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Brady Forrest

Tech Evangelist, O'Reilly Radar

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Can biodynamic farms scale?

I am struck by the system that Dan describes in his talk:
A fish farmer says "We farm extensively, not intensively. This is an ecological network. The flamingos eat the shrimp. The shrimp eat the phytoplankton. So the pinker the belly, the better the system."

It's reminiscent of the biodynamic farm that Michael Pollan describes in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma. The cows eat the grass, the chickens eat the worms from cow patties, the grass grows from the nitrogen-rich chicken droppings.

These systems are both beautiful in their simplicity, but are they scalable?

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    Feb 17 2011: Yes, it is possible! I've seen and lived it!!

    I grew up spending a lot of time on a large ranch on the Pampas, where the main activities were cattle rearing and agriculture, but integrated were a large number of other activities including pigs, hens/turkeys/ducks, milk-cows, vegetables, fruit trees, and even the protection (and culling) of wildlife that included pheasants, ducks, geese hares, foxes, ostriches and deer (and the occasional puma).

    A lot of human-cultural activities were related to this including things like hunting, gathering, jam-making from the fruit, horsemanship, products made with leather and feathers, food processing (salami, ham, dried fruit, etc.), etc.

    It took a lot of work and know-how to maintain the balance of such a complex system in such a way that was sustainable in the long term.

    The problem is that this model stopped being economically viable, by the 1990's most estancias (ranches) in our region had switched over to being dedicated almost exclusively to soybeans which requires a lot less workers and makes a lot more money. Much of the free range cattle moved (and is still moving) into feedlots. Many cultural traditions are being abandoned.

    It is possible to switch large areas of Argentina back to a balanced sustainable model as much of the know-how is still there, but it is being lost at an increasingly rapid rate, and more importantly : the economic incentive is not there.

    Can we find the right incentives to bring back this balanced approach to farming in a large scale?

    I don´t know, but if somebody finds the incentives, I do know that it can be done.
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    Feb 17 2011: As one of the founders of sustentator.com and a Permaculture student and fan I would answer YES.
    But the real question is HOW? How can these be done in a scalable way. And the real answer is that it can only be done through extensive education. In my opinion this would mean that kids turn out of school knowing about creating edible landscapes, about realtionship of the elements in a farm, about the connections needed to develop a low work, high output system that requires very little from outside.
    I would say that to have our kids go out of school without even knowing how to grow there are own food is preparing them for slavery. They WILL have to work to eat. It's as simple as that.
    Why are we doing it? Because, as Sir Ken Robison explained so brilliantly in his TED Talks, current education was built in the 19th century, when we needed a lot of factory workers to fuel the industrial revolution. That course of action, which was correct at that time, has to be modified to allow a more integral education system that teaches the basic skill of observation of relationships in an ecosystem. and how to take advantage of them. Indigenous people around the world know about this and pass it along to their kids. They all can survive with surrounding resources.
    Why are we creating people that doesn't even know how to live in this earth? It really puzzles me and separates us from the earth in ways that creates enormous harm.
    So, can these farms scales? YES. What we need is a change in sensibility and only through a change in education to respect the value of integration with our planet, we will achieve this.
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    Feb 17 2011: Brady, the problem is the lack of balance. As long as there is enough grass for all cows and enough worm for the chicken (or enough chicken for the worms and as long as there is no excess chicken dung covering everything, everything would be fine.
    I think the systems would work as long as we adjust to them and don't try to bend the system to fit our perceived needs.
    This would probably mean that we rethink our eating habits, aligning them more to the system that feeds us instead of tweaking the system to accommodate our (perceived) needs.