Farmnag – Soil Is Not Dirt and Other Agrarian Insights

Haiti – Restoring Civilization Through the Soil
January 22, 2010, 10:07 pm
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We are watching one of the worst disasters of modern times. An entire country’s capacity to function has been destroyed. And the extent of the devastation indicates that functionality will not be restored easily or soon.

Haiti has been the focus of a multitude of NGO efforts for decades with little effect. We hear that Haiti was on the cusp of change just as this disaster occurred. It appears that effort will be ramped up in the wake of the earthquake. Haiti needs to reconstruct its resource-based agricultural system, replant forests and redevelop towns and cities in safe and appropriate conditions.

The reason Haiti has not been a viable economy since its independence is there is no viable, sustainable food system. Deforestation and soil erosion started the decline of agriculture. The recent introduction of annual and chemical-dependent crops (soy and corn) has further degraded the land and capacity of rural people to sustain a farming system and economy.

Currently, Haiti does not have enough organic matter to rebuild its soils – there are no forests to contribute organic matter and little animal grazing. The terrain is too steep to hold the poor, exposed soils that have been cleared. Forests need to be replanted. Individuals need to learn how to farm sustainably with good stewardship practices.

This can be accomplished through a sort of WPA program that will result in a Haitian population rebuilt on its agrarian cultural past, poised to create a more diverse economy. There are a number of successful small-scale projects that can serve as models, or even mentors to Haitians in composting, soil building and farming mentoring.

Roughly, the rural restoration program needs to include:

1. Terrace hillsides for reforestation and cultivation.
a. Utilize “raw materials” from demolition of damaged buildings for retaining structures.
b. Use and train local labor, not foreign contractors, to build this system.

2. Add organic matter to soil in the terraces to increase fertility.
a. Import animal waste (by barge) from the Eastern United States where nutrients are overpowering estuarine systems (Chesapeake Bay poultry, for example). This is real nutrient trading rather than bookkeeping.
b. Set up composting facilities for this imported animal waste and new local waste streams.

3. Create agricultural and horticultural training system based upon sustainable production.
a. In rebuilding settlement areas, incorporate public green spaces, community garden plots, community composting systems, and horticultural nursery areas.
i. These can serve to revitalize neighborhoods, absorb rainwater runoff and prevent local flooding, supply landscaping materials for neighborhood beautification, fresh produce to neighborhoods AND serve as a training program for youth and under-employed individuals.
b. In rural areas, replant tree buffers and incorporate organics into soils. Establish a mentoring program to teach sustainable practices and business practices for farming ventures.
c. Value-added ventures can be introduced to create jobs, increased economic activity based upon farming and to improve diets.

This is, by necessity, a simplistic presentation of this concept. But it is a necessary step in rebuilding Haiti and similar countries. Once an agrarian economy and society is rebuilt and stable, jobs and industries can be added that increase GDP and standards of living. But without this base, it is almost impossible to create the rest.


January 4, 2010, 3:07 am
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I brought home the “Avatar” 3-D glasses to use on my computer… hoping for greater perspective.

In this movie, James Cameron examines the no holds barred aspects of natural resource extraction in a breathtaking extraterrestrial excursion. Other than the exotic creatures on this planet, there is little difference from the way resource extraction is carried out on our home planet.

My particular concern is soil (soil is not dirt). Soil is the basis for our terrestrial ecosystems and habitats. Soil is an ecosystem of the greatest magnitude, hosting eighty percent of the planet’s creatures.

Soil is scraped off the planet’s surface with little thought of the consequences. Peeling the planet’s covering diminishes carbon storage; destroys hundreds of thousands of creatures that process nutrients, minerals and elements; reduces the area of arable land capable of supporting plant and crop life; increases water runoff while reducing water infiltration – and the list goes on and on.

Thoughtless clearing is ruining the soil in world forests.  Little stewardship is practiced in the world’s mineral extraction operations. Development is stripping soil and changing hydrology through carelessness and poor locations. Our water resources are being unnecessarily poisoned in these processes.

