Angel Banuelos is one of fourteen First Year students from Kalamazoo College to visit our farm last Fall as a part of a service-learning project sponsored by the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement. Angel helped us save seeds from many of the legumes that we grow, including Sugar Snap peas, Potawatomi Pole lima beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears Black beans, and Iroquois Cranberry Beans. As our first crops ripened this week and I found myself snacking in the gardens in between doing chores, I remembered this essay that he wrote about biodiversity and his experience on our farm. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
It seems illogical, but when I was a kid I always wished to live in a world of candy. I dreamed that I could be anywhere and have a rainbow of colors, flavors, and textures to snack on. I have to say that the closest I have ever come to that experience was while exploring Harvest of Joy Farm. We visited at the beginning of fall, but the fruits of summer were still bursting at the seams- tomatoes, turnips, tobacco, peppers, chiles. The list could continue, but half of what I saw I had never seen before and could not give a name to. In particular, I was struck by a bounty of cherry tomatoes that ranged in all the colors of our Michigan sunsets. “This is a breed that was supposed to be pink,” Amy told us with a smile, “but these nice orange ones popped up as well”. Many farmers would have been disappointed by a crop that didn’t turn out as planned, but at Harvest of Joy Amy and John treasure a concept called biodiversity.
Biodiversity means that there is a variety of life participating in an ecosystem. The term includes bacteria, bugs, plants, animals, basically anything that chooses to make their home in an environment. A perfect example of biodiversity would be the Amazon Rainforest or Australia’s coral reefs. Everything in the environment works together to provide for one another.
Currently, the agriculture industry in America largely frowns upon biodiversity in farming. Many believe it is more efficient for a farm to focus on a single crop or specialize in just a few: this is known as a monoculture. Farms choose monoculture because they want predictability, uniformity, and crops that are easily manipulated by human intervention. Think of how you go into the grocery store and are accustomed to seeing fruits and vegetables that all look the same. This is because they were bred on monoculture farms and all the ones that grew differently were tossed out. It may seem like the better option because it’s what we’re used to, but crops that lack biodiversity are highly susceptible to disease. When everybody is the same, the genes don’t exist for a community to adapt and fend off invaders. Along with that, they become highly reliant on chemical pesticides and fertilizers because they can’t rely on the bugs and microorganisms in the soil. Those chemicals can be bad for human health as well as be potent sources of pollution in the environment when they make their way into the air and into water sources.
When a farm utilizes biodiversity, like at Harvest of Joy Farm, the crops are less input intensive as well as healthier for people and the Earth. For example, a farmer who is having an aphid problem with their tomatoes may place down some ladybugs who eat those aphids without doing damage to the tomato plants. This strategic working with the ecosystem would eliminate the need for a chemical pesticide. A second example would be the “Three Sisters” method of farming created by Native Americans where beans, corn, and squash are placed together. The beans supply nitrogen the corn needs which means no fertilizer and then the squash keeps the area clear for the both of them. Crops are able to be grown organically without major human input which is better for health and sustainability.
Along with that, new combinations are able to occur which increases the pleasure of eating and allows new traits to develop. Like the random red headed grandchild, crops can spring up with unique colors, flavors, and textures so eating doesn’t have to be the same boring thing all the time. An unexpected way I found out variation was being created at Harvest of Joy Farm was when we were eating honey at dinner and John remarked that the taste could differ based on what flowers the bees had chosen to work with. It’s pretty amazing to me that because they have so many different plants, their honey could taste uniquely delicious every year. When allowed to genetically dice roll, crops also have a chance of naturally developing beneficial traits like resistance to drought or disease.
Overall, what’s learned from farms that practice biodiversity is that the Earth responds best when nature is left to do as nature does. As humans we may find nature unpredictable, but this can make life more joyous to be a part of. Do you have a favorite example of biodiversity in nature or a ‘surprise’ crop that grew for you? Feel free to share in the comments below!
Some photos of the diverse seeds Angel helped us save: