question: what are small farms, how do they contribute to society, and what challenges are they faced with?

Producing a vast amount of the world’s food, small farms are valuable assets that contribute to long-term economic sustainability and food security. What actually constitutes a small farm is hard to specify as there are extreme variations in societal structure, ergo many definitions exist. In the United States, a small farm is defined as any farm earning a minimum of $1,000 and a maximum of $250,000. In Canada, a small farm is considered a farm that doesn’t sell commodities in a market with set prices. The FAO has a much more complicated definition: “small farms are complex interrelationships between animals, crops and farming families, involving small land holdings and minimum resources of labour and capital, from which small farmers may or may not be able to derive a regular and adequate supply of food or an acceptable income and standard of living”, while the European Union has no concrete definition.

Despite a lack of a universal definition, small farms contribute a great deal to society – even beyond food production. It could even be argued that small farmers are some of the most underappreciated members of society even though they add genuine and unselfish value to the world. For example, small farms support rural employment as well as maintain and accommodate social connections in rural areas. This is especially important in an age of widespread urbanization as it contributes to the goal of more balanced development. Likewise, it provides diversity in societal structural. Such diversity is particularly essential to maintaining diversity in ownership in an era when the consolidation of power is a major issue facing society. In this respect, they provide also a basis for community empowerment. In doing so, small farms are a symbol of regional identity.

The benefits provided by these farms are threatened by a variety of factors, with the aforementioned issue of the consolidation of ownership and power being at the forefront of concern. This issue is catalyzed by unfavorable government policies (see Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal by Joel Salatin) that have been developed in favor of large agricultural conglomerates with the financial resources to influence government officials. A lack of societal sympathy and support for small farms due to false perceptions, for example, the belief that small farms are unproductive, further contributes to the problems faced by small farmers.

hoophouses-clay-bottom-farm
This is a picture of Clay Bottom Farm in Indiana that produces 30 varieties of vegetables to feed 200 families on one acre of land. Photo Credit: Clay Bottom Farm

sources:

EU Agricultural Economic Brief

http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/t0757e/T0757E02.htm

http://articles.extension.org/pages/13823/usda-small-farm-definitions#.UsV_8ifCYx4

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0305750X15002703

www.foodfirst.org

http://smallfarmcanada.ca/2014/10-years-8-questions/

5 ways that humans impact ecosystems

Excluding the beaver, no other animal on the planet alters its environment as much as humans. As a result, the impact of the actions of humans is widespread even if the effects are not overtly noticeable. Some ways that we affect our ecosystems include:

  • Habitat Fragmentation: This occurs when an organism’s favored environment is disrupted and made discontinuous. This, in turn, separates the population which can result in decreased genetic variability and overall population numbers if the male:female sex ratio is disproportionate.
  • Land-Use Changes: This is the changing of the Earth by humans to harvest resources and re-purpose the area.
  • Habitat Destruction: The removal of resources and changes to the land causing it no longer capable of sustaining the ecological communities that naturally occur in a given space. This often results in the loss of biodiversity and sometimes species extinction.
  • The Introduction of Non-Native species: Occurs due to travel [individual or economically motivated]. These species often have no natural predators in a new system, so they are more easily able to integrate themselves into a biological community.  This often results in the displacement of native species.
  • Pollution: The manipulation of resources, burning of fossil fuels, waste production, nutrient over-enrichment and the introduction of harmful chemicals results in changes in the environment making it inhospitable to the natural inhabitants.

Ellis, E. (2013). Land-use and land-cover change. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/154143

ecology defined + a description of the components of an ecosystem

Ecology is the study of environmental systems, i.e. ecosystems, and how each of the different parts of a given ecosystem interact. It is sometimes known as the economics of nature. Aldo Leopold is often considered the grandfather of ecology because of his passion for understanding how each of the various parts of the natural world interact. In 1941 he was quoted as saying:

“A science of land health needs, first of all, a base datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism.” 

An ecosystem is the given the biological community that exists in a given space. It is here that energy is exchanged and the cycling of elements emerges. Ecosystems are affected by the chemical and physical factors that make up that environment. As we are all part of an ecosystem, their protection and maintenance are essential. Furthermore, the air, water and land are all interconnected, so harm to one ecosystem impacts others.

The abiotic (non-living) components present in ecological systems are:

  • Sunlight which is required for the process of photosynthesis
  • Temperature which affects what life can exist in a given location
  • Precipitation that is affected by the climate of the area and the Earth itself
  • Water/Moisture which is necessary for all living creatures
  • Soil/Water Chemistry that affects all life in a particular environment

The biotic (living) components are:

  • Primary producers which are the photosynthetic plants necessary in every system
  • Herbivores that are anatomically and physiologically adapted to consuming plants
  • Carnivores who derive their energy exclusively from animal tissue
  • Omnivores that obtain nutrients from a variety sources, including plants, animals, fungi and algae, which are often opportunistic consumers because they do not have the specialized skills of carnivores and herbivores
  • Detritivores that get their nutrients from decomposing plants and animals which contribute to the composition process and the nutrient cycle

Ecosystems are important because they are the foundation for life on this planet. Each interconnected part of these systems plays a fundamental part. When these systems are disrupted it affects not only one specific area but the planet as a whole.

