Farms

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, November 28, 1997

For my friend Sam, who lived and farmed in Oxford for over 90 years and was an inspiration to me, and for my son Dan, whose interest in and enthusiasm for farming gives me great satisfaction and hope.

For more than 100,000 years, people have been eating animals and the leaves, fruits, roots and seeds of plants that grow near where they live. For much of that time, most human beings had a direct connection to the plants and animals with whom they shared their environment. They internalized important information about the life cycles of flora and fauna, about the seasonality of seeds and fruits and the workings of ecosystems. This knowledge formed the basis of culture.

About 10,000 years ago, with the beginning of agriculture, people began planting seeds, harvesting grains and keeping animals for milk, wool and meat. Over many generations, early farmers developed grains and vegetables out of their wild plant ancestors.

Farming expanded the kinds of knowledge people acquired. Now they were actively involved in cultivating plants and caring for animals. Farms provided food for the families which worked them. Because these small farms fed families rather than nations, diversity and reliability were essential. Oftentimes, there was a bit of a surplus to sell, too.

These farms operated within the elegant, biological reality of our planet. Solar energy bathes the earth. Plants, using photosynthesis, collect a bit of that energy and store it as leaves, roots, grains and fruits. Animals, including humans, eat plants (and sometimes other animals) in order to take in the stored solar energy that they need to be active and stay alive. Wastes, deposited on the ground, decompose and enrich the soil. Plants drop their seeds and grow into similar plants. Wind, water, wood, animals and people, all passing along solar energy, provide any needed power that the sun doesn't supply directly. The great civilizations of China, Africa, North, South, and Central America as well as of Europe, grew out of direct relationships with the land and the sun.

Now farmers are a dying breed. Advice to young people discourages farming as a career. Our society just doesn't need farmers anymore, I guess.

Since about 1940, there has been a steep decline in the number of farms in the U. S. In the last ten years, about 500 farms have gone out of business every week. Now, there are fewer than two million farms. As the number of farms has decreased, the percentage of food produced by the largest farms has gone way up. The 400,000 largest farms produce about 80% of the food for sale in this country. Of course, the largest farms are often the ones that most resemble factories. They are highly dependent on fossil fuels, pesticides, plastics, energy-intensive buildings and equipment. They are also frequently the most dependent on government payments to subsidize their expenses. Many of the largest farms raise just one or two crops - wheat or lettuce, pigs or broccoli, or a million chickens. Instead of depending upon solar-powered biological cycles, these farms operate on the linear-mechanical model. They discharge vast quantities of animal, fertilizer, or pesticide wastes into their environments. These large farms are disconnected from nature's cycles and consequently, so are most of us.

Farming has been transformed from a biological process into a computerized, industrial production and distribution system.

As fewer and fewer people have a direct connection to the sources of their sustenance, however, we discover that the knowledge absorbed by our ancestors from their connection to the land was vitally important. David Orr says that farms provide a reality check on human possibilities in nature. Our ignorance seriously stresses the entire planet.

However, even as small, mixed, biological farms are marginalized by giant agribusinesses, we find that we need farms for other important reasons. We need them for what they teach us about the environment. Dartmouth and Hampshire colleges now have organic farms. Community farms that teach primary and secondary school students where their food comes from are sprouting up in cities all over the country. Many of these also provide plots where urbanites with farm experience can grow food to sell in their neighborhoods. Nature centers in many communities are adding a farm component to their programs.

Local, ecological farms produce more than just food. It's important that we remember this before all the farms disappear.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth


This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.