Finding New Ways of Measuring the Success of Land Management: An Interview with Gary Paul Nabhan

In February 2010, writer Fred Bahnson interviewed Gary Paul Nabhan, a lecturer, food and farming advocate, folklorist, and conservationist who lives and farms in the U.S. Southwest. In Part 3 of this three-part series, Nabhan discusses his Middle Eastern roots, innovative farming practices in desert regions, and the value of “regenerative” agriculture.

B: How did you get interested in food as your life’s work? Did that come from your Lebanese heritage?

N: I grew up in an extended clan of Lebanese immigrants on the Indiana dunes, on the shores of Lake Michigan about 35 miles outside Chicago. My grandfather was a fruit peddler, he had a fruit truck, and he would come home and tell us what the day had been like, whether people had bought more of one variety of plums over the other, whether they were buying bruised fruit or rejecting it, and he also exchanged fruit for fish with a bunch of Swedish fishermen along the shores of Lake Michigan.

"Bob Rodale at the Rodale Institute, one of the godfathers of the organic movement, encouraged Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry and I to use the term regenerative agriculture, and I think he was right. That would have been a much better term by which to measure the success of our own stewardship practices," says Nabhan. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

He was adamant about the quality of fruit; he would talk about it to me when I was four-years old as if I were his business partner, saying “people just don’t understand the quality of fruit anymore.” I think there was this quality of food, much of it coming from only 30 miles away, that was a special thing. We seasonally moved from food to food because that was what made the year interesting.

When I went to school for college and lived in a city, I actually lost weight because I couldn’t stomach the homogeneous food. Later, when I started working as an intern at the first Earth Day headquarters, then afterward began a career as an environmental scientist and activist, I was struck that food issues were not important to environmentalists. The issues were about wilderness or urban contamination and not much about the quality of our landscape shift in rural areas.

I would say that environmental activists were more concerned about saving national parks and wilderness areas and stopping urban contamination and less about the quality of life on private lands. Fortunately, many of us started reading Aldo Leopold, who said to pay as much attention to conservation and biodiversity on private lands as you do on public lands. That really shaped my thinking.

I am inherently curious about comparing how people manage their land and eat from it in different cultures, particularly desert cultures. When I first went to Lebanon, to my grandfather’s village, in the early 90s and saw how land was managed there, the different vegetable and fruit varieties, the heritage breeds of lamb and goats, it really gave me a portfolio of ideas to adapt to the desert place where I live today. By spending time immersed in another culture, particularly a habitat or landscape similar to the one you live in, you see how people have problem-solved. I’m interested in how people have used local biodiversity and nested it in their farmlands and orchards and kitchen gardens in their particular climate to create a soil-based carbon-neutral food system.

One of the things in the Middle East in which I’ve been very interested, for example, is the water-harvesting traditions, especially those that don’t rely on pumping fossil ground water, and how those techniques can be incorporated into mid-scale water harvesting regimes to grow food in the arid West of the United States. We need to understand that we have entered a post-peak fossil ground water era, and that’s just as important as understanding that we’ve entered a post-peak fossil fuel era.

B: But isn’t water primarily an issue in the American West?

N: It’s not an exclusively Western issue. We have groundwater contamination, saltwater intrusion, and groundwater overdraft in many other parts of the country, not just the arid West. And because much of our winter food in the U.S. comes from Arizona and California, groundwater problems should be a concern to anyone in North America who eats.

B: What are some specific techniques in water harvesting and sustainable farming that you brought back from Lebanon?

N: I’ll talk more broadly about the Middle East as a whole. They do multiple strata gardening and farming where they grow date palms and olive trees as an overstory crop, then grow more heat-sensitive fruits like apricots and peaches sheltered under that, and under that they’ll grow onions, shallots, artichokes, rhubarb, and grapes and such. They often have a three- or four-tiered system on the same piece of land. In a high solar environment with a lot of heat it’s very important to get the crops in the right temperature range for fruit to ripen, but it also makes very efficient use of water.

