Friday, June 21, 2013

Lessons From A Fish Farm

Hello from the bush!
It's been a crazy, intriguing, interesting month up here. The weather has been weird, the biting insects horrendous and there's never a dull moment on a good day! Honestly though, I wouldn't go back to my old life for all the coffee in Columbia.
Our garden isn't the ravishing green fantasy I wanted it to be, but then again, we did lose nearly everything to frost one night. It's not bad, we have lots of green out in the garden, and this is my first year back in 14 or so. I am still learning as I go, and re-learning many things about growing in the north.
I am being reminded  of the connection between a heavy snow load and a handsome show of lilac blooms, hornet populations and mosquitoes. I've also learned to look for moose when I walk the dog!
My plan has been to grow as much of our own food as I can, and every year to expand on the successes, learn from the mistakes and improve. But always learn.
I am taking an online course in sustainability of food systems, and already it has got me thinking about our role in our own food systems. I have been watching a number of documentaries and one that stands out covers conversations on food given by chefs, writers, activists and those in the commercial food industries. A particular speaker that stood out was a chef, whose name escapes me now of course. He talked about going on the hunt for the perfect farmed fish, and his visit to a fish farm in South America. At this fish farm, he spoke at length with their farm manager who was not at all worried about the number of pink flamingoes eating the fish. The manager told the chef he was proud of their color, because even though the flamingoes were eating his product (the fish), they were bright pink, which was a physical demonstration of their health, which proved the farm's ecosystem was healthy. So he took great pride in the health of the predators! Now, this might all seem a little strange to us, but it was explained this way; if the base of any farm, (soil or water) is not healthy, those that eat from it will also not be healthy. But if we pay attention to the core of our farms, in my case the soil, and make that core as healthy as we can, then we will be making ourselves healthier. I've said it before, but it was very empowering to hear someone else say it too.
Healthy soil, healthy farm.

So my never-ending quest to learn has led me to some interesting places and lessons.
I haven't forgotten you, I suppose I just had to go off an a little sabbatical of sorts. Today, I'd like to leave you with a little something, written by Daphne Miller.

"Q: What is the link between rejuvenating our soil and rejuvenating ourselves?
The link is that a holistic, regenerative approach seems to work best for soil and for our own bodies.

This became clear to me while I was doing an internship with a biodynamic vegetable farmer in Washington State. He told me that when he first tried to bring his depleted soil back to life he sent soil samples to a lab and replaced missing minerals according to the lab reports — this “test and replace” method is standard practice in agriculture.

But after a couple of years, several tons of additives, and many thousands of dollars, he was still not satisfied with the health of his soil or the quality of his produce and he wondered if the soil additives were getting to the plant. He also began to consider the unintended consequences of spreading foreign additives: for example, were they “locking up” existing soil nutrients — ones that were essential for healthy plant growth. He decided to look for an alternative, holistic, and cheaper way to improve his soil and boost the health of his farm.

After reading books written by the pioneers in the organic agriculture, he realized that to really nurture his farm, he needed to nourish the Farm’s vital force: the billions of soil organisms that lie just below the soil’s surface. These creatures amend and aerate the soil and they harvest nutrients from the soil and pass them along in perfectly packaged doses to the plant roots.

To support these earth creatures, the farmer stopped using farm additives and began to imitate nature’s full-cycle way of farming. This included recycling organic matter back into the soil, conserving water, rotating crops and resting the soil, avoiding all pesticides and synthetic fertilizers and grazing animals on the land so that their manure would be the main fertilizer. Several seasons after changing his practices, the farm began to thrive and the soil test results were better than ever.

Hearing this story, I realized that it is not uncommon for doctors (including me) to use “test and replace” strategies to solve our patients’ health problems. When we feel something is off, one of the first steps is to order a lab and then prescribe vitamins, minerals, and medications to correct any number that lies outside the norm. Our tendency is to think of the human body as a test tube and add things into this complicated system with the belief that the pill or potion will find its proper home.

Of course, supplements and drugs sometimes have a role in making us healthier, but their overuse and misuse can create the same unintended reactions as additives in soil. (Excess calcium can “lock up” zinc and iron in humans and excess phosphorus does the same in soil.) Given our close connections to soil, I began to wonder: Could this ecological approach to rejuvenation offer me a new way to rejuvenate my patients?

What I’ve discovered is that eating from an eco-farm and treating your body like an eco-farm may help you rejuvenate and rebalance in a way that testing and supplements cannot.

Researchers are just beginning to uncover all the amazing health connections between our bodies and the farm. For example, they are finding that plants grown in microbially rich soil (as opposed to simply “organic” soil) pack a bigger nutrient punch. They have also found that soil microbes (or DNA from microbes) are silently hitchhiking on our food and transferring health information to the resident microbes in our gut. If the soil is healthy then, in turn, this information can help build our immunity and support our metabolism. Of course, treating our bodies or the soil with lots of antibiotics or chemicals can have the opposite effect, promoting antibiotic resistance, inflammation, and even chronic disease."

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