The positive effects of skinning the planet?

I don’t have any to list – do you?

Soil is Really, Really Not Dirt
February 13, 2009, 9:30 pm
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Despite the focus on climate change and carbon, one critical area of resource conservation is entirely off the administration’s radar screen. And it’s the one that determines the quality of all the others. Soil.


Past Presidents understood soil’s importance, including both Roosevelts, Truman and Eisenhower. But over time we turned the Soil Conservation Service into the Natural Resources Conservation Service and abandoned most of the programs assuring that America’s soils are conserved.


Soil is not dirt. It is the most extensive terrestrial ecosystem on the planet. Eminent biologist E.O. Wilson points out that there are more living creatures within the Earth’s soil than above it or in the oceans.


Soil is not a construction material. It is not that stuff sold at home improvement stores in plastic bags. Healthy soil sequesters carbon, cleanses pollutants from runoff, absorbs water and supports vegetation that cools the atmosphere.


Soil is not real estate. It is not valued by its location or distance from your house or urban center. Soil is the skin of the planet forming over centuries and millennia. Its value is in its ability to support life.


In considering how to spend scarce dollars on conservation and conservation “markets,” we must assess the future viability of our planet – and humans’ way of life. As we adjust tax codes, write regulations and create funds to engender specific actions, we must focus on what is most important for the future – waterfront development or clean water and prime agricultural soils?


As we review current regulatory programs, we must re-evaluate their purposes and consequences. Promoting the ruthless mining of vital soils for private gain and false conservation must be stopped. Continuing to allow the destruction of wetlands while pretending we can duplicate their complex functioning should cease. The Army Corps of Engineers, for one, has never seen a landscape that can’t be destroyed or reconstructed – just look at the Mississippi River.


One Bush and Congressional legacy that the Obama administration can reverse was hidden in Iraq funding bills. It is the Final Rule on Compensatory Mitigation for Losses of Aquatic Resources (40 CFR Part 230). It makes the business of wetland mitigation banking the preferred regulatory action.


By emphasizing its preference for mitigation banking, the new rule will likely create a bonanza of business for wetland mitigation bankers, who currently provide only one-third of the mitigation required, according to recent studies,” was a statement on the Ecosystem Marketplace website in response to the rule’s release.


Wetland banking is a regulatory program but, as it is being administered, the public is being told that the environment is being improved while creating a new speculative “market” with no effective oversight or control. The same “logic” that thought up sub-prime lending, synthetic leases, and bundling mortgages brought this approach to environmental regulation. But rather than just having to write-off bad debt and suffer higher taxes, we will impair the ability of future generations to feed themselves and live in a healthy, sustainable world.  If the SEC, Treasury and Wall Street were unable to contain the financial mortgage disaster, how can we expect the EPA and Corps to regulate this short-sighted financial scheme?


The failure rate is significant, about 50 percent. Studies consistently conclude that mitigation does not adequately compensate for wetland losses, despite regulatory standards. These sites are routinely mined of soils to make construction easier, which only increases the likelihood of project failure while giving developers bonus income from sale of soil. While we talk about carbon emissions and sequestration, we are ignoring the resource that has been most effectively controlling carbon since the world began evolving. Soil.


The impact of this poor regulatory policy is staggering and irreversible in our lifetime. Consider the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on our southern shores. Look at the continuing degradation of our nation’s waters. Think about the increased flooding we are experiencing in every state.


In America, under the policy of wetland mitigation, we are not only losing our vital wetlands to development, but the best agricultural soils are being mined to create compensatory mud holes – we are losing two irreplaceable natural resources and encouraging twice the destruction.


Soil is not dirt, and without it, there is no civilization.