The second thing is that they use systems called ganads. These systems funnel either shallow artesian springs or catch water off slickrock and funnel them into community irrigation systems that are communally managed. Unlike the American West, it’s not every man for himself trying to obtain the maximum amount of water, but is rather a community rationing of available rainfall and artesian springwaters. Some of these systems have lasted for 1,000 or even 1,400 years without salination or depletion or contamination.

Nearby, within 20 miles, you can see failed irrigation projects where international development groups have perforated the groundwater, salinized the soil, and ushered in saltwater incursion from the coast. These were multi-million dollar investments that went belly up within 20 years. Juxtapose those with the ganad systems that have been stable for 1,400 years.

B: What are your thoughts on the competing ideas of abundance versus scarcity with food production? The whole Green Revolution approach to food is predicated upon an idea of scarcity, therefore we must produce as much food as we possibly can. And yet your work seems to be about fostering an abundance that’s already there in nature.

N: That’s an interesting way to put it. There are two thoughts I’ve had lately. One thought arose when I went out with a rancher about three weeks ago, who took me and the dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Arizona out to his plots. We were standing out in his pasture, and he said, “I want a science of limits.” There were some things he could do to pump up the productivity of this semi-arid rangeland. But to some extent, especially in a highly arid climate with a great amount of uncertainty because of climate variability, the most important thing for him to do was to manage his land within the limits of what it could naturally produce each year. And he said, “I spend hours and hours each month monitoring this ecosystem’s health. And I don’t push that health past its breaking point. So we need a science and an ethic of limits.”

This rancher made a plea to reincorporate a land ethics course into the College of Agriculture, so that every agriculture and natural resources scientist would have to have this knowledge. We call those people Doctors of Philosophy, but virtually no PhD in the natural sciences anymore has ever had an ethics or philosophy course. I think building a land ethic course into every science curriculum in the country is key. We need a science that understands scarcity and abundance and limits, not like the old Leibniz Law of the Minimum where limits are thought of in a merely quantitative, reductionistic way, but in all the dimensions.

The second thing is that some people have examined the empty calories in our current diet and have said “yes, we produce more food, but its mostly empty calories.” And these folks have come up with a wonderful concept called nutritional density, measured in per-unit weight or per meal. We’re not talking about whether or not a particular food satisfies the minimum daily requirements or whether we can produce 3,000 pounds of corn per acre, what we’re talking about is the density or richness in a particular food in terms of nutrients.

Yield alone as a measure of abundance doesn’t tell us much. What really tells us a lot is whether or not we’re getting micro and macro nutrients, not just calories, and whether that food is satisfying to us.

On our land in southern Arizona, we’re putting in an orchard of ancient desert fruits. My goal is to first increase the water-holding capacity and nutrient abundance of the soil by using terra preta, or biochar. I’m also adding pottery shards and mulch from nitrogen-fixing legume trees that naturally occur on the land, and then, like Joel Salatin says, “stacking” food resources in the same ecosystem so I’m doing a multi-strata orchard of desert-adapted foods that partition the sunlight and water rather than one crop like sugar cane sucking all the water and nutrients out of the soil. Some of the plants I’ve planted are there to regenerate and give back nutrients to make up for the nutrients I’m taking.

At a certain point I regret that, around 1982, we didn’t go with the term regenerative agriculture but instead chose sustainable agriculture. The “S” word has become so hollow and distorted that it’s allowed people to greenwash their business with it. Bob Rodale at the Rodale Institute, one of the godfathers of the organic movement, encouraged Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry and I to use the term regenerative agriculture, and I think he was right. That would have been a much better term by which to measure the success of our own stewardship practices.

To read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series see: Maintaining the Diversity of Food Crops and Bridging the Urban/Rural Divide.

Fred Bahnson is traveling as a Kellogg Food & Society fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. His writing has appeared in Orion, The Sun, and Best American Spiritual Writing 2007 (Mariner). He lives with his wife and two sons on a farm in Transylvania County, North Carolina.

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