Wednesday, August 30, 2006

How we farm and how we live

One of my greatest pleasures in life has become the study of agricultural philosophy. We rarely consider ourselves as possessing our own individual philosophy, one born of the society, family, and professions which surround us, then infused with our own experience. But without such philosophy our lives would have no meaning. As much as I admire Popeye’s, “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am,” approach to summing up his own identity; just because we can’t articulate them doesn’t mean we don’t live our lives by certain principles.

The word "philosophy" describes "the critical study of the basic principles and concepts of a particular branch of knowledge, with a view to improving or reconstituting them." Agriculture is one of our most vital branches of knowledge; one might go as far to say that without agriculture we wouldn’t have the luxury of endeavoring upon any other branches of knowledge. You have to eat before you can study, or you’d best be studying how to eat. This knowledge of agriculture is not static; it has evolved dramatically, especially within the last fifty years. During this time, many of the central concepts and principles within agriculture have also changed to meet the needs of an industrialized society.

A definition for philosophy more applicable to the individual is "a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs." Above all, our philosophy towards life, which is to say our system of principles, must be practical, must be useful, must create advantages over disadvantages. An example may be, “I began to ride my bike to work because it saves money for gas, and it makes me feel healthier.” So my principles are to pursue things that save money and make me feel healthier, and riding my bike to work is a practical way to apply these principles.

So now that I’ve bored you silly with this introduction, I want to tell you about someone that has had a rather profound impact on me. A quality control inspector at Heartland Mills, one of only five organic mills in the country, made the comment to me that the Mennonites farm the same way they live. He described Larry Decker, one of the principle owners, and how he drove a beat up ’78 GMC pickup. Larry and his Mennonite brothers had started Heartland Mills in the early ‘90’s, and as a result, western Kansas had become the center of organic wheat production in the state.

I introduced myself to Larry and explained my search for what there is out there that holds promise to keep farmers farming. “Well you might need to work a little faster,” Larry answered, “we’ve got farmers dying everyday.” When I asked Larry why every farmer for miles wasn’t chomping at the bit to start organic farming, considering the stability of the organic market and the improved price per bushel, Larry told me the story of his own transformation.

At one time, Larry’s farm had cattle and hogs. When the hogs got sick, they started treating them with antibiotics, but the sows weren’t getting better. They continued with different medicines until they had treated with all the drugs they could use, but the sows were still dying, and the best one’s too. Once all else had failed, they tried a more natural treatment of improving the levels of vitamins and minerals in the diet. Within two weeks, the sows had recovered. The event triggered a mindshift in Larry’s thinking. He began to realize that something had been out of balance all along, but he had been unable to see it. Why had the sow’s nutrition been so out of balance? Rather than continue from there by simply supplementing their diet with processed vitamins and minerals, he realized that all of that is already there in the balance of grains, if the soil is right.

Larry began to examine his wheat fields. Each year, like every other farmer in the area, he would inject anhydrous gas into the soil, which is a form of nitrogen. They would see a boost in production the first year or so, but then no matter how much more they put on, their production would go down. They decided to change that around and started putting on composted manures instead. Production went up and continued to go up, even as their application of manure’s went down.

“You see the soil is a live organism,” Larry said. “You can always smell it when it’s alive, it’s got an aroma that you can’t miss.” He pointed to a conventional field, “You go out into that field there and you wouldn’t be able to smell it. It’s dead.” He explained how a field with balanced soils don’t have problems with bugs, don’t have problems with weeds. “Yeah, there’s some there, but they have their place too.”

Larry was a Mennonite and weaved his religious principles beautifully into his agricultural principles. “It says that when God created the world, he created it perfect. When we go messing with God’s creation we don’t always know the repercussions of it. God has made the soil active and alive, he put that in there. The closer we get in balance, the better things do. The balance of mineral is there. The mineral is what makes the taste in all our foods.”

Everything Larry did was an attempt to achieve that balance. God had put everything in that soil to sustain life, and that if we maintained the balance of minerals in the soil, it would provide a balance of minerals in our food, and a balance of minerals in ourselves. “And we won’t get sick. That’s what I want to get to. The earthworm is probably the closest one to get there and we’ve killed him off. We’ve put anhydrous over the whole country and that kills him off every time.”

Larry had a simple explanation for what has led us to our current predicaments. “To keep it simple, we all want more than we really deserve.” That had become the social underpinning of society. “If you want more than you have coming to you, then you have to quit it. It’s a sin and it will kill a society.” In his own life Larry tied everything together with one simple question, “Is it sustainable?” When asking himself if something was right or wrong, he would first ask if it was sustainable. “If it isn’t sustainable, it’s a sin. It applies to all aspects of life. But what do you do about it if it’s not sustainable. Work at it. That’s what life is about. Work at it.”

This entry was posted on 8/30/2006 8:02 PM


10/11/2006 7:01 PM Jenney wrote:
My dad, an avid biker, passed on your website to me and I love it! We buy and grow organic as much as we can, and your most recent article reminded me why. Thanks!

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