Here is the definition of Agriculture in Wikipedia: “Agriculture is the science and art of cultivating plants and livestock.” The focus is clearly result oriented. Or to be more accurate visible result oriented: plants and livestock.
And this is where we need a deep shift.
For that we need to have a better understanding of what is really happening.
Humankind needs plants and livestock to survive. Livestock needs plants to survive. So what plants need to survive. Plants need:
Light to photosynthesize and so to produce sugar (carbon)
Nutrients to build mater: NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) are the main ones. But it also includes magnesium, calcium, sulfur, iron...
Water to help transit the listed above
Light is an off-soil need. Nutrients and water (mostly) are in-soil needs.
Let’s dig a little deeper. How plants do absorb light? It is 99.99% through their leafs. How do plants absorb water and nutrients? It is 99.99% through their roots. Stems or trunks are mostly storage and roads for nutrients between the roots system and the leaf system.
How is produce light? For outdoor farming, thanks to the sun. For indoor farming, it is thanks to lamps.
How are produce the nutrients in the soil? Mostly by decomposition. Plant decomposition, wood decomposition, rock decomposition… provides in a matter of hours or of centuries the needed nutrients for plants. These processes are based on bacteria, worms, insects... teaming up to decompose matter into valuable nutrients. IE, worms waste or vermicompost is very high in carbon and calcium. That is also why vermicomposter are so often used. Decomposed wood is very high in Nitrogen and Phosphorus...
How to increase light absorption? The quality of light, the luminosity and the time of exposure of key factors. That is why it is not always easy to reproduce good light conditions for indoor culture. More about that topic later.
How to increase soil-nutrient and water absorption? For the same quality and quality of a root system, the main external factor influencing soil-nutrient and water absorption is a mycorrhizal system. It is a symbiotic association between a fungus and a plant.
Mycorrhizal systems or mycorrhizae are the result of beneficial and mutual deals between two different species: plants and fungi. Plants need nutrients to develop, fungi need sugar to develop.
But it goes further: mycorrhizae are the end parts of a very dense and huge underground network: the mycelium network. When someone sees a mushroom, this mushroom is the fruit of an underground system called mycelium. Mycelium are micro tubes allowing the transit of “information” and nutrients.
That is where it goes even more interesting. Studies initiated by Suzanne Simard and then validated all over the world have proved that trees create feeding strategies through mycorrhizal network. Meaning trees are able to trade nutrients with trees far apart.
So we have plants needing lights, a bacterial ecosystem and a fungi-based ecosystem teaming together to thrive together.
Now let’s go back to the definition of Agriculture as “the science and art of cultivating plants and livestock.” . Previously I have explained that what plants need are in the air (light and humidity), in the soil (water and nutrients). But what Agriculture focus on is the plant, not soil.
So my idea is to say, that Agriculture should be the science and art of preparing soil to cultivate plants and livestock. As soil is central, it should be central in the definition and so in the consideration of the agricultural industries.
Focusing on soil culture instead of plants culture is a huge shift for this industry. It doesn’t look like it but it is. Indeed for now agricultural practices are articulated around adding nutrients to the soil and around adding pest prevention products to respectively help plants to growth and help them to not be damaged by external actors. Unfortunately this approach and mindset are not compatible with the natural and efficient ecosystems teaming with plants to make them thrive. At the opposite artificial nutrient and pest prevention products kill all the ecosystems under the growing plants. So the more those artificial products are used, the less the ecosystems are able to do their jobs, and the more the plants will need artificial products...
So professionals in agriculture need to focus on preparing and growing their soil and then let it do its job for the plants.
It is not as simple as it sounds as farmers do not always have this paradigm in mind. They are also inclined to continue the way they already work, as huge investments have been made in machines compatible with artificial farming. And finding adequate education with concrete solutions is not so easy even for the farmers willing to go in the soil focused direction.
Here are some movements embracing a non artificial approach:
- Permaculture focus on mixing different types plants in order to increase productivity and decrease maintenance. There are a lot of material regarding permaculture and some experiments with high return on investment but on a very small scale.
- KNF(Korean Natural Farming) is quite trendy these days. But there are less information available, not always adapt to different regions. But the approach is very interesting and in production on medium size farms.
- Cannabis industry: as the cost per kilo of the final product is higher than most of the non cannabis focus farms, the professional of the cannabis industry seems to have extremely good results in taking into consideration the size and the quality of the crop. Evolution regarding the legal aspect of the industry with medical usage being in front seems to play a huge factor.
So to summarize in one sentence: farming should focus on soil preparation and soil care.