The Bioregional Soul of Agriculture

[Note: this essay was prepared to serve as the background text for a presentation to the Virginia Association for Biological Farming, January ’18.  As such, it directly addresses farmers. If you are not a farmer, please overlook this!  I include it here on the website to serve as a wrap-up for the year of monthly bioregionalism-themed essays just concluded.  The presentation starts with a piece of a poem by Wendell Berry.]

Excerpt from Wendell Berry’s 1982 Sabbath poem #6, “To Den”:

“There are two healings: nature’s,
and ours and nature’s.  Nature’s
will come in spite of us, after us,
over the graves of its wasters, as it comes
to the forsaken fields.  The healing
that is ours and nature’s will come
if we are willing, if we are patient,
if we know the way, if we will do the work…
…we make this
healing, the land’s and ours:
it is our possibility.  We may keep
this place, and be kept by it.
There is a mind of such an artistry
that grass will follow it,
and heal and hold, feed beasts
who will feed us and feed the soil.”

Each of our farms and homes is located in a specific place made up of its own unique blend of geology, climate, and biological ecosystem.  When an assortment of contiguous places is identified that can reasonably be lumped together based on these factors matching up, the resulting area can be thought of as a “bioregion.”  Some folks who think this has and should have implications for our lives subscribe to a theory known as Bioregionalism.  Bioregionalism has several working definitions floating around.  Here’s one more, courtesy of yours truly:  Bioregionalism is the attempt to derive one’s way of life from one’s own ecological neighborhood.  Another good definition comes from a song lyric by one of my favorite music groups, Over the Rhine.  In a song on one of their Christmas albums they reference “The scary, scary beauty of what’s right here.”

In your mind, picture a farm.  If not yours, then the land you are most familiar with.  Picture one individual from one species of domesticated animal or plant that lives there.  Is it thriving?  What resources does it use in order to thrive?  Where do those resources come from?

Now picture an individual from a wild species of plant or animal that is present there.  Is it thriving?  What resources does it use in order to thrive?  Where do those resources come from?

If it’s your farm you have in mind and if it’s anything like our family’s home place, you might be feeling about like I am, which is guilty.  I can’t help but visualize that great big stack of chicken feed sacks in the corner of my shed.

Can you picture a flock of chickens on the land that are supported by no purchased chicken feed or other outside inputs?  How about a family of hogs?  Sheep?  Rhubarb?  Serviceberry?  Walnut trees?  Human beings?  If not, then what does live on and with and from the land?  What might systems look like that involve, support, produce any of these organisms within your neighborhood, or your region, even if you don’t own land or it can’t manage it on its own?  This is local beyond the farmer’s market, because it’s about coexistence in a place; a mutual thriving.  This is the way it should be, and that is why “local” matters.

You may be wondering what the title of this essay, “The Bioregional Soul of Agriculture” is intended to mean.  In the 10,000 year history of agriculture (longer if you count the land modification strategies of hunter-gatherers), the forms it has taken have been extremely varied.  In fact, it’s probably true that every people group that has practiced agriculture has developed its own version.  These forms are not randomly generated, rather they reflect the circumstances–and especially the ecosystems–of the places where the agriculture has flourished.  As a point of entry, consider three breeds of cattle and the agriculture that they correspond to:  Jersey cattle are a small, easily handled milking breed that emerged from a people working to make effective use of the limited space found on the island of Jersey, off the coast of Great Britain.  Scotch Highland cattle have long winter coats and a resilient constitution that helped them deal with the harsh conditions found in the mountains of Scotland.  Texas longhorn cattle are wiry, tough critters bred to survive the relatively sparse rangelands of the southwest.  Those long horns act as radiators to dispel excess heat.  I won’t take time out of your life to rhapsodize about this, but isn’t that cool?  And each of them correspond to a complete agricultural life system in their places that includes humans, too.

Only relatively recently has the ancient pattern of our systems reflecting the conditions of their places been significantly disrupted.  Plentiful energy in the form of fossil fuels and the industrial economy that has burgeoned in their presence are behind these changes, which have happened so rapidly our cultures hardly have had time to consider or react to them, and have been so complete that the new, homogenized forms now utterly dominate the farming sector and most others.

Over the past decade or so as my family and I have been working to develop a home place that sidesteps the use of fossil energy, I have often found myself wondering what we as a culture lost when this radical transformation was enacted.  And as a person who would like to make a living at farming, I’ve wondered, too, about how these changes have affected the availability of meaningful opportunities for farmers entering the marketplace.  With the recent upsurge in interest in locally produced foods, I’ve been puzzled by how the farming sector seems poised to launch into a regenerative era, but never quite manages to get there.  What’s holding us back?  My many musings over time keep leading me back to a tension between the ancient pattern for agriculture wherein it takes its cues and its character from its context, and the universalizing influence of the modern economy, wherein agricultural forms and products are broadly homogenized.  Despite the prevalence and dominance of the industrial economy, the tension is not yet fully resolved or dissipated, and for good reason.  I’d like to convince you in this essay of the importance of this dynamic and discuss together some of the implications for practitioners of sustainable and alternative agriculture.  I think if we can get a clear understanding of these issues it will help us take a more successful approach to developing a sustainable economy.

