Photo Copyright: EU-2020

When I decided to transition the farm to organic production, one of the main obstacles that I faced was intimidation from other farmers. Growing organic rice came with a long list of things that I wouldn’t be able to do: use chemicals to control weeds, disease, and pests; provide enough fertilizer; manage all of the paperwork; find the appropriate seeds. My neighbor, Fabio – who tends also to think that World War III is right around the corner – was also concerned about the mosquitoes. 

“And what about the mosquitoes?” he asked me anxiously one afternoon. “If you don’t find a way to control them, they’ll come back.”

In this case, “back” referred to a time when mosquitoes were vectors for malaria, which wasn’t eradicated in Maremma until the mid-twentieth century. Because of this history, the creation of rice fields here requires an authorization from the local health department. Over the decades, efforts to control the mosquito population have led to requirements, in the 80s, to spray insecticide in the fields and, in more recent times, to the use a certain species of fish in rice fields. (While a neat solution, the fish also started overpopulating the waterways and had to stop being used.) There are no current requirements for managing mosquitoes in rice fields, but the local health department continues to monitor all of the rice fields for levels of larvae. 

To Fabio, my decision to go organic meant inviting the mosquito population to grow unchecked. His line of thinking – the conventional line – finds it important to use chemicals not only for growing rice, but also for managing the threats to the human environment of doing so. The result is acres and acres of rice – and not much else.

If you’ve ever been out on a long-time organic farm during production season, you’ll usually hear a type of hum in the background. It’s the sound of insects, amphibians, birds, and different types of plants, all interacting in complex and, often, unknown ways. It’s also the sound of activity, of abundance, of life. 

When I started the transition to organic production, I had that system-full-of-life goal in mind but I didn’t know what would happen as I took the first steps. Equipped with a lot of general theory on organic production, and a few important tips on organic rice production, I started to apply theory to my fields. I didn’t really know what would happen when I stopped using chemicals.

It was in my second year of transition when I really started to notice differences. The weeds started to spread out across fields. The soil, with just a couple of years of cover crops and rotation, started to transition from hard clay blocks to more friable chunks. One morning, in my regular round of the fields, I noticed strange horizontal protrusions from the tip of young rice plants. From a distance, it looked as if the rice plants had become mini flags. I took a closer look and learned that the horizontal protrusions were dragonflies – millions of them – each one perched atop a rice plant. 

Well, it turns out that dragonflies prey on – you guessed it – mosquito larvae. For every “problem,” a healthy system has a “solution.” 

In late January, I spoke at a conference hosted by the European Economic & Social Committee in Brussels on how to mainstream biodiversity. On a panel with speakers from the European Parliament, European Commission, and conservation policy shops, I was asked to represent the farmer perspective – to take people out of the office and into the fields, where ideas face reality. 

Eclipsed by the various other global, environmental, and social crises we are facing, the biodiversity crisis has been forced into the backseat. There is no shortage of reports that continue to be published reminding us of just how dire the situation is but we’ve got enough other top-priority crises that need our full attention. 

Farming systems like the one I am building – where you couple production with environmental goals that benefit biodiversity – are an important piece to addressing rapid species loss. From an almost-sterile monoculture, I’m developing a rice ecosystem with many different types of plants (a.k.a., weeds!), animals, and microorganisms. But the nuts and bolts of the barriers to scaling up those models are often overlooked, and the at-times maddeningly slow pace of change in agricultural systems can make some policymakers and environmentalists blame farmers for not doing more. 

What did I need to transition to a more biodiverse farming system?

The first thing I needed was a market willing to pay a higher price for the extra value I provide. I am not just producing food; I am working on improving an ecosystem. At the moment, that means that my yields are lower than conventional farming methods. As I develop the system, the goal is to find that “hum” that serves as an indicator of the system doing some of work itself. With experience, I will also improve my practices and find efficiencies to lower my production costs and increase my yields – which is still the main factor that determines how much I get paid. 

The second thing was a source of reliable technical information and fellow farmers who were in the same boat. I developed relationships with a few farmers whom I’ve met through the years – and who unfortunately live far from here – but who are very generous with their time and always answer my phone call when I am trying to solve a problem in the field. 

The third thing was capital. Transition to organic production means that you are changing not only your markets but the way you farm, the infrastructure you need, and your supply chain. There are significant costs to every one of those changes, and yet at the end of each month I still need to pay my employees and my suppliers. The farm is multifunctional and runs tourism activities, which provided cash in some tough moments, and I’ve also developed a labeled product line to help keep the cash flowing. 

And of course, underpinning the entire reorganization and restructuring of the farm business was my deep commitment to farming in a more sustainable way. Farming organically is not for the faint of heart or the non-believers. When I started out, I was intimated by other farmers and I have had many things go awry during the transition. The will to just keep on showing up and keep on trying, improving, and growing is what over time, does turn a theory into reality. 

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