Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Is My Culture a Monoculture?

Today’s post is by Cindy Bluemel, who lives in Lyle, Washington, a little town right along the Columbia River. The mother of three married children and ten grandchildren, she likes to compost, recycle, design energy-efficient homes, and watch HGTV for the house-flipping shows.  She also has a knack for coming up with recipes.

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Discing the author’s wheat field in Goldendale, Washington. Most of the wheat that grew in the area was white winter wheat and got sent to Japan for noodles.

Seven years ago our family moved from the city to the country—wheat country to be exact. Having never seen wheat production up close, it was an experience for me. On a small section of our acreage we started growing wheat with the help of a neighbor farmer. Our property abutted his. He had all the big equipment so he made all the big decisions. He selected the variety to plant, when to plant, and when to harvest. He set up an account for us at the grain growers’ co-op and once a year, if all went well, we got a small windfall.

The first thing I learned was that wheat isn’t as tall as it used to be. It grows up to your knee. The original strains used to grow much taller but that feature has been bred out so that the grain stalk doesn’t bend and break, which would make it harder to harvest with machinery.

Twice, in the fall, our neighbor planted spring wheat. Once it worked and once it didn’t. It depends on the winter and how consistent the spring weather is. The field where the wheat was growing used to have alfalfa, but before he planted the wheat he turned over the field, plowing under the alfalfa. He planted the wheat in rows with his heavy equipment, which also pushed the seeds down to a reasonable depth. Then he pretty much let it go. Our area practices dry-land farming, so there is no irrigation. In the spring after the snow melt, you could see the wheat growing. At first it looked like grass, then it got taller and then it turned a beautiful pale yellow color.

In a single day our neighbor cut all of the wheat he had in production. He used his combine to traverse each field, chopping the wheat stalks about midway. Then the combine does the ancient work of winnowing and casting the chaff as it hurls the wheat kernels up into a grain hopper and deposits them in the back of a dump truck. When he finished cutting the field, all that was left were 6-inch tall dry stalks. He let that set for awhile; later he would come to condition the field and turn it again.

There were wheat fields all around our little town. They were beautiful as they started out brown and turned spring green, then deep green, and then golden.

Eventually I started to notice something. When a wheat farmer turns his field over and lets it fallow, inevitably the wind pick ups and carries some of his topsoil away to the next county. He don’t seem to care. He is happy to let his field be brown for half of the year. He relies on the feed and grain store to make up the slack that he is losing.

Wheat farming, more than most other crops, is executed as a monoculture so that it can be planted and harvested by large equipment. There are processes and equipment that can save the step of turning over the field by drilling the seed into the ground at the right depth. But most farmers are reluctant to purchase a “no-till drill,” having no assurances that the production will be the same or better than with their current equipment.

Here’s a problem with monoculture agriculture. When you plant one crop exclusively, you get more control over weeds but often you need a herbicide anyway to control for a quality product. Because you have reduced the diversity of plants in the soil you will also need a pesticide. At the end you have a field that is denuded and needs some cover. Sometimes a cover crop is planted but that means that field will be out of commission for 6 months or a year. You almost assuredly will need fertilizer to make up for the nutrients that you took out in biomass or let float away on the wind. You should rotate your crop but then you either have to have twice as much land or be prepared to plant something else that complements wheat production, hopefully with less equipment needs.

There is actually another plan the small farmer could use. (And I mean small because with this system, there isn’t yet equipment designed that would make it a feasible business model.) You can plant any garden or farm using the method inherent to our planet, Heavenly Father’s plan.

We moved away from the farm a few years ago and now I garden in grow boxes in my front yard. I try not to plant my seeds in rows. I plant the way Mother Nature does. I broadcast my seeds and then I sprinkle some of my compost dirt on top. I plant a few of each thing and I don’t worry too much about the weeds. Sure my garden looks ragged, but that’s the way Mother Nature does things. I like to make my own soil amendments by grinding up eggshells and borrowing coffee grinds.

I often overseed, just like Mother does. I am never sure if the conditions are going to be good enough for everything to germinate. I move my small plantings around from year to year, like Mother does. But also because I can’t always remember where I put things.

Sometimes I water and sometimes I let Heavenly Father water. I don’t always have great yields but it is a fun hobby.

Regarding monoculture, the One Green Planet website states, “Only 20% of the corn grown in the United State is to feed people. The demand for meat is so intense that it has been a driving factor to use monoculture crops so enough feed could be produced for livestock. In fact, at least 40% of the world’s grain goes towards livestock. More specifically, nearly 47% of soybeans and 60% of corn grown in the United States go to the bellies of livestock instead of hungry people in the United States (and around the world). As a result of this practice, these grain food sources are at risk, and the environment is suffering as well.”

I have don’t have any good answers to solve the problem of monoculture agriculture. If our food wasn’t grown this way, would we have enough food to throw away as much as we do? Would we be able to ship our wheat to Japan to make noodles with it? Would we have the variety and abundance that we have? Would anyone want to be a farm worker and harvest by hand?

As a starting point, here are One Green Planet’s suggestions for what we as individuals can do to help the situation.

  • Eat less meat.
  • Purchase locally grown foods.
  • Replace some of your lawn with your own garden.
  • Go to change.org and make your voice be heard.
  • WillB says:

    Petro-farming’s claim to success is greater efficiency and yield however, you have touched upon an appealing alternative which is the hobby farm. If more people were into the labor of producing their own food (and preparing it) a more functional agro-economy would emerge.

  • TeresaO says:

    Very interesting article. I learned that I didn’t know hardly anything about growing wheat and what steps a farmer must go through to bring his product to market. I agree that we all should do what we can to help with this situation and have made a resolution to try to follow the suggestions. I figure 3 out of 4 is a good start. Thank you for your article and look forward to more of the same.

    • Mariano says:

      Robin PriceI have a question about tihitng I understand (as told to me by a neighbor who is LDS) that if you do not pay your tithes to the church that you will be deemed unworthy and unable to attend until you pay them current. This seems harsh to me. If you are so poor you can barely afford to live or just don’t have that 10% to give to the church it doesn’t seem right that you will be cast out. I don’t believe that God/Jesus cares about money in that way and certainly would not turn his back on you. What is the church’s reasoning for this one please?