Feeding the world

I’ve begun to wonder when the idea of feeding the world first became a moral imperative among farmers. Why is it that farmers have inherited the responsibility to feed everyone who has decided to do something else no matter what the personal cost?

I think I know how this idea came into being. As scientists and governments conceived of the idea that there were “too many farmers” back in the 20s and after, more and more people stopped farming to do other things. Yet, these people still needed food, so they came to rely on the people who continued to farm more and more. Now, the number of people who farm has decreased to less than 1 percent of the population (which also begs the question what the more than 99 percent of everyone else is actually doing), so the rest of the population is desperate for the farmers to keep farming, whether they realize they are or not.

Further, the non-farmers are often terrified of any suggestion that farming might need to be done differently, because changes that fail could spell no food for them. In a lot of ways, farming has become like social security: let’s not change it because changes might affect me, even though I am doing nothing to contribute to the system’s success as it currently exists.

Meanwhile, the system itself is failing. Because so few people farm, very few people know what it actually takes to feed the world. And what it takes is a huge amount of equipment and fuel, both of which are becoming so expensive that fewer and fewer farmers can afford to continue doing it. If things continue the way they are now, eventually farmers won’t be able to feed the world because the world will have made farming to expensive to be done by anyone.

I understand that many, many people will counter what I am saying here with variations of the argument: “how is paying a farmer to raise food for me any different than paying anyone else to do something for me I can’t or won’t do?” To me, the answer is that most other things you pay people to do for you don’t necessarily have to be done and you probably won’t die from them not doing it.

So now, the question for me is why am I doing this? I know the answers, and I have come to realize that I am not doing it to feed the world. I’m doing it because I want to convince the world to feed itself.


Life and death and farming

I can’t think of many other places where the drama of life and death unfold with such breathtaking regularity as they do on the farm .

Today, I had to help a cow give birth to a calf that was too big for her and got hung up on her hip bones as it was being born. We lost the calf but saved the cow; lost a new life but ensured new lives in the process.

No matter what kind of farming someone decides to pursue, some element of this cycle of life and death will be present. With animals, especially big ones, this cycle can be traumatic and dramatic, but even with plants the cycle is just as evident.

I think that constant exposure to life and death is why farmers, especially traditional ones, tend to be far more realistic and spiritual than most other people. In the life and death I experienced just a little while ago, I saw the tale of my own life and of the lives that depend on me. I saw the evidence of how fleeting life is and how important it is to make every second count.

From that view, I see how farming, like the rest of a life well lived, is not for the weak of heart or the weak of soul. Yet, even seeing life and death acted out before me, I am not discouraged or afraid but instead that much more dedicated to the idea of making every moment I have matter.

It is because of that sense of dedication that I think society has lost something as it has moved away from the farm. Because most people are not exposed to the ever-present reality of life and death that farmers see, they have lost sight of the fact that their own lives are part of the same cycle.

I think that restoring that sense of reality is as important as feeding ourselves in my encouragement of people to grow their own food. Farming is life, not just a job, and doing it reminds us how little time any of us really have and how we should make the most of what we do have.


The one thing everyone can do

This morning, I read about a bill under consideration by the US Senate that would, if the language in it holds true, essentially criminalize local food producers by forcing them to register with regulatory agencies in the same way that industrial food companies must.

Reading about this bill once again struck home for me how far Americans have drifted from simple, elegant truths about life. In this era of high unemployment and ongoing economic instability, the one thing that everyone can do is grow their own food. I know this is a remarkable idea to millions of Americans, but it is also true.

Anyone with a patch of grass or a place to set up a few pots of soil can grow their own food, sometimes amazing quantities of it if one does it right. A seasoned garden grain farmer can grow enough wheat on a 100 square foot patch of ground to make 100 loaves of bread from the resulting harvest. That’s a 10×10 or 20×5 foot patch of wheat that can provide bread for a family of four for a year.

Unfortunately, most Americans recoil at the idea of providing their own food. They recoil at the labor. They recoil at the dirt. They recoil at the insinuation that growing their own food implies they can’t buy it.

So, what they get instead is 100 little emperors crafting a law that will force them to buy their food from sources approved by a federal agency, sources one can never visit, whose processes are industrial secrets, and whose products are dubious as food at best.

Meanwhile, the 20 percent or more of Americans who are un- or under-employed continue to depend on the same government to let them go to the imperially mandated food sources to get their daily allotment of government inspected and approved foodstuffs never realizing that, in the time it took them to go to the unemployment office and the grocery store, they could have cultivated a wonderful, nutritious garden for another day. Plus, they would have gotten some badly needed exercise and exposure to sunlight along the way.

I understand that, especially with the interstate transport of industrially produced food, the government needs to regulate the safety of what industrial food producers manufacture, but what does that have to do with small food producers whose products often travel less than 100 miles and usually not out of the state where they were produced? I understand that growing one’s own food may not pay the bills, but if the law is passed, even if one is good at it, one won’t have the chance to try because Imperial Washington has decreed one cannot.

Of course, they way to fix this problem is to contact one’s senators and ask them to scrap this terrible legislation then, if one really believes in the idea behind why it is bad, go home and plant, cultivate, and harvest. Everyone can do it, even if the government does not get the idea.