse, homeowners associations.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[40:03] Right so yea there's obviously barriers to this sort of thing, you know there’s sort of what's considered, normal and that's obviously not a normal part of our culture is seeing food growing in people's front yards, but I think the landscape could be changing as we sort of move into to seeing some of the real effects of some of the cracks in the food system starting to show. People may be more inspired to sort of move to a system like that.

David Torcivia:

[40:25] Yeah and this isn't just Crock-Pot theories; I keep seeing scientific reports saying that by the 2040s the world - and the United States is included in that - are going to be facing serious and severe food shortages. Partially because of this arable land loss, and also because of our population that's going to continue to be dramatically growing. Factor that in with climate change, and this is a crisis that is coming, so the faster we can get into this other mindset about “well maybe we should be looking at some of our own ways of eating some of these calories” in order to protect ourselves from some of these shocks now, rather than later.

Organic Profitability

Daniel Forkner:

[40:56] And I'm glad Chris that you mention profitability; I found a side-by-side comparison of farm input costs by the Ohio Extension Service in 1984, with the cost of an Amishman in the same year.

So for the Ohio farmer, to yield 150 bushels of corn per acre, the average cost was about $400 per acre at this time. And for the Amish farmer it was just $44 which is just slightly over a tenth. Obviously it’s not just the Amish, like you're saying you're experiencing this on your own farm, but I guess you also mentioned balance, and is there a trade-off? Are you sacrificing some short-term yields in doing these more sustainable practices in exchange for a more long-term benefit?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[41:42] I think there is a degree of that yes. So in the beginning when I was sort of designing this system I was really looking at a balance between perennials and annuals, and so of course whenever you're planting perennials we’re talking about fruit trees, nut trees, berry bushes, there's going to be some sort of latency period where we’re waiting for those things to come into productivity, and of course in that time we're making no money off of them. To me that was sort of like the savings account in order to balance out that latency. We need the checking account in the meantime, so that's where you move into things like annual vegetables, animal husbandry, things like that.

And so I sort of created my own I guess system and theory of profitability, and that was basically to plant perennials knowing that in the future I would have a diversified, relatively secure means of income, of course nothing is bulletproof in farming but diversity of perennials I think really lends itself to being a pretty resilient system. So that was one piece of it.

[42:34] The other piece of it was finding something to make money on in the short term, and the two main ways I did that was raising animals and selling pork at the farmer’s market, and the other way was creating a commercial kitchen in which we can value-add everything we were growing in the garden, so we sort of hit a peak; there was a ceiling in which there's only so much produce we could really sell at our local market; we're not in a huge city, there’s only so many people, there's only so many restaurants, and so we hit a peak where we have all this extra produce that we’re just feeding to our chickens - which is great to help cut down on food costs for the chickens, and the eggs were amazing - but we found if we could value-add those things that we were basically feeding to our animals, we could value-add them to a product like tomato sauce, or dill pickles, or Elderberry syrup, that that would really increase the profitability of the farm, and so that was that was our strategy from the beginning was focus on perennials, and then find something in the short-term that we can sell as a high-value product.

So we sold everything really as a premium product, you know this is sort of where I get into the economics of this. Some of the food items that we’re selling are really at a price point that wasn't actually accessible to the majority of people in this country; we were sort of selling at a premium price to upscale restaurants.

[43:42] That was sort of the model that we sort of fell into in the area that we were at, and that's not to say that there is no other model, because there's plenty of ways to make a farm profitable.

Input Costs

[43:50] A big thing with for me for profitability was that there was basically, again there was a ceiling at which the price point was we really can't go any higher. We can't sell our tomatoes for more than $4 a pound; we can't sell our eggs for more than $6 a dozen, so the only way to increase the profitability in my mind was to reduce the input costs that are going into making those things. And so obviously the big inputs are going to be fertility inputs, and then inputs to control pests and disease, and so if we can eliminate the pest and disease through holistic management practice, we don't need to pay for those things, and if we can create our own fertility on the farm we don't need to pay for that time. So that was really another key piece of trying to make this thing profitable; to spend as little money as possible.


David Torcivia:

[44:29] Well let’s talk about that fertility for a second. So we go back to those three main elements that are the core of farm fertilizers, and let's look at that P element for a second, so phosphorus.

[44:39] This is the linchpin in future sustainability of industrial-scale agriculture because phosphorus unlike nitrogen isn't something that’s just unlimited that we can pull straight out of the air, we have the mine this. And the fact is there's not a lot of it on the earth that is economically viable. In terms of how common it is, it’s a very common element, it’s one of the 11th most common elements on planet Earth.

But there's very few places where we can pull it out that makes sense in order to put it on our food and grow it. Mainly Morocco, which has somewhere between 75 and 85% of all phosphorus reserves in the world that are economically viable. Yes we could pull it out somewhere else, but it’s going to make your $4 pound of tomatoes a $12 pound of tomatoes, and that’s not sustainable for civilization or for anybody in order to purchase and be able to eat this healthy food. So what happens when we run out of phosphorus? Well just like with topsoil, everything collapses. And while there’s a lot of debate on just how much phosphorus is left - depending on who you ask it's anywhere from 50 to 60 years, to 150 years - that's a time limit on civilization if we don't wake up and start working on more sustainable practices like Chris has been telling us about.


Daniel Forkner:

[45:43] Yeah and another aspect of the sustainability piece is something you just mentioned Chris, about increasing your profitability by lowering costs, and doing that in part by keeping pests and weeds away right? And this is something I saw when I visited your farm that really fascinated me is in keeping the soil super healthy; very nutritious so that your plants are healthy, they are better able to withstand disease and infestations from pests.

