Farming and intimacy

Well that’s a titilating title.

What I want to talk about is intimacy with place — familiarity with a piece of the world and the systems that go into its use.  Becoming a farmer has made me more aware of and attuned to this intimacy.  It has also made me want to explore how we could harness this innate human ability to become experts on our particular daily surroundings and use it to stop destroying the world and instead change it for the better.

Have you ever driven the same commute so many times that you can instinctively avoid the potholes in the road and you know a slightly different route to take for  maximum efficiency by turning right at a particular light if it is red when you get to it?  Have you ever walked the same route so frequently that when a certain front yard gets mowed it stands out to you as clearly as if your significant other came home with a buzz cut?  Have you lived in the same home for enough seasons that you can predict what week the crocuses are going to come up?  Then you know what I’m talking about, and you can imagine that farming a piece of ground leads to a familiarity even more heightened than any of these.

Farmers know their land and their systems like the proverbial backs of their hands.  That low spot over there holds moisture, that slight South-facing slope heats up more, one field has sandier soil than the others.  Because of the work they do, these individuals have observed, stood upon, sat on, and literally stuck their hands into, most every square foot of their 5 or 40 or 100 acre farms.  It has been a joy to me working on farms alongside the farmers that have worked them for many seasons, absorbing that delicious awareness of contour, vegetation, fertility, and overall feel of the place.

Wendell Berry, the quintessential farmer-author, conveys this sense all the time in his fiction.  His characters are farming families who move about their land in a way that implicitly portrays this intimacy.  Berry writes about it more explicitly in his non-fiction.  I found a passage from Berry’s 1992 book Conservation is Good Work where he writes about understanding the natural world as real places and not an abstract “The Environment.”  The passage begins:

No settled family or community has ever called its home place an “environment.”  The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people. “

Becoming  familiar with the farm places the way I did made me realize that I can extrapolate this over to other arenas.   I am noticing and enjoying an increasing familiarity that comes with time spent in many types of situations.  I love the feeling of “owning” new places and feeling competent with the new tasks that come along with each of them.  The passage I quoted from Wendell Berry continues on to say,

The real name of our connection to this everywhere different and differently named earth is “work.”

Generally our work, the way we make our living, is an area in which we display our expertise and familiarity.  When I worked computers, I now realize I had an intimacy with the online “place” where our code lived and worked.  Knowing the directory structure and where to find a particular function that made the device do a certain thing was an intimacy.  Now, after a couple months at Trader Joe’s I have gotten to a level of competency and understanding of the systems that make the store run.  In farming, it is a familiarity with land and how things grow.  Lately it’s been hitting me forcefully how many little centers of intimacy there are in the world.  As I rode my bike home from work, I was thinking about how familiar I am with this trail now.  And then I noticed Dunn Lumber off to my right and realized, there are people for whom that lumberyard is their sphere of expertise.  And suddenly the whole world become populated with people and their unique intimacies.  Wendell Berry even mentions this next:

We are connected by work even to the places where we don’t work, for all places are connected; it is clear by now that we cannot exempt one place from our ruin of another.”

Expertise is a wonderful phenomenon: I have my thing and you have yours, and we can help each other out.  If I find myself needing <lumber/seafood/auto repair> I can visit my <lumberyard/fishmonger/mechanic> and benefit from their intimacy with their own bit of the system instead of having to <cut down a tree/cast a line into the ocean/I don’t even know> on my own.  But even within a particular area of expertise, real intimacy means that I understand my exact individual system inside and out and do my best to make it run exactly as perfectly as it can.

The name of our proper connection to the earth is “good work.” It honors the source of its materials; it honors the place where it is done; it honors the art by which it is done; it honors the thing that it makes and the user of the made thing.  Good work is always modestly scaled, for it cannot ignore either the nature of individual places or the differences between places.  Good work can be defined only in particularity, for it must be defined a little differently for every one of the places and every one of the workers on the earth.”

The thing about intimacy with place is that no two places are exactly the same.  The closest you could probably get is two McDonalds’ or two Wal-Marts, and those types of places have worked hard for uniformity.  But no two Trader Joe’s are the same, no two houses are the same, and, way down at the opposite and of the similarity spectrum, no two farms are even remotely the same.

