A recent conversation with my neighbour demonstrated how farmers can view the relationship between agriculture and Nature in divergent ways. We encountered each other along a fence line that separates our farms. I had been out for a walk in the forest with our dog, and he had been treating his two toddlers to a ride on the family’s all-terrain vehicle.
During some casual conversation my neighbour, who is half my age, asked me if I’d like him to “clean up” our side of the fence line. The fence line consists of a diversity of tree, shrub and wildflower species straddling a picturesque moss-covered 100-plus-year-old zig-zag cedar rail fence. Last year my neighbour had “cleaned up” his side of the fence line, removing the shrubs and some of the trees.
I thanked my neighbour for his offer, but graciously declined. I said it was my practice to preserve, even enhance, the fence lines on our farm; to make them more biodiverse and help them grow thicker and more robust. He nodded and smiled politely. But the brief moment of silence that followed was for me symbolic of the chasm that can exist between farmers who regard Nature as secondary to their agricultural pursuits – and something to be subdued and tamed – and those who view biodiversity and Nature’s wildness as an adjunct to, even necessity of, truly sustainable farming practices.
My neighbour meant well. I suspect he regards fence lines as impediments to his crops since they might cast a ribbon of shade on the margins of his fields. Perhaps he assumed that I felt the same way and wanted to help. Some conventional farmers prefer that fence lines be eliminated altogether. More such activity has occurred in our region in recent years as farmers buy up farms adjacent to their own and opt for bigger fields to accommodate bigger farm machinery to make their operations more efficient.
To my neighbour, the fence line also may have seemed like an unruly, unsightly tangle of brush that should be removed. To me the “brush” is something of beauty. And it has names: ninebark; honeysuckle; highbush cranberry; chokecherry; moonseed, wild clematis, wild grape, and Virginia creeper vines; and maple, elm and basswood saplings that one day will replace the mature parent trees around them. Together, and with companion varieties of wild flowers, grasses and fungi, the “brush” forms a richly biodiverse ecosystem that is habitat for species of birds, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects; a community of flora that I believe, far from being an obstacle to farming, can be part of the very foundation of truly sustainable farming. There is a growing body of scientific evidence to support this view.
And therein lays the rub. My neighbour is not, in the main, farming in what I would call a sustainable, Nature-friendly, agro-ecological manner. As a conventional farmer he relies on fossil fuel-based fertilizers and chemical pesticides and herbicides to ensure good crop yields and an efficient and financially viable farming enterprise. He tills his fields regularly believing that turning over and working the ground is necessary to help maintain healthy, productive soils. He relies on a standard three-crop rotation: corn, wheat and soy beans, each of which depend on synthetic fertilizers and agro-toxins to generate decent yields.
But as research is increasingly showing, such conventional practices – which seem to be of greater benefit to major agricultural corporations whose primary interest is selling their fertilizers and agrochemicals – are doing such long-term damage to soils and the natural environment as to make agriculture, over the long term, increasingly unsustainable. In contrast, agro-ecological approaches to farming are viewed as embodying the essence of fundamental sustainability.
Agro-ecology is the study of ecological processes applied to agricultural production systems; the application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agro-ecosystems; a whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture, and local food system experiences. I believe agro-ecology is, or ought to be, the future of agriculture in Canada and the world.
My neighbour’s primary motivation as a farmer seems to be to squeeze as many productive acres and as much productive capacity from his farm as possible. If something of Nature, like a fence line, gets in the way then it should be removed, or if it’s a wetland, drained. My chief incentive as a farmer is to steward the natural environment both for its own sake and to ensure, in a corresponding manner, the overall health and sustainability of the farm. From this perspective forests, fence lines, hedgerows, streams, wetlands and other natural living structures are all important in maintaining a healthy, sustainable farm.
I don’t fault my neighbour (or any conventional farmers, some of whom do employ some principles of agro-ecology). He has likely grown up with and been taught an approach to farming that regards Nature as a resource to be exploited, not something good in itself and important to conserve in a farm setting. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t relish a quiet walk in his woodlot or the sight of deer and wild turkeys foraging in his fields. He may actually take delight in both. But his regard for Nature, at least on his farm, is bracketed by Nature understood as a means to an end and by narrow bottom line thinking.
