Sunday, January 25, 2009

Small Farms Win

We have two primary needs in agriculture right now. We need higher yields and we need more small farms. We need higher yields because the human population is growing and land is limited. We need more farmers for a lot of reasons. In fact our need for more small farms exceeds our need for higher yields.

Arguing for higher yields seems like more of the same. In the last century, science and technology have provided us with truly unbelievable yields thanks to synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms. It’s tempting to assume that our future demands will be fairly easy to meet in the same way.

But this is misleading. Fertilizers are only capable of doing so much. We reached a point some time ago where adding more nutrients to our soils wouldn’t increase yields. In many cases, in excess, it even reduces them. Pesticides (both synthetic and natural ones) are still being discovered but the cost of developing them is becoming greater and greater at the same time that regulatory agencies are demanding fewer and fewer broad-spectrum products. This means that companies are being forced to make more effective and safer products on smaller and smaller margins. This trend obviously can’t last forever.

Genetically modified crops have significantly increased yields in the last couple of decades but farmers have not benefited from this as much as basic manufacturers have. To make matters worse, our dependence on fewer and fewer crop varieties is making us more and more vulnerable to disease and pest outbreaks on a global level. The local storerooms of seed varieties that farmers could chose from and manage themselves are becoming fewer and fewer. We are approaching a time when our agricultural apathy will come back to haunt us.

This is, of course, the reason that we need more small farms. John Taylor of Caroline noticed more than two centuries ago that small farms produced more than big farms do - at least proportionately. Taylor was a Virginia farmer from the same tradition as Thomas Jefferson and grasped a basic truth that we moderns have a hard time appreciating: that there is an important difference between productivity and yield.

It’s obvious that an industrial farmer with his tractors can plow and plant more acreage than a man on a small farm. On a man-hour basis it would then seem obvious that mechanization is more practical and profitable. And indeed, this is true if we measure yield only relative to man-hours. If we start from a land ethic, however, and calculate yield relative to farm size, things change. Industrial farming no longer wins hands-down.

The reasons are straight-forward. An owner of a small farm often has a family - call them part-time field hands if you like. Together they know what’s happening on the farm. If disease or insects start to threaten part of the field, local action can be taken to keep problems from getting out of hand. Losing a few plants or part of a crop is often much less expensive than making multiple spray applications over multiple acres. Large farms rarely monitor their crops as well as small farms do.

Harvests can be customized on small farms too. Normal plants will usually be productive over a period of days, weeks, or even months. Small farms are able to take advantage of this. It isn’t cost effective for an industrial farmer to start up the combine or hire seasonal help to harvest large tracts of produce multiple times. On small farms, this is not a problem and multiple harvests are the rule – providing less waste and generally fresher produce. In many cases multiple harvests promote greater yields as well.

Another problem of calculating productivity on a man-hour basis is that it fails to consider external costs. When these costs are taken into account, they almost always favor small farms (see the USDA’s 1998 report, Time to Act, for more information on this).

Small farms harbor greater diversity in a number of ways. For instance, citizens of small farm communities come from a wider variety of cultures than other farm communities. Cropping systems are more diverse too and this diversity lends stability to changing circumstances. Small farms have greater biological diversity - both of natural enemies of pests and to wildlife. There is also a greater variety of landscapes and cultural traditions on small farms.

Small farms also have a better track record with the environment. They conserve soil and water quite a bit better than large farms. And this happens in a free enterprise system. In fact small farms are a very important part of the economy in many places.

Small farms are also places for families to raise children and acquire values. They are places to learn about the Law of the Harvest (q.v.) and to become practical and self-reliant. These are all things that are certainly worthy of note, even if they don’t factor into spreadsheets about yield.

Of course it doesn’t make sense to lose sight of the need to feed a growing population - both at home and abroad. We clearly do need greater yields in many parts of the world. But we also have the choice about how this can be done. We can leave the task to industrial farmers alone and continue our estrangement from the land, from our faith, and from each other; or, we can regain our culture, heal ourselves and our communities, and grow a little wiser in the process.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Law of the Harvest

The Law of the Harvest is simple. We reap what we sow. If we plant tomatoes, we harvest tomatoes. If we habitually spend less than we make, we’ll gain wealth. The Golden Rule is an extension of this law. Hillel (as recorded in the Babylonian Talmud) expressed it in negative terms: what is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. Jesus (as recorded in the New Testament) expressed it in positive terms: do unto others what you would have others do to you. These are basic principles that have been known for thousands of years. But, of course, they are only part of the Law of the Harvest.

