“Whatever you think you can do, begin it.” This was Brian’s advice to our Agroecology course, after an intensive week of lecture, discussion and farm visits centered around the question of how we as a society can feed ourselves more ecologically, and how we as individuals can support that process. Brian has been farming the same land for nearly fifty years. Before that, life had landed him in a catering position at a Campbell’s soup factory, when the production of gloppy cans of alphabet noodles swimming in tomato was outsourced from the U.S. to England. It was a good job for a while, he says. But after almost a decade there, he found this advice scrawled on a piece of paper left anonymously on his desk. He took it to heart, he and his wife purchased a small-holding, and never looked back.
It’s difficult to wrap my mind around how much has changed in Brian’s lifetime. World population has more than tripled, agriculture has become primarily an exercise in industrial chemistry, and millions of people who have never picked up a spade now play FarmVille on Facebook. Meanwhile, the skills that amount to real husbandry, commonplace just a few generations ago, have followed a trajectory toward extinction. An indistinguishable combination of choice and circumstance brings ever more people to cities, those swelling organs of economic activity which, in the prophetic words of Italiano Calvino, "are made of desires and fears." The ability to tend gardens, build fences, care for animals, preserve food, use tools, and generally tinker has become less and less relevant.
This is more than just a list of lost skills. It has a cumulative effect on our capacity to directly experience the world, in its visceral complexity. There is something about taking pruners in your hands, moving your eyes along the bare branch of a blueberry shrub in winter, finding the node where the coming year’s growth will emerge, and making the angled cut through pith just above, that Farmville simply cannot replace. Blueberry - not just the berry, but the whole plant, and its whole context, becomes a part of your mind. What happens when pop a perfect fruit from that very branch the following August? Or when cedar waxwings, in their splendid summer dress, get there before you do? Or when a storm rips through the night, and you wake up to find hard, green berries scattered on the ground? What can you learn through a hands-on collaboration with forces beyond your control?
When I graduated from college in 2010, I went to work on a small, family-run organic farm on Vashon Island in Washington State. I quickly fell in love with farming. Someone introduced me to Wendell Berry, and his poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” became my guide. “Say that the leaves are harvested/when they have rotted into mold./ Call that profit./ Prophecy such returns.” Since then, I’ve invested most of my time, energy and money in learning the language of the leaves, and developing the ability to participate in the turning and returning of which they speak.
Sometimes, I’ve deeply doubted this investment. Become a farmer? I wasn’t interested in a romantic back-to-the-land “escape” from “civilization”; farming was as much a political act as an agricultural one. How we feed ourselves sits at the crux of all human affairs - the health of our bodies, our communities, and our societies. This is part of a pattern much bigger than ourselves. All biological organisms take in energy, develop, and expend “waste,” which other organisms make use of. How they do this defines their relationships in their habitat. Our habitat, ultimately, is the biosphere itself.
To become a farmer is to shape in some way how humanity inhabits the biosphere. How we farm, then, is a pretty important question.
Agroecology refers to an approach to agriculture that follows a precedent set by nature itself by being diverse, integrated, and low-input (cyclical). Systems designed according to these patterns are inherently complex. A monoculture can be managed by very few people, relying on increasing standardization and imported fertility. The effects of feeding ourselves with this model are well-documented; it is clearly neither sustainable nor resilient, and even its fleeting productivity must been viewed in relation to the enormous entropy that results. Agroecological systems, on the other hand, offer the possibility of “maximizing creativity while minimizing entropy”, which, as William Grassie writes, is “the new ethical, aesthetic, and pragmatic axiom for our future success.”
For complex agroecological systems to work, they must be highly skilled and rightly-scaled. The implication is that we need more farmers. Many, many more.
This is the context in which I find myself. The decision to become a farmer feels like it belongs not only to me. Is it perhaps also an expression of the current relationship between humanity and our habitat? An agrarian renaissance is already underway. It has a lot of learning and (pun inevitable) growing to do, as it is not just a rekindling of traditional skills, but a necessarily creative synthesis of old wisdom with new technological affordances. Those joining this renaissance are tasked with nothing less than shepherding agroecology into cultural relevance and economic viability.
To identify my role and pursue it fully is both deeply personal and deeply participatory - the only way to, as poet Mary Oliver urges, “let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves” while taking its true place in “the family of things”. I have no choice, I think, but to follow Brian’s advice.
Whatever you think you can do, begin it. Maybe I'll see you in the field.
Sending out gratitude to all the growers who feed us, and who have helped me grow. You know who you are. Thank you.