I write science fiction, I once managed a small farm using permaculture ideas and organic principles, I’ve gardened all my life, and I’m a scientist. Yesterday’s post about Persistent Food Myths was written out of exasperation at the hysteria surrounding the use of ‘chemicals’ on our crops, which is far to broad a term to be any use at all – should we not water plants? Because water is a chemical. When I do allow myself to be drawn into debates on the topic, I see a disturbing trend toward demonizing farmers, and that I’d like to address. There seems to be a split here – a small farmer growing enough food for themselves and a bit extra for market, that guy is a Good Guy, and he’s the one locavores want to support with their movement of eating local foods only. I have no objection to this – Dad and I were that guy, a few years back. But the big corporate farmer, he’s the Bad Guy, the one who giggles evilly and rubs his hands with glee while spraying deadly ‘chemicals’ all over food before trucking it off to kill unsuspecting consumers.
Obviously, that guy doesn’t exist. He’s a myth, one created by media who need to sell their products, whether that’s a newspaper, a click on their website to an article, or a TV mockumentary special. Here’s the thing – farming is hard work. On a bad year, you have crops fail, you have debt out your eyeballs, and you’re holding on by your fingernails. On a good year, you get to pay back that debt. The result? One of the highest suicide rates by profession. If your mental image of a farmer is a guy in overalls with a piece of grass hanging out of his mouth, you’re not getting the whole picture. Most farmers are college educated, very aware of the trends in agriculture, and working to pilot their business – because that is what a working farm is – through the rocks and shoals of things he cannot control, into the safer waters of money in the bank and no looming debts.
I’ve never farmed at a large scale, but I know that these men and women are very conscious of what they are doing, and why. They do not want to harm anyone, any more than you do. They keep up with the regulations – even if not out of concern for the quality of what they produce, knowing that violating the law has serious consequences in terms of fines, even jail. American farmers feed the world. I’m not indulging in hyperbole, here. The USA is the largest food exporter in the world, sending out over $150 billions dollars worth of food to hungry countries. Not all of that is for profit, a significant portion is food aid sent to countries suffering from crop failures and the threat of famine. Should we be doing that? Well, that’s beyond the scope of today’s article. We do it, and we can afford to do it, is the point, because of our farmers who work the land and grow more food than we need here in our nation.
Farming has evolved from the days of the plow and the hoe and the horse. My point above about farmers being educated is that most of them love their land. They are, as a group, conservationists at heart. Why else would you put in uncountable hours breaking your body and soul for relatively little reward, if you didn’t love this?
As knowledge has grown, practices and procedures have changed, and farming has become more conscious of the dangers inherent in disturbing the land. Rotation of crops is now common practice. So is fertilizing fields – and I was surprised to learn when I was reading Norman Borlaug‘s biography that learning the need to do that happened not so long ago. He wrote of having to teach resistant farmers in India that they must feed the soil, or their crops would fail. Pesticides and insecticides that were once common have been abandoned due to health concerns.
The future looks exciting. We are learning more and more about the interaction of the soil, and plants, and the microbiome that helps crops thrive (check this out if you’re interested, it’s a great source of studies and papers about the soil microbiome). Scientists are avidly studying the web of fungus, bacteria, and other microorganisms that lie beneath the surface, and have shown that restoring these to depleted fields can restore vitality to the plants grown there. They have a long way to go, but I can see a future where that crop sprayer is laying down a mist of microbes and spores, boosting the field like a cup of yogurt may be helping your gut after a course of antibiotics. This is also leading the way into less disruption of the topsoil, which reduces erosion, dust, and other losses of that micro-web. Planting without tilling is the new future of farming.
Contrary to popular belief, farmers would rather not use a lot of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. They are expensive. While at one time there was certainly a school of thought along the lines of ‘some is good, more is better,’ this has largely been eliminated by education, financial pressure, and regulations. As new data becomes available, and better products, the farmers move toward cheaper, more precise application of the nutrients their crops need.
Where do we go from here? Farming has changed enormously in the last century, keeping up with the world’s population despite all gloomy predictions. It can continue to keep pace if public perceptions do not cripple the development of crops and methods that can give us greater yields with lowered costs due to lessened uses of herbicides and pesticides. Steps in that direction are already happening. The genetic modification of crops, in spite of outright hostility and unethical attacks, is already yielding more food for people in countries that do not have the bountiful land and money the US does. Foods that can be ‘biofortified’ by added nutirients can significantly improve the health of the people who have no other choices for their foodstuffs, but still, the wealthy and privileged who assume that everyone can eat like they do, go on the attack. When it comes down to it, we have the choice to support farms and farming, eat well, and teach others how to farm, or we can deny them the advances and let them starve. I know what I would choose to do – and am choosing to do, by writing about the issues.
I can remember the best of days, kneeling with my hands in the good dirt, planting and reveling in the spring sunshine. I can remember the frustration and anger of coming out in the morning to find that an unexpected frost had laid all the tomato plants low, despite covers and protections we’d put up in the cold dark. I remember my boots half-full of cold muddy water while I worked in the field, shivering but needing to get this done before I could go warm up. There’s no taking a break, in farming. When the goats (or in most people’s case, cows) need milking, you milk. You can’t put that off because you want to sleep in one morning. When the rain is coming and the hay is on the ground, you work until you can’t see straight, covered in sweat and dust, to put it up safe and dry.
I miss it, sometimes, and then I come to my senses. I appreciate the farms, and farmers, and it irks me to see the ignorant ranting about how they won’t eat chemicals, when they haven’t any idea what they are talking about, they are just regurgitating the melodramatic, manipulative propaganda being fed to them. I try hard to be nice, and I work at empathy. But I don’t understand a person who would rather children starve, than come to a more full understanding of what farming is really about. I don’t want to understand the kind of person that would say ‘but we don’t want that many people to live,’ when they are talking about the death toll a preventable parasite takes on the world. I’m not that person. I believe that science holds the answers to feeding the world, and furthermore, doing it without destroying the world. I see the potential in permaculture, and genetic engineering, and teaching children where their food comes from. We can’t all have gardens, or grow everything our families eat. But we can support the people who grow our food, without turning them into the boogeyman.