I’m basically waiting around for spring to start. Come April, I will once again be an apprentice farm hand, continuing my journey toward eventual farmerdom. To keep the waiting from feeling too much like waiting, I am making myself ag-literate. I have a half-dozen books out from the library any given week, I doggedly follow anyone on Twitter who has anything to say on the subject, I read blogs, I google unfamiliar terms. This week as I was reading about fungal hyphae, falling further and further down the rabbit hole of ag-geekery, it occurred to me how strange it is that this (agriculture, not just hyphae) is new to me, at age twenty-three. I mean, I’ve been eating since I was born. I stopped and dug through my memories of my education. Surely there was a time when agriculture was covered.
There was learning what all the barnyard animals say. There was reading the Little House on the Prairie books. We must have talked about nutrition at some point in middle school, and I believe serfs were mentioned in high school European History class. But, to my memory, agriculture was never on the test until an environmental studies course in college, and even that mention was rather brief, alongside other environmental concerns. All told, I could just as easily have never considered farming or anything related as a subject of study, or as a life path, and I would imagine that’s the case for most middle-class suburban kids. What a shame. Agriculture could’ve been a logical context for so much learning in school. What do I mean?
- Ecology. The act of farming, regardless of methods, requires an interaction with nature on the macro scale. Merely drawing property lines generally foretells a disruption in wildlife movements. Agriculture impacts native species, and native species influence agriculture. The emerging field of Permaculture explores how farmers and gardeners can use locally-sensitive planning considering inter-species and species-environment interactions to design a diverse, highly productive landscape for everyone’s benefit, including wild things.
- Politics. Big, important politics. Farm subsidies, environmental regulations, food safety regulations, agribusiness concerns, governmental food aid at home and abroad. Have you taken a look at the 2014 Farm Bill? Agribusiness has a lot of weight (i.e. money) to throw around in the American legislature, and consequently how people farm and what markets are open to farmers has a lot to do with policy.
- Economics. What happened to the economy when we said to farmers in the 1970s, “get big or get out?” Can the small farm economy that so many of us want come back? Can local economies really work in today’s age? Can we re-create modern markets for minor products (like the milk from two cows, not 500)? Do we need to? These are questions that need answering, but they’re unlikely to get answered satisfactorily by people who take the current system for granted.
- Philosophy. How we farm says a great deal about our relationship to nature, to technology, to our bodies, and to each other, and in turn our attitudes about those relationships profoundly influence how we farm. There have been volumes written about the subject, recently by the likes of Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva – the list goes on. There are volumes more left to be written in our rapidly changing world.
- Microbiology. (My current favorite ag-geek-out.) There is an entire food web of microbes that live only in dirt, and everything would be screwed without it. Plants excrete chemicals like sugars and proteins from their roots that draw in bacteria. The presence of bacteria attracts their predators, who eat the bacteria and excrete waste in a plant available form. Note that the plants control what type of bacteria they attract with what exudates they put out from their roots, thus calling in the particular nutrients they need. Meanwhile all the dead things in, and on, the soil support decomposers like fungi, which send their branching hyphae all over the place, transporting nutrients from the top to the subsoil, and leaving behind microscopic water channels when they die. All the bacterial goo (biofilm, if you’re sciencey) and fibrous microbe material holds the soil together and holds moisture. Not knowing all this, about 60 years ago people decided they could poison everything in the dirt except the one crop they wanted, and then feed the plants fertilizer (which can itself kill microbes). It turned out pretty messy compared to what nature already had worked out.
- Craftsmanship. Good farming is master craftsmanship. It’s a juggling act of elements, and the successful product – a farmer’s market stand full of colorful vegetables, well-mainted old tools, smart new ones, sculpted land in terraces, beds, and swales – it’s a work of art. And there’s no substitute for the satisfaction of physically creating something new and beautiful with your own hands.
One time in college someone at a party asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated. I said something like “I don’t really know… but I’m interested in farming.” She leaned back, cocked her head a full forty-five degrees to the left, squinted at me from under her brow and replied, “You want to be a farmer? … Like… on a tractor?” with a mixture of genuine bewilderment and a little disgust. I think there are two common assumptions behind her unforgettable expression: A) Farmers are just tobacco-chawing idiot hicks driving tractors back and forth across some boring field, and B) farming is beneath the education level and beneath the dignity of a middle class elite liberal arts college student. Here’s the thing: if, as a society, that’s what you think, that just might be what you get. If we commonly believe that farming is not a worthwhile or desirable career, and accordingly that farmers are not worth a liberal education, then we might should fear what agriculture will become in the coming decades. Mainstream agribusiness-farming is already a destructive monster thinly veiled under rural patriotic pride. Plenty of economic and political factors can be blamed, but American farm culture, and its base of agricultural knowledge, has suffered from no small share of voluntary neglect. By devaluing agricultural knowledge and thought in favor of what is considered appropriate white-collar urban knowledge, we abdicate responsibility for our farmland and our food to whoever can sell us our food cheapest, and end up with de-skilled, exploitative agriculture.
Everybody eats. Everybody lives on the land. If we want to do a good job of feeding ourselves well and using our land responsibly, we can’t be leaving agriculture out of education.