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By Loreley Gaffoglio
Every time Douglas Tompkins, an ecologist and environmental philanthropist, climbs onto the stage at some prestigious university to share his large-scale agroecological experience in Argentina, audiences plummet in a mixture of ovations, unease and perplexity.
It is because of the revolutionary epic that animates his projects.
His dissertations in Europe and the United States not only bring together the know-how of his innovative agricultural practices of rotation of chemical-free extensive polycultures, in the era of the reign of transgenic soy and pesticides.
As an activist, his countercurrent innovation hides a sobering intention: to generate sustainable agrarian schemes to be imitated, and to introduce, in turn, a new development paradigm based on conservation and not on the depletion of resources. He calls it "the new economy."
Broadly speaking, his model replaces the agro-industrial monoculture with chemicals, which degrade waters and soils, exterminate species, deteriorate the habitat and human health and accentuate climate change, with another economically profitable, but devoid of environmental usury: that of the extensive exploitation of organic polycultures with high diversity, through which agricultural practices act as agents of integral conservation and soil restoration. "It is not a utopia - says Tompkins -: the organic advance in the world is unstoppable. But it is an ambitious long-term goal that, sooner or later, between trial and error, will show successful results."
It is a matter of time, he says to the nation, and although at 70 the biological clock is not on his side, he concentrates much of his efforts on it.
Days spent in Baltimore, United States, the former owner of The North Face brand, who also donated the first maritime national park to the country, excited large organic producers with his trial: he presented the first chemical-free extensive agriculture experiment station in Argentina, which occupies its Entre Rios fields of Laguna Blanca (3,150 hectares) and Malambo (1,050 hectares).
There, on the banks of the Paraná and in silence since 2008, together with a qualified team of agronomists, he advances in a profitable example of "organic direct seeding" with zero tillage, free of pesticides.
It does so surrounded by a green sea of transgenic soy from neighboring fields. If successful with organic direct seeding, his method would inscribe an epic in world agriculture. Something like discovering the natural penicillin in the soil, since nobody until now has managed to master this management. And hence his wakefulness: being able to export this agrarian model to the rest of the country and the region. To return to that past table in which the food was one hundred percent natural and the soils rich in nutrients, organic matter, nitrogen and potassium. The curious thing about this essay is the local geography where it is cooked: just 700 kilometers from the Capital, in the Entre Ríos hollows.
"Laguna Blanca (LB) must succeed, since its failure would reinforce the unhealthy agroindustrial model, which is the axis of the planet's biodiversity crisis," Tompkins tells the nation. "The neoliberal model, responsible for climate change, favors bad agricultural practices.
Efficiency imposes lower costs without accounting for environmental costs, which exist and are irreversible. But nobody transfers them to the final product. I am talking about ecological accounting, where efficiency ends up being very expensive. "His model room also has another singularity: its enigmatic beauty.
The field is a telluric oil painting, painted by tractors with the color palette of polycultures.
From flax to corn; from wheat to barley; pastures, green manure, native forests (outside production) and even its two lagoons (Laguna Blanca and Laguna Negra) build an unusual agrarian painting. Seen from above, it looks like an optical illusion. However, it is very real. The sinuous forms of the plots - replacing the typical agrarian quadrilaterals - are not aesthetic whims or compositional boasts. Its unusual grammar is due to the terraces that had to be built to prevent erosion of the soils of the Bados, with pronounced slopes, in order to facilitate runoff from the fields. Gutters, as separators, planted with strips of green manure, favor drainage due to the copious rains in the area.
If for the world the Tompkins experiment - with a total investment of US $ 20 million, including the costs associated with the experimentation - exudes environmental health, beauty and exoticism, seeing it in situ and bustling the terraces with its polyphonic color is to understand that creed which points to "conservation as a consequence of production". And so, where some look to efficiency and beauty, others see inspiration. Aware and subjugated by this Argentine experiment, Prince Charles of Wales met with Tompkins to learn about his agroecological methods and apply them in his own fields, The Duchy Farm, the monarchical heritage spread between Cornwall and Devon, in England.
The high diversity in winter and summer crops is the organizing principle of the field, which allocates only a third of its surface (900 hectares) to certified organic production.
While large-scale harvests of flax, wheat, barley, oats, corn, moha, sorghum and sunflower, among others, have been profitable, another 13 experimental crops, reserved for an area of 60 hectares, hope to join the scheme of production. In addition to direct seeding of organic soybeans, coriander, rapeseed, mustard, chamomile, beans, peas, chickpeas and old wheat are tested, among others. The ranch, which has 300 hives and two mobile chicken coops, reserves another 200 hectares for 10 varieties of fruit trees and large areas of pasture for the rearing of 1000 heads of sheep and the development of excellent genetics: Dorper sheep, from great potential as a meat breed.
