Excellence, Diversity, and Creativity in Agriculture

What are you farming for?  Why bother?  Isn’t there something easier you can do?  (Oh, gosh.  There are a lot of easier ways to make a dime.)

I want to offer my customers the best products on the market.  I want my customers to be confident that I am giving them everything I can, doing everything I can, being as frugal as I can, stewarding the ecology as well as I can and serving them as well as I can.  I am not a carbon copy of another farmer.  To do this successfully I seek inspiration from a broad range of sources from personal interaction to podcasts to huge numbers of books.  I try to do a number of complimentary things as well as I can, always seeking new and better ways to accomplish my goals.  That’s fine for me but I am not enough.  I hope to help inspire a new generation of stewards working toward similar goals.  Why?

I can raise chicken for about 25 families currently.  I may be able to grow that in time but that’s where I’m at.  According to the Census bureau there are 114 million households.  Servicing those households with chicken at my scale would require nearly 5 million farmers and I would estimate 15-20 million farmers are required to meet the broad dietary needs of those households.  There are only about 2 million “farmers” in the US currently.  There are only 300 million people in the US.  Now apply that math on a global scale.  Where are those farmers going to come from?  How can we inspire families to dream of the day their children grow up to become entrepaneurial farmers?  How can we bless children with a vision of success that doesn’t include forcing their bodies to fit the shape of a chair?  How can we raise a healthy, strong, vibrant, non-allergic generation ready to propel us forward into a drought-resistant world brimming with a diversity of life and health?  It has to come from the bottom up.

“Their dreams have been about building unity when they should have been about creating excellence – even if that means diversity” – The Telegraph

I’m not interested in discussing the content of the article as this is the wrong format for that.  I’m interested in that quote.  How can I focus on inspiring/creating excellence even if it means doing things differently?  How can I write in a way that inspires readers to adopt and change our ideas to fit their situation?  How can I help others find new solutions to old problems…enabling diversity?  How can I further broaden my perspective to allow for new ideas and methods…even those that may show me to be in error?  How can I be better, beyond simply increasing my skill as a farmer, at building and participating in a diverse community?  Let me answer in as few words as I can.

We need more farmers.

Guess I’ll have to expand on that.

More farmers means greater intensity.  Modern rowcrop farming is about cashflow, not food production and it’s certainly not about “feeding the world”.  I can have a more intensive focus and a higher level of productivity per square foot on one acre than I can with 1000 acres.  There is only so much one person can do.  I can utilize a broad area but the more area I manage, the less the intensity of management.  Further, if I was grazing 10,000 cows on 6,000 acres I may not have time to stack in other profitable enterprises.  More farmers mean greater intensity and productivity.  More farmers also means more innovators, discovering new and better ways to solve old problems.  How can we stack more growth on fewer acres?  How can we sequester more carbon?  How can we find more ethical and efficient ways to produce eggs for our neighbor’s kitchens?  I suggest it can only happen if we have more people working to solve that problem…people who are willing to pursue ideas others think are silly.

Who is best qualified to generate silly ideas?  The youth.

As we age we become increasingly risk averse.  We become set in our ways, believing in the paradigm that has gotten us where we are, even if it has exceeded it’s point of maximum efficiency.  Youth aren’t stuck in a rut and aren’t afraid to look silly…unless they are confined in a daytime prison camp, subjugated by peers and are actively punished for non-conformity by their guards teachers.  I am the seventh generation on this land and from what I can tell, each of us has done it differently.  At least, I do it differently than grandpa did and he farmed differently than his father.  How can I perpetuate that legacy?  I try to read everything I can, spend a lot of time thinking before committing to an action and try, really try to allow my kids ages 6-11 to feel like their input is part of the decision making process here and to feel that their contributions are valued.  Many of our successful ideas come from our children.

