Thinking about the farm as a whole rather than an assortment of pieces

The view from Northern Blossom Farms - Part 4

Researchers at the Ian N. Morrison research farm at Carman are contributing to research on whole-systems agriculture.  Photo: Gary Martens

In Letter 4 from Northern Blossom Farms, Gary Martens discusses 
how hard it is to move away from component farming

Ian N Morrison researc_opt.jpegGary Martens_Supplied__opt.jpeg

In previous letters I have discussed the components of a farm; crops, livestock and trees. It is time to discuss the whole farm as a unit. Thinking about something as a whole does not come naturally and is difficult for me to do.

I like to make lists of things that need to be done and there is great satisfaction in checking off an item on the list. Focusing on a list is a great way to be productive and even get the things done that we hate doing.

There was a time when we did not know why we did things a certain way; it was the way our parents and grandparents had done them and they were successful so it should work for us as well.

Then scientific discoveries gave us details on each component of our farms and we began to understand how things worked. For example, Grandpa says he always got a better oat crop after peas than after barley and it was so much easier and pleasant to plow up the pea stubble compared to cereal stubble.

Now we know from the Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation’s database at that oats after peas typically yields 105 per cent of normal and oats after barley only yields 91 per cent of normal. We know that much of this enhanced yield comes from the nitrogen left by the peas, but it is more than that. Some of the increased yield can be explained by a break in the disease cycle but there is still a small component of the yield increase that remains a mystery.


When we do our annual budgeting to figure out which crop to grow, that is, which crop is the most profitable, peas have not been showing up in the top five most profitable crops recently. One of the reasons is that we are thinking in components again, and not as a whole.

To be fair to the pea crop in the rotation, we should be crediting the extra yield of oats to the peas or better yet we would get a better picture of profitability if we “packaged” a whole crop rotation as one unit and compared it to an alternative whole crop rotation.

Going even further with the concept of the whole, we would get a better analysis of the profitability of our farm if we “packaged” the crops and the livestock as one whole unit and compared its profitability to an alternative whole.

I came across the concept of emergent properties recently. An emergent property is the outcome of the self-organization of complex systems. It is often a surprising feature that could not have been predicted by adding the features of each component. It is a property of the whole system and cannot be reduced to any component parts.

An example of an emergent property is our own consciousness, which is a surprising outcome that arises out of the simple physical elements and cells of our brain. Examples of emergent properties of complex systems in agriculture are hard to identify but let me give you two examples of very simple systems.

Expectations versus reality

You would expect that when you plant peas and canola together they would either yield the same as when you planted them separately or that they would yield less because they are competing with each other on the same piece of land for the same nutrients.

The surprising result though, of planting peas and canola together is that you get 15 to 20 per cent more yield than when you grow them separately.

Another simple example is in a green manure situation. When you plow in a green manure crop of hairy vetch and barley you get approximately 80 pounds of nitrogen per acre for the following crop.

If you graze the green manure you would expect that since the animals take some nutrients off the field that the yield of the following crop would be less. It turns out that there are 50 per cent more nutrients available for the following crop, 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre instead of the original 80 pounds with the same biomass of crop having been grazed.

Martin Entz has found that the red root pigweed disappears in his organic annual/perennial crop rotations in Glenlea. Dairy farmers typically find that the wild oats disappear on their farms because of the frequency of crops that are cut for hay and silage not allowing the wild oats to set seed.

I wonder what surprising features would arise from a diversified farm that had a minimum of three components; crops, both annual and perennial, livestock and trees.

I would like to predict the features but a characteristic of emergent properties is that they are generally unpredictable. I would predict though, that an emergent property of such a diverse system would be that more knowledge-based work would be required and more profits would be generated.



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