Tuesday, June 10, 2014

For the Love of Farming

I pondered for a good long while. Though perhaps not Earth-shattering, a 500th post is a pretty big deal in blog land. So I could tackle a critical and salient issue in the area of food security and the environment - there are plenty of those. Or mayhap I provide a deliciously vegan baked good to celebrate? But all of these seemed sort of flat and unispiring, and so I have been dawdling and procrastinating for the past week. And then, as I biked back from a farm outside Oxford, it dawned on me. For all one might love food and the allure of the locavore movement, or feel really passionate about rural development or poverty alleviation, when it comes down to it, what matters is farmers.

Farmers may be the most caring people I've ever encountered. Not to generalize or anything, but every one I've known has been extraordinarily passionate about their trade and compassionate toward other people, critters, and the environment. Now, I readily admit that most farmers with whom I've worked or spoken are Westerners - on both US coasts as well as northern and southern Western Europe (and the developing world context is a bit different, with high proportions of small scale farmers and fewer alternate career tracks). Moreover, they are all relatively small scale, veg and fruit growers, so perhaps a slightly skewed sample. That all said, I have a few thoughts on the field of farming.

1. Non-industrial farmers take this career path for a reason - maybe following a history of family farmers, but increasingly due to a dissatisfaction with the occupations of modern society or a desire to get outside and back to the land (as cliché as that sounds). Of those not born into a farming lineage, I know a former lawyer, a couple of former engineers, and a sociologist! 

2. Farming often gets saddled with polarising stereotypes of tech heavy industrial agribusiness and outdated, medieval cultivation of an illiterate peasant class. In fact, whether an organic berry farm in the northwestern US or a diversified food and commodity crop smallhold in East Africa, farming is a hugely knowledge-intensive pursuit. Succeeding at growing food requires understanding something about the soil structure and fertility, about the rains and the temperatures, about how different types of crops interact with each other and pests or disease, and really about how a field fits into a farm fits into a larger landscape in terms of pollinator habitat or water supplies, etc. A farmer must be an agronomist, an ecologist, an economist, a businessman or woman, and sometimes even a bit of a politician. So, while one of the major hurdles is actually accessing all this wealth of knowledge before applying it, if anyone writes off farming as somehow inferior (especially intelligence-wise) to the doctors and lawyers of the world, I firmly believe they are just plain wrong.

3. Have you ever tried to grow an herb plant or perhaps a little potted tomato? And ever felt that immense satisfaction when you pull off that one tiny ripe fruit, despite its sorry comparison to the plump and perfect supermarket offerings? That pride doesn't seem to go away with full time farming. It's something about ones own energy, sweat, and soul going into the rearing of another organism. Even marking daily growth of squash seedlings among my windowsill plant family stimulates the same rewarding warm feeling. Where else would you hear someone commenting on the aesthetic merits of a cauliflower, or waxing on about the complex distinctions between an Ashmead Kernel and a Golden Russett apple, but a farmer's stall at market? Yes, farming is a livelihood, but it is also a lifestyle and a lifeblood.

4. Finally, and mostly because I want to avoid sounding preachy, I think there is just something about farming that attracts (or produces) cool people. Part of being successful is understanding the system and having some business savvy, but without flexibility, experimentation, and long term visioning, that success won't last. Im small scale farming, there is an element of innovation, adaptation, and improvisation. Of the tensor hundreds of   thousands  of edible plants out there in the world, we eat just a sliver. Where better to try out types of greens, beans, potatoes never found on the standard produce aisle, than on the diversied farm of some enterprising grower? An entire crop of beans wiped out by black fly? Try a different rotation, crop mix, flower variety for beneficial bugs. Due to this mix of factors, requiring creativity,laid-backness, and endurance, there just seems to be a disproportionate number of interesting individuals.

So, I wanted this 500th post to be about something uplifting and inspiring. Farmers fit that bill pretty well. It's not an easy job - being physically demanding, less financially lucrative than an office job, and far more variable and uncertain than most people like. Yet those who take it up also recognize the immense joy that can come with. My rose-coloured glasses may be a bit strong, but I dot think I'm too far off in saying these farmers do what they do for the simple love of farming.

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