From the West down to the East

November 13, 2009 at 5:12 pm (Agriculture, Musings)

so i haven’t had a chance to write a new blog for quite some time now, largely due to the fact that i’ve been traveling across the country from oregon back to pennsylvania.  there have been a few days here and there that saw around a thousand miles of this great nation, and the others were filled with exploring the nooks and crannies of parts previously unknown.  driving across the country like this really gave me a sense of the sweeping changes that the landscape undergoes, sometimes in a matter of minutes of driving (others many many hours).  i came up from the seasonally arid region of southern oregon to the lush green landscape and draping mosses of the pacific (coastal) northwest, the high desert plateau of eastern oregon and washington, the rolling (though massive) mountains of montana, the emptiness of wyoming, the grand and majestic colorado rockies, the overwhelming size of the great plains (which by the way begin in colorado as soon as you step foot off the rocky mountains heading east), the surprising beauty of the wooded rolling hills (albeit quite small, but what a relief) of western kansas, the epic sprawl af southern illinios and indiana, to finally return home to the stately splendour of the appalachians.  it’s a lot of landscape to digest over the course of ten days and it really got me thinking about a lot of things, but being as that i am a farmer i thought mostly about the abundance of farmland whizzing by.

while America is no longer a land of farmers (there are more people actively incarcerated than actively farming) it is still a land of farms.  it’s almost impossible to drive down any interstate in any part of the country without coming across farms (except in the Real Deserts), whether they be the endless seas of grain in the midwest, the cattle stations of the mountain west, or the fertile valleys of the east and west coasts, and on each of those farms there is a farmer (or farmers) trying to bring a crop in, make a living, and preserve the land as best he (or she) knows how.  which more or less brings me to the point of the day- Sustainability is a regional thing.  america is filled with mind blowingly diverse landscapes, ecosystems, environments, and weather patterns.  each of these factors (along with a myriad of others) affects what grows well, what kind of problems and pests will arise, and what the best control options are.  Fr’isntance; in southern oregon and the central valley of california, they recieve only seasonal rainfall (mid fall to mid spring), have extremely low humidity, and have access to water for irrigation, making it ideal for certified organic production (low rain and humidity drastically reduce disease pressures, as well as limiting the size of insect populations) and not surprisingly is where a large proportion of US organic produce comes from (especially the brands found in supermarkets).  in contrast, the east coast hs intermittent year round rain fall, high summer humidity, and no institutionalized irrigation network (i.e. farmers who want to irrigate are on their own to find water).  because of this disease pressures are exponentially higher, insect populations are larger, and organic production is much more difficult, and unsurprisingly more rare.  what this all boils down to is this: there is no national definition of Sustainability.  Sustainability is dictated by the environment, the prevalent problems, and available resources.  more on this to come.


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The Art of Science

October 30, 2009 at 4:27 pm (Agriculture, Philosophy)

i consider myself to be a natural philosopher of the pre-scientific revolution strain with a grounding in sound modern scientific method.  i do not consider myself a scientist.  this distinction is important (at least to me) because it provides the basis of my thoughts on agriculture as well as the foundation of my worldview.  one of the mantras of the horticulture department at penn state (where i spent many a happy year) was that horticulture is the Science and Art of growing plants.  i believe this whole heartedly.  there is inarguably a scientific understanding of plant mechanics and biology,  the process of changes that occur hormonally, chemically, and physically that allow a seed to take up water (imbibition for all you over-achievers)  become a seedling subsequently flourish (or die).  science has plotted the life cycles of many of the prevelant pests in agricultural crops; we know what aphids eat, how they mate, who they tend to hang out with; we understand how a fungi invades a plant, puts down roots, and feeds off the cells of the host; we know how plants are going to react and adapt to droughts, or floods, or heat or cold.   Science has studied all this and more (unfathamoble amounts more) and understands much of it, but simply having this knowledge does not mean you can farm (or garden, or even keep a house plant alive for two weeks).  because science can’t account for art.

