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Closed loop agricultural systems  RSS feed

 
                                
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It seems popular to advertise the idea of a closed loop agricultural system. Many books teach the idea that you can either start with good soil, or build it up and once their, keep the soil fertile forever without inputs. This idea is certainly very appealing, but that doesn't make it any more true. Of course, this isn't possible if you are exporting products off the land. You may be maintaining humus, but you are slowly depleting minerals as they are sent away in your products. It doesn't take a lot of knowledge to understand that.

Where I become unsure and don't know enough about soil science and ecology is whether or not it is possible if you recycle 100% of nutrients (including humanure) on site in the optimal way. If a forest were cleared in slash and burn style and the ground was planted in annual vegetables, wouldn't leaching from rain and irrigation severely increase, and even with 100% nutrient recycling, the land would eventually be warn out? Now, what if that same land is cleared in the same way, but instead planted in a forest garden. Leaching should be less than the annual veggie garden, but wouldn't it still be far greater than the native forest, and therefore the land would eventually be worn out from leaching without inputs? I can't imagine how a human made forest garden could ever trap as many nutrients from leaching as a native forest. Even the most complex forest garden is nothing like a real forest.

From the little I have read of ancient sustainable agriculture systems, it seems they are generally located in an area that receives inputs from nature or inputs that can be easily gathered. Flooding, hand gathering river silt and other sources, etc. If it's true than an on site close loop system is impossible, then we need to imagine systems with sustainable inputs. The nutrients leaching out of the soil are just a part of a larger loop, so you need to figure out how to reconnect the other end of that back to your land. One example I can think of is a site within proximity to the sea. Nutrients leach to the sea and can be recovered in the form of seaweed, fish, shellfish, etc.

I guess I have a lot more reading to do about soil science and ecology Any recommendations? I've just had this burning question for a while, and had to get it off my mind. Thanks
 
Brenda Groth
pollinator
Posts: 4437
Location: North Central Michigan
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i think you are probably on to something there..

we have brought things into our forest systems to try to add fertility to areas that are planted, with the same type  of thinking that you are mentioning here.

i have brought branches and prunings onto the land and when we dug (and are still digging deeper) our pond area, we used the silty soil at the bottom of the pond to cover branches and woody materials on the forest floor and paths..covering things that will rot with fertile silty soil from the pond bottoms..and clay mix.

it all breaks down and mixes in with the autumn leavevs and branches and twigs and manures that get deposited in our forest..so yeah..i think if you have a way to add decent materials to your forest areas you should go ahead and do it.

esp if you are also removing some things from your food forest gardens..etc.

we also remove some of the junk trees and brush, burying a lot of it..and we replace with more productive trees and shrubs and plants..that provide food to the wildlife as well as us.

this also brings in more wildlife which then deposits more "gifts" into the forest.

a forest that is short on wildlife will never be as fertile as one that is overrun with a myriad of wildlife..

now that we have opened up our forest some more, burying some of the brush and saplings under some pond scum and levelling it off..we have had an amazing increase of wildlife going through this area..including a lot of bear, whitetail deer, coyote, fox, and smaller mammels of course, opossum, skunks, mink, shrews, rabbits, etc...and they all leave their gifts
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
Posts: 9741
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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You can actually gain fertility over time if you aren't exporting products, because plants produce fertility from water and sunlight, and deep-rooted plants bring minerals from deep beneath the soil.  There's no leaching of nutrients if the soil has optimum humus and is well-mulched, in other words emulating a natural forest. 

"Permaculture: a designer's manual" by Bill Mollison has a good chapter on soils.
 
                                
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Ah, I forgot about animals coming onto the land and leaving their droppings. However, I have to wonder if this really results in a net nutrient input to the land. If they are coming there, that likely means it is because there is something for them to eat. A good amount of the nutrients they are leaving could be derived from feeding on your land, meaning, that it wouldn't really be much of a nutrient source. I'm not really sure, just something to think about.
 
tel jetson
steward
Posts: 3381
Location: woodland, washington
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seems you're right that a truly closed loop would be impossible, but it's also unnecessary.  there will be nutrients, energy, and water flowing in and out of just about anywhere.  as long as those flows aren't grossly out of balance, there shouldn't be a problem.

minerals are going to leave, it's really not reasonable to try to stop that completely.  slowing that process down makes a lot of sense.  bringing minerals back isn't evil, though, so long as it's done in a responsible and thoughtful way.  and there are thoughtful and responsible ways to do that.  remember that more minerals are also becoming available through weathering or breaking down through other means of both rock and the mineral component of soils.  somebody would really have to work hard to exhaust that sink.

Ludi wrote:
You can actually gain fertility over time if you aren't exporting products, because plants produce fertility from water and sunlight, and deep-rooted plants bring minerals from deep beneath the soil.  There's no leaching of nutrients if the soil has optimum humus and is well-mulched, in other words emulating a natural forest.


I think there's always going to be some leaching (or oxidation in some settings) of nutrients no matter how excellent the dirt is, even (or especially) in a natural forest.  reducing that leaching is useful.  reducing it to zero is next to impossible.  but your point is important, Ludi: the organic matter in dirt is largely made of water and CO[sub]2[/sub], which means it can be replaced as long as other elements are available to facilitate the process.

we should also remember that soils in some "natural forests" leach nutrients at extremely high rates.  tropical rain-forests are one well-known example, though they are almost synonymous with the word "biodiversity" for a lot of folks.  if I'm not mistaken, the quick leaching quality of those soils is what led to the development of terra preta by folks trying to garden there.  maybe an improvement over the natural forest soil; maybe not.

in the much longer term, "sustainable" doesn't really mean "sustainable forever".  tectonics and volcanism are pretty substantial game changers that eventually effect pretty much all the land on Earth.  unless the sun goes nova first.  probably not something many folks should be factoring into designs or land management, but maybe worth considering in thought experiments like this one.
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
Posts: 9741
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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You're right - I shouldn't have used the phrase "no leaching."  Maybe "no significant leaching" might have been better...
 
