As our ground is blanketed in a lush layer of pure white snow, my mind drifts to days spent in the garden. My day dreams bring images of generations of people working their land. Human, Animal, Seed, Ground. The simple equation to spring forth life, a cornucopia of abundance. And then my mind is wrenched to our current industrial model of raising food for an ever expanding population. Now the equation is not so simple.
Human, Seed, More Ground, Chemical, Machine, Copious amounts of water. This still might not seem too complex at first glance. The complexity comes from the compound effect this equation has. As we spread across the land, plowing under more and more land we reduce all types of native life that help to keep a balance. As we pour more and more chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, etc.) into the ground we kill off the life of the soil. This makes the land infertile, so we have to pour more fertilizers on, and more, and more. As the soil structure dies there is no longer life to hold moisture in the ground, and so more water has to be poured into the soil just to keep the plants alive. And then when there is too much water, say through a summer deluge, the ground can not absorb and hold the water, so erosion starts on a massive scale. This then snatches up all the chemicals that have been sprayed on the field and pulls them directly into our water sources.
I am reminded of a documentary on biodynamic farming that I watched. In it they visit a field that has been subjected to decades of chemical amendments. The plowed field looked like it was turning dirt into rocks. The dirt was rolled up into large stone sized pieces, hard as rock. When they broke apart the soil (with great effort) it crumbled to dust in their hands. Clear signs that the soil was dead. Now how can we expect food to grow well in such a sub straight? Then they visited a field that had been managed with biodynamic farming for several years. The soil was rich, soft and alive. There was no effort in plowing the land, because the blade slide through the dirt. The plants flourished in the nutrient rich soil, fed by the life that the ground held. Pesticides were not needed, because the plants were healthier, stronger. The recovery on the later field had only taken a matter of a few years to be completely healed from a former life of chemical dependence.
Many will readily tell you the biodynamic practices are simply not practical in industrial farming, and I agree with them whole heartedly. My question is why keep industrial farming? In a few short decades we have lost sight that every farm used to be a small farm. And amazingly we raised all the food that the country needed. I don’t believe the answer is to find the next best chemical that will thwart the latest mutated problem that has been fostered by the industrial model, but to rethink how we raise our food.
The problems of our industrial farming method have been coming to light more each year. More people are realizing that they no longer want to support a system that abuses and poisons the plants and animals that we eat. But the government is on the side of industrial farming, often passing laws that boost the big boys, and slowly kill the small farmer.
Now I want to paint a new picture. A farmer stands at the edge of a field holding a picture in front of her, taken from the exact vantage point she is now occupying. In the picture, hundreds of acres of barren, dead fields stretch as far as the eye can see. The moment the picture was taken, a gust of wind whips up a cloud of dust, a sure sign that there is no life left in the soil to hold it together. The ground is cracked, and tired looking. The only sign of green in the whole picture is a smattering of mutant weeds that have become pesticide resistant through the over use of chemicals. She moves her gaze from the picture to the land in front of her. Now, just five years later, the land in front of her is a lush oasis of life. Long gone is the dead, worn out soil. Plants grow vibrantly, healthy and strong. Where was once a vast mega field, that had been planting in a mono crop, now lies divided fields. Thick strips of native plants accentuating the edges of the field, providing habitat for native pollinators, and beneficial insects (ones that kill off pests that eat your crops). The fields now hold a variety of plants, offering a great abundance. Herbs and flowers are planted throughout the vegetable fields as companion plants, plants that deter pests, and attract beneficial insects, including pollinators. The crops thrive, providing a greater abundance of variety and quality than the field produced in its mono crop.
She builds the health of the soil through adding rich compost that she creates from the natural materials that come from her farm. Instead of supplementing the industrial farms, the government now supplements farms that raise food using true organic practices. This farm completes a full circle on its own. In addition to growing vegetables, she grows feed crops for her own animals. The cows then provide her with fertilizer (to add to the compost piles), milk and meat. Her chickens provide her with eggs, meat, fertilizer and pest control (as they are free range). In addition to attracting native pollinators, she has a couple bee hives that help to pollinate her crops and provide her with honey. Her neighbor raises sheep for wool, milk and meat. Another neighbor raises turkeys, and ducks. And another raises goats for milk (which they also make cheese, and yogurt out of), and meat. Not only do each of these farmers make money selling their crops of all kinds, they trade with each other for what they need. If someone took a picture of this farm, it would look very similar to farms that were predominant across our country as recently as 70 years ago.
Sometimes progress is to admit that something is not working for us any more, no matter how advanced we believe it is. We are at a time when we have just about all resources available to us, and vast knowledge to educate ourselves from. There is a resurgence in small farms that are making a shift in how they raise our food. The only problem is that the industrial farms continue to pour more chemicals into the toxic cocktail that is the majority of our crops. The difference that the small farmers are making is only making a minor dent in the big picture. The support of the government will eventually go where the demand is. If we increase the demand for good food that came from healthy land, eventually the industrial farms will slowly decline. The land that they poisoned will be rehabilitated. Lovingly nurtured and supplemented with time and compost, it will come back to life. In a few years as the chemicals are released from the land, organic crops will once again flourish. Can you see it?