Elderslie goats grazing in field.

Will Agriculture’s Story Start with Wisdom or Fear?

In the driest part of May, I was running through a Smooth Brome field every day at lunch. Usually, Brome in May is an amazing sight thick, dense, and dark green. This year, it was pitiful and hard to look at. The drought was so pervasive that the massive amount of Urea that had been put on the field just did not matter; it was just stubby, thin, and melancholy to behold in the cool, dry air. 

North of there, about a mile, is another Brome meadow, but this one is in the dappled shade of Locust trees. I walk there with my dog often. In this meadow, the same grass species was thick and tall, with lush blades, and even as the Locust trees began to bloom, it radiated health. Here in a silvan grove, the diverse root systems of trees and grass had allowed water storage in September, which was now allowing this grass to thrive despite almost no rain in months. Diversity has the capacity in times of stress, which monoculture does not. 

In the summer of 2019, a customer, a local minister on sabbatical, stopped in my office to chat. We started talking about where he was from and how he grew up. He talked about growing up in a rural community in Eastern Kansas and the assumptions and environment he experienced. He noted that there was an assumption of a sort of dark resignation as the Green Revolution had washed over the farming community, solving so many problems but also bringing increases in cancer, strange illnesses that people attributed vaguely to exposure but nothing that would tie directly. He noted that his generation, born in the 60s and 70s, joked about cancers and weakened immune systems as they were just an assumed part of living the farm life with chemicals that people did not understand and were exposed to in ways that were impossible to avoid because they were so ubiquitous. In 2021, I got an email that this customer, a man of middle age in good health, had died due to complications with Covid, and I wondered about our conversations. I wondered if we, as Kansans, had done the right thing or if more could have been done. My mind immediately correlated the conversation and his death, but I wondered if that was my conspiracy-centered mind or just a true-true-but unrelated situation. 

In late August, I turned into a farmyard in Iowa. It was orderly but not fastidious, a working environment. As I stepped out, I saw flies lazily combing the concrete around the buildings, harvesting all the scraps of an animal operation. The farmer came slowly out of the house where he had been having a late start so that he could send his son off to college. We talked about many things since his experience of 50 years was, to me, a priceless opportunity for information. I mentioned that our Organic Alfalfa producer could not fulfill half of our usual hay order because of drought. I said I might have to just buy conventional or GMO alfalfa if I could find nothing else. He looked at me kind of lazily and raised his eyebrows, “I would never feed hay sprayed with roundup to an animal of mine.” he said. I said, “I don’t want to, we’re trying not to, but Lord, everyone says it’s perfectly safe.” “You do what you want, but I will tell you a story.” He went on to relate what happened around 2007 on his farm when Iowa began adopting GMO alfalfa, which was sprayed directly with RoundUp. He spoke of a 3-year period where the incidence of abortion began rising in his herd. He talked about inconsistent estrus cycling and hormonal disruption causing havoc in his kidding barns. He finished by saying, “I stopped feeding anything touched by RoundUp, and they all went back to normal.” I looked at him, knowing that the accepted science would say he was a liar. And I wondered if his story was true. He raises his own hay, feeds only non-GMO grains to his herd, and has excellent production and few health issues. He finished his jeremiad with a story: “Last week, some neighbors up the road were walking one an evening on a public road when a spray rig applied in the field next to them. The drift was enough to set them coughing, and the wife began bleeding out of her ears and eyes. I don’t think those chemicals belong on our feed.” I asked him if he thought Organic grains had actual potential, and he said, “Go look at the bean fields around the Mennonites; they take their kids out in the cool of the evenings and pull pigweeds. It works but how are you going to convince a country as lazy as ours to work like that? Most people would rather have the poison around.”

I was on the phone Tuesday with a man who ran a retail food business worth hundreds of millions, and I was asking him questions about his perspective on the food system. I asked him if he thought Round Up was a problem. He paused and said, “Yes, it’s a problem; herbicides are a problem, antibiotics are a problem, insecticides are a problem. Not that they exist, there are times for extreme interventions, but the fact that they are so prevalently used speaks to what we have demanded of the farmer and how little room we have given him to learn ingenious ways to avoid the chemicals.” Then he went on to say, “It’s insane; we’re telling farmers they must execute this brutal monoculture regime on the land to feed the world, but around 50% of our arable land is being used for ethanol which is a poor exchange for the draining of aquifers, the destruction of diversity, and declines in soil health which are being carried out.” Let alone I thought that we waste 40% of what is grown as food because we have a low food culture. 

Yesterday, I walked with a friend for a while in the cool afternoon. He is in a potential job transition, and it’s not easy. My work is in a hard place also; it’s not easy. He said, “Sometimes, and I know it’s not true, but I fear that if I make a bad decision right now, It might cost my family, and so I fear making long-term careful decisions because I am afraid of being a poor husband.” I thought about that. I told him to remember that he is not alone. He is part of a diverse community that can help supply what he needs for health, the breathing room to make good long-term decisions from wisdom instead of shortsighted decisions from fear. He played me Anthony Oliver’s song “Rich Men North of Richmond.” It hit how profoundly alone we can all feel and that aloneness is so profoundly humiliating that anger is natural. Still, I think the challenge for us is to be with one another in that anger, see it for what it is, and somehow steer it to service of the community, turn it into love.

I think many of us feel pushed into anger and fear in our communities. I believe we can respond by fostering relationships as diverse communities, which in stress are capable of things monocultures or people alone are not. This looks like living with less because our more is not lovely. We need to love smaller, more energy-efficient houses and cars to love people more. We must give up much of our casual oil consumption for leisure. We must love being a little hungry now and then to avoid food waste. We need to create ways of leisure that are joyous and productive, not “drowning our troubles away,” as Oliver says. We must stop investing in fast food and making money on the obesity crisis by holding stock in Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, or Chick-fil-A. All of this is because we are applying chemicals we don’t fully understand in the sense of desperation and fear that the world might starve or our family might have less if we don’t. That story is false. Let’s stop burning corn as ethanol. Let’s say no to pumping the aquifers dry to sustain waste. Let’s stop wasting 40% of our food. Let’s stop telling farmers they don’t have time to make long-term decisions and empower them to act in wisdom and love, not in fear. And let’s go out on summer evenings to cut hay or pull weeds and teach our children how joyous sweat can be and how much better a life of labor is than one of electronic entertainment. 

When we have done that, I think we will have enough grain to feed the hungry in the world. We might have enough time to build a food culture and habits of the table that do not leave the obese with insulin dependency like refuse along the road to progress. 

As a Christian, I am motivated to do this because I think we are called to stewardship of the land, a joy in nature, and delight in sparrows and the biodiversity of the world, which our current agricultural system is not living up to. 

As a Christian and a citizen, I believe that the fact that most of us own stock in soft drinks and fast food companies while so many lives are being destroyed by obesity is both immoral and impolitic. We cannot bow to pragmatism and simply allow this destruction of life and joy because it is profitable and convenient.  

As a Christian, I believe climate change is a Pascal’s wager for us. If it is true and I give up some of my consumptive habits and live a more humble and charitable life is there actually any risk? Can we not find joy in humility? Is that not a core part of who we are and who Christ was? 

Listen to Anthony Oliver crying out in protest in “Rich Men North of Richmond.” After listening to that, tell me, will you demand men to act in fear, alone, in a simple field where they feel alone and desperate enough to use poisons they do not understand in fear, or will you encourage them to act in diversity, to work slowly with wisdom, to sweat with their children and in humility to find joy by choosing love. 

The food we buy, the stocks we hold, and what we do with our children in the cool of the evening define who we are. They are our story. 

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