Friday, October 27, 2006

The Changing Culture of Agriculture

The Changing Culture of Agriculture

As the days remaining in my trip dwindle down, the memorable encounters once again accelerate. I knew that Oregon would offer ample opportunities to experience interesting agricultural operations and perspectives, and I've not been disappointed.

Just before my last steep ascent to just above five thousand feet at McKenzie Pass I made an unplanned stop at the Small Farmer's Journal in Sister's, OR. The owner and founder, Lynn Miller was gone for the day, but his story, received second hand, made his near legendary status even more memorable. Lynn started the Small Farmer's Journal in the 1970's; a beautifully bound thick chunk of a paper, designed with the pastoral idyll in mind and wrapped in a brown cover with Lynn's artwork adorning the front. Holding it in your hands made one feel as though the year was 1920 and you've just received the latest catalog of modern farming implements and practices. The primary content, and Lynn's unique area of expertise is that of horsefarming; or in other words, the use of work animals for performing farm work such as plowing, cultivating, bailing and the like.

After having visited an Amish community in Kentucky and witnessing horsefarming in action, I was fascinated to discover that there was a resource for the preservation of this traditional practice. Lynn had grown up in California and witnessed the loss of pristine farmland close to his home. After gaining a master's degree in art, he made the unconventional decision to support his family by starting to farm. He purchased property in Oregon, then discovered that given his minimal resources he would have to build his farm without the typical investments in expensive machinery. The old time locals offered advise and support on how to run his farm using horsepower and inexpensive, perhaps outmoded farm implements. Farming with horses became a passion for Lynn, and he decided to start a newsletter to help spread, and gain knowledge on the subject. There were 300 subscribers that very first year. Lynn's artistic abilities gave the magazine a unique quality that even non-farmers appreciated, making its rustic by-gone character popular as a coffee table or conversation piece. The magazine now has 17,000 regular subscribers.

Today, Lynn is recognized as the premiere horsefarming authority, and his books on the subject are utilized as formal textbooks at Universities in Idaho, Colorado, and Maine, where the topic is a formal part of the agricultural curriculum. As society begins to reevaluate the utility of a non-petroleum based economy, I speculated that the unique knowledge they have preserved may be increasingly in demand. For now, it is encouraging to know that such arts have not been completely lost from our culture, or reserved for the dedicated Amish who still practice such traditions as an expression of their values.

Within a few days of this fascinating visit with a visionary guru of horsefarming, I encountered a different sort of visionary in the form of Jan VanderTuin, the man who introduced the concept of CSA's to the United States, and now a powerful voice for alternative transportation. Jan is the owner and founder of the Center for Alternative Transportation, and though loosely affiliated with agriculture, he has made a significant contribution to the viability of small, local farms.

Back in the '80's Jan was living in Europe and actively studying aspects of European culture that held promise as alternatives or solutions to problems he had observed in this country. His two primary interests were in alternative transportation, specifically unique bicycle designs as an alternative to the American ultra-dependence upon the automobile, and alternative economic systems to prevent the accelerating decline of the American small farm. He discovered an unusual practice in Germany, where several unique farm cooperatives required customers to purchase an advance share of that year's harvest from the farmer. The farms produced a wide array of farm products including fruits and vegetables, eggs, and sometimes dairy and cheese products. The farmer would utilize the capital from the advance sale of shares to buy the seed, plant the crop, hire labor to gather the harvest, and deliver a share of that year's harvest to each investor. The system worked well, because the investors and producers were sharing in the risk. Because the transactions were direct between consumer and producer, the farmer was able to keep more of the profit, and the transparency in the true operating costs of the farm allowed the investors to understand the realities of their food, from fair wages for labor to food production practices.

Jan was struck with the community benefits of this system, and the support that area farmers received from their local communities. Upon returning to the states, he campaigned for the adoption of such a system in the U.S. Perhaps it was his non-farming background, or his preference for oral versus written dissemination, but Jan found his early campaign, “brutally painful.” He named this new framework for a small farm economy “Community Supported Agriculture”, and farms that utilize this tool are now commonly called CSA's. He sought audiences with the proponents of biodynamics (the predecessor to organics), and John Rodale of the Rodale Press (who singlehandedly launched the organic movement with the Organic Gardener magazine in the 1970's). Eventually, Jan decided he needed to prove his method with a case study, and began working with a farm in Massachusetts that was willing and interested in applying the practice to their farm.

Today CSA's are one of the most practical tools utilized in an alternative, local food system. After leaving Jan, I visited one of the most established CSA's, or community farms in Oregon, Wintergreen Farms. They had invited me out for their Fall Harvest celebration, an occasion where all their shareholders bring their families to the farm and pick out pumpkins, ride on the hay wagon, and help operate an old fashioned cider press, drinking up the yummy apple cider. Watching these families as they learned how the crops were grown that had fed them all season spoke volumes about the benefits and the values of a community supported agriculture, especially when contrasted with standard grocery store shopping. The shareholders were able to visit the place and the family that their food dollars supported, and the farmers were able to share their knowledge and connection to the land with individuals desperate to re-establish such connections.

The literal definition of the word “agriculture” when broken down to its Latin roots simply means the “cultivation of the field” (ager – the field, cultura- cultivation). When viewed as a world system the magnitude and significance of agriculture is frequently described as mankind's greatest invention or the backbone of modern civilization. Yet, when viewed as the centerpiece of rural economies, I think many have lost sight of the meaning and values that agriculture once played. One way to define “agriculture” at the local scale is simply as our “culture of the land;” the traditions, knowledge and value systems that instruct our relationship to the lands that sustain our needs. All three of these most recent visits, from the preservationist of a horsefarming tradition, to the pioneer of a new small farm economy, and ultimately to a community farm maintaining relationships with consumers hungry for healthy food and deeper connections; each represent different aspects of a changing “culture of the land” in communities across America. And yet, they represent what is currently a fringe element in an agriculture; indeed a whole culture, that has little to do with healthy relationships with the land.

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