CHENNAI: There are probably a few things that come to mind when you think of farmers. To list a few: overalls, straw hats, tanned forearms; bales of hay, tractors, seeds. All very farmer-friendly. What about fur, whiskers and large front teeth? Probably not. But researchers argue that maybe, the southeastern pocket gopher, a small burrowing rodent best known in many communities as a pest, could be considered a rudimentary kind of farmer. By digging long tunnels underground that promote plant growth and allow fairly easy root nibbling, these pocket gophers would be, as the paper put it, “the first farming non-human mammal.”
“Because they provide and cultivate this optimal environment for growth — that’s what we think makes them farmers,” said Veronica Selden, who earned her bachelor’s degree in May at the University of Florida and led the research. Francis E. Putz, a biologist at the University of Florida and a co-author of the paper, said, “Farming is just another element of the pocket gopher’s natural history.” Species across the animal kingdom engage in agricultural behavior. Some of the most advanced are fungus-harvesting ants and beetles that weed, water, protect and plant crops. But answering that eternal question — Are they farmers? — can be difficult.
“I would define farming as any individual having control over their land and being able to decide what they want to grow,” said Nezahualcoyotl Xiuhtecutli, the general coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida, an organization that advocates on behalf of farmworker communities in rural Florida. “We make a distinction between farmers and farmworkers,” he added. “Farmers can make decisions for themselves.” Free will probably can’t be attributed to pocket gophers. So, not farmers in this sense.
“Being a farmer is kind of a nebulous term,” said Kate Downes, the outreach director for New York FarmNet, an organization that consults with the state’s farmers. “We don’t have a hard and fast rule: If you identify as a farmer, we will work with you.” Pocket gophers don’t identify as farmers, so not farmers in this sense, either.
When posed with the question, the Florida Farm Bureau directed me to its guide on statutory exemptions and transportation laws for agriculture. “‘Agriculture’ means the science and art of production of plants and animals useful to humans,” reads the first page of the document. Are pocket gophers humans? No? Not farmers. How are pocket gophers farmers, then? Dr. Putz and Selden offer a two-part argument. First, pocket gophers, who are solitary and spend most of their time underground, promote plant and root growth with their tunnelling. By digging, the rodents circulate air underneath plants, increasing oxygen in the soil. This activity helps the roots take in more nutrients. The researchers have also found that the gophers disperse their waste throughout their tunnels, which could help fertilize the soil. Second, all that time pocket gophers spend underground is tiring. To burrow 3 feet down consumes thousands of times as much energy as it does to walk the distance. Dr. Putz and Selden wondered where all this energy was coming from.
By isolating a number of active tunnel systems, they found that the same burrowing activities that promoted plant growth allowed roots to grow straight into the open air of the humid tunnels. The gophers were regularly eating the ingrown roots, which could provide more than 20 percent of the animals’ daily caloric needs and make up for some of the energy lost in the burrowing process.