Tired of living in a crowded urban environment with its deafening noise and bumper-to-bumper traffic and eager to escape what they saw as an economy bent on destroying the planet, Matt and Tasha left their home in the Washington, DC metropolitan area in March 2014. In doing so, they became modern-day pioneers, part of a wave of Americans who have chosen to go back to the land over the past decade, seeking to reclaim and rebuild their lives and to forge a deeper connection to the earth, the animals that inhabit it, and to each other.
One weekend I attended a Biodynamic meeting at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Farm in Dorena, Oregon, in the Row River Valley, just east of Cottage Grove. I always enjoy seeing other food growing operations, as this is such an infinitely broad subject, there is always much to learn from others’ experiences. At this farm, draft horses are used for much of the work.
I was at day one, standing outside an old burnt-out Belgian plantation house, donated to us by the progressive young chief of the village of Luvungi. My Congolese friend and I had told him that we would need to hire some workers to help clear the land around the compound, and to put a new roof on the building. I thought we should be able to attract at least 20 workers. Then, I looked out to see a crowd of about 800 eager villagers, each one with their own hoe.
Two management directives led us to a bio-extensive design. First, because our staff is small, we required a system that would provide inherently good weed control. Bermuda grass was a particular concern. Our second directive demanded a reduced dependence on outside fertility inputs, particularly industrial poultry litter. Many, if not most, of the organic market farms in our region depend on broiler or layer litter for annual supplies of nitrogen and organic matter. We wanted an alternative that would be more independent and sustainable.
Many sustainable growers subscribe to the philosophy of “feed the soil, not the plant.” Our whole farm approach to weed management follows the same line of thinking – we call it, “weed the soil, not the crop.” Instead of relying on the cultivator or the hoe to save the crop from the weeds, we use cultural practices, including cover cropping, bare fallow periods, rotation and shallow tillage, to reduce the overall weed pressure in the soil. One result of this proactive strategy is we no longer depend on the cultivator or the hoe to grow certified organic produce. “Weeding the soil” has also enabled us to use reduced tillage and living mulches without compromising weed management.
A farm is never a static entity, a healthy farming system is something that grows and learns and builds upon itself with experience and time. Any successful farming system is ultimately the summation of an intelligent response of the farmers, eked out through years of trial and error, to the unique characteristics of their particular piece of ground. The farm cannot exist as a fixed point in time but only as the cumulative result of cyclical effort, exhaustion, and rejuvenation.
Primary tillage is the first step in readying land for the reception of seeds or transplants. Just as the gardener breaks ground with a spade, and then breaks up clods with a hoe, and finally levels all with a rake, so does the farmer have a basic armory of tools to perform these functions on a larger scale in order to create a seed bed. Our primary tillage begins with the moldboard plow.
These days I call myself a farmer. However, I was not born into the farming life. In my late teens and early twenties, I began to have the creeping suspicion that my privileged upbringing in a first-world household, my secondary education and suburban lifestyle had left me completely bereft of any useful skills with regard to the fundamental situation of being a human animal on the planet. When I came of age I had this gnawing suspicion that in the first eighteen years of my existence on earth I had learned next to nothing of the kind of skills that would allow a person to survive in the natural world.
After plowing and then spreading the fields with compost, the next step in our method of primary tillage is to roll out the disc-harrows. The disc harrows have traditionally followed the plow because they do an excellent job of breaking up any clods and of further turning and incorporating any surface trash that might not have been fully turned by the moldboard. The weight of the disc also has a leveling effect on the soil in preparation for seeding.
It is said that when the ships of the Old World first approached the New World, they were sometimes invisible to the indigenous people of the Americas because the latter could not imagine such a thing as a fleet of large sailing ships, and simply did not believe their eyes. In the same way, when a large enough change looms in our future, we tend to dismiss calls to pay attention as the talk of eccentrics or screwballs. If the magnitude of the change is beyond our historical experience, we simply cannot imagine it. The end of the industrial era as we know it is one such change. This essay is an attempt at persuasion – that the ships of change really are on the horizon.
Local, organic, and sustainable are words we associate with food production today, but 40 years ago, when Fran and Tony McQuail started farming in Southwestern Ontario, they were barely spoken. Since 1973, the McQuails have been helping to build the organic farming community and support the next generation of organic farmers.
We can argue about when, but someday within several decades, oil and the plentiful super-market food we take for granted will be in short supply and/or very expensive. We must all start immediately to grow as much of our own food as possible. This is the fun part and is the subject of a vast popular movement highlighted by innumerable books, magazines, and web sites. Square-foot gardening, raised beds, and permaculture are the new rage. We don’t need thirty-million acres of lawns. Flowers aren’t very filling either.
Russian household agriculture – dacha gardening – is likely the most extensive system of successful food production of any industrialized nation. This shows that highly decentralized, small-scale food production is not only possible, but practical on a national scale and in a geographically large and diverse country with a challenging climate for growing. Most of the USA has far more than the 110 days average growing season that Russia has.
“Waste Not, Want Not” is a familiar old adage, but looking at it through the technicolor lens of 2018 makes the phrase feel antiquated and empty. What does it mean? The dictionary will tell you that the idiom’s intended warning is that “wise use of one’s resources will keep one from poverty.” In modern day America, where there is a surplus of almost everything, it may not feel very applicable.
Sustainable is a documentary film that weaves together expert analysis of America’s food system with a powerful narrative of one extraordinary farmer who is determined to create a sustainable future for his community. In a region dominated by commodity crops, Marty Travis has managed to maintain a farming model that is both economically viable and environmentally safe.
We need to have longer memories than we do. The last two hundred years are not representative of the life of our species. They were built on a foundation that is not sustainable, and when it crumbles, our capacity for innovation may need to be replaced by our capacity for renovation. Old technologies that were designed with the limits of economics and planetary sustainability in mind will once again become valuable, and our lives will have to change drastically as a result.
Our current ability to do without full-time homemakers relies on technologies that we may not be able to count on in the future – electricity on demand, highly processed and storeable foods, gasoline for commuting, shopping, and entertainment, etc. In a sustainable and responsible culture, there will be meaningful, even essential, work to be done at home. I’ll outline a few contributions of homemakers to a post-industrial society and offer my own experimentation, its successes and its failures.
In her new book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, Laura Lengnick assumes a dispassionate, businesslike tone and sets about exploring the farming strategies of twenty-seven award-winning farmers in six regions of the continental United States. Her approach gets well past denial and business-as-usual, to see what can be done, which strategies are being tried, and how well they are working.