Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Farming Makes You Stupid (PBA versus OSA)

I probably need to make two distinctions prior in order to set up the following study of how farming relates to intelligence and to minimize any offenses that may be taken.

For the balance of this article I will refer to two very different kinds of farming. The first type is what I will call Old Solar Agriculture (OSA). This description was originally coined, I think, by Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and poet. It is the slow, local way to farm. Little or no petroleum is used in production or product delivery. Soil is amended through the work of animals and human hands. Grasses are converted by the animals into manures which are composted, locally, and spread with a shovel or the occasional use of a tractor of some sort. Weeds are pulled by hand tools; pests are controlled with beneficial insects or by hand. The manures and weeding renovate the soil which is warmed by the sun and watered by the rain, freshly fallen, or captured in barrels. The sun, the rain, the animals, and the farmer’s hands are the major players in growing nutrients the slow way, the renewable way, the least impactful way. Product delivery is local, minimizing the petroleum used in transporting to local markets to an old farm truck or even a new SUV. Minimal food miles is the key. Food travelling thirty miles once or twice a week uses less petroleum and has a lower impact on the earth than food travelling across the country or around the world daily. This is OSA – Old Solar Agriculture.
The other kind of farming I will refer to is modern, Petroleum Based Agriculture (PBA). This kind of farming is the diametric opposite of OSA. The “success” of this kind of agriculture is dependent on fossil fuels to till, plant, spray, fertilize, harvest, and deliver nutrients to a much wider customer base across a state, country or continent. I’ve heard it said, that 90% of all asparagus sold in the US comes from South America. Food miles pile up, fuels are burned to plant, harvest, refrigerate, and deliver produce, impacting our planet by using up fuels we are creating now and affecting the environment through its exhaust. This is large scale, petroleum/machine based agriculture that is performed with minimal or no input from people and animals. This is PBA – Petroleum Based Agriculture.