science doesn’t understand jazz.  and to me, farming, over the course of a season, is just like playing jazz.  there is no right or wrong note, just the last note, the next note, and the space between.  the only mistakes you make playing jazz are making notes you can’t resolve into music (and music my friends is in the ear of the beholder).  farming is all about settling down into the pocket of the groove, riffin off what Nature sends your way, and never getting hung up on an individual note, but always minding the overall tune.  i don’t think there is (or ever was) a Right or Wrong way to farm(or live for that matter), simply systems that did or did not work for individuals.  on the grand scale we all just build our lives around what notes and harmonies sound Right to us, eventually settling our lives into the key we’re most comfortable riffing in.

of course it always helps to have a strong foundation of fundamentals.  in music it’s rudiments, scales, rythms, and theory, in agriculture it’s ecology, pathology, physiology and biology.  Understanding the basics allows you to build on them.  Knowing the principles lets you soar.


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Why 2.0?

October 29, 2009 at 7:07 pm (Agriculture, Musings)

Why 2.0?  Where is 1.0?  (and 1.2)  They don’t exist.  they were just the idea, discussed ad nauseum a long time ago, but have provided the seeds of the blog before us today.  perhaps to start with the idea of the philosopher farmer.  while in my early college days i was hung up on the idea of the Modern Farmer, and what exactly it would mean to be a modern farmer, fueled not only by diesel fumes and hay seeds but also by thoughts, ideas, and perhaps most importantly information.  Modern Farming is the integration of generations of ideas from around the globe, fueled by a vision (a philosophy if you will) but explicitly free of dogma or idealism.  the Modern Farmer must at his core be a realist.  the natural world has no room for dogma, and obeys not the beliefs of idealists.  the natural world to the farmer is not the romantic vision of the urbanite foody who talks incessantly of michael pollan and how things should be, but rather the dangerous tool which allows him the reap the bounty of the harvest but every day threatens to destroy his mind, his body, his emotional well being, his livelihood. the Modern Farmer is in a constantly changing and evolving love hate relationship with Nature.  he endeavors to protect her, to nurture her, and guide her to productivity, in order to nourish and enrich the people of the world.  No Farmer I’ve ever met, Modern of Otherwise, works with the intent of destroying Nature or the land.  the Farmer works for survival, and yes for profit, because in america profit is essential to survival.  the Modern Farmer uses the best tools available to him to handle to myriad of problems presented to him.  the Modern Farmer is not hung up on Labels (like USDA Certified Organic), but rather on ideas and practical application and What Works.

over the past few years i have heard more and more people talking about how wonderful farming is.  seen the waves liberal arts students making their pilgrimage to small farms around the country to live in shotgun shacks with no amenities and work the soil for next to no pay.  i’ve heard my fair share of hipsters in urban coffee shops pining for the fields, en route to scoring with crunchified hippy chicks.  i’ve listened and read the endless debates on the airwaves and webstreams rehashing the same tired arguments and repeating the same strained mantras.  i have seen michael pollan evolve from a person who writes books with some interesting ideas (but let’s be honest, with no practical experience in agriculture) to the demagogue of the  masses of rabid organic only fiends, who in the same breathe praise farmers for what they do, and damn them for not all following the proscribed Organic Only Method while mandating what a Real Farm should look like (if you were wondering: small [preferably 5 acres], family run, with interns underfoot, and selling only to the local co-op and farmers markets; beards optional [men only] but preferred for that je ne se quois asthetic).  actual Understanding of the problems associated with farming, and the effects of climate and regional environments on the practicality of organic farming rarely if ever enters the discussion.  Common Sense has fled the ring of the argument, and any Actual Farming Experience among anyone discussing the topic is excruciatingly rare.

so in whatever small way, this blog is my statement, my push back against idealism and demagoguery, my argument for rationality and common sense.  for the value of Knowledge in the field, and for How things Work.  it is a collection of ideas expressed from the viewpoint of a young working farmer.  a Modern Farmer, intent on discovering what exactly sustainability is, what it means, and how it is achieved for Nature, and for those working with her.

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