Archive for April 28th, 2008

Peak Farmers: A Guest Post by Elaine Solowey

Sharon April 28th, 2008

This is a guest post by my internet friend, Elaine Solowey.  She sent me this piece and I liked it so much that I couldn’t resist publishing it here:

Elaine Solowey is a displaced orcharder who went into agricultural research in 1985. She has been researching low water use, sustainable crops for arid and saline areas for the last twenty years and domesticating desert plants for use as food and medicinals. She has worked cooperatively with MERC/AID, the IALC, the FAO and the Natural Medicine’ s Unit of Hadassah Hospital. She lives, works and teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies with her husband Michael. Her books _Small Steps Towards Abundance_ and _Supping at God’s Table_ are both available through Amazon, and highly recommended – the latter, though is a bit more technical.

Here’s her wonderful essay on yet another thing we’ve thrown away as though it were garbage. 

Peak Farmers— “Not a Bibbed Overall In Sight”
That was the title of a particularly obnoxious article written in the late 1990′s extolling the wonders of agribusiness and agri-tech — promising fertilizers delivered by guided rocketry, fields plowed by smart lasers and huge computer run combines cultivating and harvesting whole counties for crops that would not be touched by human hands.
And not a bibbed overall in sight.

That was the point of the whole shallow, arrogant, machine-worshipping paen to the destruction of the countryside–.

The article was promising production without producers, an ultimate free lunch.

Would anyone write a piece like that now in 2008?

Joel Stein, the Angelino columnist said just last fall. “Agribusiness feeds us. Farmers are obsolete. They are one step above fire starters and cave painters”.

Now with food prices rising, food riots in 35 countries as of this writing and the concerns about peak oil, peak food, peak phosphorus, peak fertilizer finally crashing into mainstream consciousness it is surprising to me that no one connects the current crisis with a peak that was passed long ago.

Peak farmers.

But that peak should not be a surprise to anyone.

For the last 100 years there has been a world-wide effort to get rid of farmers…
Some were eliminated for political reasons the way that Stalin starved the Ukrainians to death and shipped the kulaks off to Siberia.

Some were driven off their land by the vast illegal enclosure actions of wealthy landowners in South American nations.

The Nazis in WWII swept up the farming inhabitants of Russian and Polish and Jewish villages and worked them to death in the factories that fed their war machine.

Millions of farmers were displaced by dams financed by the World Bank

Millions more were removed from agriculture by the policies of the WTO.

Some had their farms were taxed out from under them and the land tuned over to developers who built cheap houses and strips malls on it.

And more were eliminated by agricultural globalization, the belief that every farmer should specialize and produce as much of their single product as possible (to the neglect of everything else) – then we would all merrily cross- ship these things to each other for ever.

Still others were “sanitized” out of business. The small dairies and animal husbandry operations could not afford the large and expensive machines needed to raise animals and process milk and meat under the rules of “modern” hygiene.

These small operations were declared to be inefficient and dirty, never mind the fact that modern “hygienic” production units for meat and milk are nightmarishly cruel, filthy, and squalid.  (Indeed, a backyard pigpen or chicken coop is a relative paradise compared the confining “crush” pens of the modern pig farm or the cage batteries of the modern poultry house.)

So farmers were eliminated, one after another, by murder, displacement, bankruptcy, by taxes that would not let land be passed from generation, by on- farm prices that left farmers unable to feed their own families, by subsidies that favored farms beyond human scale.

Many studies over the years showed that the small farm produced much more food with less environmental damage than the larger “economic” models. But the “economic” models produced more of their one product and looked good on paper, never mind the cost to the locale, the water or the soil or the people who lived in the area.

Get big, said the US secretary of agriculture.

Or get out.

So we got out.

Not that we had much choice in the matter.

I escaped into agricultural research, I will probably never own a piece of land that I can improve and cherish, but at least I have had the privilege and pleasure of taking care of trees and medicinal plants, tasting strange fruits, working with other people who love the green growing things of the world.

There is not much financial support for the kind of work I do and grants are hard to come by–I may have to go through the tiresome scientific rituals of recorded observation, boring empiricism and endless paperwork-but I regard that as an acceptable price to pay.

Most of us were not so lucky and had to make do with whatever job a dumb farmer who lost the farm could get.

And for many of us there were no jobs at all.

Though the peak for farmers was passed long ago there is still a persistent strain of anti- farmerism in the world, reflected by rules and laws that coddle GM technologies and outlaw open pollinated seeds, that allow modern dairy farmers to burn out their animals in a few years by giving them growth hormones but outlaw the keeping of a few goats or chickens in a rural yard.

In the US the average farmer is 55. And there is no one to follow.

Exactly my age by the way.

And I am getting tired of the endless, thankless work I do, the reports no one reads and the policies that never change and thinking longingly of a little garden somewhere where I can grow my own food and do what I have always wanted to do while I still have the time.

We are almost gone-and now that we are as the modern world has wanted us to be.
Extinct, obsolete, one step from the fire starters and cave painters.

Who will grow your food for you?

Just when you need them—there is not a bibbed overall in sight.