The other part, that is hardly ever mentioned, is just as important. It’s also less appealing to most people. It asserts that there will be no harvest without work and that there are no immediate gratifications. A long time ago, when most of us raised our own food, these were not truths to ignore. We might not have liked them, but we had to plan our lives around them anyway. They are laws, after all.

If you lived in a rainy place you didn’t have to worry about irrigating. Nature took care of that for you. But if you ignored your crops, weeds would soon choke them to death. If you lived in a dry region and forgot to irrigate, your crops wilted and died.

It takes work to reap a harvest and it takes a lot of it. You have to work long hours sometimes and then get up and work long hours again. Sometimes you do all this and then lose your crop on top of it all. Sometimes you lose your crop more than one year in a row and have to move.

The Law of the Harvest is obviously not a law of mercy. It’s also obvious why we have tried to mitigate it as much as possible. In fact to have not tried would be to demonstrate our own lack of mercy. But it is one thing to mitigate suffering by abiding by the Law of the Harvest itself - and quite another thing to ignore it outright.

Today, with our trust in technology, we hardly even have opportunity to think of such troublesome things. And why should we? Food is easy enough to get whenever we want it. One might even be tempted to argue that we have outgrown the Law of the Harvest - at least in its strict agricultural sense. Maybe it is only a historic artifact anymore. We might be tempted to think this way even if we were not thinking about farming. Why delay buying an expensive toy when we can get it now on credit? The principle is the same.

But nothing could be further from the truth. People that fail to work productively and that can’t delay gratification may get by one way or another but they will never reap a harvest. Harvest time is a time of plenty, of abundance. It is a time of satiety, of running over. It is a time of rejoicing. And there is joy because work has been invested and born fruit.

The Law of the Harvest is joyous when it is lived. It can be disastrous when it is ignored. Taken to extremes, it leads to war. If we find ourselves without enough to sustain the basic needs of life, we have the choice to either borrow what we need from others or to take what we need - by stealth or by force. We might fake things for a while, but ultimately, justice will have her due.

When a society is based on a culture of responsibility - a culture abiding by the Law of the Harvest - needs will be met humanely and morally. A society lacking in responsible culture cannot be trusted to do so.

If needs are real, irresponsibility leads to theft. If the level of irresponsibility is great enough, mere wants will lead to the same end. If enough people find themselves destitute, then wholesale plundering occurs. If this is unorganized, it is anarchy. If it is organized, it is war.

Now all of this might seem a bit much to extrapolate from a lack of interest in gardening. And so it is, but not entirely. Certainly, the Law of the Harvest is part of every enduring culture. Without it, things must unavoidably fall apart. It is also true that the Law of the Harvest can be learned and lived outside of a farm. Care for one’s home, yard or even apartment may suffice. In fact it can be lived in the thoughtful way that we care for others.

But it needs to be remembered that these alternatives have never been enough, by themselves, to sustain a culture. For culture to endure, it must be based in religion and the cultivation and care of the land. Unfortunately, our society is trying to be civilized without either of these. We’re trying to be civilized without culture. This can never be sustained. In the end we will pay the price for this. And our children will too.

Monday, January 12, 2009

More on Work

There is a certain arrogance in much of the work that we do. It is an arrogance that we usually praise. The reason being that we often confuse pride with arrogance - or rather we justify our pride as a virtue and wink when it becomes arrogant. Pride is often a motivation - for good or ill. Arrogance is what happens when pride becomes insolent. It’s hard to imagine living in a world without personal pride of some sort.

The quality craftsmanship of the historical trades came from a virtuous work ethic. Our professional world is built on this same foundation. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with taking pride in this. It’s natural. We want to take pride in what we do and we want to patronize those that do the same. We want to contribute individually and we want to be recognized for it.

But pride without restraint very quickly turns sour and before we know it, arrogance and ingratitude prevail. We praise a talented trial attorney for her wit instead of any truth that she defends. We praise an athlete for his skill instead of the trainers and team members that taught him and make that make him successful. We praise a singer for her voice instead of the musician who wrote the music. We praise the musician for his inspiration instead of the source of the inspiration.

Not that these talented people haven’t worked hard to become proficient. They have. And not to suggest that they don’t deserve recognition. They do. But misplaced or poorly emphasized recognition are often sins of selfishness. And selfishness is just arrogance before it happens.

But, it might be argued, to the extent that arrogance is a sin, it would seem to be just a minor one. It hardly ever makes a headline, and for good reason. Everybody knows that it’s ubiquitous. Besides, our progressive world wouldn’t exist without the motivation of pride. Better to enjoy it then to do without. Or so we have come to believe.