Joel Hollingsworth
pollinator
Posts: 2103
Location: Oakland, CA
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With only 12" of precipitation a year, a person in my part of the world has to be careful not to import too much Na. There's an upside to leaching, and in some ways arid climates don't get enough of it.

As is often mentioned, seafood can be a good way to import minerals. Oftentimes, as in the case of oysters grown near the mouth of a river, it is a direct way to capture and return nutrients that have leached away from farm fields.
 
Paul Cereghino
gardener
Posts: 856
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
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I think climate has a lot to do with your question.  Decomposition rate in the tropics can be so great that you need full primary production to maintain carbon levels.

In terms of leaching, I don't think you can talk in generalities but need to focus on specific nutrients (Ca, K, Mg, micros) and how much of them you have in your mineral soils.  THen you can talk about pools and availability.

Then consider the historic input of ocean nutrients from anadromous fish migration in the PNW.

Consider just picking up a good soil textbook.. 'Nature and Property of Soils' is a good tome with lots of food for thought, and a much more quantitative basis for the kind of question you are asking... Also, 'Agroforesty for soil management' is good for tropics.
 
                                
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Ludi wrote:
You can actually gain fertility over time if you aren't exporting products, because plants produce fertility from water and sunlight..., and deep-rooted plants bring minerals from deep beneath the soil.


Photosynthesis only produces sugar and oxygen from water and carbon dioxide. See http://www.emc.maricopa.edu/faculty/farabee/biobk/biobookps.html

Ludi wrote:
... and deep-rooted plants bring minerals from deep beneath the soil.


While this is true, if the native soil on the site is lacking and not very suitable for agriculture, than the subsoil and rocks are not going to have the correct amount of minerals for productive agriculture, since they are the basis of the native soil.
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
Posts: 9741
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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barefooter wrote:
Photosynthesis only produces sugar and oxygen from water and carbon dioxide.



From your link:

"Plants may be viewed as carbon sinks, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oceans by fixing it into organic chemicals. Plants also produce some carbon dioxide by their respiration, but this is quickly used by photosynthesis. Plants also convert energy from light into chemical energy of C-C covalent bonds. Animals are carbon dioxide producers that derive their energy from carbohydrates and other chemicals produced by plants by the process of photosynthesis."

Which decompose to become humus.
 
Matt Ferrall
Posts: 555
Location: Western WA,usda zone 6/7,80inches of rain,250feet elevation
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This subject is very dear to me and at the core of my research.Im currently in year 10 of a 12yr phase collecting all known edible plants that theoretically will grow well where Im at.Next will come 12yrs of removing the faliors and massifying the successes with the ultimate goal of creating production models that require no/little outside inputs.My limitations are great because my soil,while easily worked,is low in organic matter and leaches it easily.While some common agricultural crops do good,most annuals are very nutrient demanding and require cultivation.So the first step was to give up on my ideas of what I would be eating and accepting what actually grows well.I see no reason that a system that mimmicks and meets the ecological functions of the native forest would not be able to be productive as well.
 
Matt Ferrall
Posts: 555
Location: Western WA,usda zone 6/7,80inches of rain,250feet elevation
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Of course my most productive areas are some times flooded and have a high water table.These areas are better suited to heavy production and the removal of biomass.We have distinct advantages now of having a wide variety of plants to choose from so nitrogen fixing non edible plants can be replaced with nitrogen producing food plants ect...Wild animals move nutrients around the landscape and to truly capture those,these animals are harvested and humanured around the landscape.I wouldnt recomend a totally closed loop as different soil types have different minerals and the current property distribution model doesnt facilitate diversity in prodution areas.I would recomend growing what does good where you are at and trading with those on different soil types to achieve a more balanced diet and not getting caught up in an ideological need to grow 100% of ones own food.
 
                                
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Mt. Goat, it sounds like you are working on some very interesting things and going about it from a very good angle. Can you give any more information on your research? I think it makes sense to fully analyze the soil, climate, and other characteristics of the land and figure out what grows best with little or no input. It sounds like this is what you're doing. This would be solving the problem in the correct order by evaluating the problem fully first and then finding tools and techniques that can solve it. As opposed to taking a selection of techniques and figuring out how they can be applied to the land. I've been thinking about the problem solving process and drawing parallels to my current profession as a software engineer. Maybe I'll start a separate discussion about that.
 
Matt Ferrall
Posts: 555
Location: Western WA,usda zone 6/7,80inches of rain,250feet elevation
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Thanx for the props!It is taking alot of time and $ to figure this out and if we want to be sustainable most landscapes should be in a state of such research to determine localized solutions to localized limitations. Of course it isnt very normal to limit plants.Neglect as teacher.If it can survive my care it is meant to be!The most reliable have flavors most normal people would avoid.My research is limited by lack of proccessing techniques but over all its been fun.I figure if I can introduce 10 species that really thrive to my locale it will be a successful life!People either compromise with their place or spend all their time chasing after their ideas of what they want.
 
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