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Bringing 'Perpetual leeks' from the Schumacher College forest garden in to the kitchen for the day's soup.
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Towards an agroecological food system

Joanna Wright

10th May 2014

How we feed ourselves sits at the crux of all human affairs, writes Joanna Wright - the health of our bodies and communities. Far too important to leave to industrial farms and processors, it's something we can all begin to do for ourselves.

For agroecological systems to work, they must be highly skilled and rightly-scaled. The implication is that we need more farmers. Many, many more.

"Whatever you think you can do, begin it."

This was Joe's advice to our Agroecology course, after an intensive week of lecture, discussion and farm visits centered around the question of how we as a society can feed ourselves more ecologically, and how we as individuals can support that process.

Joe has been farming on the same piece of land for nearly 50 years. Before that, life had landed him in a catering position at a Campbell's soup factory, when the production of gloppy cans of alphabet noodles swimming in tomato was outsourced from the US to England.

Anonymous wisdom

It was a good job for a while, he says. But after almost a decade there, he found this advice scrawled on a piece of paper left anonymously on his desk. He took it to heart, he and his wife purchased a small-holding, and never looked back.

It's difficult to wrap my mind around how much has changed in Jeremy's lifetime. World population has more than tripled, agriculture has become primarily an exercise in industrial chemistry, and millions of people who have never picked up a spade now play FarmVille on Facebook.

Meanwhile, the skills that amount to real husbandry, commonplace just a few generations ago, have followed a trajectory toward extinction.

An indistinguishable combination of choice and circumstance brings ever more people to cities, swelling centers of economic activity. The ability to tend gardens, build fences, care for animals, preserve food, use tools, and generally tinker has become less and less relevant.

Direct experience with the living world

This is more than nostalgia or a list of lost skills. Direct experience with the living world, in all its beauty and complexity, plays a critical role in human development. It is this essential experience that Farmville simply cannot replace.

What happens when you squish through February mud to do the winter pruning, moving your eyes along the bare branch of a blueberry shrub, finding the nodes where the coming year's growth will emerge, carefully snipping here and there?

Each cut requires you to visualize, based on careful observation of that particular plant, its future forms and movements. Blueberry - not just the berry, but the whole plant, and its whole context, becomes a part of your mind.

What happens when you revisit that very branch the following August and find it laden with dusky fruit? Or when cedar waxwings, in their splendid summer dress, get there before you do?

Or when a mercurial wind rips through the night, and you wake up to hard, green berries scattered on the ground? What can you learn through a hands-on relationship with forces beyond your control?

A love affair - with farming

When I graduated from college in 2010, I went to work on a small, family-run organic farm on Vashon Island in Washington State. I quickly fell in love with farming. Someone introduced me to Wendell Berry, and his poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front', became my guide.

"Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into mold.
Call that profit.
Prophecy such returns."

Since then, I've invested most of my time, energy and money in learning the language of the leaves, and developing the ability to participate in the turning and returning of which they speak.

A deeply political act

Sometimes, I've deeply doubted this investment. Become a farmer? I wasn't interested in a romantic back-to-the-land 'escape' from 'civilization'. Farming was as much a political act as an agricultural one.

How we feed ourselves sits at the crux of all human affairs - the health of our bodies, our communities, and our societies. This is part of a pattern much bigger than ourselves.

All biological organisms take in energy, develop, and expend 'waste', which other organisms make use of. How they do this defines their relationships in their habitat. Our habitat, ultimately, is the biosphere itself.

To become a farmer is to shape in some way how humanity inhabits the biosphere. How we farm, then, is a pretty important question.

Sustainable farming is complex, and creative

Agroecology refers to an approach to agriculture that follows a precedent set by nature itself by being diverse, integrated, and low-input. Systems designed according to these patterns are inherently complex.

A monoculture can be managed by very few people, relying on increasing standardization and imported fertility. The effects of feeding ourselves with this model are well-documented. It is clearly neither sustainable nor resilient, and even its fleeting productivity must been viewed in relation to the enormous entropy that results.

Agroecological systems, on the other hand, offer the possibility of what William Grassie calls "maximizing creativity while minimizing entropy" which is "the new ethical, aesthetic, and pragmatic axiom for our future success."

For agroecological systems to work, they must be highly skilled and rightly-scaled. The implication is that we need more farmers. Many, many more.

This is the context in which I find myself. The decision to become a farmer feels like it belongs not only to me. Is it perhaps also an expression of the current relationship between humanity and our habitat?

Green growth

An agrarian renaissance is already underway, in diverse contexts and forms. It has a lot of learning and (pun inevitable) growing to do, as it is not just a rekindling of traditional skills, but a necessarily creative synthesis of old wisdom with new technological affordances.

Those joining this renaissance are tasked with nothing less than shepherding agroecology into cultural relevance and economic viability.

To identify my role and pursue it fully is both deeply personal and deeply participatory - the only way to, as poet Mary Oliver urges, "let the soft animal of your body love what it loves" while taking its true place in "the family of things".

I have no choice, I think, but to follow Joe's advice.

Whatever you think you can do, begin it. Maybe I'll see you in the field.

 


 

Joanna Wright is a human ecologist at Schumacher College in Devon, England, where she is completing a Sustainable Horticulture ApprenticeshipOriginally from Seattle, Washington, USA, her interest in human ecology emerges from experience in agriculture and food systems, nature awareness, wildlife tracking, place-based learning, and community.

You can find more of her work on her blog, A Sensing of Place. She can be reached at joannawright2012@gmail.com.

Also on The Ecologist: 

 

Author's note: The piece emerged as a reflection on my time at Embercombe, a social enterprise for leadership and sustainability, as well as from an Agroecology course at Schumacher College with Colin Tudge, John Letts, Tim Crabtree, Jane Pickard, Ed Hamer, and Ruth West.

Sending out gratitude to all the growers who feed us, and who have helped me grow. You know who you are. Thank you.

 

 

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