The only problem with this attitude is that it is not sustainable. A society that encourages wide-spread arrogance cannot endure. The reason for this is simple. We are mortal. We suffer and we die. Life is not easy, and yet arrogance ignores this. It claims to be self-sustaining. But it never can be. Life is ultimately out of our control. We can recognize this and work within our constraints or ignore them - only to have them return later with interest.

You might agree that this is obvious and that societies never survive anyway. So why worry about it? Again, the answer is simple. Societies may not survive, but cultures can. A cursory view of our Judeo-Christian heritage is more than adequate to show this. Judaism, as a culture, survives today in a society very different than when it began. Christianity, notwithstanding the many changes in its history and its many divisions, retains many cultural elements of the primitive church. One can easily argue that it is because of cultural retention that these traditions survive (in fact it is a tautology which only emphasizes the point) and not in innovation. No wonder that arrogance, that is so manifest in innovation, is not sustainable.

Cultures survive in two primary ways, both evident in the word “culture” itself. The first way is through religion - or the Latin “cultus”. The second way is through farming - or the “cult”ivation of the land. Not all cultures have been strong in both areas. Some cultures have survived with minimally transcendent religions, but not without traditions of farming. Likewise, some cultures have survived without farming, but not without religion.

Importantly, both religion and farming are based on humility. In the case of religion, this is obvious. God is our Father and requires that we submit to His will. Farming, however, is not so different. Growing a crop or raising animals involves the work of a farmer, for sure, but it also requires something more than a farmer. Work a hard as you will (and farmers work hard) and weather or pests may still destroy your crop. Sometimes you can compensate. Sometimes you can’t. It’s better to go along with the old agrarian saying and avoid “putting on airs”.

Farmers have had to be practical people because farming involves responding to unexpected contingencies. You can compliment a farmer by saying he raised a nice crop. But among farmers themselves, well aware that next year might not be the same, different criteria are used to judge a man. For a farmer, wisdom is more important than ephemeral success - wisdom that comes from experience; and experience that comes from the land and that which is higher than the land.

So there is wisdom and life in keeping both religion and farming. Unfortunately, in our arrogance, we are trying to do without both - for the first time in history. How in our right minds can we think that we will succeed? In the end, history is bound to win. Either we keep our culture, or we will cease to exist at all.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Work and Mountains

Not all kinds of work are the same. I don’t mean that laying bricks is different than programming a computer. That’s obvious. I mean that certain kinds of physical effort are healthy, both to the body and to the spirit; whereas, other forms of burning calories only tend to burn you out. Some work is both tiring and good for you. Other kinds of work are just tiring.

A number of years ago our family lived in Colorado and enjoyed hiking to the top of the state’s highest mountains (called 14ers by the locals because they exceed 14,000 feet in elevation). I say that we “enjoyed” it, but this is only true in the sense that one comes to enjoy hard work. It can wear you out while at the same time invigorate your soul. There is no way that a middle-aged man would have kept climbing those peaks if it weren’t for the whole-body effect that such an effort provides.

To climb a 14er with any dignity requires ascending at least 3,000 feet using your own power. Most 14ers require climbing more that this and many of them take more than a day to summit and descend. The ascent, takes at least several hours, and is roughly the equivalent of climbing stairs for several miles. Coming down is easier at first, but then can be even more painful if your knees are like mine.

Even for a physically fit mountaineer, such an effort is very demanding. For less fit individuals, like me, it becomes a matter of mind over body. The lack of adequate oxygen and the relentless incline soon make it virtually impossible to move with speed. At some point, usually not far above tree line, you learn that if you can’t find a pace with small enough steps that you can endure for a long time, you’ll never get to the top.

It’s also quite helpful to take aspirin before hiking too far. This not only helps relieve pain in the legs (and back if your wearing a heavy pack) but it helps mitigate the low oxygen in your blood. In the thin atmosphere of high elevations, you need all the help you can get to move oxygen into your body.

I recall one hike we took to the top of Mount Bross. The climb itself was just over 3,000 feet and was one of the least demanding of Colorado’s 14ers (this doesn’t mean it was easy - it wasn’t). We chose it so that my six-year-old son could join us. My 15-year-old son was hiking with us along with one of his friends. They were both experienced in the Colorado high country and would have been happy for a harder climb. When we were about 100 yards from the top, the friend decided he had enough energy to run the remaining distance. He did, and then turned purple. Fortunately he had enough sense to sit down before passing out.

