There is an unwritten law it seems in agriculture these days; whispered on the wind from coast to coast and pole to pole. Proclaimed and prophesied around tables from kitchens to cafés by old men, it has spread to the blogs and blundering of Internet chat rooms and Facebook foodie folklore. Many in mainstream agriculture have believed it for so long that it has become ingrained in their self portrait of their existence.
What is this law? This deeply held belief that has become a guiding light of everything from an individual farmers’ business planning, to governmental policy around agriculture and resources? It is the contagious virus that has infected the minds of food producers — that there is an inherent obligation of farmers to feed every last man, woman and child on this planet.
At first you may think “But of course, who else will feed them?” Well, the dilemma goes much deeper than people being fed. With very little effort one can find all kinds of numbers on the Internet about how many thousands of calories the current global food system produces per acre, per hectare, per region, per person, and so on. You can find figures on any aspect of livestock production, from average piglets per sow to average litres of milk per cow; eggs per hen, pounds per broiler, quacks per quacker and so on. All the information about our food that you can possibly imagine is available to you. However, is anyone asking “Should we be producing this much, and should we be doing it this way?”
A second question has certainly come into the spotlight in recent years, as more people are pushing for more eco-friendly farming practices for a wide range of reasons, most of which I will not get into in this essay. The first question is one that perplexes and I feel is not being discussed nearly enough — this planet has approximately 7.3 billion humans on it, a number debated almost as much as the debate centres around the definition of “sustainable.” Many experts and analysts from fields of agriculture, economy and ecology have debated for decades whether human civilization has surpassed the threshold of what the Earth can sustain.
William Catton wrote 35 years ago in his book Overshoot:
“Human life is now being lived in an era of deepening carrying capacity deficit. All of the familiar aspects of human societal life are under compelling pressure to change in this new era when the load increasingly exceeds the carrying capacities of many local regions — and of a finite planet.”
Most of the analysis on sustainability focuses on looking at current production numbers or the future potential of current production models. A question that comes to mind for me in these discussions with friends in agriculture is, can those models continue in their current fashion, and if they do, at what expense to their foundational support system? Can a model fueled by diesel, guarantee that it will always be able to do so indefinitely? Can it guarantee a supply of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, to say nothing for other micronutrients? Can it guarantee it won’t cause the extinction of another single species? Can it — wait a minute — what’s that about other species?
When we analyze these models we speak of incredible production. We speak in terms of hundreds of bushels of corn per acre, hundreds of pounds of beef per acre, melons per plant, apples per tree. Why do we not speak about the success of these models in terms of soil organic matter produced, species of both flora and fauna added to our farms, rises in subsurface water tables, pH balancing of soil, or cleanliness of water? Why do we not have a place on their scorecard for the health of the ecosystems that support them, or for the happiness of the people who manage them? Mark Anielski, author of “The Economics of Happiness,” speaks at length about his vision of a “Genuine Wealth” — those conditions of well-being that align with our heartfelt values about what makes life worth living. Why would we not correlate this same visionary thinking into something as sacred to our very existence as our food?
The answer in my opinion, is simple, yet sinister. Our food is produced by farmers and corporations. In order for that to continue, farmers and farm workers must be kept focused. It is basic human psychology that in order to keep someone focused, you must give them a goal, a dream, and a passion to pursue it. Farmers are passionate, tough and independent people. Give them a task, they get it done. So what more convenient way to get things done in regards to food production, than to convince such a hard-working and passionate people, that they have an obligation to feed every man, woman and child on the planet?
They are the people that own and manage the land. They have the skills, knowledge and equipment to produce food. They also have the innate naivety of which no human is immune, myself included. Once persuaded of the monumental importance of feeding more and more people, the people themselves became obsessed with increasing production. Production became more important than profit, more important than sustainability, than safety, even more important than happiness. Modern “agriculture” has become a culture of measuring happiness by production.
Many times I have heard friends and family, all farmers, speak of how hard they are working. The husband has a second job in the oilfield checking wells, gauging tanks, hauling pipe or any number of other things. Maybe he works at the lumber mill down the road, hauls logs or gravel, or does renovations. His wife meanwhile teaches school, nurses the sick and dying, keeps books, dispatches trucks, or any other form of employment she can find to contribute to the greater good, that noble quest of doing what must be done to make a living, because we the farmers, must feed the world.
