Frank H's Landscape Agriculture: Can you see the water?

MANILA: On Facebook, I have just seen what is clearly landscape agriculture: the faces of Maine Mendoza and Alden Richards defined in a ricefield; the link is to "AlDub-inspired rice paddy kindles youth's interest in agriculture" (ANN, 24 March 2016, gmanetwork.com). The news doesn't say exactly where it's at, except that it is in the FutureRice farm of PhilRice, which is based in the village of Maligaya, Science City of Muñoz in Nueva Ecija. We are told the paddy art is now a popular tourist destination. Maine Mendoza herself has tweeted on it: "Wow this is super cool! Galing!!!" (Clever). Worth a visit if you ask me.


Although FutureRice Program Leader Roger Barroga doesn't refer to it as such, it is landscape agriculture. I have a different kind. Roger's kind emphasizes the view from the top; my kind emphasizes the view from the top to the bottom, which is the subject of this essay. Look at the photo above and you'll have an idea.

I'm a scholar of agriculture, a graduate of the College of Agriculture of UP Los Baños, which is more than 100 years old and has not officially adopted the line that man-induced climate change is happening right now. Personally, I accepted climate change 10 years ago, many months before Al Gore and the IPCC won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2007 (see my essay, "The Yankee Dawdle. On Discovery Sorghum, The Great Climate Crop," 04 February 2007, A Magazine Called Love, blogspot.com).

Right now, I'm trying a new approach in looking at agriculture that does not contribute to climate change. No, I'm not thinking of organic agriculture, organic farming, or organic fertilizers. I'm looking for a simple technique, or system that is miserly in cost, which suits an Ilocano like me.

I have written that it is the rice farmers in my country, because they over-apply chemical nitrogenous fertilizers, who are the biggest culprit in climate change, contributing nitrous oxide, which is, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the deadliest of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming (see my essay, "Here's What We Can Do At Once To Fight Climate Change," 23 March 2016, Frank A Hilario, blogspot.com).

I'm writing this on Good Friday; I was inspired on Maundy Thursday by the report of a study conducted by Patrick W Keys, Lan Wang-Erlandsson & Line J Gordon, "Revealing Invisible Water: Moisture Recycling As An Ecosystem Service" published this year in PLoS ONE 11(3): e0151993 (Stockholm Resilience Centre, stockholmresilience.org). It is "the plants that regulate the rain," according to the study. The report says it is the landscape, or current vegetation, that regulates as much as 40% of the rain. This is "specific role that current vegetation serves in regulating the atmospheric branch of the water cycle."

I'm thinking here not only of the atmospheric water cycle to which a landscape contributes, but the water cycle within the landscape and simultaneously the nutrient cycle within that same landscape. Because it is the water that makes the nutrients available to crops in the landscape.

Landscape, says the American Heritage Dictionary, is "an expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view." In my idea of landscape agriculture, as far as the eye can see, the landscape is always a green landscape. It includes the wanted and unwanted vegetation, the crops and the weeds.

According to one definition, "Landscape architecture is the design of outdoor public areas, landmarks, and structures to achieve environmental, social-behavioral, or aesthetic outcomes (Wikipedia). That's too complicated for me. I'm looking for a concept that simplifies agriculture and yet perpetuates the landscape.

My new idea of landscape agriculture is not mechanically bringing together agriculture and landscape architecture. I'm interested in both the design and function. "Form follows function – that has been misunderstood," says Frank Lloyd Wright. "Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union."

So now I'm going deeper and discuss the invisible water underneath the landscape. My photograph above shows you the landscape I would rather not have: No bare fields, no puddled soils.

Look at the photograph again; I ask you, "Can you see the water there?" You might answer, "No, there is none. Except in the puddled plot, but which has been incorporated with the soil. Maybe the whites in the background?" Not the whites beyond the palm trees; they are concrete; not the piles either; they are bags of farm produce. You have to be spiritual about this.

Aldo Leopold was a famous author, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist and environmentalist (Wikipedia). I saw on Facebook today, with KM Cruda sharing Agriculture Everyday photo, on which this message of Leopold is written: "There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace." I checked and he said that in his 1949 book A Sand County Almanac (The Aldo Leopold Foundation, aldoleopold.org).

