Overstory #44 - Integrated Systems Approach
This issue of The Overstory departs from the usual format. Instead of presenting a specific technique or practice, it introduces a context, a way of thinking about farming, a paradigm.
This context is the integrated approach to farm systems.
The Integrated Approach to Farm Systems
The integrated approach comes from the perspective that whatever we are growing now, it was originally part of an ecosystem, its native environment, where for thousands of years it interacted with many kinds of other living things, from soil organisms to animals, insects, and plants. It was "plugged in" to natural processes, and grew without any human help. The integrated approach is about recreating and integrating into the farm some of the beneficial connections and natural processes that support productivity.
Chicken and Egg Example
A classic example for thinking about the integrated systems approach is called the "Chicken and Egg Example," from Bill Mollison, the author of Permaculture. This example consists of two illustrations, one of a production approach that is not integrated, and another of a system that is integrated.
Picture on one hand an industrial chicken factory, with chickens in cages. Here the chicken is isolated from its natural environment, and virtually all that is needed to sustain it is provided by humans. A huge infrastructure is needed to grow food for the chicken, and to transport the food to the chicken. Because this is a stressful environment for the chicken, it tends to lead to disease so there is also a large pharmaceutical industry to provide medicines and hormones to keep the chicken alive. Every step in the process in energy-intensive, including the disposal of the chicken's waste products and manure, which usually have to be treated as a pollutant. And the end product, and egg in this case, tends to be of questionable quality in the eyes of consumers.
Picture now another scenario: an orchard designed to have chickens run through it to scratch and feed, then return to their roost at night. Here, the animals in more of a natural environment, can feed and mostly medicate themselves from the environment. Their products like manure are used in the system, and rather than being a pollutant, contribute to the productivity of the trees. And the end product, in this case an egg again, may be of higher value in the eyes of consumers. Here in Hawaii, for example, free range eggs at the local grocery store sell for about 60% more than conventional eggs.
The two examples above represent two extremes, a system that is not integrated (chickens isolated in a factory), and an integrated system (chickens integrated with orchard crops).
All our farms are somewhere on a continuum between the two extremes illustrated above: between high-input, highly controlled systems on one end, and more integrated systems on the other.
More importantly, our farms are also changing and evolving over time, and as they do they move more toward one end or the other on this continuum. It is important to ask ourselves in our daily activities: Are we heading towards integrating natural processes, or are we setting it up to have to fight them?
To illustrate the continuum between those two kinds of systems is this continuum:
Petri dish........................................Natural ecosystems
On one end of the continuum is a petri dish, a sterile container that is used in laboratories, usually to culture one kind of organism. It is a very controlled system that requires high inputs to set up, and maintain. Interactions of any kind are discouraged, and in fact outside influences such as normal air can ruin the culture.
On the opposite end of the continuum are natural ecosystems, like a tropical forest. In contrast to the petri dish, these systems are very diverse, with uncountable interactions between the elements in them, such as plants, insects, and soil life. There is very little if any human intervention, and they are not stable but instead are very dynamic.
The chicken factory example belongs toward the petri dish end of the continuum, as it is a very controlled, high input system. The integrated animals in an orchard setting belongs more toward the ecosystem end.
All our farms fall somewhere in this continuum now, and the things we do every day are moving them more toward one end or the other.
Here are some common production systems and where they would fall on this continuum:
- Hydroponics: very controlled, high input
- Monocultures: large single-species plantings
- Agroforestry: more diverse
- Wild harvest: reliant on natural processes
- Petri dish..hydroponics..monocultures..agroforestry..wild harvest...natural ecosystems
On this continuum, "organic" can go somewhere in the middle (between monocultures and agroforestry), although the term doesn't have a whole lot of meaning from the integrated systems perspective. Organic can mean simply substituting one kind of fertilizer for another, and may still be high-input. However, many organic growers are very integrated, and would belong on the ecosystem side of the continuum.
As systems move toward the natural ecosystem end of the continuum, they become more integrated: more diverse, with more beneficial connections formed between the diverse elements. Generally, less inputs (such as fertilizers) are needed off-farm as the natural connections that support productivity are utilized.
Examples of Integrated Systems Using Trees
Agroforestry systems are integrated systems using trees. Three examples include:
Silvopasture systems integrate livestock, forage pasture, and trees. In this system, the livestock keep down the grass, reducing or eliminating the need to mow, slash, or herbicide. Their manure contributes fertility to the trees, reducing the need to throw fertilizer. And, they produce a steady economic income. The trees in this system provide shade for the livestock, which is important in the tropics where heat affects the productivity of livestock. The shade may also benefit the forage component. Also, the trees provide a diversified and long-term economic product.
- Orchard Alley Cropping:
Orchard alley cropping systems integrate orchard crops with nitrogen-fixing trees. Nitrogen-fixing trees provide the major source of fertility in natural ecosystems, and this natural source is reestablished in the farm by planting rows of nitrogen-fixing trees in the orchard. The orchard crops are grown in the middle of the "alleys" formed by the nitrogen fixing trees. The nitrogen fixing trees are cut back and applied as mulch to the orchard crops, fertility. The mulch also conserves moisture, suppresses weeds, and encourages beneficial soil microorganisms.
- Mixed Coffee Agroforest:
Coffee agroforest such as those found in Central America include coffee trees, nitrogen-fixing trees, and long-term timber trees. In this system, the nitrogen-fixing trees provide mulch and fertility to the coffee crops, as well as a managed shade system. The timber component provides diversified products and can make the total yield of the system over time higher than if coffee were grown alone. Also, some ecologists have determined that these systems provide excellent wildlife habitat for birds and other wildlife, which contributes to the pest/predator balance and can also help with market positioning for eco-friendly products.
The above systems have in common that they are more diverse than monocultures, and beneficial connections between the diverse elements are encouraged. Human inputs can be reduced as natural functions such as the cycling of organic matter, the grazing of livestock, or the balance of pests and predators come into play to support productivity.
The integrated approach to farm systems is about learning to work with and take advantage of natural processes that support productivity. It is not an approach that farmers make out of the goodness of their hearts; instead, this approach can help reduce inputs from off-farm, contribute to ecological balance, and provide diversified economic products. Essential to the approach is a long-term view of the direction the farm is moving on the continuum towards becoming an integrated system.
Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future, covers many examples of integrated systems.
Fritjof Capra's The Web of Life : A New Understanding of Living Systems, offers a synthesis of recent scientific breakthroughs and provide a foundation for system-approach ecological policies.
Ian McHarg's Design with Nature, is the first book to describe an ecologically sound approach to the planning and design of communities.
Related Editions of The Overstory
- The Overstory #18--Designing Resource Systems
- The Overstory #9--Observation
- The Overstory #7--Agroforestry