Farming & Nature
by Lynn R. Miller
We have a hole in our yard…
We have lived with it all these thirty years. It starts out five feet across and runs straight down deep. At seven hundred feet we have not found the bottom. We have determined that it passes through the volcanic rock ceiling of a massive cavern at 250 feet. Certain days a breeze blows up out of the hole, other days it draws down. We keep it covered and fenced off. A university geology professor told me our hole is an ‘impossibility’. Oh, and I forgot to say, each year with snow melt the hole gets a little wider at the opening.
I try not to think of that hole, seventy five feet from our house, but I admit that it does give me pause. To friends and family it is a fearful thing. To me it is just a reminder that nature holds some cards.
There is a three generational Oxnard, California, produce farm which last year grew half a million pounds of organic strawberries. That’s off of a 57 acre farm. And the family did this with fragile low-producing varieties like Gaviota and Seascape: varieties which they coax out of the ground year round, varieties noted for their astounding flavor. Oxnard has a mild, coastal climate which has allowed them to produce berries, and other market garden crops, year round. This provides full-time work, over 20 years, to their pickers. Flavor is paramount, and accounts for sales at $8 a pint (a pint of strawberries might average 12 oz.). Three generations of this family live and work on the farm. Most of their production is sold at 19 Southern California farmer’s markets, seven days a week. They credit the farmer’s markets with their success and profitability. But a growing segment of their market is direct sale to restaurant chefs around the country, restaurants which make their own arrangements to deliver the fragile crop. Three generations live on the property. A model of success, yet one which flies in the face of agribusiness norms. A model with more parallels to nature than to the dangerous artifice of industrial agriculture.
With most fresh fruits and vegetables, agribusiness production has long favored the mass production of aesthetically pleasing varieties with long shelf life, immunity to disease, resilience against farm chemicals, and highest possible production levels. It’s no secret, these choices have given us tough, flavorless, nutrition-challenged produce. And, today, those bland, tough, industrial tomatoes and strawberries account for a major reason true organic produce, especially that which is locally grown, has become so popular. But you know all of this, so why am I bringing it up again and now?
Right to Farm
Because it has become more and more difficult and costly for the small farmer to ‘legally’ and directly sell his or her farm produce. Because we are at the beginning of an entire new onslaught of propaganda and market warfare: Because today society is in the terrible middle of a season of reversals and reprisals, and retrenchment and denial. As applies to farming; too much money, market share, power, and influence still belong to the monstrous agribusiness cartels. Too much and not enough. Never enough for those who must garner all profits and control all aspects. So they have their army of mouthpieces scattered all over the world, in public-relations, on collegiate staffs, in press agencies, in bureaucratic ‘sargentsia’, … all repeating in mumbled percussive etch that professional industrial agriculture is the only way to feed the world, that people don’t ‘really’ want organic food, that campaigns to buy local are silly and misguided, that heritage and heirloom varieties and species represent leaps backward, that top soil is but an expendable staging medium for chemical agriculture, that small farms do a disservice to society because they are amateurish and compete for limited resources. All of it the tight twist of burning lies to prepare the general public for new regulations, stipulations, fees, and bans to return advantage to the “struggling” agribusiness sectors. I am NOT speaking of individual farmers — regardless of scale. I am speaking of the likes of Monsanto, Bayer, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, bio-engineering giants, the USDA, so many of the land grant institutions, large banks, commodity trading, … But this situation goes unnoticed by society’s guard. They are busy elsewhere. It’s easy, today, not to pay attention to these burnings, as this country and others find themselves in a maelstrom of wholesale governmental collapse as the egomaniacal ‘clepto-crats’ discover they can no longer count on each other…
No. It is time to change the subject. I don’t want to go there.