The second distinction is more grammatical in nature. I use the word Stupid a lot in the article to follow. The way I use it must not be mistaken for an insult. The word is used more directionally than an actual state of intelligence. When I placed the title “Farming Makes You Stupid” I had two agendas that I feel, to be fair to you, I need to disclose. First, the controversial title is designed to pique interest, cause discussion, and perhaps, in some cases, insult. The second is to demonstrate how, since the introduction of petroleum based agriculture as early as World War I, has reversed the course of human “common sense”. I will attempt to flesh this out as I proceed. The main thesis being, By Relying on Machinery and Fossil Fuels for Nutrient Production, farmers have lost knowledge, once gained by trial and error and common sense, and found a dependence on science that seems to work to get food to the customer. As more and more machines take the place of humans on the farm, more and more humans leave to be consumers, who do not need to think about or figure out how to get food on their table. With fewer humans and animals doing the work, those humans left to running the machines no longer “think” about farming – they think solely on the machines. And, I think, this applies to other areas of life. As the physical and mental requirements have changed, especially in this 21st century, we have not had to “think” about what to do to achieve a desired result, and then physically do it. We are, in some ways, losing eternal knowledge and, as a result, we are getting stupider. I will now try to illustrate specific examples of how “Farming Makes You Stupid”.
Some of the stupidest people I’ve ever met were those I talked with during our time in Nebraska. Nebraska is mostly rural; mostly agricultural. In my experience, farmers had always had the most “common sense”, or better yet, “wisdom”. Taking what they knew about nature, seeing what needed to be done to achieve a certain goal or yield, and physically, with their hands, making it happen.
My grandfather, Alva M. Ober, was quite the renaissance man. A farmer, famous for his Suffolk sheep operation in Champaign County Ohio, winner of countless Champion, Grand Champion, and Showmanship ribbons from the county fair, an auctioneer, singer of bluegrass tunes on the local radio station (Here Rattler Here was his favorite tune to whistle while working), a big name in the county; truly one of the best known of farmers in the area. Throughout the short time I knew him he remade himself, learned new things, and excelled in both. He left the sheep business one day and decided to take his International 444 tractor equipped with a box grater, and fashioned an large oval in one of his alfalfa fields. Round and round he went until a fully formed, banked, horse racing track was created. I helped him build a horse barn at one end of the track – a barn built by hand with just a few helpers. When joining boards, he pried and bent, by hand every warped plank into shape and then single handedly, without the use of an air-compressed nail gun; just a hammer and nails, attached them into place. If a gap appeared from a warped plank that did not set into place, there was no talk of caulking, foam filled insulation, or patches. The board was removed and then tossed aside for a new one, or the reshaping, by hand, was tried again.
He had three ponds in the field behind his house, stocked with fish. It was here that I learned how to talk to the fish. He would cast a line and leave the bail open on the reel as he walked around the small pond, gently tugging at the line to give him enough slack to make the circuit, and every single time, he had a crappie or perch on the hook by the time he got back round to me, standing on the bank amazed.
He started raising quail one year. He must have had over 100 baby chicks in an incubator he built himself, by hand, with hand saw, triangle square, and the ever-present hammer and nails.
“Are you going to eat them?” I asked.
“Eat them!? Eat my babies? I’m going to turn them loose in the field out back.” He exclaimed.
Sure enough, when they were big enough to fend for themselves, he turned them loose into the field behind the house where his fish ponds were located. At the time, this field had an orchard, tall grass, and a checkerboard planting of young pines no more that a foot tall. Pines that he planted himself, by hand, digging every hole with a shovel and pick. Now that field is a large pine forest. I now know that upon entering the race horse phase of his life, he decided to return the unused portion of his land to the wild.
Grandpa eventually became quite a big name in the Sulky Racing community in central Ohio. When his horse barn burned down due to the misbehavior of a crack-head cousin of mine, he rebuilt it, by hand, hammer and nail. Grandpa died in a Columbus Ohio hospital after getting kicked in the chest by one of his race horses. The kick didn’t end his life. The technology laden hospital did. Grandpa’s farm was the closest thing I’ve known to Old Solar Agriculture though he would not have described it thus. To him, there was only one way – the old way; the slow way.
One day I brought algebra homework to his house. I was spending the weekend to help him on some new thing he was trying on his farm. I showed him my math problem – one of those lengthy word problems loaded with misdirection and red-herrings. I had trouble figuring it out, writing the equation, and showing my work. I also had trouble getting the right answer. I let Grandpa read the question. Almost immediately after he read it through he said about 7 and a half miles. I looked in the answer key and sure enough, he had it right. When I asked him to help me write the equation he said,
“Well, I don’t about that, but the answer is seven and a half miles.”
My algebra teacher would most likely have labeled Grandpa as an uneducated man even though he did get the right answer because he could not write the equation out or explain how he got to the answer. But tell me this, who is smarter, the man who can calculate an answer to a geometry problem in his head, or the man that knows how to use the protractor to calculate an angle, and then needs to use it?
Perhaps that question is not fair. How about this then? What if the man could take a picture on a digital camera, plug it into his computer, open up a software application, and ask the computer to calculate the angle? And then compare him to the man who can look at it and figure it out with a tape measure, a pencil, and the back of an old envelope? When the power goes out who is better equipped to handle the situation, figure it out, make it happen?
In this last case, a machine would improve efficiency, productivity, and precision, perhaps. However, is not something lost? If the modern man has the machine make the calculations and draw the plans, does he not lose an ancient knowledge? Does not this loss of ancient knowledge, according to our definition, make modern man more stupid than his predecessor? If you doubt, just try to pay attention to the next cashier that can’t count change. Why? Because the cash register now tells them how much to return to you. Ask the middle 30 something engineer to calculate Power (P=IE [Power=Current x Voltage]) and see him pull out a calculator.
Here is some ancient knowledge my Grandfather imparted to me (though he could not tell me why these things were so).
Plant Marigolds around your garden. When asked why, he simply stated, “The plants do better”. The fact that he did not know, or could not describe why he did this every year should not impugn his intelligence. My knowing that this works and not doing it; makes me stupid. Science will tell you that the Marigold emits a strong odor that insects hate. A border of marigolds around a garden, simply put, keeps the bugs away. This is OSA – Old Solar Agriculture. Modern man, perhaps, ignorant of this simple fact that marigolds makes “the plants do better” will use pesticides to quickly eradicate ALL bugs, not just the ones that eat the flesh of one’s collards. This, because that ancient knowledge is lost, is PBA – Petroleum Based Agriculture. In this example, PBA stops short in its ignorance. Pesticide to rid the garden of bugs fails to consider the long term effects to the ecology of the garden. In the long term, our dependence on petroleum – modern farming – has made us more stupid…
Let’s move on then to Nebraska. Recent figures show that 89% of Nebraska’s cities have a population under 3,000. Many hundreds have populations under 1,000, while urban growth, in Lincoln and Omaha, has increased exponentially. The kids are leaving the farms. And as farms become larger, flatter, more mechanized, fewer hands are needed to work it. I began thinking about the subject of farm-stupidity two years ago when we lived in Omaha and I was asked by a lady who had lived on a farm her whole life, “You mean ducks lay eggs just like chickens?”
“Yes, yes they do.”
It’s not her fault but it is striking how this thing I am calling ancient knowledge or ancient wisdom is disappearing.
We now reside in a mostly rural state. But in a part of that state where “small”, non-mechanized farms are the norm. In the delta, mechanization of cotton and rice has killed small towns and ancient wisdom. Case in point, the rice farmer, who during a radio interview, was proudly expounded his “new” theory of soil renovation. Instead of burning the stubble after harvest, he read somewhere that he could till the stalks under every year. This will add depth and nutrient to the soil and cut down on his need for artificial fertilizers. I applaud the farmer for going “Old Solar” but what is concerning is his belief that this is some new-fangled scientific method for soil renovation. In the mountain country, a lack of industrial employment as caused a caravan of commuters that make their way into the big cities of the northwest or Little Rock and these two urban centers are also growing, mostly because of large scale agriculture and health care employment opportunities.