Transfer of Development Rights – A New Sub-Prime Threat
February 6, 2009, 11:51 am
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After a year of worldwide economic turmoil caused by real estate and banking practices, it is puzzling that legislatures in Virginia and Washington would be considering initiating risky “market-based” speculative real estate programs called transfer of development rights – especially under the guise of natural resource preservation and smart growth. At a time when states are facing an over-supply of housing and plunging real estate values, it is folly to expect a positive outcome from these schemes.


            These efforts would be creating the same market complexity seen in sub-prime mortgages – and the same challenges of regulation and oversight. While promoters of this approach tout a supposed lack of public cost – claiming “the market” pays for the conservation, oversight is much more complex than simple easement purchase programs, costing localities far more in employee-hours and administration.


In Virginia, this scheme would open the way for private equity interests to purchase and hold severed development rights as investments. If we look at the trouble that the bundling of mortgages for “investment” has caused the world of finance, think of the potential problems that localities would have in handling growth management with development rights floating out in this same investment world.


Would this create a situation where investors would oppose rezoning that would benefit a community but affect their investment portfolios? Would investors sue local governments over property rights when they do not even own land in these communities? Or is this just the latest manipulation of real estate values by private equity to accumulate wealth?


The transfer of development rights concept is a century old – established in Manhattan in the early 20th century to save urban park open space from development. It is a tool which is efficient at moving urban rights because they are relatively equal in value and application. It has worked effectively for a few very large deals between urban and rural areas – as in downtown Seattle’s 2,500 acre deal with timber interests and in Collier County, Florida, where a single transaction will protect 16,000 acres of the Everglades to create new metropolitan mixed use development.


            It has not worked effectively in agricultural settings if the goal is to preserve the business of agriculture. Montgomery County, Maryland, is touted as the success story. But I would advise a bit of caution. American Farmland Trust reported in 2006, that more than 60% of the land preserved through TDR easements in the United States is located in Montgomery County.[i]This is not a model for success. It’s an anomaly.


If one simply measures acres put under conservation easements in Montgomery, it appears to have been wildly successful. But if one measures the decline in the local agricultural industry, it has been a disaster.


The University of Maryland[ii] examined the outcome of Montgomery’s program and found that it undermined the local agricultural industry. The economic analysis concluded that the county’s rate of farmland loss, reduction in the number of farming operations, and decline in market value of farm infrastructure all exceeded the state averages after the TDR program was enacted. Other indicators of agricultural industry health that lagged state figures included: farm size, operators as principal occupation, age of operators, the market value of agricultural products and harvested cropland.


At a time when state and local government is facing greatly diminished revenue, why would you burden it with increased costs for a sketchy, complicated experiment? You may hear from proponents about “success stories,” but many are simply where development interests have mined state and local conservation programs, like Forest Legacy, for funds to enable development at a cost to taxpayers.


There is no urgent need for these programs. In fact, the last thing we need is further manipulation of the real estate market. There are certainly many issues of higher public priority and lower cost that need the attention of the legislature.

[i] Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, Agricultural Services Division, “TDR Program Overview.”

[ii] University of Maryland. 2002. “An Analysis of the Transfer of Development Rights Program in Montgomery County, Maryland: A Report of the University of Maryland’s Spring 2001 Community Planning Studio,” University of Maryland, College Park, MD.


December 1, 2008, 1:09 am
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Thanksgiving Day is past but we hope not the reasons for giving thanks. But when one reviews what has happened over this holiday, one has to wonder.


In desperation to be first to get discounts, a crowd of people trampled a man on Long Island. None even stopped to pick him up or to see if he was hurt. We’ve become the worst aspect of what they call us – consumers.


In his last state of the union speech, I noticed that even the President refers to Americans as consumers. It was the descriptor he used more than any other – no “fellow Americans,” or “citizens,” or even “voters,” just consumers. The people shopping at that Wal-Mart carelessly consumed that man’s life as they were racing to consume things they don’t need before someone else did.


In hot pursuit to provide incentives to reverse the world recession, we are more concerned about the economy than about hungry or homeless or unemployed people. Billions of dollars are being handed to businesses that have already proven they only care about profits – pieces of paper – and that they would rather gamble to get more paper than do business in a prudent, fair manner that provides economic stability for our country.