Here’s where I want to go. To stand by my twin, entry-way, poplars and look up at their mass and height and feel a rush. I planted these 27 years ago. I did. And to look over and see my gentle wife sitting on the porch of the little chicken house with an old red hen that’s not feeling well, a hen that will soon die. And to ‘feel’ that golden eagle, not fifty feet away atop a dead Juniper in the stud’s pen, staring down at me. To feel the rolling rain cloud crawl down our dry-farm field slope with wind-splattered water and hail. And from a quarter mile away to have perfect view of our 7 acre “lands”, adjoining plots where we have tested and measured different crops, different tillage practices, different fertilizers, and to see it now like a quiet corner of a Diebenkorn painting. To sit on my little studio porch in the sun and worry after my five grandchildren and their parents. To discuss with my younger daughter about the generational compounding of values (with livestock and perennial plantings) it will take to return our farm-come-ranch to a paying proposition. To run my hands through the seed mix in my old Van Brundt seed drill after topping it off for the next pass round the field. To stand my seventy year old self at that certain spot on this our farm and look down on where I will dig two perfect holes to plant two more poplars and prepare myself to watch them grow for twenty five years more. It is all in the nature of us and this place.
It is a heaven which waits always to be seen and felt and joined. And it is oh so fragile. It exists today solely because of our natures. We see it, feel it and long ago joined it. If this family did not love it so it would have, could have, been cashed in long ago to become something dead and greed appointed.
Willow is our gentle Calico barn cat. She just may be mute, at least I have not heard her make a noise. She resides in the farm shop and horse barn with free range of the ranch. Her manner tells us she is quite content with the accommodations, at least during the daytime. But in the dark of night when I go out to close the chicken house and feed Willow, she follows close on my heels with darting looks deep into the surrounding darkness. Something is out there that troubles her. Could be the many coyotes we share the land with or some other troublesome predator. Might even be a cougar or two. But mostly it is the darkness that troubles her, concealing something terrible that is on its way, threatening her space.
Like our barn cat, in close I am most comfortable with our space — our place — our lifestyle — many farmers I know feel the same way. But out just beyond something’s not right, instincts tell us something’s not right. There is a multi-pronged threat building against farmers but it’s not aimed at us, it is aimed at our worth, our viability, our place in society. And it comes in the form of a sustained creeping propaganda. It is a hole in humanity’s yard.
Here I go, slipping again, down the greased rabbit hole…
No Fix on Nature
Unlike the rampant stupidity of government-speak, yet far more insidious, we have everywhere in our midst carefully-crafted, clever, academic pronouncements with built-in deniability. As an example here is one such a statement, released in March, from a Netherlands research professor;
“Agriculture should not attempt to copy nature. While agriculture should certainly learn from nature, we mustn’t be fixated on it. After all, agriculture and nature are fundamentally different.” Professor Jan Willem van Groenigen of Wageningen University & Research.
Written to allow us to draw our own conclusions (which translates to ‘turn to whatever advantage’) I believe it fails to completely disguise a pernicious institutional disdain for nature as a working canvas. These words set a stage for the contest: us against nature.
Academia, in the agricultural sciences, is weighted by a vast armada of clever propagandists touting many advancements in agri-business as clear evidence of humanity’s sublimation of ‘quirky and dangerous’ nature. Nature needs no defense. It is we who need defense against our own short-sightedness. Times have changed and its a big change.
The Nature of it All
Either Nature has armed herself or we have done it to her. Nothing gained now by making light of her. She is coming, not necessarily for us but in many cases right through us, and with force. She has always been ambivalent towards humanity and, yes, nature in her new extremes threatens our peace. But here I part ways with so many folk; I do NOT believe nature is our enemy or that nature is a set of problems we are required to fix — if we could. I do NOT believe we can “correct” nature or, heaven help us, “improve” on her. Yes, we’ve shown we can disrupt nature, throw her off her game slightly, knock her biology and weather for loops with our pollution and with the rampant extraction of oils, minerals and gases. But, damage done, we are not equipped to “restore” the balance. Only nature can do that. We may be able, yet, to slow and stop the damage. But we cannot correct it. That remains for nature to do.
Everywhere in this country, and beyond, the peace is threatened. In many parts, well beyond, the peace is so far gone as to be completely unknown, even unbelievable as an option.
The internet, that great, sugared, cereal box for the mind, in which we find so very little of nutritive value; that box does hold at its bottom an edible all-access pass to rightful opinion. We’ve all been granted our opinions, so long as none of those interfere with the courting of profits. The democratization of opinion, while perhaps a positive thing, has given us all a strange and difficult new world of mob-rule, herd-able only by either sensory deprivation (read ‘cloud of opioids’ ) or incendiary pronouncements.
