9 farms that will broaden your definition of farming
By Josh Lew, Mother Nature Network, 26 April 2017.
By Josh Lew, Mother Nature Network, 26 April 2017.
Agriculture is arguably the most important industry in human history. Entire societies have been established around the ability to grow (and export) a single crop. With the Earth’s rapidly increasing population, growing crops and raising livestock for food is as important as ever.
We usually associate farming with fields of grains or pastures filled with grazing livestock, but not all farms are built that way. These unusual operations raise animals or crops indoors, under water or in damp underground spaces. Actually, some of the most lucrative and specialized farms rear animals that are considered pests almost everywhere in the world.
Here are several unusual examples that could change your definition of farming.
1. Leech farms
Photo: Triin Erg/Wikimedia Commons
Leech therapy, more scientifically known as hirudotherapy, has been practiced for ages. Evidence suggests that doctors in ancient Egypt used leeches to treat certain ailments. Though the idea of curing illnesses by general bloodletting has been abandoned, the practice of applying leeches is still surprisingly common. They are mainly used to treat a variety of vein-related problems (by draining internal bleeding until veins have time to heal). In some schools of medicine, leeches are applied to relieve the symptoms of chronic illnesses like arthritis.
Special medicinal leeches are used in hirudotherapy. Though doctors bought wild-caught leeches from professional leech collectors in the past, the blood suckers are now grown and kept in laboratory-like settings until they are needed. Keeping the invertebrates in sterile conditions is important for leech growers, but the creatures themselves are quite hardy. When kept in cold (40 degrees) temperatures, leeches will need to feed only once every few years.
2. Pearl farms
Photo: Ratha Grimes/Flickr
Though oysters are highly prized as a seafood, the gemstones that they produce are even more valuable. In past eras, divers had to collect wild oysters and pry them open, hoping to find natural pearls inside. Pearl hunting was lucrative, but also very dangerous and tedious. Divers would often have to collect a huge number of oysters before finding a pearl. The industry now relies mainly on cultured pearls.
Pearl farms, both saltwater and freshwater, operate in natural bodies of water. The oysters are kept on strings or in baskets. Before they are placed, a trained technician performs an operation that grafts part of the oyster's mantle onto a section known as the “pearl pocket.” For saltwater pearls, a “bead” of mother of pearl is also implanted. One of the biggest expenses of pearl farming is hiring someone with the skill to perform this “surgery” successfully on each oyster. Freshwater pearls generally grow faster and the oysters can have more than one graft at a time. More-valuable saltwater pearls take several years to form, making them a more profitable, but riskier, investment.
3. Silk farming
Photo: Tim DeJager/Flickr
Sericulture, the practice of raising silkworms, has been around for several thousand years. It began in China more than three millennia ago and eventually spread through Asia and into Europe. Always highly prized, silk is still a pricey textile today. Sericulture, therefore, remains a profitable endeavor, even for small-scale farmers who raise the larvae and spin the threads as a kind of cottage industry.
One silk moth lays about 500 eggs during its brief adult life. After hatching, the larvae are fattened with mulberry leaves. Eventually they spin cocoons on twigs provided by the farmer. When they are completed, these cocoons are soaked in hot water to loosen the threads, which can reach nearly 500-1,000 yards (from a single cocoon) when unraveled. This raw material is then spun together with others to make finished silk thread. Silk is still valued today despite the manufacturing of other synthetic and semi-synthetic textiles. It is true that there are many successful smaller operations in China and India, where most silk is produced, but people harboring dreams of sericulture success should realize that the process of refining the silk is very labor intensive.
4. Moose milking
Photo: Kent Wang/Flickr
Though they mainly live in the wild, some moose have been domesticated. Farms in Russia raise the animals, not for their meat, but for their milk. Moose milk contains more butterfat than cow milk. At the same time, however, it has more beneficial nutrients, including high concentrations of zinc, selenium, iron and powerful enzymes that traditional medicine practitioners believe can heal some gastrointestinal problems.
The milk moose are only semi-domesticated. At one farm in Kostroma, Russia, they are free to graze in the surrounding forests for most of the year. They only lactate for a short period during the summer when their young are born. During this time, the moose are milked twice per day, and the daily yield averages a half-gallon. Though they are free to roam, the large mammals are tame enough to come when called (which is often done over a loudspeaker).
