My Turn: Evolution of farming in America


Published: 11/8/2017 9:00:39 AM

Today we live in an upside down world. Conventional wisdom has become obsolete in politics, media, energy and in farming as well. These days, we’re pretty much all living on the edge.

Farming on the fringe inspires us to be more creative, courageous and ergonomic in using horticulture, husbandry and permaculture as potent tools in the worthy work of regenerating soil, food, and ourselves.

There used to be a clear and obvious distinction between “real farmers” and the legions of “wannabe” backyarders, foodies, hippies and hobbyists who’ve historically fed their families on marginal plots but with decidedly less ambition, production or reach. But today, thanks in large part to a seismic shift in consciousness and understanding of the vital importance that wholesome, clean and local food plays, not only in our overall health but in that of our environment, our communities and our economy, there’s a booming (and not likely-to-slow-down) food revolution occurring at the grass roots level. And I’m not talking about Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsey or the cooking channel.

This revolution includes not only newly empowered gardeners, growers and crafters, who are today doing amazing and unprecedented work on all size and manner of so-called “marginal” plots, urban rooftops or refurbished warehouses — whether by wielding miraculous mycelium, busy beehives, uber-diverse, artisanal micro-farms, or just harnessing the yeasty alchemy of the microbrew. These niche producers are each smashing conventional wisdom daily, showing the world that “real farmers” need not be limited by space, capital, knowledge or mechanical acumen.

And this food revolution also includes huge numbers of non-growers or producers who have, in their vital role as educated and savvy consumers, added to the body of citizens who now understand better that we are truly part of a giant food “web,” who realize the significance of our food footprint, who know what nutrient-dense means and the nuanced difference between organic, local and sustainable. We could call this “food literacy,” and surely it is as vital as reading and writing.

This shift in consciousness is also due to a series of remarkable quantum leaps in our understanding and return to the practices of a biology-based, versus chemical, fertility, low tillage horticulture and the ubiquitous use of cover crops and sheet mulches to protect, build and regenerate soil and sequester carbon, all while yielding outstanding harvests, to boot. Let us loosely call this understanding and these not-so-new, regenerative-based methods “permaculture.”

As we age, we each try to make peace with the reality that we have less energy, less endurance and less time. Rather than be depressed about it, this truth reinforces our desire to be more efficient, more focused and more ergonomic in our all of our efforts. Permaculture teaches us to look for the simpler, smarter, more graceful solution to life’s various issues, not just farming.

And there always seems to be one, if you’re patient enough, flexible enough, humble enough or “lucky” enough for the epiphany.

Thus we learn to surrender control, to follow along curiously, and to participate as a partner in the natural rhythms of the Earth. We begin to look more to gravity, rain, mulch, the passing of seasons and to the worms and microbes themselves, to take over and to shoulder more of the heavy lifting. We build soil and growing zones, and then sometimes allow accidentally occurring “volunteers” to survive, go feral and perennialize in various “niches” around the farm. We salvage, re-use and recycle everything. We glean shamelessly and resuscitate “dead” stuff. We make intuitive decisions, change our minds and we turn on a dime.

Critics say that this kind of small-scale, biologically-based, diversified, permaculture growing motif is fine for a schoolyard or suburban backyard, but is pie in the sky for addressing the massive calorie needs of a hungry planet. Many still claim that a highly mechanized, chemical-based agriculture, with its proprietary, super seeds (GMO’s) and their concomitant herbicide baths, is the only realistic way to feed the world’s population. But the results have not proven their point, and the environment is today under unprecedented attack. The so-called “Green Revolution” utterly failed to stem poverty or hunger, while arguably ruining vast regions and helping to wash our inheritance to the sea. Observing this widespread degradation of land and soil must be our clarion call for implementing a new relationship to agriculture, food and to earth itself.

Luckily, solving our food and fertility problems is not going to be an either or affair. Surely, there will be appropriate applications for mechanized, production-based agriculture, long into the future.

However, today we must also begin to view nearly every small plot, every ecological niche, teenager, and/or blighted community as potential food producers, crafters, and cooks. If we teach our kids not only to be enlightened foodies, but also to be citizen farmers, “real” farmers versed in a basic literacy of organic horticulture, husbandry and food preparation skills, they will likely become savvier, more innovative growers and more ethical land stewards. Not to mention, good eaters!

Danny Botkin is an organic farmer, teacher and mentor at Laughing Dog Farm in Gill.

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