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What sustainable farming can teach us about well being

  • Martha Proctor
  • Believing that farmers could teach her something new about practicing medicine, Dr. Daphne Miller, a family physician who practices in San Francisco, took time away from her UCSF medical practice to visit seven innovative farms on the cutting edge of sustainable agriculture.

    Miller's yearlong investigative journey culminated with her latest book, "Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing" (304 pages, William Morrow, $27.99), which explores sustainable agriculture and its influence on well-being.

    She began with a visit to Jubilee Biodynamic Farms near Seattle. Although the word biodynamic implied "healthy and wholesome," Miller did not fully comprehend what the term meant until she completed her two-week internship there.

    She learned about biodynamic farming as a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition. A theory proposed by Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, it's based on the idea that to preserve soil fertility and to enhance nutrition for animal vitality, farms need to be diversified, balanced, self-supporting ecosystems. In other words, farms need to be sustainable.

    In day-to-day practice, the goal is to create a farm system that is minimally dependent on imported materials and meets its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself. The biodiversity of the farm, organized so the waste of one part of the farm becomes the energy for another, results in the farm's increased capacity for self-renewal and makes the farm sustainable.

    Biodynamic farmers focus on food quality through soil health. Many believe that the health of the soil is an accurate index to the health of the farm. Instead of using synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides and other chemical additives, biodynamic farmers use grazing animals and their manure, compost, cover crops, minerals, herbs and rotation schedules to enrich the land so that fertility is returned to the soil. This method preserves soil health, as well as the health of animals and people on the land.

    Miller's book cites research that suggests food grown on biodynamic farms has higher nutrient quality than food grown on conventional or organic farms. Miller's learning experience at Jubilee has translated into revised and successful treatment programs for her patients.

    Miller's investigative journey also took her to the Rockin' H Ranch in Missouri. There, a holistic farmer, inspired by the principles of migration practiced by bison before the land was claimed for agriculture, rotates his cattle through a series of small paddocks every four months. This encourages cattle to forage intensively on a wide range of greens in each paddock — the animals' digested deposits further enrich the soil and regenerate vegetation.

    At Heartland Egg, the first commercial, low-density, pasture-based egg facility in Arkansas, Miller viewed the critical difference in stress levels experienced by hens raised on their egg farms as compared with those raised in egg factories. In overcrowded factory farms, confined chickens suffered from unmanageable, chronic stress, and hormonal and other imbalances that triggered health problems and vulnerability to infection. The goal in these farms is to produce the largest number of eggs for the most profit. Unfortunately, the result is a less-nutritious, less-flavorful egg with a weakened shell.

    Miller's final stop was Scribe Winery in Sonoma, known for sustainable vineyard and wine that reflects this vitality. Vintner Jeff Wheeler concentrates on creating an environment welcoming to beneficial insects but inhospitable to pests. Wheeler uses intercropping to attract beneficials — the practice of growing two or more crops in proximity for mutual benefit. Examples of intercropping strategies include planting a deep-rooted crop with a shallow-rooted crop, or planting a tall crop with a shorter crop that requires partial shade. Intercropping can be done to suppress weeds or provide nutrients to other plants.

    Wheeler also uses integrated pest management to control pests. Eco-friendly methods such as pheromone traps and the targeted use of organic pesticides (rather than synthetic chemicals that kills beneficials) combine to allow the winery to achieve its goal. Likewise, Miller has adopted the concept of low-impact intervention in her medical practice — translating IPM into integrated patient management in her practice.

    Many green thumbs in Marin County will take note of the observational studies cited in Miller's book that indicate that the activity of gardening is linked to improved health. Gardening involves activities that require equilibrium, strength and flexibility, and studies indicate that gardeners older than 50 are less likely to fall, become depressed or develop dementia than those who don't garden.

    The takeaway message in Miller's investigative journey is sustainable farms and healthy human bodies have a lot in common. Both are complex bio-systems that function best when provided with nutritious food, proper rest, exercise, adequate sleep and connection with other living beings. It's time to take notice and do what we can to encourage the growth and availability of nourishing food from innovative and health-promoting farms.