[46:11] And that goes back to something we discussed in our Wildfire episode David which is a lot of forests in California for example, are so dehydrated and so sick that they don't have the resources to fight off what is becoming an epidemic of bark beetle infestations. Normally they would be able to push these bark beetles out of their tree trunks, but because they're so dehydrated and sick the soil is not giving them the nutrition they need and they can't do that.

[46:36] And so you are able to keep the soil nutritious Chris and that keeps plants healthy, helps them fight off infestation, but another piece of that is the diversity of species right?


So tell us what you discovered about Goldenrod on your property.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[46:49] Sure so a lot of these discoveries on the farm have sort of just been by accident through observation, and so planting all these fruit trees. All different kinds – peaches, plums, persimmons, figs, lots of other things - and I started reading some of the Agricultural textbooks, things from the Extension Office that were basically saying “you're going to have an issue on your fruit trees, on the new succulent growth with aphids,” and so there's of course sprays that they recommend for this.

Daniel Forkner:

[47:15] What's an aphid?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[47:16] You know it’s basically a little insect that will populate pretty quickly, and they feed on this sort of tender growth.

David Torcivia:

[47:25] It's a tiny green bug that ladybugs eat.

Daniel Forkner:

[47:29] No bueno for your plants.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[47:31] So yeah they feed on this new growth and of course if we talked about here with the population, they’re going to proliferate sort of to the food source that's available to them. So you have a lot of new succulent growth happening on your trees, especially in the instance where this is a risk of potentially of over-using nitrogen fertilizer on something like a fruit tree, you create and stimulate a lot of new succulent growth, and that new succulent growth is potentially vulnerable to things like insects and disease, and so I had read that aphids are going to be an issue.

By accident unintentionally, I started mulching my Orchards and the mulch basically eliminates - you know when you put down 6 to 8 inches or a foot of mulch, it really forms a very effective weed barrier. But certain things will push through, where a lot of the vegetative growth gets covered and smothered and dies, woody perennials like Goldenrod start to thrive in this environment and so I basically selected - unintentionally selected - for this Goldenrod to become kind of a quote unquote “weed”.

And at first I'm thinking to myself “this is going to be an issue at some point we're going to deal with this somehow,” and of course it was really too much to maintain. There is Goldenrod coming up everywhere. Rather than trying to think “this is a problem I have to get rid of it,” I just left it and started looking into it and learning more about the plant. That's when I found out it's actually a good late-season source of nectar for my honey bees.

So I decided you know “I'm going to leave it and let it flower, and then before it goes to seed I'm going to chop it down,” and so I started observing it as it's growing and I noticed that the aphid population was totally almost 100% concentrated on the Goldenrod. Every stem of Goldenrod of which there were thousands, had aphids loaded on it, and when I looked at my fruit trees and all their succulent growth I didn't see any aphids. So I basically think that for whatever reason having this other plant growing in the orchard, provided them with a preferable alternative; a great abundant food source that they could be drawn to other than my fruit trees.

In traditional fruit tree culture, traditional Orchards, those things like Goldenrod are a weed; they're eliminated very quickly; and they maintain almost like a sort of golf course type of landscape. And so you know the golf course landscape is beautiful, it looks nice, easy to mechanically harvest and everything, but in terms of ecology you're definitely losing something.

So just by letting this random weed grow, we basically eliminated an entire pest issue that could have really stood to damage our trees pretty significantly.

Daniel Forkner:

[49:47] That’s such a great example of solving a problem putting ecology on your side; letting nature and the complexity of that sort itself out, and not this very hubristic human approaches of “”aphids bad, let me spray them into oblivion in my single monoculture system, and then just create more problems for myself” like you've mentioned how much of our problems in agriculture and in the industry side of it is self created? And now we're just trying to layer band-aids on top of band-aids and never getting at the “root” of the problem.

David Torcivia:

[50:28] Sorry everyone.

Daniel Forkner:

[50:32] I love that example.


David Torcivia:

[50:34] It's such a great example like Daniel mentioned of the problems with monoculture agriculture, but it's not the only way that this is something that can be problematic.


Christopher D'Alessandro:

[50:42] Yeah that's right David, so another a potential issue with monoculture is that for instance almonds in California is a very large and profitable crop, but because of the fact that it is grown in monoculture, and the almonds only bloom for a few weeks out of the year, there's no nectar flow the remainder of the year for the native pollinators to utilize, and so their populations collapse and they move on. So the only way that we're able to sustain food production in these systems is to basically move around honey bees around the country to pollinate these farms for us.

Honey bees aren’t actually native pollinators – they’re from Europe and Africa - so obviously we utilize them but they're in some ways not the best pollinators, and I think it would be a good practice if we can encourage some of that diversity of pollinators on our farms and bring those native pollinators back.

David Torcivia:

[51:28] Well let’s talk about honey bees for just a minute then, because it is such an important topic to agriculture, so much so that like you point out there are people who travel around - beekeepers - with these beehives renting them out to farmers for a couple of weeks when they're having blooms, then collecting their hives, moving on to do it somewhere else. Which seems almost comical of how much we have to imitate this natural process, but that's really the crux of this industrial system.

[51:49] But our honey bees are endangered right now, and not just honey bees but insects across-the-board. So there was a study just recently, they’ve lost 75% of the insect biomass in Germany over the past few decades. We’ve seen 15% decreases in butterflies almost every single year, and especially these beautiful monarch butterflies. I remember growing up even in the suburbs, seeing these butterflies just everywhere in the summer. It was something you just expected and saw. You wouldn't note it unless there were tons of them at the moment, but now I rarely see a butterfly and when I do it's like something to behold, to say “Hey look it's a butterfly,” and we all ooh and ahh for a moment and then it's gone. But that's just a quick way that we're seeing our world rapidly change, partially because of climate change, and partially because of a number of factors.

