Imagine a farm that requires no fertilizer, irrigation, pesticides, or tractor cultivation, and produces highly nutritious, tasty foods. The farm we're imagining maintains healthy soil, doesn't drain the aquifer, and provides habitat for birds and other native creatures.
Now imagine that the food this farm produces is also incredibly delicious& pasta made from the nutty, sweet flour of Indian rice grass, covered with sauce made from sun-dried wolfberries. The pasta is decorated with strips of juicy nopales - prickly pear pads. You begin your meal with a green salad of amaranth and lambs' quarter greens, and follow with a dessert of high-protein mesquite flour cookies. To drink: a tartly sweet pink "lemonade" made from prickly pear fruit.
While this may sound like an exercise in food fiction, cooking up such scenarios is all in a day's work for agroecologist Dr. Tim Crews and his students at Prescott College in Arizona. Crews teaches a class in Southwest Natural Systems Agriculture, "probably the only college-level class on this topic in the world," every summer in the four-course summer semester at the College's research-education and demonstration facility, Wolfberry Farm. The other courses include Agroecology, Plant Breeding, and Agroecosystems of the Arid Southwest, which compares farming systems in the Southwest, from hydroponic hothouses to Hopi gardens.
The benefits of Natural Systems Agriculture (NSA) include not only highly nutritious food, but soil conservation, extreme water conservation, and support of native biodiversity. Potentially most beneficial of all is that enough food for all the folks of a region like Western Yavapai County, where the farm is situated, could be grown right there.
"An agriculture like this would not drain our aquifer," Crews explained. "We've done basic calculations to see how much land under natural systems agriculture would be needed to provide a vegetarian diet for the 80,000 residents of Prescott, Prescott Valley, and Chino Valley area. Our estimate is 90,000 acres or just over one acre per person. It's really not that much land, especially since these farms would resemble the native landscape.
"We're excited about the idea of expanding what we eat. These Natural Systems Agriculture plants are indigenous to the Southwest& they essentially grow themselves. Our current society eats a remarkably small number of plant species. Some native cultures have thrived on consuming 200 different plants, versus our own society which feasts on only a couple dozen plants, with corn and wheat at the top of the list.
"European cultures brought all of their own food species with them, and to produce these foods here we've made the Southwest look like Iowa. Similarly, Iowa a hundred years ago looked just like farms in Europe. Natural Systems Agriculture is all about agriculture fitting the place rather than making the place fit the agriculture. We don't underestimate the cultural hurdles in people changing their diet; however, some of these crops are delicious and we think they could be adopted or in some cases, re-adopted by the diverse cultures living in the Southwest. As an example of how our diets can be expanded, it is more and more common to see nopales at grocery stores."
This work on Natural Systems Agriculture by Crews and his crew is essentially an extension of work pioneered by Wes Jackson and researchers at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. For 30 years the Institute has been developing crops and cropping systems that mimic the structure and function of the local native prairies.
Over the years some ecologists at the Land Institute have identified four possible functional groups of plants that compose 80 percent of prairie species. The functional groups are warm season grasses, cool season grasses, legumes, and sunflowers.
"In the Southwest, where water strongly influences the native plant communities, we have built on work by Tony Burgess of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, in identifying functional groups based on water resource partitioning: in other words, where and when plants obtain their water," Crews said. The four functional groups include water storers such as cacti and yuccas; extensive exploiters, which include deep-rooted woody plants such as mesquite or wolfberry; intensive exploiters like shallow-rooted perennial and annual grasses and forbs; and nitrogen-fixing species such as mountain mahogany that produce some of the fertility for the other crops.
All of the plants that interest Crews and his students were used by pre-historic Native Americans as well as tribes of today. Prescott College researchers are selectively breeding the native plants for desirable characteristics.
"We're researching many ecological questions that pertain to the prospective NSA crops. For example, we want to understand the disease and insect challenges these plants experience in the wild. Do they always grow near certain other plants? Do they rely on nurse plants in order to become established? Are they grazed or pollinated by certain insects or other animals? Do they thrive in soils that were deposited by wind or water, or soils that formed directly from rock? We are planting out different assemblages of these potential crops to see whether or not the functional groups are compatible."
A lot of work has gone into figuring out how to propagate certain plants. "It's been a very slow process over the last five years. We had many rounds of nonstarts. For example, Indian rice grass and wolfberry have a 20 percent germination rate if you're lucky. Some collections of seed grow relatively easily, while others refuse to sprout, no matter how much we cool them or scratch [their seed coats] to induce germination."
Crews has been known to characterize the current human inhabitation of Arizona as a "six million person camping trip." Any food eaten in this lovely place, with its nice weather and good views, is brought in from outside. The camping trip was devised during the era in US history that may some day be known as the fossil fuel bonanza - a time when energy was incredibly abundant and inexpensive and global warming was not a concern. Needless to say, today is different, and work on Natural Systems Agriculture is one way that we may turn our current campsites, such as Prescott, into home.