A new winemaker started a vineyard in Sonoma, California. Andrew Mariani planted new vines and regularly walked his property to check on the plants. He found many rattlesnakes and started killing them. Then he noticed that the vines in his Scribe Vineyard started disappearing because the rodent population suddenly had no natural predators.
The experience convinced Mariani to switch to integrated pest management. This approach to farming looks at the ecosystem as an interconnected unit with no good guys and bad guys. Pesticides are used sparingly with this method, only on certain plants instead of dousing the entire field or orchard.
Dr. Robert Gatenby, of the Moffitt Cancer Hospital, is working on a similar idea for treating cancer. Instead of killing both cancer cells and healthy cells, he is looking for a way to support healthy cells. Miller described his perspective on the disease as “cancer as an ecology where cancer cells have lost their biodiversity.”
Dr. Daphne Miller cited Gatenby’s research on benign cell boosters from 2004 as evidence that integrated pest management could be a good solution for people as well as farms.
She spent a year talking to farmers around the country from strawberry fields in California to a cattle farm in Missouri. She drew these four more lessons from studying the links between the microbes in the soil and the microbes in our bodies.
Lesson 1: Farm as vitamin
At a test farm in Watsonville, CA, she talked with a researcher who found that soil in the organic plots had much more microbial activity than the soil in the conventional plots. Also, strawberries grown organically had higher levels of antioxidants and ascorbic acid than the conventionally grown fruits.
Lesson 2: Farm as immune support
Cody Holmes at the Rockin H cattle ranch near Joplin, Missouri, was working a second job to support his farm. He analyzed his expenses and found that antibiotics and other pharmaceutical products for his cows were the biggest part of his budget. He decided to drop all these medications and go organic. His cows rotated between seven fields.
“He is a richer man now and his calves no longer get the disease they used to get,” Miller said. “The animals’ increased immunity is due to microbes in the soil.”
Miller used research by Dr. Erika Von Mutius, an allergy and asthma specialist at the Munich children’s hospital, to support this idea.
“She studies the farm effect, meaning that kids in Barvaria never get asthma,” Miller said.
Von Mutius developed the Hygiene Hypothesis, the idea that when the immune system is exposed to a variety of bacteria, it becomes stronger and better able to identify real risks.
“The bacteria that live in us, they are getting educated by the diversity of bacteria on the farm,” Miller said. “The DNA swap between the environmental microbiome and human microbiome helps our cells.”
She added that the increasing loss of biodiversity had led to an increase in allergic diseases because “the immune system is losing its teacher.”
Lesson 3: Farm as community medicine
The doctor’s work with Karen Washington of La Familia Verde Farms, in the Bronx, NY, showed her that community gardens are about much more than vegetables. The doc mentioned research from Jill Litt of the University of Colorado that urban farming is linked to more community activism, less alcoholism, and other community benefits. It also seems to help people have a more positive view of their own health, which is a predictor of overall health.
“We should be funding farming at the same rate we are funding bricks and mortar healthcare,” she said.
Lesson 4 – Farm as model for stress management
Miller said that visiting chickens at an egg farm in Arkansas helped her understand the difference between good stress and bad stress in people. Half of the farm is four bunkers that hold 15,000 chickens each. The other half is a pasture where fewer — but happier — chickens lived. The bunker chickens are considered free range organic birds because they are fed a certain type of feed. The other hens are “pastured” animals.
Initially Miller thought the pastured hens had a more stressful life as they were more exposed to the elements, predators, and each other (pastured chickens fight more because their beaks are intact). She spoke with Bruce McEwen, PhD, to understand why the chickens in the pastures were happier. McEwen studies stress in chickens and humans.
McEwen explained the difference between low-grade chronic stress (barn chickens) and episodic stress (pastured chickens).
“The pastured hens have community and they have choice in their day – two things that can really stress proof anyone,” Miller said.
She added that the nutritional quality of eggs – measured by levels of vitamin E, beta carrotene and lutein – were higher in eggs from the pastured hens.
“All those nutrients are good for stress proofing our own brains, so what’s good for the farms, the hens and the soil is good for us,” she said.
Miller closed with the best way to tell the difference between a family farm and factory farm.
“Ask if the farmer lives on the farm,” she said.
[Image from flickr user give away boy]