So let’s take a look at this real quick in terms of the honeybees, because this has gotten a lot of press, we've even seen silly Black Mirror episodes making up ideas of what happens when the bees are gone, but it is a serious problem; these colonies are collapsing. It's something actually they've defined as “colony collapse disorder” and why that's happening… well there's a lot of different ideas.

[52:46] One of it is like Chris discussed. The monoculture and the lack of consistent nectar throughout the season means that sometimes these bees aren't getting enough nutrients, or they have to go farther for nutrients which is damaging to their health. And this plays into also a climate change factor that it's just the food that we have now isn't as nutritious as it used to be because of rising CO2 in the atmosphere, something we'll discuss in just a moment.

[53:07] Three, the pesticides used on these monoculture and genetically modified crops, things like Roundup Ready seeds, are probably really bad for these bees and are causing some of these colony collapse problem. And Forth, because these colonies are in more stress because of all these factors adding up, well they're more susceptible to disease. Just like these plants that have poor soil are more susceptible to disease. Just like we are when we're not getting enough probiotics are more susceptible to disease, well these bee colonies are the same, and when they've weakened, when they're stressed, funguses come in and finish the job and the colony collapses.

So it’s not just one single factor that comes into this, but an amalgamation of all these systems, all these problems that we've introduced, because of our industrial scale of agriculture that are wiping out this critical linchpin that we all rely on for almost all of our food.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[53:53] I keep honey bees and my whole philosophy with the bees, the thing with beekeeping is you can get a lot of different advice depending on who you ask. There's a little saying “if you ask five different beekeepers you’re going to get six different opinions.” Because there really is not a quote unquote “consensus” on what the proper way to manage the bees is, so I sort of have some foundational principles that have worked well for me so far.

[54:16] Number one is to let the bees keep their honey. So obviously for commercial beekeepers, they're in business and need to make money, honey is far more valuable than some of these honey “alternatives” quote unquote they're feeding back to the bees. So basically they're taking the honey and the best case scenario they're feeding back sugar water, and the worst case scenario they're feeding back like high-fructose corn syrup or other sort of pseudo sugars. I think from a nutrition standpoint, the bees really they're making the honey for a reason; it's a perfect food for them; it’s medicinal and never goes bad. Honey it is a really important food that we humans can utilize also, but to me the goal was to leave the bees their honey, or at least most of it.

[54:55] I would take what I need and leave them enough, so the thing is it's hard to figure out what how much is enough, how much is too much. So basically what I did is I started just leaving the honey in the hives through the winter to make sure that they are absolutely going to have enough honey to get through the winter, and then in the spring, the following spring, I would then harvest the honey right before the nectar flow started again. A lot of beekeepers will harvest their honey in late summer, early fall, but the problem with that is now you're taking their food. If you harvest too much, or the bees have too many bees, they eat too much honey whatever, it's sort of a gamble! And the bees are gambling; they’re gambling on how many bees they're laying, and hatching out, how many are going to survive and live through the winter to go into next spring.

[55:33] And so if you throw off that balance and take too much honey out you could really, you could collapse your hive right there, they could starve for the winter, and then you have to make up for that feeding them sugar. So in the name of keeping profitability right, sugar is still expensive, I don't want to have to go out and buy all the sugar to maintain my hives, so basically my first principal is let the bees keep their honey, and then I'll harvest it the following spring before they start bringing in more.

The other big thing was that I tried to go what I consider “treatment free.” The biggest thing in beekeeping right now is there is a lot of debate about which chemicals to use in the Beehive, there's antibiotics that people are using, their using a different types of what is considered “soft treatments” made out of herbs like thyme, up to quote unquote “hard treatments” that are basically pesticides, to try to combat the varroa mite which is basically creating an issue for honey bee.

So I think there's a lot you could probably fill a whole podcast with information just about the honey bee, but to keep it brief I think again sort of using nature as a model, letting the bees keep their honey, and increasing diversity of flowers trying to create three to four seasons of nectar flow for your bees is very important and obviously commercial Farms just frankly aren't able to do that in this current paradigm.

Daniel Forkner:

[56:39] I wonder if there's anything that we won't feed high fructose corn syrup to at this point right?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[56:45] Babies, bees, whatever.

Plant Nutrition

Daniel Forkner:

[56:48] But I want to go back to something you mentioned David about nutrition. That is an interesting component of this bee population is the nutrition that they're getting, and one thing that’s super interesting in a kind of depressing way I guess is the way that the rising CO2 levels is being connected to decreasing nutrition in our plants all over the world including these plants that bees depend on.

And this is research that's kind of new. It's not getting a lot of attention at all at the moment, and David we discussed in episode 7 how rising CO2 levels might be having a negative impact on human health.

Researchers discovered something interesting recently. It started in 1998. They figured out that if they shined light on algae they could make it grow faster, and algae of course is an important food source for the plankton in our oceans and lakes, which themselves are crucial to so much of the life that we as humans depend on. And obviously, these researchers assumed “hey if you can make algae grow faster, you can provide more food for the Plankton to grow.” But that's not what happened. As the algae growth in response to this increased resource, the plankton in their experiments couldn't survive, and they discovered that the nutrition content of the algae had decreased. The sugar to nutrition proportions were changed.

Connecting that back to the CO2 levels in our air, some researchers are beginning to believe that these rising levels of CO2 are causing similar nutrition losses in plants all over the world. Just like that algae in that experiment.

So here's a quote from one of these scientists who has been studying this issue, quote:

Every leaf and every grass blade on earth makes more and more sugars as CO2 levels keep rising, [and] We are witnessing the greatest injection of carbohydrates into the biosphere in human history―[an] injection that dilutes other nutrients in our food supply.