But how can more young people (not children) begin farming when they typically have negative equity and no business experience?  I don’t have an easy answer.  I could go into a long post on economics and monetary policy but, again, this isn’t the right forum for that (maybe I need another blog…).  It is important to start small and use what you have but there has to be more we, as a community, can do to encourage agriculture as a way of life.  Land owners need to find ways to encourage young entrepaneurs to become tenants, managers, partners or interns.  Give them some way to learn before they leap, some way to earn and some measure of guidance as they build equity and, ultimately, independence.  One successful example is the New Zealand model of sharemilking.  There’s a nice article on the concept here.  We are working to find ways to involve our children in our businesses and to start complimentary enterprises of their own while we are still here to help them back up when they fall down.  We make a major financial investment in our children, model frugality so they can buy land of their own someday and teach them what little we know about marketing.  Most of all, we teach them to pursue excellence and independence.

Each of our children want to do different things; rabbits, pigs, laying hens, and a taco stand.  Yes.  A taco stand.  We’re not laughing.  It’s nice that our kids can do different things but it’s important that they do complimentary things.  Bill Mollison said, “Diversity isn’t involved so much with the number of elements in a system as it is with the number of functional connections between these elements. Diversity is not the number of things, but the number of ways in which things work.”  However, he later cautions, “Just by putting a lot of things together, we might reach the stage where we pollute the system simply with diversity.”  On our own farm we have to be careful to measure our success and admit our shortcomings as we attempt to stack elements.  This yearning for diversity, though pointed in the same general direction, also applies to my neighbors…even the GMO-happy glyphosate crowd.  My favorite dairy farmer in the world who builds ponds, grazes his cattle, maintains his timber and generally moves in the right direction does any number of things differently than I would.  He is weighing his options and making the best choices he can.  We have to allow for differences as we work to influence the world around us.  As more of us turn to agriculture, more differences will appear.  The same problems exist in both Maine and Texas but the solutions may be entirely different.  The same is true of farms across the road from each other.  We need to encourage these farmers to both pursue the best solution they can find locally and to build relationships with each other to continue sharing ideas.

Mollison continues: “We have got to let experts loose on the ground. We need hundreds and hundreds of them. We don’t want at any time to patent anything or to keep any information to ourselves”.  That’s it.  I need to be free to improve on your ideas.  You need to be free to improve on mine.  As we push forward we may eventually make something useful…who knows!  I spend a lot of time reading and discussing Salatin’s works, in part, because he hasn’t patented his ideas.  He and Andy Lee showed me how to use a chicken tractor.  I modified Salatin’s plan and built one that works well where I live.

I’ll say again that I’m going against the grain here.  I do things that nobody does…a few things nobody has ever done.  I’m an odd duck.  When I screw up (frequently) I have a number of people ready to pounce and say, “See?  What were you thinking?  I told you it wouldn’t work.”  Gene Logsdon points out that, because I’m different, it’s as if I’m telling my farming neighbors that they have been doing the wrong things for the last 60 years.  We, as practitioners of alternative agriculture, need to find common ground with our conventional neighbors.  Yes, we all do it our own way.  Some of us are even successful at it.  But we need to stand together even with our conventional neighbors.  There is nobody else who can/will support us.  If we are a community, our success will influence them to adopt our ideas in time.  If we push them away it will only make things worse.

We can’t all do the same things the same way.  Building a community is a better aim…a diverse, understanding, creative community pursuing excellence.  My farm is not your farm.  My schedule is not your schedule.  My budget is not your budget (be thankful).  My interests are not your interests.  My priorities are not your priorities.  In spite of this we can find common ground and we can achieve similar goals together.

So now the big question.  How can we get more youth excited about sustainable agriculture/permaculture?  Go out and meet your farmer.  Find a farmer who is excited and be inspired to see his work continue, expand and improve.  Find a farmer who will take time to break things down for children, inspiring them to see farming, not as drudgery, mud, blood and sweat, but as passion, meaningful work and a valuable contribution to the health of our world.