January/February 1994 Issue #28

New Trends in Agriculture:
Biodiversity and Wetlands Reclamation

Organic Vineyards and Weed-Eating Sheep

During most of the 1980s, six thousand acres of grape growing areas in the San Joachim Valley in California looked like a "desert with grape vines stuck into dried mud." (1) Herbicides killed all other plant life. Gallo Wine, a multi-billion dollar company, was on a "chemical treadmill"; insects developed resistance to chemical insecticides in less than four years.

Over the past five years, how-ever, tens of thousands of acres of vineyards in California have been converted to organic farming. During the first few years of changeover, costs went up. But now production is as high as before, and operating costs are signif-icantly below those needed for chemical-inten-sive farming. Grape quality is higher now, also.

This is attributed to the presence of more micro-biological life in the soil, which adds depth and variety to the flavor of the grapes. Native predator insects such as ladybugs and spiders now control insect pests; they could be introduced after growers stopped using artificial pesticides. Peas and oats are planted in between the grapevine rows, providing nitrogen for the soil naturally, saving the cost and soil damage of artificial fertilizers.

Another company, the Fetzer Winery which is the sixth largest in the United States, started a small experimental organic grape section in the late 1980s. Now their entire 1400 acres of grapevines are managed organically.

Some commercial growers of apples, oranges and corn in southern California are also converting to organic farming, as they look to the long term to sustain their businesses and their investment in the land through the use of natural resources such as the soil, the insects, and biological diversity.

North and east of the winegrowing areas, in the state of Montana, some cattle and sheep ranchers have banded together to cope with the problem of leafy spurge. (2)

Leafy spurge is a pernicious weed, very resistant to herbicides, which takes over sections of farmland. Cattle refuse to eat it. As it spreads over grazing lands, its broad leaves and aggressive root system shade out the grass and thus reduce the ability of the land to support the cattle.

The innovative solution uses the different grazing habits of sheep and cattle to deal with the problem. Since sheep will eat leafy spurge, wagon loads of them are transported to areas with dense leafy spurge growth.

Portable fences contain the sheep and ensure that they will devour the leafy spurge rather than roaming widely to find grass, which they really prefer.

The sheep farmers gain free forage for their animals, while the cattlemen gain improved fields which can be reclaimed from the leafy spurge. Thus the cattle and sheep ranchers are cooperating for their mutual benefit, counter to the "wild west" tradition of mutual animosity between the two groups.

Returning Farmland to Wetlands in Israel and the Netherlands

"We've become like a big artificial park, where every centimeter is dammed in, sprayed, fertilized, grazed or cultivated or else it's paved and inhabited. We are being suffocated by our diligence." Maarten Peren, a Dutch agricultural specialist, summed up the results of centuries of draining of the polders, or lowlying swamplands of the Netherlands coastline on the North Sea. (3)

The Dutch have a centuries-old folk tale about a little boy who was playing in his family's fields one day when to his horror he saw that there was a small hole in the dike, and water was trickling through. The boy put his finger in the hole to keep the water back, and stayed there for hours until a search party finally found him. The adults were able to repair the damage and save the dike, but without the heroic little boy, the entire field and town could have been destroyed by the ocean. It is a startling reversal today to hear of the Dutch plan for turning some of the carefully tended below-sea-level farmland back to the ocean.

It is very expensive to run pumps to keep water out of the reclaimed fields; in some areas, pumps run for 16 hours a day. Furthermore such pumping has led to sinking land levels, creating a vicious cycle of dependence. The highly productive Dutch farms rely heavily on pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, which are now major contributors to water pollution. Over one-third of the Netherlands' bird species have vanished since 1950, including storks. Many native plant species are also threatened.

The Dutch Government's plan involves purchasing land back from the farmers in certain areas, then opening dikes to allow the land to be flooded, and to allow lakes to be linked together by rivers. Birds should return as more wetlands, their breeding grounds, are made available, and as plants and mice provide a food supply.

In the long term, more sustainable and ecologically sound agriculture should coexist with the wetlands. As one member of his local water board summarized, "We have a better understanding of the huge cost not only of reclaiming land but also of maintaining it. And we see the harm it does to the surroundings. Today it makes no economic sense."

A similar process is taking place in northern Israel, in the Hula Valley near the Jordan River. A national drainage project in the 1950s opened up a sizable amount of land for cultivation. Opposition at the time was stifled for nationalistic political reasons, as described by Israeli conservationist Azaria Alon: "The draining was deeply troubling to nature advocates, but it was difficult to talk about it, because anyone who spoke out was considered anti-Zionist. This was seen as a tremendous achievement, celebrated in writing and song. But it wasn't thought through, and the result was ecological destruction." (4)

In the arid climate, the large-scale draining of swamp land led to unforeseen problems, including threats to the water table and water supply. Underground fires of dried peat caused damage, soil fertility declined and nitrates polluted the Sea of Galilee. Areas that could not be cultivated became wastelands covered by peat dust, mice and weeds.

Flooding of selected areas in Israel's Hula Valley is now underway, with continuing debates about land use and the balance between farming, tourism, and nature preserves.

(1)   Daniel Zwerdling, National Public Radio Morning Edition, 
              Washington D.C. Nov. 1, 1993 
(2)   Christian  Science Monitor Radio, Boston Massachusetts, 
              November 7, 1993 
(3)   Marlise Simons, "Dutch Do the Unthinkable:  Sea is Let In" 
              The New York Times, March 7, 1993 
(4)   Joel Greenberg, "Israel Restoring Drained Wetlands, 
              Reversing Pioneers' Feat", The New York Times, December 5, 1993. 

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