Only in the case of fruit trees (almond, hazelnut, plum, apricot, walnut, olive, pecan, chestnut, fig and pomegranate), which involve a high risk, since there are no experiences in the area for their organic cultivation, it was decided for a minimum use of chemicals for two years (to treat certain pests and diseases), and then, with more experience, begin organic certification with the total eradication of chemicals in the system, "explained Eduardo Chorén, president of LB. "The ultimate goal - he added - is the commercialization of organic boutique products under the LB brand."
An undertaking similar to the one Tompkins carries out in Chile with organic berries, honey and wool that it exports to Europe, and whose model it intends to spread to promote sustainable regional economies. Although he is linked to large estates and the creation of national parks, Tompkins was linked to agriculture since he was a child: in Millbrook, NY, he was part of a rural society similar to the Regional Consortium for Agricultural Experimentation (CREA), where he raised sheep and chickens, and he learned about agrarian and environmental issues.
This step in its environmental work aims to promote a change of direction: "Everything we do as pioneers is to promote sustainability and combativeness between production and conservation. I was willing to invest in something that was not profitable at first, so that later it was with good agricultural practices, "he says. Rogelio Mac Farlane is perhaps the person who knows the most about large-scale organic crops in Argentina.
He was a pioneer in 1989 in the Cordovan ranch Dos Hermanas (3,800 hectares), owned by the English Rachel and Pamela Schiele. The Schieles, like Tompkins, had read that "environmental bible" that was Rachel Carson's Silent Spring: the scientific research that in 1962 denounced the deleterious effects of synthetic pesticides, inspired the environmental movement and prompted the creation of the Agency for Environmental Protection in the United States.
The Schieles rose to the fore as the forerunners of organic export crops in the country, and today Mac Farlane is LB's chief advisor. "We have had many satisfactions to control pests with organic matter -explains Mac Farlane- and also countless failures: the soybean bug we have not been able to dominate it yet."
But we insist. "The specialist is seconded by the young agronomist Luis María Benech, LB production manager, who also reviews failures: from entire harvests of white sorghum decimated by pigeons to foxes and wildcats that by protecting their habitat reduced by 20 on 2 mobile chicken coops.
In addition, other pests appear daily that demand trial and error trials and tolerance for frustration. But no blight or misstep equals the near-lethal impact that national farm policies have had on experiment stations like LB, they say here. Months ago, even Tompkins himself had thrown in the towel, determined to abandon his project. "My decision to close the fields (by Laguna Blanca and its twin, Malambo) is deeply influenced by the Argentine economic instability and by a savage political climate," he wrote in a letter reserved for his employees, a copy of which was obtained by LA NACION.
"It is the second great crisis that the country has suffered in the last 13 years and nobody knows where it will end. The 30% annual inflation has undermined our finances, requiring extra capital to invest and an increasing time to recover the investment. The costs of the fields have been extremely difficult to manage with the hikes decreed by the government, thus trying to cover the errors of their own management. This was the straw that broke the camel's back, "he wrote.
Willing to close last April, he had to lay off half of his employees (previously there were 50) until, after much thought, a rescue plan was agreed: to reduce the risk operation of the experimental crops, which were previously carried out at large scale, and focus on profitable ones.
And get rid of the twin Malambo field, to inject capital into the future operations of LB. Today, LB has a profitable production of high quality and organic certification that exports and sells in the domestic market. While developing other excellent sheep genetics with the Dorper breed (very efficient in converting forage into meat) and waiting for the maturation of its fruit trees, it conserves wildlife (corzuelas, guazunchos, foxes and varieties of birds) in the same field. It supplies itself with its own green manures and the cultivation of worms in roofed spaces, which will then fertilize its soils.
And thanks to the distribution of apiaries throughout the room, it uses these pollinators for its crops and for this natural ecosystem to prosper. Much of the future development of pesticide-free agriculture in the country depends on this organic example of large-scale environmental sustainability, experts note. It can be successful or it can fail. Meanwhile, his know-how has the gates open to all those who want to emulate the model of the man who, thus, feels he is paying his "rent to live and enjoy this planet."
The fields of Laguna Blanca are located on the banks of the Paraná, where crops are planted forming a melting pot of colors. According to its ideologue, the current agro-industrial model is "unhealthy" and is responsible for the biodiversity crisis on the planet.
The purpose of the venture is to achieve a volume of crops so large as to be able to start exporting and supplying the domestic market.
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