Michigan, t. R. (2008, October 31). The Concept of the Ecosystem. Retrieved from Global Change: http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange1/current/lectures/kling/ecosystem/ecosystem.html
Hall, C. (2013). Ecology. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/151932

buffer zones & buffer strips – what they are and why we need them

umrb_fig06h
photo credit: pubs.usgs

Buffer zones and buffer strips are the areas between aquatic and terrestrial zones.  The best-known buffer strips are wetlands and riparian zones.  They can consist of natural or planted vegetation and serve as a place for water and matter storage.  

The two types of limitations that impact buffer zones are internal limitations and external limitations.  Internal limitations are those that have to do with the qualities of the buffer zone itself e.g. the width, the soil qualities, the pH levels, the organic matter content and the soil porosity. The external limitations include outside influencing factors like the size of the basin, the geochemistry of a location, the climate, hydrology, slope and stream morphology.Some buffer zones can also link ephemeral (short-term) and perennial areas with non-point source loads via surface or groundwater paths.  

We need these unique natural treasures because they offer valuable services that man-made options and replacements simply cannot reproduce.  This means that existing buffer zones should be protected in an effort to benefit the majority, rather than the minority.  In areas that have buffer zones, the following benefits are enjoyed:

  • During warm periods, buffer zones cool in the summertime via evapotranspiration and shading
  • Many unique species of plants and animals have a place to live creating havens of biodiversity
  • Water is filtered water slowly through the dead and decomposing organic matter, as well as non-organic components
  • Sedimentation occurs which keeps water cleaner and reduces the likelihood that unwanted particles enter other water sources
  • Embankments are stabilized and coastlines are protected from storm and flood damage 
  • Groundwater recharge takes place which keeps aquifers full
  • Groundwater composition is changed as excess nitrogen and other nutrients/toxins are removed which improves water quality and reduces the need for artificial water filtration efforts
  • Litter and dead wood is allocated, concentrated and distributed to aquatic organisms
  • Carbon is sequestered

With so many positive benefits, it is clear that buffer zone protection is imperative.  This is especially true with the many environmental uncertainties that we are facing in the modern world making it essential to protect and preserve these valuable natural service providers.

index46440
photo credit: elibrary.dep.state.pa.gov

 

biological control via entomophatogenic viruses: baculovirus

Entomopathogenic viruses are those that infect and kill insects.  They are superior to regular pesticides in that they are not harmful to humans or other vertebrates. Furthermore, each viral strain attacks only a limited number of insect species which helps to mitigate unpredicted damage.

baculo
Photo Credit: aibn.uq.edu.au

There are two types of entomopathogenic viruses:

  1. Baculoviridae (ds DNA)
    1. Nucleopolyhedrovirus
    2. Granulovirus
  2. Reoviridae (ds RNA)
    1. Cypovirus

However, the Baculoviridae viruses are the ones that are most commonly used.  They are found only in invertebrates and despite rigorous testing have not been shown to negatively affect vertebrates and plants.  They also have a narrow host insect range which is typically restricted to the original host genus.  

The mode of action for Baculoviridae is as followed:

Baculovirus is sprayed onto foliage –>  Caterpillar consumes the virus  –> The protein encapsulating the Baculovirus DNA dissolves and the DNA enters the stomach cells –> Baculovirus DNA is replicated by the stomach cells until the stomach cells rupture –> The caterpillar stops eating  –> Baculovirus is spread throughout the caterpillar causing a general systemic infection    –> The caterpillar dies within days

Leo turk 3 leo
Photo Credit: Leo Graves, Oxford Brookes University via oetltd.wordpress.com

 

The biggest issue related to the use of this method is the amount of time required before the pest dies.  This is noted as being the number one reason why this method is not used on a more wide scale basis.

Baculoviruses are created in vivo and production is often automated which makes it predictable and inexpensive because of the use of inexpensive growing mediums and the natural process of fermentation.  It is estimated that application in the USA costs $6-10/acre which is competitive with prices for industrialized chemical pest control options.