The problem is that America’s idealizing of mass production and “understanding via uniformity” has led to a desire for farms to become business- or science-type entities that can be treated as all being the same.  Everybody should till with the same tractor on the same date and plant the same genetically engineered corn seed and spray it with the same pesticides and harvest it on the same day and get the same number of bushels per acre, and that will be a failsafe way to grow corn.  And then we’ll  just take corn and modify it to become everything we need to eat and then all we’ll need to grow is all this same corn.  No more need for messing around with various types of crops (not to mention varieties within types), or different cultivation techniques — it’s not an improvement to our perfect system unless it will help us grow more corn off the same amount of land.

It turns out, of course, that this does not work.  This system is failing us, in ways too numerous to detail.  America’s system of agriculture needs to be radically changed and getting bigger and more uniform is NOT the direction it needs to go.

“But how will we feed the world?”  This is invariably what comes up if you breathe a word against conventional agriculture.  “If the farmers quit growing Monsanto corn and start futzing around with specialty crops and heirloom this-and-that, what about the starving children?  We should just follow what Monsanto tells us about how to grow — they have the science around these things figured out so that we can maximize crop production.”  Well, do they?

Last fall at the Tilth Producers conference, I was lucky enough to attend a very inspirational keynote presentation by Dr. Miguel Altieri from U.C. Berkley, about his study of Agroecology in Latin America.  “Agroecology” was a new term for me, and his presentation was powerful because it addressed the above question in a new way.  I gained some new insight into how the world somehow survived during all those thousands of years before non-Monsanto agriculture.

From Wikipedia: “Agroecology is the application of ecological principles to the production of food, fuel, fiber, and pharmaceuticals and the management of agroecosystems.  It is a multidisciplinary study of the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment within agricultural systems. Agroecology is not defined by certain management practices, nor do agroecologists unanimously oppose technology or inputs in agriculture but instead assess how, when, and if technology can be used in conjunction with natural, social and human assets. Agroecology proposes a context- or site-specific manner of studying agroecosystems, and as such, it recognizes that there is no universal formula or recipe for the success and maximum well-being of an agroecosystem.”

Agroecology, among other things, talks about farming with a sense of place.

What I gained out of Dr. Altieri’s talk is: there is research showing that peasant farmers in Latin America are growing crops with production levels matching or beating the yields that can be produced by American megafarms.  And these small farmers have been doing this on their land through the generations for hundreds of years.  Whereas America’s cornfield is unarguably depleting the soil and toxifying our environment, these native farming practices exemplify true sustainability AND let me repeat that the evidence shows they are high enough yielding per acre to feed people equally as well.  How are they doing it?  By maximizing their intimacy with their place.   Dr. Altieri’s talk went into some fascinating specifics of locales that have developed new crop varieties over generations, or have determined that it’s best to inter-plant two specific types of crops together, or have placed different crops at different altitudes on their steep, terraced slopes.  But the basic summary was that these farmers know their land and grow according to their specific micro-ecosystem.  Additionally, they create RESILIENCY in their farming systems by increasing DIVERSITY so that if weather wipes out one crop, they have another to fall back on.  This is the opposite of what American farming has come to.  Mono-cropping corn and soy has CREATED the need for increasingly terrifying pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  Wendell Berry says,

The name of our present society’s connection to the earth is “bad work” – work that is only generally and crudely defined, that enacts a dependence that is ill understood, that enacts no affection and gives no honor.”

The question is, have we completely lost our connection to our place?  The Native Americans had it, and we revere the story of Squanto et al saving the settlers from starvation because they knew the proper techniques to make things grow in this place that the Europeans didn’t understand yet.  But we quickly overrode those native traditions.  Modern farmers are still in touch with the quirks of their tracts of land.  But modern agriculture teaches them to ignore their site-specifics and just follow formulas, or at best to use that familiarity to work the situation their superficial current advantage.  Can we instead use agroecological principles work our situation to actually *be* better, for others, for the land, and for the long-term future?  Wendell, take us out:

Every one of us is to some extent guilty of this bad work. This guilt does not mean that we must indulge in a lot of breast-beating and confession; it means only that there is much good work to be done by every one of us and that we must begin to do it.”