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We Are Not Alone

July 8, 2009

IMG_2168There is nothing more encouraging than an equally excited, like-minded person.  Just recently our farm was filled with apprentices from other organic farms in our area who had come to the CRAFT day that we hosted here.  Just like our day at Whole Circle Farm, except this time the group was much smaller, a group of farms, and their apprentices descend upon a participating CRAFT farm and learn, mingle and work with the host farmers and apprentices.

The whole local food, organic, sustainable agriculture movement has been around for a while.  In the UK the organic-chemical division of agriculturalists and consumers began with the advent of chemical fertilizers after World War I.  That means that ever since we started using chemicals to grow food, there have been people who believe that petroleum based agriculture is not the way we should feed ourselves.  And yet, like any movement it has taken its sweet time to pick up speed, momentum and popularity.  I also believe that what has hurt farming the most has been the loss of tradition.

Organic farming in the 60s and 70s was immediately associated with the hippie-back-to-the-lander who was just trying to get back to their roots.  Most of them had no intention of running a business, changing the way others eat or even changing the way a national food system functions.  Many ended up back in the city or compromised for the suburbs, as it turned out it was harder that it looked to survive off the land.  They often had little to no agricultural or horticultural background, knowledge that would have been common sense a generation ago, was now lost to mathematical equations, history, and typing class.

Many of us enthusiastic, aspiring farmers read the Omnivore’s Dilemma, or perhaps found Joel Salatin first and read Pastured Poultry or Salad Bar Beef, and the ingenuity of the farmers described in these books was astounding.  Everything was interconnected and interdependent, all the animals and plants were integral parts of a well designed whole.  What took me a long time to realize, even though Joel Salatin has stated it clearly in many interviews, was that that is the way that farming has been done for generations.  All good farmers have learned to use an already functioning ecosystem of animals and plants, but many of those farmers sent their kids away telling them that farming was for the unsophisticated and the obvious became the forgotten, then the sought after, and now the new, the creative, and ironically the sophisticated.

We were a group who, when alone, often felt as though our interests were eccentric, or at least something that one could read about, talk about but certainly not pursue as a means to make a living.  Yet as we talked about our lives, experience and plans for the future you could hear the confidence grow.

When facing someone just as excited as you are it is not hard to tell them that you want to run your own farm some day, when you do they nod enthusiastically and ask you about the specifics of your operation, philosophy and geographic preferences.  This is far more refreshing than the usual skeptical look of concern and the pointed inquiry: have you ever thought of the financial implications of farming?  Most times I bite my tongue in lieu of firing back some curt retort about government policy and monopolistic, debt mongering agribusiness-men.  I digress; it is the camaraderie and mutual enthusiasm of the group that was so inspiring.

I was reminded of a passage from the article Farmer In Chief that Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times just before the presidential election last November.  It is a lengthy quote because I found it hard to omit any part of it.

To grow sufficient amounts of food using sunlight will require more people growing food — millions more. This suggests that sustainable agriculture will be easier to implement in the developing world, where large rural populations remain, than in the West, where they don’t. But what about here in America, where we have only about two million farmers left to feed a population of 300 million? And where farmland is being lost to development at the rate of 2,880 acres a day? Post-oil agriculture will need a lot more people engaged in food production — as farmers and probably also as gardeners.

The sun-food agenda must include programs to train a new generation of farmers and then help put them on the land. The average American farmer today is 55 years old; we shouldn’t expect these farmers to embrace the sort of complex ecological approach to agriculture that is called for. Our focus should be on teaching ecological farming systems to students entering land-grant colleges today. For decades now, it has been federal policy to shrink the number of farmers in America by promoting capital-intensive monoculture and consolidation. As a society, we devalued farming as an occupation and encouraged the best students to leave the farm for “better” jobs in the city. We emptied America’s rural counties in order to supply workers to urban factories. To put it bluntly, we now need to reverse course. We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America — not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past but as a matter of national security. For nations that lose the ability to substantially feed themselves will find themselves as gravely compromised in their international dealings as nations that depend on foreign sources of oil presently do. But while there are alternatives to oil, there are no alternatives to food.

IMG_2276We were not the graduating class of a land-grant college, though the apprentice and intern opportunities with in the small, organic farm community are some of the best educational experiences out there, but I could not help but think we were the generation that was to become that group of “highly skilled small farmers in more places” and in our case all across the world.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 13, 2009 10:44 am

    You folks met Yehuda! Coolest dude ever.

  2. July 16, 2009 3:32 am

    Amen, brother.

    You, beardless hen-shepherd, always know how to make me think.

    Love for y’all.


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