In order for the use of Baculovirus to expand the following improvements must be made:

  1. Genetic engineering must result in a 50% increase in the speed of the kill time
  2. Residual activity of the virus must be increased from 2 – 4 days to >7
  3. The role of Baculoviruses must be strengthened within successful IPM programs
  4. More cost-effective cell culture for the mass production of wild type and genetically modified Baculoviruses must be developed

A major example of success using a Baculovirus is the control of the Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar) using the entomopathogenic virus LdMNPV.

sources:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233795389_Genomics_of_Entomopathogenic_Viruses_Insect_Pathogens_Molecular_Approaches_and_Techniques

http://www.fao.org/docs/eims/upload/agrotech/2003/active_agents.pdf

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263765284_Entomopathogenic_Viruses

http://web.entomology.cornell.edu/shelton/cornell-biocontrol-conf/talks/georgis.html

http://www.biopestlab.ucdavis.edu/files/131018.pdf

an introduction to integrated pest management (IPM)

Integrated pest management (IPM) is a long-term pest prevention program that focuses on ecosystem-based strategies for the control of pest related issues. This is accomplished through a combination of techniques including biological control, habitat manipulation, modification of cultural practices and the use of resistant cultivars. The use of chemical pesticides is then restricted to applications only after strict monitoring that is based on established guidelines indicates that stronger measures are required for pest management. In the event that chemical agents are required, they are applied in a targeted manner intended to minimize risks to the environment, other organisms (especially beneficial and non-target organisms) and to human health.

The 8 principles of IPM are as followed:

  1. In an effort to prevent and/or combat pests, the following intelligent production practices shall be used: crop rotation, sustainable cultivation techniques, resistant/tolerant cultivars and certified seed production systems, balanced fertilization, irrigation and drainage techniques, proper hygiene measures and the protection and proliferation of beneficial organism.
  2. The use of biological, physical and non-chemical control methods must be preferred to chemical options as long as the non-chemical options provide acceptable pest control.
  3. In the event that pesticides must be applied, they shall be target-specific and strategically applied in an effort to reduce negative health outcomes.
  4. Pesticides shall be used only on an as-needed basis and the frequency and intensity of use  should be minimized in order to reduce the risk of resistance populations.
  5. In cases where pest resistance has been established and repeat pesticide application is necessary, anti-resistance strategies should be integrated into control efforts.  
  6. Record keeping is essential and should be based on detailed records in order to determine the efficacy of pest control programs – especially in the case of chemical inputs.
  7. Monitoring efforts are essential in order to track pest presence.  This can be accomplished via observations, forecasting and early diagnosis systems and information, as well as information from professionally qualified .  
  8. The information garnered by monitoring efforts shall be used to determine when and which plant protection measures will be taken.  There should be scientifically supported threshold values upon which to base decision making.  Said values should be adapted to local conditions including climate, crop type and topographical qualities.

sources:

https://www.nap-pflanzenschutz.de/en/practice/integrated-plant-protection/general-principles-integrated-plant-protection/
http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/GENERAL/ipmdefinition.html
http://www.fao.org/agriculture/crops/thematic-sitemap/theme/spi/scpi-home/managing-ecosystems/integrated-pest-management/ipm-how/en/

 

 

the importance of annual grasses

The family Poaceae is considered the most economically important plant family due to the fact that they produce the world’s food staples including domesticated cereal crops such as maize (corn), wheat, rice, barley and millet.  Poaceae plants also provide forage, building materials (bamboo, thatch, straw) and fuel (ethanol).  

cereals
Photo Credit:  oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com

Agricultural grasses grown for their edible seeds are called cereals or grains (although the latter term, agriculturally, refers to both cereals and legumes). Of all crops, 70% are grasses.  Three cereals – rice, wheat, and maize (corn) – provide more than half of all calories eaten by humans.  Cereals constitute the major source of carbohydrates for humans and may also be the major source of protein.  Rice is the dominate crop in southern and eastern Asia, maize in Central and South America, and wheat and barley in Europe, northern Asia and the Americas.  Sugarcane is the major source of sugar production. Many other grasses are grown for forage and fodder for animal feed, especially for sheep and cattle which indirectly provides more calories for humans.

Flowering Poaceae plants are among the 5 most numerous families in the world.  There are an estimated 10,000+ species within family Poaceae that originate from Gondwanan more than 80 million years ago.  The grasses grow on every continent in the world in varying climates from deserts to riparian.  There are two types of grasses – C3 and C4.  C3 grasses are cool season grasses and C4 grasses are warm season grasses.  It is estimated that at least 20% of the world’s surfaces are covered in grasslands.  

plate12_grass

The plants  are typically wind-pollinated and have hollow stems called “culms” plugged at intervals by solid leaf-bearing nodes. Grass leaves are nearly always alternate and distichous (in one plane), and have parallel veins. Each leaf is differentiated into a lower sheath hugging the stem and a blade with entire (i.e., smooth) margins. The leaf blades of many grasses are hardened with silicaphytoliths which discourage grazing animals.  Some plants also produce silica crystals in their leaves to deter predation.  

It is theorized that the evolution of large grazing animals during the Cenozoic period contributed greatly to the spread of grasses.  Trampling grazers killed or consumed seedlings, but not grasses.  This prevented the colonization of fire-cleared areas by trees which prevented the shading out of grasses.

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Photo Credit: nature.org

Grasses also serve very important environmental purposes including erosion protection, nourishing and providing a habitat for animals and insects, cooling, water retention and nutrient enrichment via the dead root litter that is decomposed in the soil.