Saturday, June 28, 2008

More personal musings about agriculture, or 'more serious god-awful stuff nobody wants to read'

Well, if you all can stand it, I'm going to go serious for a bit and go up a couple steps on my soapbox.  Some of you are aware that I've had an interest in sustainable agriculture since my days at Earlham College, an offshoot of my interests in ecology, conservation and food.  You may or may not be aware that I've also considered over the last couple of years of taking the time to go through an apprenticeship on a small farm.  I suppose there are many reasons that I am considering doing this, but at the bottom there are two, one negative and one positive.  

The negative is that I am unsatisfied in my current position and need change.  It is a good job and has served me well, but the last couple of years have been increasingly difficult and I fear that at some time in the near future I will have a harder and harder time doing it well.  

The positive is that I am genuinely interested in farming, in agriculture, and in related fields of conservation, food, and nutrition.  But to entertain any thought of finding a place in this world, I need experience, and I need time to learn by watching and doing.  And as I've been mulling all of this over, I've been giving serious thought to what it is about farming, about growing things, that appeals to me, and to figure out what these activities can offer me, as well as what I may offer them. 

Why does farming have such appeal to me? What is it that tugs so on my heart and on my mind? Enough to counter all the practical reservations I have: that it's economically unreasonable, that I'm too old, that I don't and never have had the energy and commitment for such an enterprise?

Farming, at its root, is about life. It is about fostering a healthy environment for other living creatures that will then help to feed you and your community. Done well, farming should maintain the biological integrity of the landscape and be an interacting part of it, all while providing a stable, varied and nutritious source of food for humanity (and possibly a few bugs, worms and birds to boot).

To get into a bit more detail, we, as a people, as a planet, are currently facing great environmental challenges, possibly catastrophic problems on both local and global levels. One factor that ties many of these problems together is loss of space and habitat to development, including agriculture. If we continue to ravage our environment, we will continue to lose important banks of ecological resources, genetic diversity and biomass, and we will eventually, I think, come to a point where our losses may begin to have cascading effects across trophic levels and bioregions to the point where the basic systems of life by which our planet operates may be in jeopardy. We must conserve, and we must conserve land.

But we need food (and shelter)! And for food, we need land. Here is the crux - how to we feed ourselves while conserving the health of the landscape? I don't think these should be separate issues, or problems to be solved by separate places, as in 'conserve the rockies' and 'grow corn in the midwest'. I believe that the healthiest solution will be to conserve land and biological resources within the same place that we grow food , and even within the same places that we live, to as great an extent as we can. To farm wisely, cultivating a wide variety of plants and animals in a patchwork landscape of settlements and wild places, where farm and woods and water and town and hopefully city all give and take from each other, will be a crucial, possbily the crucial effort in reconciling the needs of both humanity and the planet for a long-term future.

The thing that gives me greatest pause in all of this is population pressure. Despite my convictions and confidence in small-scale, sustainable agricultural practices I'm not absolutely sure that they can feed 7 billion or more people. Unfortunately, I am just as concerned that current methods of enormous monocultures driven by petroleum and chemicals will eventually collapse in the wake of soil depletion, environmental desertification, pollution and the unavailablity of essential energy resources such as oil. I would choose a slow, conscious choice towards sustainability and even economic contraction rather than unchecked growth followed by catastrophic failure and mass starvation.
I would like to learn more about the way farms are integrated into European society. From some recent reading I've done (in Eliot Coleman's New Organic Grower) it has been stated that most Europeans still get the bulk of their food from small farms found throughout their countries - in rural areas and on the edges of their great cities alike. If this is true, it should be a great source of hope, as Europe is a densely populated region with many large metropolitan areas. I do have my suspicions that while this may hold out for vegetables and to a lesser extent meat products, it may not be quite as accurate regarding staple grains such as wheat and corn. If you know the truth, please let me know.

These are reasons that I believe in farming, reasons that I think farming would be a good thing to be a part of and to contribute to. But farming also pulls at me in more personal, even creative ways. It appeals to my curiosity, my interest in science, my fascination with how things work. A farm is a managed ecosystem, and provides a wonderful experiment for examining the ways in which different forms of life thrive or fail, interact with each other and the elements, grow and change. Farming appeals to my love and wonder of living things, and to the enjoyment I get in the great outdoors. It appeals to my creative side, as I believe that approaching a place, a piece of land, learning from it and figuring out what and how to do with it and integrating it with your own life and needs is an essentially creative effort (of course this is basically saying that life itself is a creative endeavor - which I think is true). 

Farming appeals to my egalitarian principles. It appeals to my philosophical stance, heavily influenced by my readings of American transcendentalists, that integrating the life of the mind with the life of the body in work and in play is important. It appeals to more prosaic desires of mine, from the wish to listen to the music of crickets and frogs as the sun goes down to my love of good food. And in my most pessimistic visions of the future, where stock markets crumble and oil becomes unavailable, it provides me with the possibility of survival.

Finally, it gives me, personally, the chance for change and challenge like I've never really given myself before: to put many of my thoughts and hopes into action, to learn something completely new, and to work harder than I ever have before.

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