We are consuming the lands and soils that feed us and would feed future generations. If we consume the last inch of soil, the last drop of water, the last seed before someone else has, will we win?

An Endangered Symbol
November 24, 2008, 2:53 am
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When the American Bird was endangered by DDT, our country responded with one of the most ambitious recovery programs ever attempted. There are now more than 7,000 nesting pairs of bald eagles in America, up from fewer than 500 three decades ago. This effort has been so successful that some nesting areas are approaching capacity and have a density of birds never before experienced.


Now it is time for the public to step up to lead the recovery of another vital endangered American symbol – the American Farmer. For every five farmers reaching retirement age, only one under 35 years is poised to enter agriculture. As a culture, if we do not want family farms to be a fond memory overtaken by large-scale farming operations, we must develop ways to eliminate the enormous speculative increases in land value tied to development.


Over the last five decades, the biggest threat to agriculture in most American communities was conversion of land to residential and suburban development. Today, in addition to those pressures, we are seeing “eco-entrepreneurs” mining conservation programs for tax incentives – and cash – while converting farms to “moneymaking assets” through the sale of credits and development rights.


In September, the Farmland Preservation Report revealed that developers in Montgomery County, Maryland, were competing with farmers to sell development rights to the farmland preservation program. These are properties that were purchased above farm value for development and now that the housing market recovery is unpredictable, the developers are looking to conservation programs to recover cash.


In Skagit County, Washington, wetland mitigation bank developers paid three times the market value for an 800 acre farm to convert to wetland mitigation credits which may yield up to $250,000 per credit. No wonder they can pay so much for farmland.


In Montana, eco-developers offer ranch properties to equity investors promising tax deductions, mitigation credit income and conservation subdivision revenues – all in the name of environmental restoration. These ventures are putting pressure on local land values as equity investors seek havens from traditional markets.


If we want to have economically viable agriculture at a community scale in America, we must adopt measures to assure that farmland remains affordable for the next generation of farmers. It is time to make a serious effort to establish programs to transition young and entering farmers into mainstream agriculture, or we may find future Thanksgiving celebrations short of American bounty.


You Can’t Eat a Wetland
November 15, 2008, 6:06 pm
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On November 4th, exit polls reported that 22% of the voters self-identified as liberal, 44% as moderates, and 34% as conservative. No one claimed to be conservationists — but 100% of them eat. Is America doing enough to assure a safe and reliable food supply?


Over the last decade, there has been a subtle shift from the development arena to a “new restoration economy.” Not that development has diminished (except since the worldwide financial collapse), but development and building interests have learned to mine conservation programs for their own purposes.


One example is mitigation banking. This is an approach meant to compensate for environmental degradation and destruction before the impacts occur. It began with wetlands mitigation because even after prohibiting wetland destruction in the Clean Water Act in 1972, waterfront and shoreline development continued to fill and drain vital wetland systems. The success of these compensatory approaches varies, but it is generally less than robust.


The troubling aspect of this approach is that much of this mitigation is targeting the lands vital to feeding our growing American population. Many of these public policies are diminishing our future capacity to grow food.


In Washington, for example, the state’s pilot wetland mitigation banking program encourages development of banks on prime agricultural soils and is allowing the mining of these soils for development and commercial purposes – all under the guise of “restoration.”


In one rural county, the state has approved one mitigation bank and is poised to approve a second only a mile from the first. Combined, these two projects will mine 1.4 million cubic yards of prime agricultural soils. To put that amount in perspective, it would take 70,000 dump trucks to move that much soil.


More alarming is the fact that the soils in Skagit County are ranked in the top 2% in the world in agricultural capability. The end result of this short-sighted program is the destruction of two irreplaceable natural resources and twice as much destruction than if there were no mitigation requirement at all.


Can allowing these soils to be used for development really be considered sensible public policy?