I don’t matter, not in the wider world. I am an old man which is to say I tire easily, especially over nonsense of which I have no control or influence. Another way to say it: I have earned, with the passage of time, the useful right to choose my battles. But I seldom choose them for the right reasons. Most often they are chosen because something triggers a long, hot outrage deep inside of me.
And right now I am outraged by some of the leaders of agricultural science, economics, philosophy and banking.
These days I feel the same way our Calico cat feels at night, but the darkness that surrounds me is the darkness of much of the human spirit.
We are in a backwards clash of philosophies which manifests itself in so many different corners of humanity. For those of us who choose to think of farming — many academics and scientists are making a public case for an agriculture in spite of nature, arguing that nature operates in ways that are antithetical to productive agriculture. On the other hand, creative, intelligent, independent farmers, identifying ways to embrace nature as the true manifestation of biological principles and the best example for good farming, are finding the embrace brings them rich rewards. Its a war of ways, rationales, and philosophies and the future of humanity is at stake.
The bizarre, intense, official campaign to discredit nature, and separate her from agriculture, stinks up humanity’s future. A future which owes everything to its beginnings.
In the beginning were myriad discoveries. But we must remind ourselves that beginnings are always and everywhere. I imagine a young formative mind wandering the wasting edges of today’s concentrated humanity where those forgotten farming remains lay distant from past hives and herds. On occasion the wandering mind will find itself aswim in the crackled odors of a memoried soil. Here poultry lived and died and lived again. Over there the urine acids of well-fed cattle bathed the dust til soup, which then nourished the roots of roots that nourished men. And the wool-held muskiness of long-dead sheep hangs on the dead wood branches of neglected cane fruit. All of it and more gives pervasive lasting odor to the land’s memories, odor with tentacles that will reach deep into unsuspecting young minds to release a longing for a time — a place — a working rhythm — a set of repeated anticipations that comes as a genetic memory from far before the one life, from far wider than the one life. It’s as if a middle of a long string has appeared. The young formative mind would want to follow that string, allow its certainty to reform possibility. This old mind remembers that moment so long ago with the gratitude of one whose been to the riches time and again. Now this old one wonders after the journey back to the beginning of the first odiferous marriages of farming.
And so we imagine a time perhaps before words when men and women ate the seeds off mature plants. Ate them til they were full, and then saved some to eat later. Only later, perhaps, they found the saved seeds had miraculously cracked open to release struggling tentacles, some reaching up to the light and some down and into dirt. It would have taken time and patience but some ones will have observed how this small explosion led to a new plant’s appearance and growth resulting in time with more and new seed. With this observation, understood and translated, seeds would be gathered and put in to the waiting earth, and gods would be thanked for the resulting mysterious growth. And with each cycle a promise would be repeated and misunderstood until the smallness of men would take it all to mean wealth was theirs and assured and for no one else. No where in the scriptures of nature and biological truth is there any such assurance to man. The only assurance nature offers to man is that he too is bound by the laws of life and death and decomposition.
The only thinking access to the complexities of nature’s assurance is with the record of simplest observations.
Today’s science, no longer modern tomorrow, has raced beyond a record of observations into destructive conjecture, to embrace notions of “assurance” without nature, to create synthetic facsimiles of nature. “Hey, guys! Wouldn’t it be cool to go set up a civilization on dead, barren, redrock Mars? We have science so at least we wouldn’t have Nature to kick around anymore.”
Those first hand fulls of seed remaining after hunger’s satisfaction may have found their way to the bellies of birds and beasts. In time perhaps even to lure those into future meals. It did no harm to imagine such a way forward to welcome notions of livestock.
A few of those first young shepherds certainly understood the beauty before them as the sheep and goats they protected went, in moving carpet, over the waiting new browse. We wonder once again how it came about that a canine was entrusted to help with movement and direction. How the boy’s mind and the dog’s mind came to elegant communion with the jobs at hand. Certainly there were scores of frustrations. Time when anger reached the dog and shoved confusion into a desperate need to understand. Desperate because the dog needed to know that he succeeded, needed to know that he pleased.
