Back Forty: Reimagining the natural world

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. You can subscribe here or below.

In Sweet in Tooth and Claw: Stories of Cooperation and Generosity in the Natural World, FERN contributor Kristin Ohlson pushes against the idea of nature as a merciless, zero-sum space, where competition reigns and one individual or group flourishes only at the expense of others. Ohlson argues that nature is instead a space knitted together by mutually beneficial relationships, many of which humans unwittingly disrupt as we build our homes, expand our cities, divert water, and grow food.

When we change our guiding metaphor and view nature as predominantly cooperative—and ourselves as cooperators instead of disruptors—Ohlson says we can repair the damage we’ve done to the natural world and allow everything and everyone to thrive.

Through interviews with biologists, ecologists, ranchers, farmers, urban visionaries and others, Ohlson offers example after example of how nature is mostly “sweet,” not ravenous. In the following excerpt, she visits entomologist Jonathan Lundgren, a former USDA scientist who set up his own model farm and research center in South Dakota. There, Lundgren and his colleagues work with farmers to study the mutually beneficial relationships at work in regenerative agriculture, comparing the effectiveness and profitability of this system with conventional agriculture.

The entomologist Jonathan Lundgren and I stand at the edge of Roger’s cornfield on a cool August morning in the Prairie Pothole Region of South Dakota. We’re supposed to meet a group of his students, but there is no sign of them. Perhaps they are on their way, I think, then Lundgren cups his hands around his mouth and sings out, “Marco!”

No one answers, but he nonetheless springs off the graveled edge of the road and strides into the field next to the corn, carpeted with a tangle of low-growing greens and golds, which I try not to crush as I follow. “Marco!” he calls again, and then again. Finally a voice responds from deep within the muffled confines of the cornfield itself. “Polo!”

Not that it’s all corn in this cornfield. Roger is one of the innovative farmers who has invited Lundgren and his team onto his land to conduct research into the benefits of regenerative agriculture, generally defined as agriculture that builds soil health and overall biodiversity and yields a nutritious farm product profitably. Where most of America’s nearly ninety-two million acres of corn feature armies of a single genus arrayed in military precision with identical thirty-inch corridors of bare, baked dirt between them—these single-genus plantings are called monocultures— it’s hard to see Roger’s corridors. Each hosts its own jungle of plants—buckwheat, field peas, hairy vetch, lentils, flax, millet, sorghum, sorghum–sudangrass, and cereal rye—and as we approach the field, some poke through the outer edge of corn, like rowdy vegetative inmates straining against cornstalk bars. High above the corn tassels, sunflowers loll their yellow heads.

It takes several more iterations of Marco Polo before we narrow in on the location of the students. Even after Lundgren and I push our way in, there is so much vegetation that we can’t see them until we’re only a few feet away. There, they sit between rows of corn, long clear tubes dangling from their mouths. They’ve spent the morning sucking up insects from soil transects and collecting them in a container so they can tally up the number of beneficial bugs all those noncorn plants have drawn to the field. While conventional American agriculture—and even many large-scale organic enterprises—follow the monoculture model, Roger is trying out the robust biodiversity of a polyculture in this field.

Jonathan Lundgren is an independent scientist whose partners and funders are farmers, but until a few years ago, he was an entomologist with the US Department of Agriculture. He was hired right out of grad school in 2004, at a time when farmers were reeling from the impact of a soybean aphid that found their fields an inviting target—as nearly all of them were planting huge soybean monocultures, it’s almost as if they were inviting the pest to dine without the distraction of any plants not on their preferred menu. Lundgren began pursuing two related fields of study: whether the aphid could be defeated by diversified systems—meaning, fields in which farmers encouraged biodiversity over monocultures by adding other plants and even animals to their fields—and whether the pesticides most farmers used to control the aphids and other pests posed unnecessary risks. 

Some farmers had tried bringing in biocontrols—packages of pest-eating insects—just as backyard gardeners send away for praying mantises or ladybugs. But the effort was largely a failure, Lundgren says, because there was nothing in these monocultures for the predator insects to eat other than the pest itself. The beneficial predators would happily eat pollen and nectar until the pest arrived, but farmers had been convinced—by their ag-school professors and professional agronomists as well as a farming culture that values neat-as-a-pin landscapes—to keep the corridors bare of any plant that might steal water or nutrients from the crop. And, of course, the purveyors of herbicides and the seeds for plants bioengineered to resist herbicides—usually the same powerful monopolies—drum a constant message of the necessity of chemical warfare against weeds. It’s key to their business plan. 

Lundgren’s research showed that the chemicals farmers were using to combat the aphid—called neonicotinoids—didn’t increase their yields, as the big companies selling neonicotinoid- coated seeds loudly claimed. Rather, the neonicotinoids hurt the farmers. “They were killing the natural enemies of the soybean aphid,” he tells me back at the Blue Dasher Farm, which he started as a living model farm with his wife and children to show that one can make a good living from regenerative agriculture— he is now a small farmer as well as a scientist. “And the neonicotinoids don’t even kill the soybean aphids, because they don’t arrive in the field until the chemical is largely out of the plant.” 

After he’d been working on soybean pests for a few years, Lundgren got word from his bosses at the USDA that they wanted him to shift his research focus to corn. “I swore I’d never work in corn!” he groans. “Corn is a miserable crop to work in. You get soaking wet in the morning, and when it’s tasseling you get covered in pollen, and you itch like crazy.” But he knew it was an important field of study, as corn agriculture has such a huge footprint in the United States. This is America’s largest crop, covering an area the size of sixty-nine million football fields, and the way farmers grow it has an oversized impact on our landscapes, air, water, and health.

Lundgren quickly applied himself to researching the corn rootworm, which American farmers spend millions of dollars on chemical pesticides to combat. He soon ran into a brick wall of dogma. His interest, as always, was not in looking for the right chemical to kill it, but rather trying to figure out how to help its natural predators eliminate it. Everyone told him the corn rootworm had no predators—even entomologists who had spent their entire lives studying this pest. Regardless, Lundgren was convinced that there had to be natural predators and that the other scientists were somehow missing them. He and his lab began trapping insects inside little cups stationed in cornfield soil, then smashing the insects open back in the lab and using DNA analysis to examine their stomach contents. The result, Lundgren says, was that “we found rootworm DNA everywhere we looked. Everything was eating it! Ants, beetles, spiders, dozens and dozens of species.” 

He found that farmers’ problems with rootworm depended on the number and diversity of these predators. The rootworm has several defenses, including a sticky toxin that gums up the mouths of chewing predators like beetles. They avoid the rootworm unless there’s nothing left to eat. For this reason, Lundgren calls rootworms the orange creams of the insect prey world. “You get a box of chocolates, and the orange creams are always the last damn chocolates in that box,” he says. “You usually bite one and put it back. Same thing with the rootworm: only when the predators are abundant and all the other prey are eaten, that’s when they’ll finally eat the rootworm—the orange cream.” 

Excerpted from Sweet in Tooth and Claw: Stories of Generosity and Cooperation in the Natural World ©2022 by Kristin Ohlson. Reprinted with permission by Patagonia.