As an agriculturist, a writer, and an original thinker, I must disagree with that. We can't all own a farm. What happens to the spirituality of the ones who don't own a single square meter of land? Instead, I say, in contradiction to Leopold: "There are two spiritual dangers in owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the seeds and fertilizers, and the other is that water comes from the irrigation canal."

Can you see the water there now?

"Everything is connected to everything else," Barry Commoner said. I say, "Every drop of water is connected to every other drop of water." That's how we should view water. And now comes my theory:

Water is the solution to dry soils, dry air, dry mouths, and empty stomachs – but only if you can catch it.

"Can you see the water?" The bright answer is: In that photograph above, there is water everywhere – in the leaves, in the soil, in the air and yes, in the clouds.

In the study I mentioned above, Keys says, "Now it is clear that evaporation plays a vital role in the form of providing moisture for downwind rainfall." He uses "evaporation" to include moisture escaping to the atmosphere from the soil, and transpiration of water from the leaves.

Now then, where does all the evaporating moisture come from? The soil. Who put it there? That is the 64-million-dollar question!

Irrigation is a source of water, of course. In the Philippines, that would be water from an irrigation canal, water pumped from the river or from a shallow tube well. But I am looking for a sustainable supply of water for the soil for sustainable agriculture. The American Heritage Dictionary defines sustainable as "capable of being continued with minimal long-term effect on the environment."

Irrigation canals are drying up; so are rivers; and our farmers are abusing shallow tube wells, depleting the underground water layer. The canals and rivers are drying up because the forest landscapes from which they derive their waters are now depleted, ravaged by man. So, those are no longer sustainable sources of water.

We go back to the soil. If you examine my photograph again, you will note that the grass is green despite itself. That is because there is enough organic matter in the soil to grow the grass luxuriantly. If undisturbed, a soil builds its own organic matter to sustain the landscape.

Now, what is organic matter? OM is the result of the decay of once-living (organic) plants and small animal life, decomposed by fungi, earthworms, and microorganisms. The OM is rich in plant nutrients – and moisture. The OM is the ultimate source of the water that is evaporated by a landscape; at the same time, it is the ultimate source of the nutrients that plants need.

Now then, how do you do landscape agriculture? Catch the rain. "How do you catch the rain?" has the same answer as "How do you catch the capillary water coming up from underground?" and "How do you catch the water from decomposing plants and animals for your field?"

The correct answer is: "Create a soil that is continuously rich in water and plant nutrients." I'll call it here the organic soil. You have to create it to work to your advantage, to enrich your crops and therefore, you.

I mentioned that the landscape includes the crops and the weeds. When you start a new season of planting, you have the weeds and the crop refuse. To create an organic soil that is rich in water and nutrients, do leftover farming – with your rotavator, big or small, Howard or local (kuliglig), pass over the crop refuse and weeds at a depth of 2-3 inches, not deeper, so that soil and plant materials are chopped and mixed together into a mulch, which automatically turns into a compost pile spread all over the field. Now you have an organic soil that will take care of your crop landscape for at least one growing season even if you don't irrigate and add fertilizer. With the organic soil, your landscape's water cycle is inseparable from your nutrient cycle, as Mother Nature had intended it to be.

Highly theoretical – does it work? Learning from me, my cousin Enso has been doing leftover farming for the last 50 years, and he has always out-yielded much his neighboring farmers.

Look at the image again – how can the grass grow there luxuriantly when it is not planted, not cultivated, not fertilized, not irrigated? It's the organic soil formed when the owner of the field left the soil undisturbed, formed from grass leaves falling and decaying.

Your landscape agriculture must take care of the water cycle as well as the nutrient cycle. That is what I call being climate change-resilient agriculture. You do not exacerbate man-made climate change by not applying chemical nitrogenous fertilizers that give off nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

And oh, as is my habit, I interrupted revising this essay. We have just finished watching The 7 Last Words at GMA; learning from it, my final message is this one:

Let us convince our farmers to practice mercy and compassion on the Earth, our home!



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