Conservatives are evil. Yet all ecologists are conservative. What?

My grandfather was one of the first Conservation Agents in Missouri, yet he and my grandmother were die-hard Democrats, doing their best to lead and implement Great Society programs to help the poor and the elderly. Where they farmed, in Harrison County, Missouri, people didn’t talk about sustainability or resilience, but they knew that good farmers followed ecologically sound conservation practices. Everyone, they said, knew who the good farmers were and those were the ones who would last and succeed.  Today we’d call them the resilient farmers.

The opposite of my grandparents is the die-hard Republican farmer of today who plants vast acreages of monocrops, tears out fence rows wherever he can, relies on spray planes and anhydrous ammonia, often sets up concentrated animal feedlots, and seldom lives on the land he farms. He manipulates the political system and his land to extract maximal profit while living far from the spray planes spewing toxic chemicals on his land.

We encounter more than a few of these farmers in the flat and rich farmland of the Mississippi Delta adjacent to our Ozarks.  This morning driving through the Arkansas portion of the Delta to Meadowcreek, I had to roll up my  windows at 6 am as a spray plane hit me with God-knows-what chemical meant for the soybean crop beside the road.  Luckily, I was on my way to Meadowcreek where there are no spray planes.

If you believe the typical American conservative is evil, you won’t get much disagreement at Meadowcreek.  The people who come and live at Meadowcreek are almost universally liberal–as the American political discourse typically defines liberal and conservative. Bernie Sanders seems to be the universal choice for the 2016 Presidential election.

But we are also terribly conservative, we just want to conserve systems which existed long before modern American political conservatism arose.  We like innovation, but it must fit into the local ecological systems and increase the soil, water and other productive assets.

Resilient farmers like innovations such as management intensive grazing.  Why?  Because they use natural ecological processes to improve productivity and sustainability of farms.  The best soils in the world (in Ukraine and the American Midwest) were built by management intensive grazing. Wolves and other predators were the managers.

Wolf packs kept grazing animals concentrated in an area until all the food was gone and, serendipitously, manure well-incorporated in the soil.  When a given area was depleted, the herd was forced to move on to another area and kept in a herd by the wolves patrolling the edges and picking off stragglers. The result was the grass was fully utilized and the land was heavily fertilized by manure which was incorporated by the cow’s hooves into the soil before the herd moved on.

Today’s management intensive graziers use electric fence to mimic the predators of past millennia.  The management intensive grazier uses every innovation he can find or invent.  Cody Hopkins, a friend who lives near Meadowcreek, uses these techniques for not only cattle, but hogs and chickens, He’s created several technical innovations.  One gets water to his chickens as their pens are moved across the field.  Another is a better method for harvest.

The resilient farmer is always looking to improve his systems and make them more innovative.  In being open to new ideas, he is far from conservative, but he is extremely conservative in making sure any innovations interact successfully with the complex adaptive systems which determine whether it survives and prospers.

A farmer is limited in time, money, workers, and land. By sticking to tried and true traditions, the farmer has a pretty reliable estimate as to what he can produce given those constraints. Introducing a new technology or a new way of doing things on the farm puts the farmer’s limited and precious resources at risk.

All species have adopted innate survival mechanisms for the sake of efficiency. Our “innate” behaviors, such as eating, chewing, breathing, and crying when distressed, are unconscious systems that allow us to move through life with a much higher chance of survival. If we had to learn how to do these things, or think about them every time we did them, the daily task of survival would become a whole lot harder. Certain basic parts of any system are very conservatively maintained.

Resilience suffers when aspects of the system which must respond to the outside systems are conservatively maintained when those systems change.  Rigidity traps can lure farmers, entrepreneurs, and even whole organizations into using up all of their potential resources when going about “business as usual.” Even systems that are stuck in a rigidity trap are able to get out, but it takes some extra effort. Although individuals within a system may be able to change a properly functioning system, when a system becomes stuck in a rigidity trap, individuals alone are too weak to completely fix it. It will take strong, innovative leaders to rally individual strength together and break the rigidity trap.

Since smaller systems are more malleable than large, steady systems, it is easier to leave the rigidity trap on your own farm than to overhaul all the rigidity traps of our current agricultural system. However, every farm that escapes the rigidity trap moves the general population forward. Every early adopter of a new way of thinking about agriculture contributes to winning over the early majority, the late majority, and even the laggards.

The emergence of a thought shift in farmers markets in Oxford, Mississippi, illustrates the relationship between conservation and innovation, and the perils of both conservatism without innovation and lack of conservatism in innovation. Oxford is a college town, and like many college towns, it has a thriving food scene. The city also prides itself as a cultural hub of the South, and as such it draws food connoisseurs and top chefs. The result is an expensive, sophisticated culture where food is a luxury to be invested in. However, Oxford has another face, one less visible to the outside world. It harbors immense poverty. The local middle school has a 50 percent poverty rate.

