Much has been written and studied about the long-term, negative effects of industrial agriculture on the land, local ecosystems, and the people who end up eating what is thus produced. If you have been browsing through the archives of Permaculture News articles, you probably have heard about how the influx of agrochemicals has poisoned our waterways and led to a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
You might be rightly worried when studies anticipate that we only have around 60 years of top soil left at current rates of “extraction”, which is exactly what industrialised monocultures do to the land. And you probably recoil at the increasing rise of glyphosate levels in the human body from agrochemical residues that contaminate virtually every link of the industrial food chain.
While opposing the current state of agriculture should be rather straightforward and the result of common sense, proposing candid and genuine alternatives can be much more demanding. The author, poet, and farmer Wendell Berry has spent a lifetime writing about the “unsettling of America” and how rural communities have been uprooted and displaced by the force of the industrial agricultural paradigm. His fiction, essays, and poetry written over the past 40 years has been focused around the subject of rescuing the value and goodness of rooted, agrarian communities.
However, in a recent interview with the New Yorker, Berry offered an honest assessment of another major challenge facing agriculture in this country. “If we should decide to replace the chemicals and some of the machinery with humans, as for health or survival we need to do, that would be very difficult and it would take a long time,” Berry said.
Pressed as to why it would be difficult to repopulate rural areas with young, small farming families, Berry offered this straightforward appraisal:
“Because there is no farmer pool from which farmers can be recruited ready-made. Once we could more or less expect good farmers to be the parents of good farmers. That kind of succession was hardly a public concern. When farmers are taught, starting in childhood, by parents and grandparents and neighbors, their education comes “naturally” and at little cost to the land. A good farmer is one who brings competent knowledge, work-wisdom, and a locally adapted agrarian culture to a particular farm that has been lovingly studied and learned over a number of years. We are not talking here about “job training,” but rather about the lifelong education of an artist, the wisdom that comes from unceasing attention and practice. A young-adult non-farmer can learn to farm from reading, apprenticeship to a farmer, advice from neighbors, trial and error—but that is more awkward, is personally risky, and it may be costly to the land.”
Permaculture: A replacement for locally adapted agrarian cultures?
In the absence of traditional, cultural models that allow agrarian wisdom and experience to be passed from generation to generation, many young farmers today, and especially those attracted to the ethics and vision of permaculture, are forced to find alternative strategies to learn basic farming knowledge.
In my own case, a couple of hundred dollars invested in a stack of permaculture books published by Chelsea Green, a few too many hours of watching permaculture videos and documentaries on YouTube, a two week PDC in Costa Rica, and countless hours spent volunteering in the fields of small farmers in rural Guatemala (though I probably often did more harm than good) was part of a three-year “apprenticeship” into a vocation and way of life that I was not born into.
Those years of enthusiastic study were certainly important, inspiring, and a necessary precondition that allowed me to build the confidence to actually purchase a farm and begin to callous my hands with the hard work that farming entails. However, it would be naive to assume that reading books, watching YouTube videos, and taking a two-week course in an idyllic paradise is an adequate replacement for the organic, natural flow of locally adapted knowledge that is passed from parents and grandparents onto their children who are to inherit the land upon which their ancestors have deposited their sweat and dreams.
The scientific onslaught
One of the most precarious and potentially dangerous elements of this type of farming apprenticeship is that it tends to follow the mandates of what I call “recipe agriculture.” The scientific onslaught of agriculture that occurred during the Green Revolution attempted to replace the inherited wisdom of agrarian culture with a series of comprehensive, chemical recipes and formulas that were supposedly universally applicable.
Instead of locally adapted farming techniques and solutions that were crafted through generations of trial and error and patient learning from the land, the “professional” agronomist only needed to punch in a few numbers to tell farmers what seeds to sow, what fertilisers to use, which pesticides to spray, and when to harvest.
While most of us reading this article would argue that permaculture is fundamentally different in how it approaches land use, the mandates of “recipe agriculture” and the industrial mind are deeply embedded in our culture and way of viewing the world, and also influence how permaculture is taught and practiced. Too often, the permaculture books and PDCs and YouTube videos lay out a prescription of certain farming elements that are supposedly compulsory for good permaculture practice.
You must build the sacred swale. You have to have five zones. You need to plant Bee Balm if you want pollinators. And without comfrey you´re doomed. In some cases, these are the mantras that permaculture instruction passes on to young people earnestly searching for the needed knowledge to live on the land.
While swales, zones, Bee Balm, and comfrey can certainly play an important role in good farming, prescribing specific solutions and techniques to aspiring young farmers can certainly be dangerous. Yes, pollinators are important for farms, water management is essential to stop erosion, and the patient design of a landscape can help a farm become a part of the landscape and ecosystem where it is found. However, the specific techniques, methods, systems, and procedures employed to achieve these basic tenets of good farming will always depend on the specific, contextual conditions and circumstances of each farmer and his or her farm.
The tendency to prescribe specific solutions is a basic inclination that comes from growing up in a culture defined by the industrial mind and way of life. Recipe agriculture, whether it be prescribed by Syngenta-paid agronomists or permaculture gurus is always a treacherous path to follow. Learning the patience to observe the land (and here permaculture has much to offer and teach) can allow young farmers to commence the “lifelong education of an artist”, in Berry´s words, that is essential for good farming to occur.