Asking Questions of Farmers

This past year, 2021, we began the journey to organic certification. We need two years of records that prove we have not applied synthetic fertilizer or substances. A number of people have asked me why.

 

A farmer is at heart someone who loves the land. That’s the core of the vocation – men and women who have tasted the sweat and seen the joy of harvest. Certainly there are farmers who are motivated by greed or apathy, just as there are fathers who are motivated only by lust or selfishness, but that is a perversion, not a norm.


Farmers want to care for the land. They want to know it, to care for it, and to experience its joy responding to the rain and the sun and the seasons. I am afraid that beginning with the idea of cheap land on the frontier and continuing with the idea of simple methods to achieve fertility we have marginalized the farmer, made him less than he ought to be.

I believe that more than a nice car, more than large houses, more than a proliferation of roads, we as humans benefit from relation to the land, its produce and its joy. One cannot walk through a delicate landscape like Savannah, Georgia, and miss the fact that James Oglethorpe was a romantic who loved this new land and wanted to see it made lovely. I think we need to cultivate that love, that romantic imagination, and that industry. Oglethorpe willingly banned slavery in Georgia because he thought “it would have a negative effect on our people’s character.” How many of the economic and technological innovations of today do we need to learn to do without because they might have a negative effect upon our character? It is an important question now as much as it was then.


Organic farming is asking producers to push the limits of what is ecologically possible to achieve things that are good. I believe we as a society will benefit from asking farmers to gain ecological wisdom through organic practices as well as improvements in conventional practices; both are important and neither is to be maligned.


A very sad cultural reality is the joke about the high school valedictorian going to his guidance counselor and asking for career advice: the counselor looks at the shining grades and perfect scores and says “with this kind of mental ability you should become a farmer.” That’s a joke, and in our culture it works. That deeply saddens me, for I believe we need to elevate the role of farmer to be equal in cultural value to the technological and financial positions that dominate our aspirations. In order for that to be a reality, we are going to have to ask a lot of our farmers, and we are going to have to pay for it.


What if farmers were asked to create fields and cropping systems without chemical drift hazards? What if they were asked to lay out their fields to honor the gentle movement of water in heavy spring rains rather than on a grid? What if we asked for cropping systems that were aesthetically compelling enough to make us want to live near them rather than erase them for fescue lawn? What if green space in communities also had agricultural function as dense crop space? What if we stopped using heavy machinery to brutalize the county right-of-ways and brought goats and sheep along our roadways a few times a year in gently pastoral rhythms? What if we asked farmers for a glittering clean Mississippi River and a Gulf of Mexico without a dead zone? I think they could do all this. But we will have to ask, and we will have to pay for it.


My personal pursuit of organic will not solve these massive issues, but it is a personal commitment I am making with my dollars and risking for my family because when I buy hay or grain I want to ask those farmers to do a lot more than just grow tonnage; I want them to be ecological stewards who are the front line of protecting our water and air and building towards a world where that old joke no longer works.


About five years ago my brother, who lives a half mile from me, capped his well because the nitrate levels in the water were getting high enough he could no longer trust that water for his family. Those nitrates did not come from nowhere. They came from farmers who were never asked to preserve the water and the air; they were only asked for bushels and tonnage. Our current pricing system encourages this and we must learn how to ask.

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