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Friday, March 23, 2012

What is a Real Farmer?

So, I want to be a real farmer? What does that mean to me? A real farmer is nothing new. It’s not novel or trendy, it’s more of a return to farming the way it was before we industrialized it. Sure there are modern inventions and techniques we can use to make it a bit easier but for the most part it’s a skill and knowledge set that has been around since man first started planting seeds. If you asked anyone in the early 1900s  and before what a real farmer was they would have an easy answer for you. It would probably include the name of the very farmers who supplied their food (if in fact it wasn’t they themselves).

Is a real farmer “Sustainable” or “Organic” or what? The easy answer is yes. Like any label we apply in life these just don’t quite cover it. For one thing these terms have been taken hostage by the green movement. The more mainstream and regulated they become the weaker they get. Organic regulations are constantly being weakened by Big Agribusiness. At the same time they are becoming harder and harder to achieve by small farmers who don’t have the infrastructure or overhead to comply. Sustainable is the buzz-word of the day and it’s a fine goal to be sure but neither of these encompass all that a real farmer is.  There is one word that comes close for me, and that is respect. A real farmer respects the land, the crops, the natural flora and fauna, the seasons, the food, the weather, and the community she intends to feed. 

A real farmer lives and works in harmony with the seasons and the earth. A real farmer understands that when you harvest and eat nutrients from the soil you have to put those nutrients back in for your next crop. A real farmer respects the complexity of that soil and understands that it needs more than just 3 nutrients to make it healthy. Modern fertilizers have over simplified soil maintenance to focus on 3 main nutrients, N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium). It is true that keeping these in proportion help crop yields but it is also true that food grown in our current industrialized system have lower and lower nutritional value each harvest. Soil is one of the most complex eco systems on the planet and each element whether animal, vegetable, and mineral is essential to soil health. Managing soil health is one of the most important jobs of a real farmer. There are many techniques including crop rotation, green manure from cover crops, composting, letting the land rest by leaving it fallow, organic fertilizers, and more. 

A real farmer also respects and appreciates the land around the producing fields. Allowing for natural habitat nearby encourages natural flora and fauna, which can reduce the need for pesticides. If you have good habitat for native birds they will thrive on the pesky bugs you would otherwise have to deal with yourself before they eat all your crops. A real farmer knows that any chemical you add to your fields will end up in the food and ultimately in the consumer’s body.  Today’s industrial pesticides are not only toxic to pests but also to farm workers and consumers. They don’t just wash away either. Pesticides end up deep in the soil for years or leach into our water supplies.  These are broad-spectrum poisons designed to kill everything in their path. There are plenty good bugs that a real farmer would know and appreciate and hate to see eliminated from her fields.

A real farmer knows how good her food tastes freshly picked and wants it to be appreciated that way. She knows how good it is for you and that to get the most nutritional value it must be enjoyed while those nutrients are still thriving. This precludes the idea of shipping food long distances and encourages community involvement in food production.  A real farmer is by necessity a local food supplier.

A real farmer is what I am studying to become. I hope that over the course of the next 7 months I will begin to approach this ideal. Moreover I hope that my understanding of what a real farmer is deepens to include all of the nuances I’m not even aware of yet.  Maybe I’ll rewrite this essay in 7 months, I know it will be different.  Maybe I’ll rewrite it again in 7 years. I hope it will be different then too.

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