Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Mad Farmers from Kentucky

The following piece was in one of our local free newspapers (the nougat). David is the local farmer who has graciously taken us in and is helping us make the connection between our food and farming. The title is a tip of the hat to a beautiful poem called Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by fellow Kentuckian Mr Wendell Berry.

Guest Opinion: A Mad Farmer Rants
By David Wagoner

More than 200 years ago, the northeastern corner of Kentucky’s Bluegrass region became home to my paternal ancestors. What followed is a fairly common family history for Nicholas Countians: generations of farmers worked hard to keep a foothold on marginal land, raised big families, and subsisted in much the same way their ancestors had back in the Old World.

During the second half of the 20th Century, all of this changed for my family. The continuity was broken. As it turned out, I grew up in Lexington, not on a farm. But I came into farming, and found a little farm that was once my ancestors’ stomping grounds. It is a good home, worthy of all the attention and labor I can put into it, and it provides me with a modest living.

The greatest hope I have is to farm here sustainably, improving the land and our farming methods as we go, ultimately leaving the place better than we found it. This is often a terribly lonely task. As I toil in the field, or walk along trails on the farm, or wade in the creek, year by year, a thought repeatedly comes back to me: more people who eat to stay alive and healthy must participate in this effort to care for the land, so that it will continue to provide for us.

In our wealthy nation, less than two in a hundred people are farmers. Most are overworked and underpaid. In the name of providing cheap food, conventional farmers are charged with the horrendous tasks of tearing apart the land, chemicalizing it, polluting the water that washes over it and carries away the topsoil. The great majority of Americans never lift a finger to plant a seed or pick a fruit or gather an egg or stick a pig. But what is much worse, an insidious threat to our survival, is that more and more people are willing to give not even a moment’s thought to the origins of their food, and the requirements—nowadays destructive almost without exception—of creating it. In today’s agriculture, especially in the U.S., economies of scale are working against nature’s economy. The stakes get ever higher, farms get bigger, multinational agribusiness corporations consume one another. Conscientious consumers beware: food brands that bear the label “USDA Organic” are not immune to this trend towards unsustainable agribusiness.

What can we do to change this trend? Seek out land to get to know, and grow something on it—in your own yard, in a community garden, on a farm. Volunteer. Work. Use your weekends, use vacation time. Buy locally, eat seasonally, yes, but go further than that. Get to know your source more intimately. Realize that most farmers who are working towards farming in nature’s image—sustainably, organically—are earning so little pay for their efforts that they themselves are virtually volunteering on their own land in the name of good stewardship and good food. Many have bypassed lucrative careers in town to spend lifetimes working the land for little in return beyond knowing that their small piece of the wondrous blue-green earth is staying productive and healthy. They could easily fail without your support. Many already have. There have been days when I have felt ready to give up, and a couple of hours’ help on the farm from a customer has lifted my spirits and renewed my will to go on.

Action may seem to be optional now. But the writing is large on the wall that it will take more than two people in a hundred to work the land, to know the land, in order for us all to be fed. More of us must step back from the hyper-stimulation and over-mediation of what now passes for normal life.

We presently have the great luxury of easing back toward a sustainable, local and land-based economy. In decades to come, the urgency of this transition, likely forced by a scarcity of petroleum and clean water, will make for a less comfortable, if not calamitous, transition to a more sane way of life.

This is not a mess for future generations to clean up. This is ours. The time is now. Let’s get in touch with our inner Mad Farmer and get to real work.

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