[58:43] And this is a startling claim that is not getting a lot of attention at the moment, but there is mounting evidence to support this. In 2004 a study found that protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin C had decreased in most fruit and vegetable crops significantly since 1950. Although at the time this was not connected to atmospheric CO2, researchers are beginning to suspect that's a major factor.

More recent Studies have shown that increased CO2 lowers minerals like potassium, calcium, zinc, and iron in a majority of plant species - including protein and some of these Goldenrod species that these honey bees depend on - and it suggests that we could experience a further 8% loss in these nutrients within our lifetime.

[59:26] So just another front on the battlefield of plant health that we’ll be dealing with in the coming decades.

Soil Nutrition

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[59:34] In a rich and fertile topsoil you're going to build up what's called a humus layer and this is a layer that really builds and thrives in a no-till type of environment where you’re not cultivating the soil, and in a nutshell this humus layer is very biologically active and its function is to hold water and minerals in the soil to make them available to plants.

[59:52] This is sort of like a fine wine; it gets better with age. The less it's disturbed the better it gets. When you're constantly cultivating and plowing the soil you lose this humus layer. You start losing this very biologically active layer that's holding on to the minerals. A big thing in Plant Nutrition is that we’re told that nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are basically that's it. That's what the plants are fed and that's what we're told they need to grow. And that is true but it is sort of as an analogy like me saying that your body only needs protein carbs and fats. Well that's true but you also need all these trace minerals.

You need copper, you need manganese, you need iron and all of these other minerals that keep the plant healthy and in an instance where you don't have this biologically active layer of soil, yeah you can force feed the plants nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium with fertilizer, but you really can't make up for that lack of mineral.

And those minerals are very important to our health and also for flavor, and all that that's not maybe as important - most people wouldn't think of flavor as being a critical reason for trying to farm in a sustainable way - I noticed that. Obviously I can't provide numbers or scientific data but my own empirical evidence is that when food is grown in this way, in a sustainable manner where you're really caring for the soil, the food taste so much better.

Whereas a grocery store tomato might just taste like a glass of water honestly, it doesn't have a lot of flavor, the tomatoes that we're growing are just mind-blowing, and I saw that not only in my own experience but in the reactions of people and customers at the farmers market who were trying our tomatoes and other produce.

[1:01:17] Really noticing and picking up on that flavor difference which really goes back to the soil health.


Daniel Forkner:

[1:01:21] Well I mean it's kind of like wine tasting right? Wine has three components of flavor - I'm probably going to butcher the wine lingo here but - you have the specific grade whether that's a Chardonnay; whether that's a Merlot or whatever; you have the way that it's aged like the way you process it and barrels and things like this; third and very huge part of this is this soil that is grown and you literally taste a difference in different wines depending on where it's grown. It can be the same grape, it can be processed the same way, but it’s that soil that makes a difference in the flavor.

David Torcivia:

[1:01:52] It's not even just the soil, it's also how much sun it gets; which direction it faces; if it’s on a hill; all the shade; all this plays into that.

And in fact this actually ties in really well with everything. To control better some of these things, modern wine produces have found that it's difficult to grow good wine the way you're supposed to so they’ve turned to chemical additives that they add to wine, and almost every single winemaker does this now, in order to emulate some of these processes that are just too expensive to do naturally. There's a growing movement in wine for something called “natural wine”, which eschews all these chemical additives and techniques to go back to the original sustainable old style of wine production so that goes along really well with the conversation that we're having here right now.

It's sort of funny to tie this even more back into our conversation, wine production is at huge risk from climate change. All those careful amounts of how much sun, and how much warmth that affects the taste of these grapes, well it's changing dramatically and changing very quickly faster than these Vineyards can keep up with and ruining crops already, and as climate change continues to increase at its rate, well this is just going to get worse.

And one of the ways that this is going to play out also is intensifying our topsoil loss.

Climate Change: Soil Loss

[1:03:01] As we pump more and more energy into this weather system, this climate, well that also means that we pump more water vapor into that. For every degree increase in temperature we add 7% more water vapor into the air, and that has a variety of effects (water vapor is a potent greenhouse gas), but also it just adds more rain.

And so while we might have less rain overall, when we do get rain it tends to be much harder and much more concentrated.

[1:03:24] This affects soil loss dramatically because while long slow rainstorms might seep into the soil slowly and not affect dramatic erosion, the hard fast intense rain - places are getting a year's worth of rain in just a couple of hours – well that wrecks the soil. It wipes everything away and even fields that are well protected in terms of responsible soil management, well they can't keep up with these dramatic increased water flows.

One of the ways that climate change is intensifying all these problems that we’re already beginning to see.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:03:50] One thing I'll say real quick David is just that that is exactly why it's very important to design into your farming system some degree of resiliency, some type of shock absorber to the system so that when you do get this Monsoon rain you can handle it and it doesn't potentially wipe you out, and so that's really to me what we're designing around.

I mean yeah when everything is great and the sun is shining and the weather's beautiful, there's no issues but that's not reality, and so we need to be prepared for those sort of shock type events that really could wipe us off the map. Wipe the farm off the map.

And so that's where it goes back to not tilling the soil, or trying to find ways to - again soil erosion can be mitigated very easily; you keep plant roots in the ground and you stop plowing it, and there's very little risk for that sort of erosion and runoff.

But yea shock absorbers into the system are really critical and our Modern Day farms are really lacking in that area. They’re very very fragile and susceptible to these sorts of huge weather events.

Climate Change: Heat

Daniel Forkner:

[1:04:51] It's not just the increased weather variability but the heat itself. Because of rising temperatures, it is estimated that we will see a 40% decline in crop yield in California by mid-century.

