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 US. 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 percent 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
(C) 1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT).
Their collection of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a
Sustainable and Joyful Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135,
Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU,
public radio from Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted weekly at
http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since November 1995 are available
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