When I told one person that we were raising hogs on pasture, I was ridiculed for my belief that hogs eat grass. “They eat corn”, he said. Again, this is evidence of a lost knowledge because industrial scale, petroleum based agriculture dictates that hogs should be penned up and fed “fast” high calorie grains rather than the “slow” solar based grass. Indeed, the growth rate of a grass fed hog is much slower than that of a grain fed one. But the striking thing about this person’s comment is his unwavering dogma that hogs “can’t eat grass”. You may be asking, “How did you know that hogs can eat grass?” The answer is simple. I saw a picture in a pre-WWII book on raising hogs for market and there were grainy, black and white pictures of hogs- boar, sow, and piglets free ranging a pasture. So we tried it one year and guess what? Hogs eat grass. They also till the pasture they are in removing buttercups, dock, unbury rocks and other undesirables, like grubs, Bermuda roots. We fashioned a moveable hog pen system using 6 hog panels and some shallowly planted t-posts so we can move small piglets around on grass until they are large enough to be let loose. After they clear a patch we throw down grass seed – the kind of grass we want – into the newly tilled, weeded, and fertilized 256 sq. ft. area.
Seed packet myths are my final example in this discussion of how modern agriculture – petroleum based agriculture – makes one stupid. The myth of the seed packet is not hard to find, simply flip the packet over and it is detailed, briefly in the planting instructions section of the packet.
A typical packet may contain instructions like this.
Seed every 3” in rows 18” apart at a depth of ½” in well drained soil. When plants are established, thin to 6” apart.
My grandfather never read a seed packet in his life, buying mostly bulk seeds from his local co-op. If he were planting lima beans, he prepared his rows spaced just enough for him to walk down at first. He drug a hoe down the row to make a trench, of a more or less, consistent depth. He would, then, by hand, drop seeds somewhat consistently along the trench and then drag the hoe along one side of it until all the seeds were covered with soil. He would then, using the flat side of the hoe, tamp the row down and then water it well. When the plants were established and leafing out, there was barely, if any, room to walk between the rows. He rarely had to water or weed because the “crowded” plants would mulch themselves, not allowing weeds to sprout up to the sun in between the rows. He always realized a bountiful harvest and all without herbicides, fertilizers, or weeding.
Let us now discuss the seed packet instructions.
18” between rows is a condition of planting these seeds according to the instructions. These widely spaced rows allow sun to reach the soil and whatever weed seeds are lodged there. The weeds sprout and are in direct competition with the lima bean plants. Why the wide spacing? This 18” space between rows is to allow for the width of tractor wheels and tillers between the lines of plants. There is no way my grandfather could have driven a tractor between his rows or even run a tiller without destroying his newly established plants. Now because the rows have to be so far apart, it allows the weeds to get established inducing the temptation to use petroleum based methods for weed control.
Fact is, with well draining, high nutrient soil, one can crowd some crops together (thinning should be done with some root crops, though I have had success transplanting crops like beets, carrots, and turnips, spreading them out along the rows). The abundance of closely laid leaves shades the ground beneath the plant, reduces the evaporation of moisture from the soil, and due to the design of most vegetable plants, rain water runs down funnel-shaped leaves to the base of the plant making watering a simple process. With the shade provided by the plant itself, the amount of water needed to feed its root system is reduced.
Farmer’s tied to a modern petroleum based agriculture look at me like I am potty when I over crowd, mulch with hay, or hand till rows in my 5,000 square foot garden. To them, I appear to be the stupid one. I leave off with this. In 13 years of gardening the same spot we have not had a pH imbalance and have only tilled the plot, with tractor and plow only about a half a dozen times.
To sum up this theory of OSA vs PBA (Old Solar Agriculture vs. Petroleum Based Agriculture) I can only state, without equivocation, that the reliance on chemicals, fuels, machines, and techniques developed to accommodate these petroleum based inputs, has eroded an ancient knowledge the human race has spent millennia discovering about nature in all its glory and brutality. We have, because of our reductionist based intelligence, in fact, become more stupid.

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