[1:05:05] This is a result of increased winter and nighttime temperatures. Some crops actually need a certain number of “chill hours” - I guess you know plants need to sleep a little bit to right? But some of these crops will be hit pretty hard. Walnuts for one.

Our National supply of walnuts come pretty much exclusively from California, and California supplies 75% of the global demand for walnuts.

[1:05:28] And these are one of these species that is going to experience rapid decline because of these raised temperatures. But it's not just walnuts that come from California but things like peaches, strawberries, tomatoes, avocados, grapes, corn, rice, and a whole bunch of other stuff. And I guess this raises a big question in my mind Chris which is: I wonder if this wouldn't be such a huge problem if we as a nation, and globally, didn't put so much pressure on regions like California to supply this insatiable 24/7 demand that we have for things like walnuts to be placed on a grocery shelves year-round no matter where we are.

[1:06:08] So what are your thoughts on a food system like that as opposed to one where maybe people eat what is in season and can be grown and produced locally?

Year Round Growing

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:06:16] I think for a lot of reasons that makes so much sense. If you can really focus on what's able to be grown in your area, close to you, that’s really how I feel a lot of communities are going to become resilient and prepare for these potential disruptions in the food system.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:06:30] So we need not just resiliency on individual farms to withstand these climate changes and effects, but also in communities of farms and the way that we actually eat our food and get our food.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:06:42] Some of that also goes back to Consumer preference and consumer demand. I think consumers really have a lot of power with the way that they spend their money, and if that's something they're interested in pursuing, and gravitating more towards a localized seasonal type of food economy, if that was in the consumer's interest then we would start seeing probably a progression towards that much quicker.

David Torcivia:

[1:07:03] Well we’re really spoiled right? Like I expect I can walk into the grocery store in any point during the year and buy all the vegetables and fruits like I normally do, like “oh why isn't there a perfectly ripe avocado in this store in the middle of winter; in the middle of summer,” whatever season it is at any time.

I guess that's why I was reading this stat. The average piece of food that we eat travels between 1000 and 1500 miles. That's on average.

That’s not a sustainable practice.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:07:27] Right and I think part of it too is again, I'm a big fan of diversity, of spreading your risk, and when we focus on an area like California because of its natural productivity and we focus a very very large percentage of our food production there - again to me that's not a shock absorber. There's no buffer built into the system there.

So I don't like to keep all my eggs in one basket and I think if we could you know, every area of this country, and really everywhere in the world there's plenty of food products that can be grown, and one thing I'll just say really quickly that I learned on my farm was that there's so many fruits and vegetables and food products that I didn't even know existed because they're not something that's traditionally seen on the shelves of the grocery store, and yet they're very very well adapted to grow in our climate.

So I think it if people can sort of get in touch with those things; Japanese Persimmons, pawpaws, some of these different tree fruits are very good for you, very easy to grow, and they thrive in a variety of climates.

Yet there's really no commercial production of these things happening whatsoever.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:08:24] I mean as a consumer I agree David that we’re spoiled, but at the same time I think I would really enjoy it if every time I walked into the grocery store it’s like “I wonder what fruits we're going to have here; I wonder what vegetables we got in season,” maybe if I'm traveling across the country it’s like -

David Torcivia:

[1:08:38] “Ooh this looks good right here yeah.”

Daniel Forkner:

[1:08:40] Yeah “have you ever been to you know North Carolina? You got to check out their selection of crops that's unlike anything you see in somewhere else,” and I think -


David Torcivia:

[1:08:48] Well we’ve lost a lot of variability even within the fruits that we eat regularly. I was looking at this chart and tomatoes, just to pull one of the examples, there were 405 different types of tomatoes in the US in 1903. And 80 years later in 1983 we were down to 75.

This is true with almost every single type of foods. So lettuce: there were almost 500 different types of lettuce at the time, and now we're down to like 30. Because everything else is just, maybe they weren't commercial enough, they couldn’t grow enough to be economically sustainable on this large-scale, so we just stopped cultivating it and now you can't find it anymore.

We're missing out on things that our ancestors were able to enjoy.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:09:26] Well I think a lot of it goes back to you know we have to kind of select for these varieties that are well adapted to growing on these large-scale commercial farms. So they've been selecting for tomato varieties that they can pick green and then ripen with gas, or that are very portable, and they're not selecting for things like flavor.

They're more concerned with disease-resistance really. Disease resistance and portability because if the plants aren’t disease resistant they're going to succumb.


David Torcivia:

[1:09:49] Okay I'm going to quickly change gears just for a moment. We've been talking about lots of problems and solutions along the way with Chris hear. We’re so happy to actually be able to have some positive things we can say for a change on the show, but I also want to address some of the topics that I usually hear people say “well yeah these are problems that you discussed, but we're going to be saved by this thing.”

And well some of those things that are supposedly going to save us, well they're kind of problematic.

One of the first ones that I get a lot is like “oh yeah you know climate change is going to destroy a lot of this arable land. It's going to make crops that we normally grow there not sustainable. Desertification is going to happen; we're going to see shifting weather patterns, we’re not going to have that stable climate that has enabled agriculture over the past ten thousand years…. But it's okay because we'll just shift North and the Tundras and boreal forests of the North and the South will suddenly become vast breadbasket of the world.”

Well you know what that's a nice story, and I sort of assumed at the time when I first heard it like “okay yeah that makes sense I guess it’ll be right; it'll be good for Canada; good for Russia.”

But when I started looking into the soil of these regions I started seeing some problems, and so again let's talk about that topsoil for a second; something that takes thousands of years to generate any level that's capable of sustaining any sort of industrial-scale agriculture.

