By now everybody knows that pests and pesticides are a big problem in the Cannabis industry. With a grow house full of nitrogen-rich, moist pot plants, the little critters are going to come, by hook or by crook. And, what’s a farmer to do? The answer depends upon the farmer and the alternatives that are available.
Fortunately, alternative farming systems do exist. One of these systems is ecological agriculture, a synthesis of practical farming and scientific research that applies ecological patterns to agriculture, eliminating the expensive and harmful chemical addictions that commonly degrade modern farming.
Professor Miguel Altieri, UC Berkeley, represents what ecological agriculture is all about. On one hand, Dr. Altieri and his colleagues have created a lucid, science-based methodology for designing farms based on ecological patterns. On the other, he has helped apply these methodologies to a range of endeavors, from assisting the global campesino movement in its effort to thrive in a tough environment to helping California grape growers avoid pesticide use.
A prolific researcher and writer, Altieri has written hundreds of books and articles on ecological agriculture, the methodology he’s helped create. Eco ag is an ingenious approach to harnessing the full complexity of ecology with easy-to-implement practices. The general goals are simple: build biodiversity and build soil organic matter. The pay-offs are soil fertility, a natural pest management system, and in general, resilient and sustainable farms.
To build organic matter into the soil, the farmer can choose any combination of beneficial practices. Adding carbon sources like compost and biochar, avoiding pesticide damage, and carefully choosing diverse plant species known to stimulate soil life are common Eco Ag tactics.
Planting diverse species also supports the goal of boosting biodiversity, and in addition to soil fertility, one of biodiversity’s perks is pest management. A variety of plants confuses and distracts pests by exuding and emitting a diverse range of volatile plant oils that attract or repel them. Many of these plants support pest predators, parasitoids and parasites by providing shelter, moisture, and food (nectar, pollen and pests). The most commonly used tactic for building biodiversity is planting polyculture buffers, corridors, strips and blocks. Buffers can offer crops protection from wind-borne and migrating pests, while corridors can lead beneficial critters to the target crop or to strips and/or blocks within the crop field. In these systems, pest species take a small and balanced proportional position among a complex, diverse and abundant ecology, and they play their proper role as food for our hungry beneficials. Eco Agriculture put pests in their place.
These simple practices are applicable to a wide range of farming scenarios, as Dr. Altieri has demonstrated. Through his work with Food First! and other organizations, he has helped the global campesino movement adopt and promote ecological agriculture in several developing countries; through the Campesino-to-Campesino project, thousands of farmers are benefitting from and promoting ecological agriculture while forming networks for education and idea-exchange, plant genetics exchange and marketing. Through his work on California vineyards, Dr. Altieri has helped grape growers replace pesticide use and conserve water with ecological practices in a big-money industry. These growers are recovering from serious losses and systematic problems caused by conventional practices, while vastly improving the quality of their produce.
Vineyards depend much on the “terroir” of the grapes they produce – the deep, rich taste bestowed by the very land itself. This revered relationship between ecology and quality is also common to our old friend Cannabis sativa – a crop perfectly suited to ecological agriculture. As the industry expands with the end of prohibition and as the herb emerges as a fungible commodity, margins are shrinking. As margins shrink, farm resilience and sustainability are taking on more importance. Fortunately, as these ecological systems mature and take root, their benefits increase, while conventional inputs (and money) disperse into the barren ecosystems they create. For those looking to farm Cannabis into the future, Professor Altieri has charted the path.