At the root of the new sustainable farming movement lies the realization that our mechanized, “efficient” modern food system, intended to feed the world and bring a life of ease to all, is in fact feeding the world a bunch of mass-produced nutrition-stripped crap, and in the process quickly stripping the land of its ability to support a life of ease for anyone. To those of us who feel compelled to dedicate our lives to the overhaul of this food system, the realization seems glaringly obvious, yet we must lament the fact that society at large hasn’t heard the same call we have. Our cause, like any of the many environmental causes, will not easily garner widespread public support, because it challenges one of the ideological foundations of modern American culture: faith in the dependability (or at least the inevitability and irreversibility) of progress – technological, economic, and social. The idea that many basic, taken-for-granted conveniences of modern American life may be unsustainable, and therefore unethical, does not sit well with anyone. The idea that some progress may have to be “undone” in order to achieve a sustainable society is daunting and frightening, and for those who don’t see the need, angering. The unfortunate fact is that many if not most people perceive environmentalists, and sustainable farm-types in particular I think, as enemies of technology and modern comfort, or at best as naive idealists who pitifully believe that progress can be undone. I believe I can easily support this claim anecdotally, as I’m sure many other young dreamers like myself have had their opinions countered by family members or coworkers with something like, “Well that’s the way the world is, and it’s not going to get better,” “Well we’re not going back to the stone age and living in tents,” or “Well you can drive a horse and buggy if you like, but I’ll keep my car.” (Insert your most memorable jaded and/or flippant remark here.) Of course, there is a grain of truth in their image of us.
The grain of truth is that the sustainable farming movement very explicitly has one foot in the past. We strive to create diverse, resilient, locally self-sufficient food economies, but this isn’t a new vision. We’ve seen it before. Not more than seventy years ago, America was dotted with millions of family farms, each taking care of its own with a high to degree of self-sufficiency, and marketing its products locally. As we re-build diverse local food systems, this is the future to which we wish to return. In order to create that social and economic structure, we tend to also find appropriate technologies in the past. We know that we did not always have cheap petroleum, but we managed to feed ourselves anyway, so it’s only natural to ask, how did we do this before? Because most modern farm implements are designed for large-scale monocropping, and today’s sustainable farmers practice small-scale polyculture, they often find that the implements of yesteryear’s family farm tend to be more suited to their needs than modern machinery. Old tractors are vastly cheaper than new ones, more easily repairable, and perfectly adequate for small acreages. People have historically used untold numbers of varieties of gardening hand tools, each designed to provide efficiency to its particular task, and though many of these fell out of favor during the age of mechanization, today’s human-scale chemical-free gardener benefits greatly from re-discovering just the right tool for the job. There is even an argument for the use of draft horses on small farms. They use a fuel that can be grown on-farm (grass), their hooves aerate soil rather than compacting it like tractor tires, their only by-product is valuable fertilizer (by which I do mean horse shit), and on the right scale they can be a profitable means of tilling and hauling. The reinstitution of old implements is often the most immediately available way for new small farmers to achieve maximum self-sufficiency, and free themselves to the greatest degree possible from the petroleum economy.
Now, I would venture to say that most comfortable middle-class suburbanites are disgusted or downright frightened by the thought of having to go back to hoeing long rows and plowing with a horse. Fair enough. So the question becomes how to open an intelligent conversation about the role of old technology in the creation of a new food system. No one is saying that horse plows and hand hoes is the height of agricultural technology, or that it must be done this way forever, but right now, perhaps for the first time in history, a step backward is the first step forward. If we can remember how things used to be, and then imagine how they could be, knowing what we know now but didn’t know then, perhaps we can get ourselves off the current track of progress to find a better way into the future.