While there are ways around it in the techniques that Chris has been talking to us about, maybe that's not sustainable for 7.5 billion people that we see right now, and in the future 10.5 billion going forward.

So quickly let’s look at this.

Not all soil is created equal. Much of the more polar regions have soil that isn't suitable to all agriculture. At least not on any sort of industrial scale. Now the three main soils that we have here are podzols, which are sandy, low moisture, and low nutrient soil that's only really suitable for grazing, at least without intensive fertilizing to make it more fertile for these agricultural industrial scale.

Gelisols which are highly lacking in nutrients, and then a low nutrient class Entisols which is one of the most common forms of soil and can be extremely rich and productive especially around rivers where are all this sandy soil is deposited rich with nutrients, but in places like deserts where we haven't had lots of rotting foliage for years and years building up, being processed by these microbes; well this soil is nutritionally empty and not suitable for farming.

And this is most of the soil that is going to be opened up by this warming process, and we can't just shift our agriculture to these without dramatic fossil-fuel investment. We already spend so much fossil fuel on our current level of Agriculture.

Back in the early 1900s, one calorie of oil - and yes you can measure oil in terms of calories – would give us 2.3 calories of food. But now that equation has flipped.

[1:12:16] 10 calories of oil will give us just a single calorie of food, and having to enrich the soil even more and then transport it from these areas to population centers that need it… well that’s going to make that equation even worse. The other big technofix I routinely hear is that “oh we’ll be saved by vertical farming,” and this is a technofix so let me quickly just give you a sense of the scale and you'll quickly see why this won't work.

So maybe I should first qualify what vertical farming is. This isn't like a natural process of “well we're going to grow trees and then things underneath the trees...” Or vertical scale construction where we control every single part of this process from the bottom to the top this.

This is literally we're going to grow food in skyscrapers. Food in internal multi-story greenhouses except there's no glass to let the sun in, there’s just going to be walls and we’re going to replace everything with LED lights and control every single component of this. You can quickly see how that would be energy-intensive, especially when you have to replace the sun, this limitless, bountiful source of energy for your food for these plants.

[1:13:14] Let's get a scale just of how much space this would take. So there's 922 million acres of farmland just in the United States in use at this moment. If we use just a quarter of that current farmland, and converting it to vertical farms, that would be 230 million acres worth of buildings that either need to be built, repurposed, or maintained.

To put that in perspective, the largest arena in the world, is the Philippine Arena. It’s 37,000 square meters, or about 10 acres. So we need 23 million of those.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:13:43] That's a lot.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:13:44] I don't think that's going to happen David.

David Torcivia:

[1:13:46] Yeah and even if we were able to build that think of the ecological impact of all that construction.

Okay so what if we repurposed instead all the current industrial retail space that we have right now? So we have all these stores going out of business as they get replaced by online shopping, what if we converted all of that instead to farming?

Maybe that would be more environmentally responsible right? Well they problem is it's just not that much. So we have about 24 billion square feet of industrial space; it's about the same as how much multi-family space we have excluding single family homes and condos.

[1:14:16] Now an acre is 44000 square feet, so that means we have about 550,000 acres of industrial space, and then an additional maybe four hundred thousand acres of retail space. If we combined all that we're still just 1 million acres, and we need again what's that number?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:14:32] 230 million?

David Torcivia:

[1:14:34] It's not sustainable it's not going to work. The scale of this problem is just ridiculous. We can't replace our current agriculture with these vertical farming meccas. We can maybe use it as ways to have sustainable local agriculture, but there's no way that we can repurpose this lost land, this loss of arable land that we're seeing from a variety of factors with just this ridiculous technological fix, not even talking about the energy requirements of this process.

Thinking About Technology

Daniel Forkner:

[1:14:58] Well David I think that will transition us into the most important part of the show which I guess we've kind of integrated into a lot of these discussions, but that is of course what can we do.

[1:15:09] I love how you break down the numbers on this potential technofix of vertical farming to show that it's simply not sustainable, but I think we can really conceptualize this idea of technological innovation as a solution to something that's very simple.

That's this: if your system is unsustainable, directing technology towards maintaining that system doesn't work. It doesn't just delay the inevitable, it also magnifies the resulting consequence of that overshoot we talked about. So a Reliance on future Tech Innovation is a clear indication of unsustainability. And to really illustrate that, look at one point in the past you could extract 100 units of oil by consuming one unit of oil.

Today, that same unit of oil gets you only a quarter of what it used to. So what we’re experiencing is a very rapid process of diminishing returns when it comes to trying to apply tech to keep us in this unsustainable system.

[1:16:09] We don't need a better chemical, or a bigger tractor, to squeeze more crops out of an increasingly sterile soil until we reach a point where the costs becomes so high that we just can't sustain it.

[1:16:21] We need the exact opposite; we need technology that's in the form of community organization, in the form of human skill and knowledge, and tools that are aimed at cultivating resource practices that can sustain us indefinitely, and that can regenerate the soil and keep our plants alive.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:16:39] My thinking of technology is this, that on my farm I really have a lot of the technology that I already need. So I sort of look to technology like a chicken. To me a chicken is a brilliant piece of technology, you know it's a natural living, breathing, quote-unquote “technology” that's really the best fertilizer spreader, the best cultivator, the best insect control that really we could possibly come up with. I mean chickens have eyes like laser beams, they can see things that you can barely even see with your naked eye. They're very adept at finding and scratching for different insects, and breaking pest cycles.

So I think if we work with some of the things that nature has already provided us, I think that the technology is really already there, and so I think the mistake we make is they we’re looking to something made out of steel and wires and stuff, or something made in a laboratory to sort of be this techno fix.

