Humans are an ingenious lot. Look up from this column and scan your surroundings.
Tables, desks, telephones. Remarkable. Think cars, planes, landing on the moon or cramming thousands of songs into a device smaller than an espresso cup.
No other species has done anything remotely close to our magical, transformative creations.
Time and time again we have tinkered, created, developed and jerry-rigged amazement out of inspiration.
Farmers are undoubtedly the original innovators.
Around 12,000 years ago, our hunter-gatherer ancestors started growing wild varieties of crops like peas, lentils and barley, and domesticated goats, oxen and other wild animals.
Centuries later, they became full-time farmers, creating new varieties and breeds, and spreading agriculture to parts of Europe and Asia from the Fertile Crescent in present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan.
Fast forward to modern agriculture. Over the last 100 years, farmers and the businesses that support them have introduced tractors, robotic milkers, high yield varieties, GMOs, herbicides, chemical fertilizers and precision agriculture.
These creations have led to an explosion in productivity. The level of U.S. farm output is about 2.7 times higher in 2015 compared to 1948.
During this period, the average output rate was 1.48% every year while aggregate input increased a modest 0.1% annually.
Yet, our contemporary model has generated challenges from resistance to pesticides to soil erosion and degradation to water pollution and deforestation.
Moreover, these problems have been exacerbated by the increasing frequency and intensity of weather events (too much water, too little water, too hot, too cool).
All the while, farmers and ranchers are faced with finding ways to feed more and more people on approximately the same base acres.
It is estimated that the world population will reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100.
Solving the challenge — feeding more people with the same land base without degrading the environment against the backdrop of intense weather — is going to take investments, luck, technology and, perhaps most important, a different mindset.
Typically, when faced with a decision, a farmer seeks as much certainty as possible. Makes sense.
Unlike a Word document where a mistake can be corrected in seconds, a farmer may need to wait a full year before planting a different crop variety or raising another line of livestock.
Given this tight, unforgiving margin of error, the smart approach is to find the most successful farmer with the longest track record of success and emulate as much as possible.
In other words, go where others have gone before.
I would suggest the most successful farmer ever would be the first farmer, Mother Nature. Think about it.
Who has created the most stable, productive, resilient, sustainable natural systems ever?
Copying her is the idea behind biomimicry, an innovative yet ancient approach.
As the name implies, biomimicry is the imitation of the models, systems and elements of nature to solve complex human problems.
For farming, the foundational concepts to copy from nature are diversity and perennials.
To incorporate those ideas and thus increase the stability, productivity, resiliency and sustainability of the farm system, I would suggest producers repeatedly ask themselves two questions.
First, how can I increase diversity on my farm? It can be as simple as increasing the number of species in a cover crop mix.
It could be adding a prairie buffer strip along field edges or planting native grasses in grassed waterways.
It can be adding multiple species grazing in your pastures.
Second, how can I increase the number of perennials on my farm?
It could be as easy as adding trees to a pasture or more perennials in your waterway, field borders and pastures.
Whatever you do, start small. Experiment. Take nonproduction land and test an idea.
For example, I am interested in tall grass prairie species as a way to increase diversity and perennials on our farm.
One way to give it a try is to plant them along our cow lane. See what grows. See what the cows might eat. See what happens.
The key isn’t having the answers. It is asking the right questions repeatedly to more closely align farming with nature.
Yes, this is hard work.
But, farmers know how to work, and without a doubt they will figure out the best way to feed the world while protecting our environment for today and tomorrow.
In closing, I acknowledge some readers may scoff at my suggestions. Fair enough.
But, before one dismisses modeling farming on Mother Nature and the ideas of diversity and perennials, I suggest you visit my mother on our farm in Geauga County and she will tell you, mother knows best.
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