Tuesday, March 17, 2009

growing new ways of learning


Calling for one third of the US population to begin participation in agriculture paints a picture unlike what most Americans have envisioned for their future. In fact explicitly calling for 100 million new farmers in the US played somewhat awkwardly to those willing to listen to such a striking strategy over the past few years. We all love farmers and the idea of having more of them, embedded in a plan to return America to its agriculture roots, is a sensible idea in light of all we’ve lost and all we’re facing. But to many, especially those suffering from a serious case of what James Kunstler calls, the psychology of previous investment, such a plan just hasn’t seemed reasonable or realistic until recently.

However the idea that we need more people doing the work of growing food is gaining traction. I spent time yesterday with soil specialist Ron Danise who told me that at a recent seminar he helped put on, a US Senator from South Carolina showed up with that state’s Commissioner of Agriculture and said SC wanted, “thousands of new 20 acre farms.” That sounds like support to me.

About the project of reimagining American agriculture, Post Carbon Institute Fellow Jason Bradford recently said, “…spending too much time trying to circumscribe the problem may delay us moving towards appropriate responses. I believe the broad vision of what needs to be done already exists—food that is more local, organic, produced, processed and distributed by renewable energy systems, and using cultivation methods that put the soil health first.” It seems logical that we need to get the work of, as author Michael Pollan describes it, “resolarizing the American farm.”

I believe that the time to begin this work in earnest is here and I think getting our hands dirty at this stage is particularly important because the transitional strategies we choose will ultimately affect the resulting agricultural system we wind up with.

Gene Logsdon said in an interview, “Information dose not make one successful at farming and gardening. Experience does. We have been led to believe that a college degree brings success; not having a degree brings failure. That is so stupid. …the degree does not bring success. Love and bullheadedness bring success, especially in food production.” What systems and organizations might be useful in helping us transition to more sustainable system of agriculture? What strategies can help us get our hands dirty and give us the experience needed to grow more food? How might we best go about fostering love and bullheadedness? These are the questions of how we should proceed with transitional strategies aimed at remaking agriculture.

It’s true that resources like access to land, equipment and capital and the mentorship of experienced farmers are more easily shared with coordinated efforts that bring to bear the assets of existing organizations. For example NC State is collaborating with the Orange County Cooperative Extension Center and the Economic Development Commission on the farm incubator program PLANT (People Learning Agriculture Now for Tomorrow) at the W.C. Breeze Family Farm Agricultural Extension & Research Center. Now there’s a mouthful.

Closer to home I graduate this Thursday evening from a class I’ve been taking to become a Participating Farmer in the new Farm Incubator program in Cabarrus County, NC. This program is like PLANT and others all across the country aimed at helping gardeners make the leap to market farming. Is gives participants access to resources they need like land and offers help with everything from shared equipment to classes on production and marketing. I’m learning skills like how to construct a greenhouse and build soil fertility but also I’ve had help putting together a business plan. With the assistance of this program I’ll be running a CSA program this summer as well as documenting the Farm Incubator process in a new book I’m calling Hatched.

It seems reasonable that the Farm Incubator model can serve as a useful transitional strategy aimed at creating a more sustainable system of agriculture but we need other strategies as well. Writing about the project of growing a 100 million new farmers in the US, Bradford says, “not only is the absolute number very large compared to today, but given the age of the current crop of farmers it implies that a rapid education of youth will be required to keep bread on the table.” We need more gardening and farming in schools with programs like The Edible Schoolyard program pioneered by Alice Waters. Bradford is himself doing some excellent work with schoolyard farming and farm start up which he chronicles in How to Start a Farm With No Land and Little Money. One of my favorite models centered around an educational institution is the olive oil production project at UC Davis where olives from trees on the university campus were derided as a nuisance before that school began harvesting the fruit and pressing it into oil for sale.

An examples I’m more familiar with is Will Hooker who, along with and others, has been teaching permaculture out of the Department of Agriculture and Life Sciences at NC State for nearly two decades. Four year institutions certainly have the resources to help with the changes we’re facing. However these institutions can be reluctant to change quickly enough to address the critical needs facing agriculture today; especially those who are funded by agricultural corporations who stand to profit from a continuation of the status quo for as long as that is possible. The result could be that more inflexible organizations like large universities unable to stay relevant and effective in a world where adaptivity and flexibility are need to draw the new breath necessary to rapidly transform our agricultural system.

On the other hand schools like Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, NC have been practicing and teaching sustainable agriculture for more than a decade. Without all the trappings of a large university they are unable to meet the needs of tens of thousands of students a year but remain more adept at meeting the local needs of students in a community that has become a hotbed for sustainable research and development in part because of this very useful school.

There is no doubt we need programs for helping huge industrial farms scale back without going bankrupt or causing severe disruptions to our food supply. As a society, we have spent decades degrading rural life and farm culture. We will desperately need the knowledge embodied in the farmers who have managed to stay in business, often by working on the farm as well as doing the work of growing our food. Not only do we owe it to them to help big farmers make the transition to a more sustainable model, it’s likely we won’t be able to feed ourselves without their help. What would programs designed to help foster this change look like?

An of course individuals are likely to begin learning on their own and sharing what they learn. David Holmgren, talking about this process of planning for the future says,

“One of the things I think a lot of urban planners miss is that they assume that any future framework will be driven by public policy and forward planning and design, whereas I think given the speed with which we are approaching this energy descent world and the paucity of any serious consideration, planning or even awareness of it, we have to take as part of the equation that the adoptive strategies to it will happen just organically, incrementally by people just doing things in response to immediate conditions.”

In our book, A Nation of Farmers, Sharon Asyk and I call on the rich iconography of the Victory Garden movement. We suggest, as many others have, a reinvigoration of the VG idea not in an effort to battle others abroad but in the effort to fight hunger here at home, a battle waged on the home front against all the ills of industrial agriculture. We both believe that home food production is an important component of the bullseye diet, the attempt to eat as locally as possible. It may be here in the myriad laboratories of backyard and frontyard gardens all across the country that we see the work of reinvigorating agriculture take root. Programs for harnessing this experimentation and its innovation that help share knowledge and experience with others and scale it up where appropriate- marrying those with old resources to those with new ides- might mean new cultural vehicles of education going forward.

2 comments:

Tanya K. said...

Aaron-
When you spoke to that US Senator from S.C. did he mention how he is proposing to help support thousands of new 20 acre farms?
I'm curious if they are going to offer some sort of tax break or subsidy if we purchase the land now...do you have any more info on that?
Great post on your blog by the way(-:

Fay Johnson said...

I agree Tanya and would really like to know who the US Senator was and as you can see they failed to mention who it was. Sounds like a bunch of bull really.