[1:17:28] When in some ways the tools are really already there, we just need to figure out how to use them. You know again we're raising something in the order of 9 billion meat chickens in this country every year; if we were to turn those 9 billion chickens loose in our crop fields to fertilize them in the offseason, that that would be a huge impact on those farms, and so I think I'm not against technology. I use technology on my farm. I use wood chippers, I use chainsaws, these are all technologies that I think are very important, and if we can find ways to create biomass by chipping up a renewable resource like a hardwood tree, that's a really great thing, but in my mind right now at this moment I believe we already have the technology that we need.

[1:18:08] We have the ability to go in and to basically create large amount of biomass to seed large areas; we have the technology to as far as genetics goes we can selectively breed for the types of animals that are well-suited to different climatic regions… those are the sort of technologies I think that we should be looking for. You know natural plant breeding, natural animal husbandry, and not to say that there isn't some sort of more traditional quote-unquote “technological improvements” that could be utilized to help move us into the next generation so to speak of food production, but I think that it's also dangerous to sort of throw the baby out with the bathwater and say that these natural technologies aren't applicable.

So I tend to think that perhaps a marrying of the both of those things: natural technologies with some man-made technology. I think that we have a lot of the tools at our disposal right now.

Exponential Growth

Daniel Forkner:

[1:18:59] Oh no that's such a great point and that is exactly I think the point that I'm trying to get at here is that like you said we already have the technology. And rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, We already have the example that nature gives us of balancing systems, and the only reason why we need to create new technology and technological innovation to keep us going on this path of exponential growth, is because it doesn't make sense and we're trying to create something to solve a systemic issue without addressing the underlying structural flaws.

This really comes back to our need to question indefinite growth right? Our modern economy has been structured around the concept of indefinite growth which is why so much of our efforts and technology are aimed at increasing growth.

[1:19:47] But if we don't realize that everything we do, and our very existence sits on an 8-inch foundation of soil, we are in big trouble. We demand compound returns of our money, and our economies, but plants don't grow according to those standards, and if the natural growth and regeneration rates of our soil cannot keep up with our financial demands, maybe it's time that we start questioning the sanity of those demands.

Instead of trying to maximize growth, we should ask what level of growth is compatible with biology and sustainable agriculture.

David Torcivia:

[1:20:23] And beyond that, questioning the things that we do with our agriculture. So huge amounts of the agriculture in the United States is devoted to creating biofuels. Things that are inefficient, wastes of energy, and don't really make an impact in our fossil fuel use in the first place, but are huge contributors to things like topsoil loss.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:20:41] Specifically ethanol.

David Torcivia:

[1:20:43] So questioning things like our ethanol production, looking at the perverse incentives farms have; things that cause them to consolidate, to become conglomerates, large out-of-touch farm operations, instead of these smaller more sustainable farming practices like we've been talking about today.

And then our choices as consumers of what products that we buy. We’ve talked in the past about trying to avoid things like processed sugar, corn syrup, in our sugar episode, but also carrying those same ideas to what fruits and vegetables we buy next time we're at the grocery store. Or even better, the farmer's market where we can get locally grown products.

Diversity And Integration

Daniel Forkner:

[1:21:15] This is another concept that we should all be thinking about. In the same way Chris that you have found benefits to have a diversity of species close together in your farm, it's possible that we need the same type of diversification within our communities.

Some who study City and Land Development suggest that the way we try to compartmentalize and separate human activity - kind of like how you were talking about our desire to separate the pigs from the chickens from the crops, and compartmentalize everything, keep them safe from each other - we do the same thing with our neighborhood and our cities, and some people who have looked into this believe and think that part of this is responsible for a lot of the sprawling that we see going on that leaves destitute in its wake. An example of this is we don't like putting factories next to neighborhoods so we put them really far away so we don't have to deal with the pollution. But when you move a factory away from outspoken citizens, workers, and the owners in the communities that factory serves, you’re also removing the accountability and the pressures on that factory to maintain good air quality and waste management, and things like this. So the factory then feels it can get away with unnecessary pollution which eventually drift down into poor areas that can't afford to move away, and at some point gets so bad that it starts impacting those wealthier areas that were far removed.

But these wealthier citizens can simply move away, and it sets in motion a cycle of growth and decay. I mean we see the same things in rural areas but instead of a car factory it might be an animal factory. So maybe part of this problem like we touched on is this global demand for foods that put pressure on commercial farms to squeeze as much yield out of the soil no matter what, but I wonder if it would be more difficult to have unrealistic demands if we were not so removed from the source of our food.

You know I go to McDonald's and I expect to get a quarter pound beef burger whenever I want it. I don't have to think about where that beef comes from, and what went into making it.

[1:23:10] But if our farms and food systems were locally integrated within our communities so that not only do I know where that beef comes from, but I also understand the costs associated with producing that beef; the physical, ecological destruction of overproduction and things like this… would I demand it if I knew it would result in harm, not to some distant place I don't have to think about, but harm to the soil, rivers, and lakes that are in my own backyard?

[1:23:36] And would that create a healthier environment where people are working together to create something more sustainable; something more long-term as opposed to just outsourcing everything and moving away when local conditions don't agree with a particular aesthetic?

David Torcivia:

[1:23:51] Do you want to add anything Chris?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:23:52] I would just say briefly that a lot of the ideas that we have about what is actually productive in terms of farming, and we talk about yield as a huge focus.

What Is Productive

[1:24:01] Yield is really relative to me. Yield goes back to the soil. The yield is only able to be what the soil can sustain, and we've been in a situation where because of cheap fossil fuels and everything we've been able to sort of of artificially boost are yields, and so I think the big thing is going back to be figuring out how to rebuild good quality soil, and you know I mentioned in the beginning that there's good news that we can build soil very quickly if we're intelligent in the way we're designing it.

