Farms must be communities

Government-sponsored conferences are often a festival of schmoozing of highly paid bureaucrats.  Sometimes there is a hick-up in these conferences, though.  At a USDA-sponsored conference yesterday in Fayetteville, Arkansas, one of the farmer-panelists, in a very pleasant way, suggested that all government programs were a waste of time.  It was like water off a duck’s back. The bureaucrats responded: we need more money so we can do the job better. But the problem goes far deeper than just mismanagement.

farm familyAt the conference’s conclusion, the organizers asked for feedback.  I couldn’t hold back any longer.  I tried to help them integrate their efforts with the wisdom of ecology, but I didn’t do a good job of enlightening them.  So, in the hope that some will read this, below is what I hoped to get across.

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us there is nothing new under the Sun, yet many religious folks and other bureaucrats like to think of man’s problems as unique.  And experts think of their solutions as unique.

In fact, organisms have been encountering similar problems throughout the history of life on earth.  Some species and their communities find ways around the problems, others die.  Nature has only one reward for all our striving and that is death.  The only question is whether we can produce thriving offspring before we die.  If we do, our species, our communities of species, continues.  If not, we all go extinct.

Resilience is the what ecologists call this ability to innovate and thrive in the face of disturbance.   Ecologists have long studied the qualities which make a system resilient.  One is redundancy: always having extras around, always being able to replace any component of the system.

That was the topic of yesterday’s conference, though no ecologists were present, so participants didn’t use the term redundancy.  Instead they called it “Land tenure and the next generation of agriculture.”  Many farmers do a good job of farming and their system seems to be thriving, but it can only be resilient if they pass the system on to the next generation.  If they don’t, the whole system falls when something happens to the farmer.

Our case studies of resilient food systems explored a system which ranks extremely high in redundancy.  A farm supplying the best local, organic food in Tupelo was built by a couple whose daughter came down with cancer.  They moved from managing the farm 18 hours a day to being by her bedside in the hospital 24 ours a day.  But the farm didn’t miss a beat.  The community the couple had established around their farm stepped in and volunteers filled the gap.  The farm enjoyed a great season and the daughter recovered.

Redundancy is not just about passing the farm on to the next generation.  It’s about always having replacement components for all parts of the system.  Good farmers always have key replacement parts on hand.  Resilient farmers always have replacements for themselves in the wings.

The extreme individualism and lack of community in mainstream American society shows clearly in the accumulation of successful systems by individual farmers who have no one to pass it on to.  The rampant, raging individualism is always accompanied by a lack of personal investment in community.

We once accidentally let two roosters grow to maturity in our chicken flock.  They fought each other regularly and became very skilled and ferocious.  The most ferocious finally killed his rival and proceeded to use his fighting skills to protect his flock.  We had two puppies which the rooster regularly attacked to keep away from his flock, even though the puppies were a breed which naturally herds and protects chickens and other farm animals.

One day I came home to the killer rooster pacing in front of the open garage while the puppies cowered inside.  Of course, the puppies grew and soon learned the skills necessary to just bat the rooster away.  Every day, the rooster was more and more bedraggled.  His extreme aggressiveness was just encouraging the dogs to be aggressive toward him.

Eventually he died at the paws of the dogs, who had then experienced the interesting phenomenon of killing chickens.  They explored this phenomenon through all our chickens and then went on the explore it with the neighbor’s chickens.

The extreme individualism and aggression of the rooster transformed the dogs from helpers in protecting the flock to destroyers of the flock.

Today’s mainstream American farmers are often cut from the same cloth.  They are so intent on building up their individual farm that they neglect the family and community which will enable the farm to thrive after they are gone.

The lack of succession planning for most American farms is a symptom of a much deeper problem: lack of commitment to family and community.

We can devise all sorts of legal and governmental band-aids for this symptom or we can build our families and communities.  Wendell Berry and Robert Putnam have well described this need in agriculture and society.

And we all know they are right.  Just as we all know we need the other qualities of resilience lest we destroy ourselves.  We know it in the core of our being because we follow the same natural laws as all living systems.

But our unique human capacities to delude ourselves and remove ourselves from natural ecosystems have overridden the qualities which make us and any species successful.  We should quit building better band-aids to prop up the non-resilient.

Instead, ag policy should support the communities who embody redundancy,  local self-organization (locally owned processing and marketing), complementary diversity, conservative innovation and all the other qualities of resilient systems.

Read more about creating resilient communities and systems in our free book: Sources of Resilience.  It’s available online by clicking here.