Why I want to Be a Real Farmer
You can thank Michael Pollan and his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma for helping me focus my energies on local food. I have known for a long time that our industrialized food system is broken but it took this work of investigative journalism to show me a way out. I opted out of factory meat farming at age 20 and have never looked back. Now as I approach age 30 I’m learning how to get out of the system all together. The trouble with that is there is not enough infrastructure to get us all out yet. That’s where I come in. Not just me, but a whole movement of young (some not so young) individuals who realize that our current method of food production is not working and the only way to fix it is to move the farms back into the communities that they feed. This means we need more farms and more farmers.
Briefly, here are a few reasons why current industrialized farming is bad for us, bad for the planet, and bad for the farmers who have succumbed to it. What you are about to read is over simplified for the sake of space and time. If you have any specific questions I’ll try to answer them in the comments.
Monoculture is the practice of growing large quantities of one crop in one place year after year. This is common practice in much of the middle of the country. Corn and Soybeans are grown almost exclusively by a large percentage of farmers in the US. They are then turned into “food products” in laboratories. You’ll find these in the middle of every supermarket in the US, wrapped in plastic or boxed in cardboard. Through some market tricks and government subsidies the price of corn is kept artificially low and farmers have to grow more and more each year just to break even. The only way to do this is buy seed that is Genetically Modified (GMO) to have high yields and be resistant to specific pesticides. These seeds have had their DNA spliced and extra genes inserted with the help of viruses. This technology is new and we don’t really know what the long-term effects will be. These seeds are also programmed to created infertile seeds in their fruit. This forces the farmer to buy new seeds every year. These seeds are also patented. This means that any cross-pollination leaves farmers who have opted out of GMO plants subject to prosecution when their fields are inevitably cross-pollinated (contaminated) with GMO seed. This is becoming a big problem and has put several farmers out of business when they get sued for everything their family has built up for generations.
If a farmer chooses to buy and grow these GMO seeds the nice thing for them is that they can spray incredibly powerful pesticides on their fields without harming the crop. The crop is genetically resistant to the pesticide but it’s nasty stuff and will kill everything else in its path, arguably even us. It is also convenient that farmers can buy the seeds and the pesticide from the same company.
Once the crop has left the field it will be shipped for processing and distribution. The concept of food miles helps us understand how far food travels from farm to fork. The average food item in the US travels about 5,000 miles. It’s no mystery that fresh food is perishable. In order to get it to a grocery store looking good genetic modification comes back into play along with expensive and energy intensive refrigeration and an arsenal of chemical assistants.
By the time your GMO tomato has made it to the supermarket it has been grown in soil that was depleted years ago, fertilized with concoctions derived from munitions chemicals that we had in excess after WWII, sprayed with pesticides derived from nerve gas from the same era, picked by underpaid, overworked and often sick from chemical exposure immigrants, shipped thousands of miles and in the end has no flavor to speak of. It is no wonder Americans today don’t love vegetables, many of them have never tasted a truly fresh one.
I could go on, and I will later, but this is enough for now. For all these reasons and more I am leaving a life in the theatre for a life on the farm. I’m ready to work harder than I ever have and to reap the rewards of that work with good food for myself, my family and my community. I couldn’t be more proud of this decision or more grateful to my friends and family for supporting it. I look forward to sharing this journey with you through this blog as I grow into a farmer.
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.