5. Mushroom farms
The idea of growing mushrooms itself is not that strange. Edible fungi are a staple ingredient in cuisines around the globe. Though perhaps not as widely used in the U.S. as in other parts of the world, mushrooms are relatively common in American cooking. The unusual aspect of mushrooms - especially some gourmet varieties - is the way they are grown.
Today, the practice of placing mushroom spawn inside of logs or bales of hay is not as common as it once was. However, some species, especially the highly valued shitakke mushroom, are still often grown this way, especially on organic farms. Commercial fungi culture often takes place in climate- and humidity-controlled rooms where the mushrooms are grown in trays under ideal conditions. The substrates used can include straw, corncobs, coffee grounds or ground nut shells.
6. Dung coffee plantations
Photo: Black Ivory/YouTube
Some of the world’s most expensive coffee is harvested from elephant dung. Yes, this sounds strange, but it's not unheard of. Civet cats have been used to “process” coffee beans in Indonesia. The resulting “luwak” coffee was very popular a decade ago. However, allegations of force-feeding and theories that connected civets to the SARS outbreak slowed this fad. Black Ivory Coffee, in Thailand’s rural Surin Province, uses the same internal processing idea with elephants.
The elephants are not fed coffee beans directly. They eat a more-natural mixture of bananas, rice and coffee fruit. The beans go through a fermentation process in the pachyderms’ stomachs, and they are separated from the pulp that surrounds them. The elephants do not digest the beans. They are passed out with the dung. Well-paid workers have to pick out the beans, which are washed and roasted before being used to brew coffee. The fermentation process supposedly helps the coffee’s flavor and the small amount of production increases demand and, therefore, price.
7. Seaweed farming
Photo: Janne Hellsten/Flickr
Seaweed has become a valuable commodity. Farming it has long been a lucrative undertaking in places like Japan, China and Indonesia. However, the use of species like kelp in other products, such as cosmetics and medication, and growing interest in seaweed as a healthy food have led to a farming boom. In places where pollution, climate change and overfishing have hurt commercial fishing operations, seaweed cultivation is a welcome alternative that allows people to keep making their living from the ocean.
The underwater plants are relatively easy to grow if the right species is matched with the right conditions. Neither feed or fertilizer is required. Because of this all-natural growth, seaweed can be a supplement to other types of aquaculture, such as shellfish or shrimp farming. Some experts are concerned about the seaweed boom changing conditions in vulnerable coastal ecosystems, but others welcome the trend as a less invasive way of making money from the oceans.
8. Mosquito farms
Photo: TomoNews US/YouTube
Mosquitoes are one of the world’s most hated pests. Not only can they ruin otherwise perfectly comfortable summer evenings, they can also transmit deadly diseases. So why would anyone want to establish a mosquito farm? Through a series of trials, scientists have discovered that releasing genetically modified mosquitoes into certain areas significantly lowers the population of disease-carrying mosquitoes.
For example, one such project involves injecting a special bacteria into captive-bred male mosquitoes. The males are then released and pass the bacteria on to the females that they mate with. The bacteria inhibits the spread of the Zika virus and also sterilizes the females so that they cannot reproduce. In addition to Zika, this strategy could be used to target diseases like malaria and dengue fever.
9. Butterfly farms
Photo: Gryffindor/Wikimedia Commons
Butterflies are bred in captivity for a variety of different purposes. Some butterfly farmers sell their insects to people who want to release them as part of a wedding celebration. Others are sold to zoos, museums or “butterfly gardens.” In some regions, this is a booming industry, with farmers having to buy insects from other farms or import them to keep up with demand.
Farming butterflies is not as simple as housing cocoons. The caterpillars must be kept in ideal conditions. Furthermore, when they are transformed into butterflies, they will need a suitable habitat with “host plants” that will keep them healthy and growing until sale. Butterfly farming also involves growing and caring for these plants as well as for the insects.
Top image: Edible seaweed farming on the small island of Nusa Lembongan, southeast of Bali, in Indonesia. Credit: Jean-Marie Hullot/Wikimedia Commons.
[Source: Mother Nature Network. Some images added.]