Set apart but also a part, as with all things in nature, the gardener looked down on his potato plants to see horrid black shrivel and perhaps wondered if he could find a dog to keep the disease away from his growing things.
And it was seen that the farmers and gardeners who moved each year to new land seldom were visited by the black blight of potatoes. And it was seen that the best shepherd’s dog, the creature who became legend early in his life, was so valued some tried to steal him. And that worlds caved in when he died of old age because the truth of that splendid creature was gone. And old women understood that young dogs of good brain had to be raised with old dogs of capability.
The first wizards likely absorbed their powers from kissing nature. “See there, that mushroom comes up from that pile of horse manure. I taste the mushroom and taste the horse and I feel their complement. Magic.” Never do we see the same mushroom from Goat or Sheep or Cow and we remember this distinction because it is evidence that nature is a plan. And our memory is evidence of our ‘education’. And, many times, the manure and the urine generates, right in that spot, grasses three times taller while the animals prefer to eat the short plants that ring the tall growth. Oh but that is today, and today is an important piece of the puzzle, for tomorrow the chemistry flips itself and the calendars run to overlapping subsets. Only nature understands that seasons and calendars come after as historical reference. To nature, tomorrow is yet to be determined and yesterday is a solid piece of an evolving equation.
It is our nature
Invited, I sat, recently with a half dozen farming apprentices, and we exchanged views — their views of farming futures because I asked of it, my view of farming’s recent past because they wondered aloud. We are separated in age by half a century. They know their tomorrows are uncertain. I wish mine were less so. They say ‘what do we have to lose?’ I say, ‘please grant me time enough to gain.’ Those perspectives should be exchanged. I should say, everyday, what do I have to lose? And move most boldly. They should stop themselves each day and ask for time enough to watch this tree grow, to train the offspring of offspring all in the same family camp. The importance of this little story for you is that we met and talked. The importance of it for me is that these young people are out there with fresh vision and the difficult-to-explain urge to move sideways while carefully backing into the community mechanism of a spirit-paid way of life.
Not so long ago I read an eastern editorial that likened corporate to community, arguing that share-holders, like it or not, shared community with other share-holders as they granted existence, and worth, and direction to the corporation. Scary manure. Corporate means avoiding liability, means avoiding responsibility, means prioritizing profit. I cannot say this definition makes a case that corporate cannot be community. That is for accountants to tackle.
But I can say that, on our side of life, nature embraces liability in amazing ways which in turn give both fertility and futures long and swollen outlook. I can say nature embraces responsibility by sharpening consequence. I can offer my opinion that, though embodying gain, Nature has no room for profitability which is an artifice of the human condition. Nature pisses on profitability every single day.
Nature grants productivity and increase when her secrets are respected. Nature grants that secrets may pass between those apprentices and this old man.
We have a hole in our yard. Over the years I “dug” up its history. In 1961, at a very low spot on our ranch and adjacent to our spring-fed pond, a well driller punched an 8″ hole in search of water. At 250 feet the bit whipped and twisted off as it passed through a cavern ceiling. Using what was available to them then, they were unable to retrieve the bit, nor to find the bottom of that hole. They abandoned the project. In the ensuing seasons, as winter snows melted, the runoff twirled and whirled into that little hole as it formed a drain for our entire watershed. Never in any of those seasons did anyone ever speak of that hole filling full. This is one reason we know that cavern below to be huge.
For me that hole represents unknowable nature. We can use our tests and analysis to try to explain the hole, its misleading origins, its worth. But we can never know it completely. It’s truly a ‘wondrous’ thing.
For me that hole also gives me pause to think of how it may be an analogy for what is happening to our planet and social order. There is a gulf of environmental infirmity which threatens to cave in and swallow us all, just as our hole in the yard might fall in and take us with it. And for society most specifically, the hole presents our toxic impatience, and the cancer which has stripped honor and decency from the souls of so many.
Hard to explain why those observations take me right back to the comfort of knowing it is in our natures to be farmers, and then, as such, beneficial organisms.
Oh forgive us this day our natures, as we would forgive and applaud nature, for in her is life today and tomorrow.