Food, Activism, Culture - What Comes Down Must Go Up
Photo: Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial, the longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional farming methods in North America. Photo: Johnie Gall
What Comes Down Must Go Up
By Johnie Gall, freelance for Patagonia.
Melinda Daniels is huddled under the shelter of her purple tent waiting for the rain to start, which only seems odd when you consider the context: she's in the middle of a farm on a blindingly sunny day.
It's a cold fall morning when I find myself driving a twisting country road through rural Pennsylvania. Just thirty minutes from my suburban enclave, the land shifts dramatically to a pastoral patchwork of emerald green and burnt yellow, peppered by silky black cows. Here, tucked back between storybook-beautiful fields and a scattering of oak trees, Melinda Daniels curls over a contractor’s level, measuring the slope of the ground beneath her muddy rubber wading boots. In a few moments, she’ll turn on the contraption behind her—a towering tripod attached to a hose—and let a torrent of water soak the soil under her tent, which is perched eight feet in the air to help block the wind. It looks like some kind of homespun irrigation project, but the clipboards and measuring tools strewn about expose it as something more precise. This is rainfall simulation, part of a larger scientific study hoping to help solve an ongoing ecological puzzle: how the way we farm affects life off the field.
Daniels is part of a task force of scientists, conservationists and farmers brought together by the Rodale Institute and the Stroud Water Research Center for the Watershed Impact Trial. It's an unconventional approach, and one of the first studies of its kind taking a long-term scientific look at the connection between different agricultural methods and the health of our lakes, streams and oceans. Until now, cities and suburbs have tried to address the ecological emergency by implementing green infrastructure in an attempt to slow down runoff, often through rain gardens, pervious pavement, green roofing and wastewater treatments. Conservationists scramble to restore wetlands and plant riparian buffers along the shoreline of rivers and lakes to block pollutants from reaching the water. But those efforts aren't working, at least not efficiently enough. To get to the source of the problem, we have to travel further upstream.
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Agricultural land use involves about 40% of the land use in the US, but in has an out-sized impact on the pollution problems in fresh water and coastal salt waters. The Watershed Impact Trial takes place on 40 acres in the Natural Lands Stroud Preserve in Pennsylvania, in partnership with the Rodale Institute. A study of the way rainfall carries farm chemical pesticides and fertilizers through the ecosystem is ongoing, looking at four parcels of land that each receive different treatment. The work is informed by actual local farmers who advised the group when setting up the study.
"By documenting crop yield and energy and emissions use over the next six years, researchers are hoping to produce a data set that empowers farmers to make more informed decisions on land management and advocate for more sustainable farming methods, like organic and Regenerative Organic."