And so I think that really in a lot of communities around the country they're sitting on gold mines and they don't even realize it yet. They could be easily growing a lot of food in these communities.

[1:24:38] Especially in rural communities, I mean there's every municipality across the country has availability and access to things like leaves, wood chips, sawdust, horse manure, whatever, and a lot of these things end up as a waste product, they end up going into the landfill.

Again developing new technology could certainly be helpful, but sometimes it's really just about shuffling around and finding a way to reuse and utilize better what we already have, instead of wasting a lot of it.

Supporting Farming

Daniel Forkner:

[1:25:04] Yeah that's so important, and we need more people doing what you're doing. Learning how to reconnect with the soil, and I think it's so inspirational because you just started this 4 or 5 years ago, and you're already learning so much through experience, and that's exactly what we need. We need more people learning how to create regenerative systems with the soil, and we’re especially going to need this as we go forward into a future that's not looking good for commercial agriculture. We need these sustainable systems to fall back on, to be resilient, and to grow sustainable communities.

Again, I said it’s inspiration because this is something that we can all find a way to take part in. Maybe you have a full-time job, but you can start a garden on your property, start learning how to do these types of things, grow your own tomatoes. Maybe if you can get ahold of some land and start cultivating it in a sustainable way, we can all be a part of this and that growing interest will prepare us for the future and hopefully maybe even be fun along the way as well.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:26:02] Absolutely and one thing I would just briefly add in there to close with is that everybody doesn't necessarily have to be a farmer. One person who is farming could feed theoretically, depending on what scale your operating on, one person can feed quite a few people so I think a huge thing that absolutely everybody could do is figure out how economically you can find and support these small farmers, because farmers are an aging and relatively small group in our country. There's only so many because of consolidation, there’s only so many farmers, they're getting older, and there's a sort of resurgence of young people kind of getting more interested in this.

And so everybody has the option to at least figure out “can I spend $10 a month; can I spend 20-30, $40 a month?” Whatever you can afford, and pump that back into your local economy. Find somebody around you. I guarantee you there's some 4-H kid who's raising rabbits, or somebody who's got a garden, or you know a local farmer who’s selling something. You could find that person and keep a little money in your local economy, even if it's just $10 a week that's a huge bonus to keep in your local economy to give to these farmers as opposed to spending a hundred percent of your income at a big box grocery store or whatever. Buy your staples there and then allocate a little bit each month to a local farmer; I think that would go a long way. I know that my customers who have done that have been incredibly supportive and I wouldn't honestly make it without them.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:27:15] And if I can just add one thing to that, sorry David, is that beyond the market and the health of the food, these very obvious things… I bet a lot of people would be surprised - people who may be living in cities or neighborhoods that don't have a very strong close-knit community - that if you get more involved in these types of things, going to your neighbors to talk about the tomatoes they’re growing, or being a part of that, I bet you'll discover that there's also a real value in human connection around common resources.

I think that's something we all need to think about, and something that we all need to take a bigger part in, not just for our resiliency but for our sanity.

And for the joy of being human.

The Most Important Question

David Torcivia:

[1:28:00] Community, community, community,

But I’ve got just one question Chris and maybe you can answer this.

Is there any way to get my cat to stop eating the plants that I grow?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:28:09] You know I don't really have a great answer for that David I wish I did.

David Torcivia:

[1:28:15] So I got it I'll buy a dog to scare my cat away.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:28:17] Sorry about that, then you’ll have the dog [to worry about].

David Torcivia:

[1:28:21] If the dog eats it then I’ll get a bear to scare the dog. It’s a process.

More About Chris

But seriously Chris do you have anything that you want to add, plug, I am sure people are interested in learning more about your farm and seeing what you're doing, I know you're on Instagram do you want to share that?

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:28:35] Sure thanks David, yeah my farm is called Harvest Moon Garden and Orchard, you can find us on Instagram @HarvestMoonGo, and that's really the main way at this moment in which I’m sort of sharing what I'm doing at the farm. We have a website in the works but it's really not up and running yet, so we’ll hopefully keep an eye out for that in the future, and the website is HarvestMoonGo.com unfortunately there's not a whole lot on it.

David Torcivia:

[1:28:57] Well thanks so much Chris I really appreciate it. I know I learned a lot, and it's very interesting having somebody who's actually knowledgeable about these topics discussing them with us.

Daniel Forkner:

[1:29:05] Yeah thank you so much for coming on, also thank you for the eggs that you gave me. So far they're delicious and I love the color, that deep orange you know that you don't see in the supermarket; we really appreciate having you on.

Christopher D'Alessandro:

[1:29:17] Thank you guys. Thank you for being such wonderful hosts, and this has been really educational for me too and I hope that a lot of people get some good information out of this.

Daniel Forkner:

A lot of time and research goes into making these episodes possible. We will never use ads to support this podcast, and we will never buy ads as effective as that might be on a platform like Facebook or any other, so if you enjoy it and would like us to keep going, you can support us by giving us a review and recommending us to a friend.

Also we have an email address, it's contact AT Ashes Ashes dot O R G.

We encourage you to send us your thoughts, positive or negative we’ll read it, and if you have any stories related to this episode maybe we can share that.

David Torcivia:

You can find a full transcript of this episode, sources, links, and much more on our website ashesashes.org. You can also find us on your favorite social media network @ashesashescast.

Next week I'm going to be out of town so we have a very special episode and I hope you tune in for it.

Daniel Forkner:

I'm excited. I'm looking forward to it.

David Torcivia:

Me too. Until then, this is Ashes Ashes.

Daniel Forkner:


David Torcivia: