Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Good Farm Is Neither Tame Nor Wild

I'd like to establish some loose conceptual boundaries for future essays, and take down a couple of pious assumptions while I'm at it.  In this short piece, I'll focus on what amount to two ideologies of farming, both of which are based on sloppy and narrow thinking about the place farms occupy in "nature", which, as a term and a concept, is of course also the victim of bad thinking.

Farming does, indeed, require lots and lots of thinking, but good farmers are a very humble lot, and end each season knowing little more than they did in the spring.  Actually, all farmers end the season this way, but the good ones acknowledge their perennial ignorance, while the bad ones see their short-term successes as evidence that they know what they're doing.  But good farming cannot be measured in crop yields.  Farming is land stewardship, and the skill of the farmer is measured in soil fertility.  It is possible to remove 440 bushels of corn from an acre of Iowa loam the same way it's possible to remove all the coal in a Tennessee mountain.  You can't do it every year in perpetuity, but if you add enough chemicals and plant tight, you can do it this year.  This is a stunt, not good farming.  It destroys soil structure, sends an irreplaceable resource down to the sea, depends on toxic inputs in vast quantities, radically suppresses biodiversity, exposes farmers to great financial risk, requires massive and expensive equipment, bulldozes our agricultural inheritance, concentrates wealth in a very few agricultural mega-corporations, etc.  Crop yield, seen as the sole evidence of farming skill, is impressive: roughly ten times more calories per acre than our pre-chemical, pre-GMO ancestors could produce.  But this is an engineer's success.  As long as farming success is seen narrowly as a problem of low yields followed by a solution of high yields, only the metrics of extractive industry will prop up the fiction of progress.  Because these yields come at a cost that the narrow metrics of progress do not acknowledge.

So, the "success" of the industrial farming model depends upon narrowly-defined problems, and narrowly-measured solutions.  It requires us to focus so closely on crop yields that we forget everything else.   Forgetting the health of the soil and the farmer, the state of agronomic culture, the health of the environment and the many species that are dying out in farm-country, the health of consumers, the radical redistribution of toxic wastes, the monstrous wastefulness of the food distribution system, and many, many other things it is possible to say that industrial agriculture is a success.  But the slightest inquiry into the true breadth of industrial agriculture's indiscriminate destruction reveals a broken and unsustainable system.

This broadening of our awareness of the destructiveness of industrial agriculture has brought many Americans to new, more ethical, healthier, and more sustainable eating and growing practices.  Since the late '60s, and very quickly in recent years, we have moved a significant number of acres out of chemical-industrial crop production and into superior methods, mostly industrial organic methods.  Around 5% of Americans now eat industrial organics every day.  These crops are produced without chemical inputs [except the fuels used for tractors on the fields and trucks to the supermarkets], and wildlife and farmers both are seeing the health benefits.  Some organic producers have shown a willingness to rotate crops, fallow fields, and preserve wetlands on their farms.  These intelligent [and traditional] methods help preserve soil fertility and biodiversity.  Organic farmers tend to use winter cover-cropping and compost to add organic matter back into the soil.  This simulates the life cycle of perennial prairies and is a vast improvement over the purely-extractive practices of "conventional" [chemical-industrial] agriculture.  Still, the economies of scale and distribution, and the lending and insurance practices that underwrite these farms all but require mono-cropping, minimum-wage labor, and complicity with the subsidized petroleum-based transportation system.  The soil has benefitted immensely in the small areas now in organic management, but the human and environmental costs are still unsustainable.  It is widely understood in the organic farming community, for example, that few operations would survive without illegal-immigrant labor.  And the produce is more expensive than most single-income families can afford.

With these two industrial agricultures in mind, one relying on chemical inputs and government subsidies, and the other depending on cheap labor and government subsidies and well-off consumers, a small group of more holistic farmers has started to produce, mostly for local markets and on a very small scale.  Many tiny farms have sprouted around the country in the last several years, staffed by mostly young and idealistic farmers who subsidize the inefficiencies of their farms with enthusiastic cheap labor.  They do not aim to win contracts with Whole Foods, choosing instead to sell their produce to local restaurants, or at the farmers' market, or even to grow only for their own consumption.  Really, they are doing what almost all of our ancestors did for millennia, but this deep conservatism appears radical in our topsy-turvy times.  Out of these tiny farms, --some run by pseudo-homesteaders, some by vegans, some by libertarian-leaning market-naysayers, some by rural families who simply do not otherwise have access to decent food under the industrial model--, has emerged a loose new food ideology that draws heavily from the themes of protest movements since the late '60s.  Very roughly speaking, these small farmers speak of an agriculture that eschews "science" [by which they appear to mean “pretentions of objectivity"], corporate measures of productivity, market factors, and newfangled products, methods, and varieties.  They tend toward the polyculture of our ancestors' kitchen gardens: many varieties of fruits and vegetables, especially those adapted to the particular conditions of particular farms; a mixture of annual and perennial crops; the inclusion of animals into the system; suspicion and general rejection of high-input chemical methods; an intense interest in seed-saving and the preservation of heirloom varieties; and a growing interest in seasonality, crop rotation, succession-planting, cover-cropping, composting, grazing rotations, and other deep practices that are focused on soil-building, and which industrial agriculture since WW2 had almost extinguished.  This is a small but real revival of wisdom we almost lost.  But some of the mores and language of past protest movements have crept into the rhetoric of late.  Even the more traditionalist of these small farmers have a reflexive tendency to explain the life of these small farms in terms of the farms' wildness, or approximation of wild conditions.  One farmer I know will not fence out deer, because, as she says, "Who am I to keep them out.  This is their land."  Another will not pull weeds, because she claims they suffer.  Another watches gophers kill everything he plants, but doesn't act, because he believes the gophers are crucial to the health of his farm.  I see trees unpruned, unchecked population explosions of aphids and grasshoppers, rabbits in the carrots, dogs locked in pickup trucks barking at the rabbits, hawks taking chickens, skunks gorging on eggs and spraying dogs and farmers, volunteer potato plants scattered throughout beds of other plants regardless of rotation schedule, and a general reliance upon a faith that the whole system will "balance itself out over time", to quote one callow landowner.  The unquestioned assumption behind all of this, I suspect, is that wilderness is the proper typology for farming, or, expressed differently, that a farm is a simulacrum of the untamed wild.

I want to propose a middle way.  Between the narrow, blinkered stupidity of the extractive industrial model, on the one hand, and the everything-goes wild-farm model, on the other, is a place our ancestors would recognize.  In it, farms are neither strip-mines nor jungles.  They are neither monocultures nor havens for weeds and pests.  These farms are carefully cultivated, carefully planned, and tend to be neat and tidy.  The farmer operates in space and time, planting enough of what the family wants to eat, but not too much, and with knowledge of what has grown where in the past, and what will grow where in the future.  The farmer knows the soil [or, at least, what it will do while remaining totally mysterious], never knows the weather, has a more or less articulate sense of what each patch of ground needs right now, and probably hopes that someday someone he loves will take over and be just as conscientious.  He makes tough decisions: remove the pretty old apple tree to let in more sun; get rid of the pigs because they eat too much for this plot; phase out the damned Menorcas because they can fly over any fence and they love lettuce; grow no solanaceas this year because disease hit last year... he neither imposes order nor quits pursuing it.  He recognizes that not all plants and animals are useful to his family, so he weeds [all summer long], and does whatever he can to help the corn get a buttress-root up on the pigweed.  He shoots the skunks.  He tries everything to keep the deer out, and finally buys taller fencing.  He sees himself as a kind of conductor of an unruly orchestra.  He knows he has to work with these contumacious musicians if he ever wants to make music.  And, if he persists, and keeps his hubris under his hat, and reads lots of books, and pretty much dreams about his farm all day and night for the rest of his life, he will bring it all to moments of concord.

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