One of the wonders of the high country is the boldness of the mammals. Chipmunks and pikas will watch you with interest at close range, waiting for a handout. Marmots, on some trails, will come right up to your grounded rucksack wiggling their noses. Mountain sheep and goats hardly bother to lift their heads to look at you. They seem to know that oxygen-deprived bipeds are no threat to them at all.

Another part of these long and strenuous hikes is that you have a lot of time to think. You think about the trail in front of you. You wonder if your stomach is awake enough for a snack. You guess how long it takes for a tiny primrose or a dwarf spruce to grow just a few inches. You wonder why you’re so happy to be so sore.

The reason, of course, is that humans - in fact all animals - are made for work, physical work. Our bodies - including our brains - are healthiest when they work. If you’re a bookworm like me, it’s quite surprising how much reading energy you acquire at the end of a long hike. The very thought of a good book can be more exciting than the thought of a bath.

But I don’t mean to glamorize work, especially hard work. Most of the time it isn’t nearly as exhilarating as climbing a mountain. Sometimes it isn’t exhilarating at all; and, in excess, it can be harmful. Even so, not working is much worse. We deceive ourselves if we think our bodies and minds will respond favorably to processed dinners and TV after a day in meetings or in front of a desk. No doubt these activities make us tired. But they aren’t the kind of work we were made to do. If you want to be happy, give your body some physical work to do. You’ll feel better.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Congratulations. You have just stumbled into an unlikely place: a blog of a quiet man who would much rather be outside, be alone with a good book, or talking with a friend or loved-one than troubling with cyberspace.

It was only because of a dear friend that I was somehow convinced to make the effort. Where this will end up is beyond me. Whether or not it survives more than a couple of posts is likewise uncertain.

It is certain, however, that this will be the last place you will want to visit for chitchat or the news. Small talk and staying up-to-date have never been high priorities for me, and I’m not that good at them. There are things, however, that do mean a lot to me: beautiful things, ennobling things, truthful things.

By beautiful I mean something that can cause an aesthetic quickening within me. My wife is beautiful. The pale pink trifle on the junco out back is beautiful. A rich harvest of cherries is beautiful. The crimson posturing of an autumn maple in the gloaming is beautiful.

Art may or may not be beautiful. At a basic level, art can be anything that is made. To me, however, it is more what A.R. Ammons says, as “the conscious preparation for the unconscious event…”. This unconscious event can sometimes be beautiful. It can also be something quite different. Most of Picasso’s paintings, for example, are not beautiful to me. But as a representation of the travesties of war and of a broken world, they are very truthful. I prefer beautiful art.

By ennobling things I mean magnanimous things – things reflecting true greatness of soul. Magnanimity can mean enduring tactlessness with mildness. It can mean bravery without pride. It can be just, benevolent, and refuse revenge. To Aristotle it was the crowning virtue.

We hardly hear of magnanimity anymore. It seems to have been absorbed, unfortunately, by the word “ambition” which used to be strictly a negative trait. This was the case when the positive meanings we recognize today were associated with magnanimity instead. Today, our word “ambition” is used for both the positive and the negative meanings. This is a significant loss.

While this makes it possible for ambitious people to aspire to noble ends, it also allows them to hide their pride and greed under its cloak. The sad truth is that the cloak is no longer even bothered with these days. We seem to think that greedily amassing things is good – especially if it creates more jobs. One of the most telling truths of our time is that greatness of goods (or the accumulation of things) is more admired than greatness of soul.

By truthful things I mean adherence to first principles. I sometimes get accused of knowing a lot of trivia. I suppose this is inevitable considering my enjoyment of taxonomy, and its basis in Latin and Greek vocabulary, and my love of words. Most of this information, though, is factual. And while it is true that facts fall under the umbrella of truth, they are hardly diagnostic of it. In fact they can, and often do, blind us to what is truly important.

Richard Weaver wrote that, “The whole tendency of modern thought, one might say its whole moral impulse, is to keep the individual busy with endless induction. Since the time of Bacon the world has been running away from, rather than towards, first principles, so that, on the verbal level, we see “fact” substituted for “truth”.”

Such truth is rare in our world given to relativism. It has been outlawed from the public square for years. Its disappearance is perhaps the greatest tragedy of our time. Fortunately there are still a few enclaves where it still survives. These enclaves are certainly worth looking for. When occasionally they are found, in the form of noble and beautiful souls, we even begin to have hope again for the world. Such should be the effort of true husbandry – to find and protect the enclaves.