spirituality as the foundation of sustainable agriculture

Joel Brooks Gruver (jgruv@wam.umd.edu)
Sat, 31 Jul 1999 19:16:57 -0400 (EDT)

Hello to all...

Debate about what motivates farmers to choose
management practices is a perennial thread that will weave its
way through the SANET archives as long as SANET exists...

The recent request for discussion about how spirituality
relates to sustainable agriculture has motivated me to share a few

I think that "spirituality" is at the root of why farmers
develop and adopt stewardship oriented management systems.
While economics and government regulations are certainly key factors that
drive managment decisions, I believe that nearly all farmers that have
developed and adopted "stewardship oriented management systems" (not just
select conservation management practives) are motivated by a deep
conviction that they are farming in a way that is good
for their land.

When I use the term "stewardship oriented management systems", I
am refering to management systems implemented by farmers that at some
level, are consciously attempting to sustain and/or improve their
farms natural resource base. These farmers may not be familiar
with the lingo of ecology, yet they use management systems that
both benefit from ecosystem processes and maintain the
integrity of these processes.

I recommend that all of you read the following publication:

Moore, P., Nopar, D., Paddock, J. and R. Kroese. 1988. Excellence in
agriculture : interviews with ten Minnesota stewardship farmers. Land
Stewardship Project, Stillwater, MN, 105p.

Some of the interviewed farmers are organic, others are not... all use
practices that they think are good for their land. Many of the farmers
are religious people that are
guided in their stewardship of the land by their religious principles.

Stewardship farmers make management decisions that are constrained by
economic and regulatory realities... however, the dominant
constraint which bears upon every management decision is their
sense of right and wrong. An individuals sense of right and wrong may be
grounded in a specific religious tradition, in core convictions
arrived at through self-discovery or any number of influences.
The bottom line is that one's sense of right and wrong is something
spiritual that is beyond profit, survival of the fittest or fear of

I think that some of the activists in the organic movement would be very
surprised if they had a conversation with some of the long term no-till
farmers that I collaborated with during my Masters degree
research on farmer perceptions of soil quality.

These farmers are deeply interested in stewardship of their land
and are fervent believers that they have greatly improved the soils
on their farm through long-term no-till (with herbicides
and synthetic fertilizers). My analysis of their soils showed that
nearly all the long-term no-till soils had high levels of
soil health indicator parameters e.g. organic matter and microbial biomass
and aggregate stability.

As in any business, some farmers
are guided in their actions by strong principles while others are trying
to get away with whatever they can. I accept that different farmers have
different concepts of the best management practices for their land.
Sustainability is inherently diverse in form.
Farmers, scientists, politicians, people... that are not guided in their
actions by strong principles are the bane of sustainability.

Joel Gruver
Soil Quality Research
University of MD

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