Jan 26 - Wendell
Written by Christine Laymon of farmfolkways.com, Yellowbird Member
But the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope. - Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America - 1977
Wendell Berry penned these words in 1977, in reaction to the edicts of the then Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Earl Butz. Mr Butz “had issued the most optimistic, the most widely obeyed, and the worst advice ever give to farmers: that they should plow “fencerow to fencerow.” Butz is also known for his quote, “get big or get out”.
Our farm, like many, many others, bears the scars of this agenda. Waterways, marginal lands, pastures and woodlots have all been used to plant vast monoculture fields. Now there is little habitat for quail and pheasants, the meadow song birds are few and far between, and life is disappearing from the soil, all this depletion while at the same time less desirable life like herbicide resistant weeds are taking hold and flourishing.
Today we know that Berry’s message was frighteningly prophetic, and because we have continued to ignore the warning signs, it is still very poignant and relevant 42 years later. If you have not read The Unsettling of America I encourage you to do so. Visit your local bookstore or you can find it here.
When we took possession of the farm in the early spring of 2016 I was so eager to move my gardening and farming operation to what would be our new home that I began working the soil for a garden as soon as I could. I was brimming with excitement at the idea of a fresh slate and a garden right outside my back door. As I was turning over the ground and dreaming of green heads of lettuce, and red plump strawberries my mother in law casually mentioned to my husband that I might want to check with the farmer’s co-op to find out about what herbicides and pesticides had been used there. My initial reaction was to say, “What?! They should have all dissipated - right? I don’t think they are a problem.” But then a memory in the back of my mind was triggered, an Amish organic farmer had mentioned to me that when they moved to a new farm in another community they wouldn’t be able to have a garden the first year because the farm had previously been a corn/soybean operation and someone else in the community had come down with cancer after growing a garden in ground that had just been converted from a chemically farmed field. At the time I had only given this a cursory thought, wondering casually if there was scientific evidence to back such a claim. But now whether it was a fable or not I was acutely aware of what it might mean for my own family. I was angry at myself for not thinking about the fact that corn had been planted as close to the house as possible and so everywhere I was standing had been treated for multiple years with a barrage of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. And I was disappointed because I knew even then that I would not have a garden that year, but what I would later find out was much more troubling. I cried hot, angry tears.
So I called the farmer’s co-op and talked to the supervisor in charge of chemical applications. After reviewing the labels and asking for copies to be sent to me I found out that the residual herbicide that had been applied to the fields repeatedly clearly stated that most of my vegetable plants would not produce this year, or next and for vining crops such as squash and melons, it could be 30 months! Perhaps I took this news as hard as I did because I had just given up a farm that I spent five years building, or maybe it was the feeling of having so little control over ground that my husband and I had sacrificed everything for. To add to my frustration I got the pleasure of spending a few phone conversations justifying to the farmer renting the land why there would be no residual herbicides applied to fields around the house that year because we planned on expanding our garden area the next. This of course went over as well as you can imagine it would. '
I should take a moment to say that I am certain that there are farmers who are farming with chemicals who do their best to protect the land, who are wholly invested in the integrity of their farming practices and wake up each day hoping to improve on what they have. They do not laugh manically over hot coffee about poisoning the earth. However, I personally, do not see how our current “modern” or “industrial” agricultural system is sustainable for the earth or mankind if it continues down the path it is on. I do not have an answer for fixing the situation but I know that continuing to pursue an agricultural system that must rob Peter in order to Paul is not the solution. We cannot continue our attempts to force production out of the land through artificial means without consequences. I am very optimistic about the work being done in developing regenerative and holistic agricultural practices.
I do not believe that success in agriculture is tied to commodity crops. In fact I believe that commodity crops and the lack of a free-market have done little to advance the well-being of farming in America. Historically many people were able to make a comfortable living farming - how did so much change in a few decades? The property lines of the farm we live on looks almost identical to the property lines for the same farm in 1871, although some surrounding land and has been bought and sold the “homeplace” approximately 200 acres has remained the same since 1829. The farmhouse here is a large brick Italianate home, built around 1878. The county history book from that time refers to it as “the most impressive brick structure in Pleasant Township to date”. A home like this must have cost a great deal of money to build, it stands equal in size and scope to some of the nicest historic homes in town, and it was built by a man who had farmed this exact acreage. Tell me now how he managed to build such an impressive home as a farmer? My suspicion is that he raised livestock, planted what he needed for them and a little extra to sell, and took care of the land. It is likely that he saved in order to make purchases and did not saddle his operation with debt. The rolling hills, ample water supply and woodlots would have been ideal grounds for pasture - and they still would be today, if they had not been clear cut, fences pulled out and plowed. My husband’s grandparents operated a dairy here for decades and we have beautiful overhead pictures that attest to his grandfather’s successful and varied use of the land as pasture with only a small amount of acreage planted in strips of varying crops to feed the cattle. We would like to return the farm to one of those earlier aerial views where a variety of flora and fauna are able to coexist and prosper.
Read more of Christine’s posts at www.farmfolkways.com