Friday, August 15, 2008


I've been living in the country for a while now. Technically I grew up in the country, but I would consider it suburbia as no one there seems to give much of a hoot for country living. When I went home to visit my family I ventured around a few cities surrounding the suburb I grew up in, and it actually felt...odd. These are not large cities, but apparently they're large enough to throw me off. The traffic, the noise, the endless stores in which to buy stuff, and the people--incredibly small against the edifices they have built. I quickly realized it is not somewhere I want to live.

Living in the country isn't always convenient. There aren't many social events in the country except for church, and if you don't attend church then there goes your chance at a social life. But at least there are trees. Lots of trees. There are stars in the sky--so many you don't even know how you should look at them. There are wild turkeys and groundhogs and deer. Perhaps this is not a replacement for the myriad opportunities of the city, but for some reason I'd rather watch turkeys than people.

This year, for the first time in human history, more than half of the world's population lives in cities. By 2030 the estimated urban population is 5 billion. This is not just an interesting factoid. This is a little scary. With the human population rising at an alarming rate, needing more and more food, where does the food come from? Cities? The food, as we all know, comes predominantly from the countryside, the paysage. So, if more and more people are migrating from the country to the city, what will we do about farmers? The obvious answer, and something that has already largely occurred in America, is large-scale, industry-run monoculture. You need more food, so you cut the small (and thus unreliable) farmers out of the picture and rely solely on huge corporate farms. These farms are streamlined, meaning that they are specialized to deal with exactly one type of crop. Be that tomatoes, soybeans, corn, or wheat, you're not going to find a corporate farm with two rows of corn next to two rows of beans next to two rows of squash. You are also not going to see a corporate farm practice crop rotation or soil conservation practices. All this means that farming has become just another machine, and like all other machines this one will eventually break down and become obsolete.

How can something designed for least maintenance and ultimate production become obsolete? Well, for one thing, soil doesn't last forever. On a well-managed farm, soil can be maintained and will last indefinetely, and that's the way it's supposed to be. If you've ever observed the layers on the ground in a forest, you will know that soil needs organic matter added to it to stay rich and vital. If not, there is no way around it: the soil will become absolutely infertile. We are already seeing that more and more fertilizers must be used to make infertile, abused land even slightly usable. But then you also have to consider the effects of those fertilizers on the watershed, the ecosystem, and our own bodies.

For another thing, the use of massive quantities of oil by huge pieces of farm equipment, not to mention oil used in processing and shipping, is dangerous in its own right. I think we're already familiar with that idea.

But let's not forget what happens to small farmers when huge operations render them obsolete (from a purely economic standpoint, of course). This past year a record number (I believe something around 4,000) of Indian farmers committed suicide due largely to crop failure or debt. When you read more closely you learn that US corporations have gone into India peddling GMOs and the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to go along with them. Many of these crops are not renewable (the seed from them is not viable), and they require chemicals to grow. Thus, the input (resources, money, labor) often exceeds output, leaving farmers further and further behind.

The point being that if this is what people think of when they envision going into farming as a profession, where are our future farmers going to come from? Recently there has been a trend of young people becoming interested in farming, myself included. This worries me. I can't imagine how I will be able to afford a piece of land as everything becomes more expensive. How will I fare as a farmer? Will I even make it there? Will I ultimately decide to back out and do something simpler? I think this generation of farmers may be the turning point. Either we make enough noise to get support and we thrive (as well as it is possible to thrive as a farmer) or the government continues to ignore us in favor of corporate farms and there goes the food revolution.

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