Nor do I wish to be perceived as overly judgemental and self-righteous given my support and advocacy for agro-ecological farming. Farmers who approach farming differently can learn much from one another, if they can manage to engage in friendly, mutually-respectful and open-minded dialogue. Given that the subject matter is often emotionally charged, and one can so easily feel judged and put down by the other, meaningful and constructive dialogue is a perennial challenge.
Many conventional farmers say they are quite comfortable farming as they do and will vigorously defend their choice. Others are less dug in. I’ve talked with some who are sympathetic to the principles of agro-ecology as well as organic farming, but who for various reasons can’t manage to step off the treadmill of conventional, industrial agriculture. Habituated practices, fear of judgement by their farmer friends, fear of being overrun by weeds and insect pests, debt – these and other factors conspire to keep them moving in the same singular direction.
I believe we need a new vision for farming that places Nature and Nature’s own principles of sustainability at its center. Of necessity, this would mean a 180 degree turn away from large-scale intensive and monoculture-oriented farming, to something like the small mixed farms of yesteryear. Not only would this type of agriculture better understand and respect the complexities of soil health and the natural environment and ensure healthier food, it could encourage a process of re-ruralization and restore the proliferation of vibrant small communities that once thrived across much of rural Canada. Not all large-scale intensive farms necessarily need to disappear – some may be necessary to meet society’s total food needs – but they would no longer be approaching the norm, and they would strive to incorporate principles of agro-ecological food production.
Some will dismiss this vision as hopelessly and haplessly naïve and romantic. If it were merely a matter of trying to go back to or replicate the past, I would agree. But it’s not. It’s a vision of going forward to the past, of utilizing what worked well on the small mixed family farm and all that’s good about modern technology, but in a way that truly respects the Earth.
Indian physicist, philosopher, environmental activist, eco-feminist, seed saver, and farmer, Vandana Shiva, was once asked on CBC Radio whether such a radical shift could actually be achieved. Her response (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) was: Of course it can. If we created the industrial model of farming that dominates developed countries today, we can certainly uncreate it and replace it with something built on the foundation of real, long-term sustainability. It’s the political will that’s missing.
I think Ms. Shiva, whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting, would enjoy a stroll along one of the robust, biodiverse fence lines here at River Croft Farm.
[Note: I am mindful that what I’ve written above, despite the sensitivity and nuance I’ve tried to employ, may upset some of my conventional farmer friends. If it does, let’s talk. I am always open to learning.]
Resources in support of the perspectives offered above:
The United Church of Canada, Toward Food Sovereignty for All. “One emerging vision of a food system that embodies principles of food sovereignty—that of “agro-ecology”—offers a compelling alternative to today’s dominant industrial food system. Agro-ecology could revitalize rural communities in the global South and North. It could be the catalyst to transform the global food system, leading to a more resilient system of food production that resembles not the linear chain characteristic of the industrial food system but a complex interwoven web of food provision.” http://www.emmanuelunited.ca/_pdf/food.pdf
“Diversified Farming Systems: An Agroecological, Systems-based Alternative to Modern Industrial Agriculture,” Ecology and Society. “…Industrial agricultural methods are inherently unsustainable in mining soils and aquifers far more quickly than they can be replenished, and in their high use of fossil fuels.” http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol17/iss4/art44/
Wittman, Hannah, Annette Aurélie Desmarais, and Nettie Wiebe, Food Sovereignty: Reconnecting Food, Nature, and Community (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2010). Food sovereignty as the means to provide for the food needs of all people while promoting environmental sustainability, local empowerment, and agrarian citizenship.
Songs to accompany this reflection:
“Garden Song (Inch by Inch)” by Peter Seeger https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u90qRE2F7CM
“Down to Earth” by Peter Gabriel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9wd23wPuDA