Forging an Agriculture for All

Here is my latest ‘Activisionary’ article, getting to grips with engaging people in a food culture and analysing current (and future) opportunities for people to get involved with food localism. For more of my work at activisionary please visit http://activisionary.org.uk/author/ben-eagle/

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The farmer-philosopher Fred Kirschenmann wrote an essay entitled ‘On Becoming Lovers of the Soil’ in which he argued a case for reigniting human cultural and spiritual connection with that oh so important resource: the soil. Soil is the source of life. It is where we return when our bodies pass away. It represents the inter-dependence of all species and indeed connects humans with the natural world through the fundamental phenomenon of sustaining life. The trouble is that, for most of us, soil has become mere dirt, a material structure to hold plants in place or to form foundations for anthropogenic structures. This essay has been written to inspire people to get involved in a food growing project and immerse themselves in the soil.

Not too long ago, soil scientists perceived the soil to simply be an inert medium to hold plants in place, requiring external inputs to continue the cycle of growth. Humans would provide nitrogen, phosphorous and potash and nature would do the rest. Eventually however our knowledge of soil systems changed. The micro-nutrients, sulphur, magnesium and zinc, were seen to have more importance in the system. The minifauna – the earthworms and other invertebrates that each play a key role in the soil ecosystem – and the microfauna, the detritivores, the bacteria and fungal organisms within the soil have also now rightly been granted their place as important soil agents. However, there is one soil agent that is still to claim its place as a true partner in the process of soil growth and decay – you and me – homo sapiens.

Fred Kirschenmann declared that ‘our modern industrialized society has gone through a divorce. We have become divorced from the soil.’ In many ways this is true. Modern urbanisation (distinct from the urban environments of the past where ‘nature’ was both accepted and visible) has insulated us from mud, clay, sand and silt. Knowledge of soil biology, once taken for granted, is held by an ever smaller number of people. Understanding of soil systems and their interconnectedness is rarer. However, the situation we find ourselves in has as much to do with philosophy as with ‘modernisation’ or ‘technology’. Our current food production system is driven by certain philosophical assumptions. We are taught not to think in terms of raw materials but in consumer products, not to think in terms of sustainability but in ‘presentist’ consumption, not to think in terms of biological cycles but in the compartmentalisation of spaces, especially regarding the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ worlds, in reality both cultural constructs.

This aspect of metaphysics is now fully engrained in our culture, a culture obsessed with ‘technology’, ‘economics’ and ‘science’. These three aspects have brought enormous positives to the human experience and sometimes it is too easy to focus on the negatives. After all it is criticism that drives us forward. The current agricultural paradigm has its positives and its negatives. Nobody can dispute that the green revolution was enormously successful in increasing yields and in turn, population. However, it also created huge environmental and social problems, increasing the rich-poor divide and destroying ecosystems. The problem however with such a resource exploitative system as we have today is that it is not sustainable in the longer term. Moreover, the move towards industrial agriculture has eroded both communities and ecosystems and depleted natural resources on a rapid and huge scale. Strangely we have never really stopped to think if this world is the sort of world we really want to live in, always replying that ‘the market will decide’ and letting things take their economic course.

However, as with most problems it generally boils down to one key component: people. Currently we accept that farmers know the technological language to produce our food and therefore we leave it up to them to do so. Instead of dirtying our hands we fill our lives with ‘more advanced’ pursuits, immersing our experiences in ‘economics’ and ‘culture’. Farmers know about tractors, about how much fertilizer to apply for a certain crop for certain acreages, about which pesticide to use for which pest and how to make the maximum profit from each crop they are used to growing. However, as Kirschenmann again has written ‘many of us (including some farmers) know nothing of the language of nature: how life in the soil functions, what free ecosystem services are available to work for agriculture in a particular watershed, or how plants participate in their own defence against pests’. We have become distant and in that distance have forgotten that we are indeed part of these natural processes and can be connected and involved.

Farming has a major image problem and it is not for the reason that many farmers think. The perception on their side of the fence is that farming is perceived as backward and an industry one goes in to because one cannot do anything else. I do not believe it to be this at all. People know that farming is a modern vibrant industry. However, it is the ‘industrial’ aspect of the farming image that they shy away from. To use a language of technology in farming is necessary but not to the extent that it frightens ordinary people off from connecting with the soil. The language of technology alienates people and makes them feel that agriculture is something that only a few technologically minded people can become involved in. Agriculture is however more than simply an industrial act whose only purpose is to produce a raw material which will be processed into a product that the end user has no real connection with. Agriculture is ultimately about relationships and without democratising the food production system once again those relationships will be permanently eroded.

The organic movement and the growing network of Community Supported Agriculture systems (CSAs) are testimony to a growing backlash against such a paradigm of food production distance. Industrial agriculture still prevails but in the cracks, communities are reforming and learning skills to grow their own food and support their communities. By farming themselves, in the environment where they live, these local farmers have a deeper connection with their own surroundings and are therefore more likely to look after that environment than a multi-national corporation to whom people are words and numbers on a spreadsheet, not practical managers of the land. There are many ways that people can get involved on the land now. WWOOF, the fantastic organisation that connects organic farmers with willing volunteers who want to learn more about sustainable agriculture has grown enormously in recent years (http://www.wwoof.org.uk/). Food coops and local community farms have also sprung up, such as the Community Farm in Chew Magna, Somerset (http://www.thecommunityfarm.co.uk) and many actively encourage members and local people to get involved in food production. Local veg box schemes are also growing in number, connecting local communities with local farms and allowing people to vote for sustainable agriculture with their fork and their food pounds and pennies. Allotment waiting lists are running into years in some places showing a new vibrancy in local and personal food production. People are removing the herbaceous borders and growing fruit and veg instead or putting a few pots on the balcony to grow food. It is becoming easier and easier to reconnect with the land and get stuck in. All it takes is a change of mind. Anyone can grow food. We just need to get on and do something about it.

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