Two separate farmer’s markets have appeared in Oxford. The first of the two was Mid-Town Farmer’s Market. The Mid-Town Farmer’s Market has more or less held the same group of farmers for the better part of its existence. It generally does not accept new vendors, and it sticks to a very traditional model. For instance, it has turned down vendors who hoped to sell shares in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model rather than directly selling produce. In 2011, when the City of Oxford accepted a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the money was supposed to transform Mid-Town’s vending system into one that could accept EBT and WIC. Allegedly, Mid-Town turned down the money and the changes. However, the grant still needed to go toward a farmer’s market, and so Oxford City Market was born. For all the ways that Mid-Town has remained loyal to its original model and vendors, Oxford City Market (OCM) tries new approaches. OCM is a city-run farmer’s market, which means that its main organizer is a city employee. The market aspires to generate enough revenue to pay for its own organizer, but it’s still a young enterprise.

A main goal of OCM is inclusion. OCM accepts as many farmers as it can make space for, even ones that sell the same goods. It also used additional grant money to create an alternative way of paying farmers. Instead of customers paying farmers directly, customers buy wooden tokens worth varying amounts of money at the main desk, and then spend the tokens at each booth. This allows all farmers to accept payment from customers using WIC and EBT, even though not every farmer has the capacity to process EBT and WIC cards at their stand. OCM also reaches out in multiple venues with multiple languages to attract new customers. The whole philosophy that OCM takes—that farmer’s markets should actively work toward inclusion—inspires a new, innovative approach to selling fresh food. There are some benefits and pitfalls to each approach.

Mid-Town is consistent and self-sufficient. The famers allowed to sell there are not allowed to sell competing goods, which helps their own profits. However, the market does not serve most farmers in the area, and customers only have one price option for each good since farmers can’t compete with each other. OCM, on the other hand, is trying to serve as many farmers and customers as possible. Farmers in this market can compete with each other by selling the same good, but not all farmers are in favor of that. Due to both its youth and its quest for inclusivity, OCM is a lot less stable than Mid-Town. It does not yet have its own land to use each week and it also isn’t financially self-sustaining yet.

The two markets illustrate what we mean by innovation and conservation. OCM embraces all of the latest innovations in farmer’s market-style vending. It tries to incorporate many farmers with unique products, it reaches out to customers that traditionally weren’t wealthy enough to spend their money at the farmer’s market, and it’s designed a method of payment where all farmers can accept payment from EBT- and WIC-using customers. However, it struggles to find stability, and some of its experiments have failed.

Mid-Town, on the other hand, takes an ultraconservative approach. It is extremely stable, but it is also resistant to change. It relies on a small group of farmers and a small, though wealthy, base of customers. Should any one of these things change (as they are bound to), the whole market will suffer. OCM is certainly taking a lot of risks, but it would also appear that Mid-Town Market has fallen into a rigidity trap. Its system is extremely financially predictable, which has enabled Mid-Town Market to become its own independent entity with a consistent location.

However, this conservatism may be preventing the market from considering new approaches. Rigidity prevents it from expanding its base of vendors or customers. As the dynamics of Oxford inevitably shift, Mid-Town may struggle to adapt to its new environment. How can we tell the difference between efficiency and a “rigidity trap”? Where do conservation and innovation meet? We define successful conservative innovation as a trait that doesn’t hamper any of the other components of socio-ecological resilience—connectivity, local organization, asset building, backups, complementary diversity, ecological integration, and periodic transformation. Making sure both conservation and innovation are allowing for the other seven components to flourish, however, is a task in and of itself. It requires feedback.

Feedback is when one part of a system talks to another part of the system. It allows farmers, entrepreneurs, farmer’s market managers, etcetera, to see how well their business or system is working. Ecological and social systems alike use feedback to test which of its innovations are the best for the system.

Feedback is most accurate when multiple pieces of the system are involved in the communication process. Innovation is almost always a learning process, explored by trial and error. With any new innovation, there are bound to be errors. Feedback mechanisms are an efficient way to explore those errors and correct them.

Critically, feedback is characteristic of a non-linear, complex system. As shown by the complex adaptive systems model, socio-ecological systems are anything but simple. Non-linear systems occur when information from different steps in the process are looped back to earlier parts. Though they may reduce efficiency in the short term, when information channels double back they increase the long-term likelihood of the innovation to be beneficial on a wide scale. Feedback is a cooperative social process.

The spread of ideas—old and new—is a social phenomenon. The social and cultural context in which an idea takes place heavily shapes whether the idea is adopted. In our case study with Josh Hardin, many of the ideas he’s attempting in Arkansas come from his connections on the West Coast. We saw this illustrated again in another case study we conducted with Sequatchie Cove Farm just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bill Keener, Sequatchie Cove’s founder, is widely credited as one of the pioneers of Chattanooga’s thriving local food movement. However, when he began farming, he became acquainted with cutting edge sustainable farming thinkers like Joel Salatin. He implemented ideas that the leaders of the movement had already done and brought them to Chattanooga. What might not be news to Joel Salatin may well be news to a small city in Tennessee. In ecology, innovation spreads physically, through genetics and reproduction. However, people don’t necessarily have to wait generations to adapt. It’s a question of being connected in the right ways.

You can learn more in the conservative innovation chapter in our book.

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One thought on “Conservatives are evil. Yet all ecologists are conservative. What?

  1. Pingback: Eve of destruction, eve of new beginnings | Meadowcreek

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