I know many of these people. My wife and I have been these people, and it breaks my heart to see others working themselves so hard, while missing soccer, hockey and baseball games, dance recitals and Christmas concerts. I still do it myself. But it’s okay as long as we tell ourselves that it is for that noble quest of doing what must be done to make a living, because we the farmers, must feed the world.
Our farming operations make other sacrifices as well. I’ve seen animals neglected at times, on my place and others, even if it’s just a couple of horses that don’t get ridden like you told yourself they would. Maybe it’s those heifers in the south pasture that you knew were reaching through the old stretch of fence along the road because the pasture’s been chewed bare, that cry out in protest by walking down the neighbour’s driveway at the exact time you and the missus are trying to escape for a long-overdue night out.
Maybe it’s the chickens that should have had another heat lamp in the coop, remembered only when found frozen stiff by your child’s friend from school out on a weekend visit to the farm, wide eyed and shocked into reality. This too, we can sum up to a lack of time, but it’s okay, as long as we tell ourselves that it is for that noble quest of doing what must be done to make a living, because we the farmers, must feed the world.
Then there are the sacrificed resources of our land. That sacred land for which we would give up almost anything to save and protect, and yet, every day we do dozens of things without asking why? Should we apply this chemical this close to that creek? If I let the cows graze that pasture down low again this year, will it come back thinner next year? Is that perhaps why the thistle and brush has taken over? What is it doing to my soil? So many things to consider when one has the time, but alas, we must not lose sight of that golden egg of increasing production, for of course, we must prioritize our time for feeding the world.
The stool of sustainability
I will end my ramblings with an analogy for you all to consider, but first let me say that I have not pointed at anything in agriculture that I have not at one time done myself, and come full circle to question its validity, safety, ecological sustainability, and whether or not it contributes to my family’s overall happiness.
Once I did that I had an epiphany, thanks to holistic management training from wonderful friends Don and Bev Campbell of Meadow Lake, Sask., from reading books and from meeting fascinating people at conferences and workshops. I finally realized that I had to make changes to my methods in order to strengthen all three legs of our Stool of Sustainability, which leads me to the analogy for you to ponder before blasting me as a tree-hugging, organically delusional, out-of-touch hobby farmer:
The Stool of Sustainability demonstrates each leg as representing economics, environment and community.
At the farm level this could be your production/profit, your land, and your people. When you consider the paradigm modern agriculture has created for farmers, that noble quest of feeding the world, I think we could all agree that it has focused most of its energy by far, on economics. Community would likely be chosen as a runner up, and environment has been largely ignored.
If you built a stool with that type of mindset, would it stand up? Would a three-legged stool with a large fat leg, a medium leg and a skinny weak leg hold up, especially when you are trying constantly to make the fat leg fatter?
My point with this essay is to attempt at helping to educate and enlighten people. It is certainly not an attempt to paint farmers as blind and stupid. I have been blind and stupid many times over the years, and still am far more than I like. Our farm is a work in progress as well, and I still work away from home in the oilfield as we build up the legs on our stool equally.
The main paradigm shift for us was to shed the notion that we are obligated to feed the world. We are obligated to feed ourselves, our family, and if there is any surplus, our local community. This belief affects how we plan our farm businesses, how we make decisions, how we evaluate our choices and redo plans where necessary. We no longer look at things with a focus on pushing production. We look at everything equally as part of a greater whole, and feel a deep sense of contentment in that, because we have the satisfaction that all three legs will be strong.
So please, free yourselves of that yoke around your neck as well. Free yourself of the burden that you are obligated to feed anyone but your own family. If you choose to work extra jobs, miss kids’ functions and run yourself ragged, make sure you are choosing it for YOUR own reasons.
Maybe you want to save up for a family holiday, maybe you want to save up to pay off the last of that loan on the tractor or the west pasture quarter. But please oh please, as stewards of the land and livestock, as ambassadors of the future of food, allow yourself that choice, that you work a farmer’s work, and live a farmer’s life for yourself and your family. It is a choice that provides your required production, without putting extra strain on the environment and the people. To provide for your family, and protect the world around you, perhaps even improve it, is far more noble a life to lead, than living under the yoke of an obligation to push production at the expense of your family, community and environment.
That belief in an obligation to production has consequences that affect us all. One last thought, came from a friend recently who after discussing this topic said, “Asking how we find enough food to feed this growing population, is like asking how we will find enough wood to feed this growing fire?”
Do we reduce the flames, or let it burn?