So follow along with me and my logic for a few minutes if you will:  Let’s start with the much-abused word:  “Sustainability.”  A system can be rightly considered “sustainable” if it is able to be perpetuated indefinitely without depleting or exhausting the resource base it takes advantage of.  The way groups of indigenous fishers of the Northwest harvest salmon is an example of a sustainable system, since they take care to keep their harvest within limits that the ecosystem can reasonably be expected to replenish indefinitely.  Modern trawl netting, when left unchecked, has proven unsustainable, since the percentage of the population that is taken per year is often too high for the species to accommodate.  With sufficient habitat and reasonable limits followed, these species usually recover quickly, and we moderns learn something about sustainable harvesting that our ancestors might have been able to tell us and which maybe should have been obvious in the first place!  Particular land use practices—such as rototilling or clearcutting—might, like trawl netting, be obviously unsustainable if practiced beyond reasonable limits.  But if they function within a larger system that furnishes the resources they need, utilizes the wastes they produce, and absorbs or regenerates the damage they do, they can be a part of a sustainable system (like a bowl of Frosted Flakes: “Part of this complete breakfast!”).  

In any case, one way or another sustainability is not optional, in the long run.  Let that sink in a minute.  Those societies that follow this rule survive indefinitely.  Those that do not eventually die out.  Founding our way of living on sustainable systems is a do or die proposition, by definition.  Developing a sustainable culture is what we have to do if we want to survive (which I do).

Second point:  It is clear that the use of fossil fuels at the rates we are using them is not sustainable (not even a part of this complete breakfast).  That is said so often now that it might have lost its punch.  What it means is that we can’t keep doing this.  We have to stop.  Do I need to point out how much of agriculture, even organic agriculture, operates under the assumption of cheap and reliable petroleum products and other fossil energy sources?  Transportation and hauling, fertilizer generation, traction and tillage, propane-based grain drying (say that ten times fast), plastics, data processing, materials manufacture…the list could go on.  If we give it much thought we realize how utterly dependent we are as farmers and as citizens on this sprawling extractive system.  Most of this, if not all of it, we are going to have to give up!

Third point:  If we are separated from this tremendous resource, what are we left with?  We will have no choice but to turn back to primarily using the resources that are found in the places we live and farm.  There will be little or no subsidizing of those resources with fossil fuel energy and products; we’ll have to adapt to what’s available in place.  The more time I spend with this idea the more important it seems, and the more clear it is that we currently have little concept of what this implies; how different this will be for us.

Fourth point:  The cocktail of resources and forces that are available and act in each place are unique to that place.  A way of life or an agriculture practiced in each place, and developed in the context of one specific cocktail of resources and forces, is going to come to reflect in its character and emphasis that specific cocktail.  It will be the agriculture, and the culture of that region, and no other culture or agriculture will be quite like it.  As this process plays out over time, the people themselves begin to identify as the people of their place.  There is a sense of mutual dependence, of inseparability, that one might think of as “mutual ownership”, a concept I’ll return to later.  Prior to the advent of fossil fuels, this process for the development of ways of living in specific places was natural and assumed and was the prevalent mode of living.  Each of us comes from people who lived this way at one time.

Fifth point:  The current convention of meeting our needs with far-flung, universalized resources has had the effect of erasing distinctions between the cultural practices of each place.  This homogenizing effect extends to many areas of life, including agriculture and food systems, and has prevailed for long enough now that homogeneity is assumed and expected by our culture and economy.  These expectations and assumptions then serve to reinforce the habits, values, and practices of the fossil fuel economy and control the choices and behavior of all who are dependent on it or who strive to succeed within it.  Those who fail to conform are not only vulnerable to financial failure, they also face shaming and the constant need to explain their choices, among other social pressures.

So where are we by now?  On the one hand, the development of a sustainable agriculture and culture is not optional.  The task before us, clearly enough, is to bend our minds and hearts towards crafting a form of living, including especially agriculture, that conforms to that sustainable standard.  That is no small task, and I really, truly do believe this process will be much easier if we can start it now before the heat is really on.  This is a precious time for our culture, when we have access to the foreknowledge that we have to make these changes, and we also have access to lots of information about almost any particular thing we might need to know to succeed.  An exciting time to be alive!

On the other hand, folks who might wish to move the needle on this personally or on a broader scale are thwarted seemingly at every turn.  Maybe I’m just sensitive…can anybody else identify with my feeling that the culture seems to always want to make me feel like a fool?  Can anyone else resonate with my frustration that most of the economic opportunities in sustainable agriculture do not amount to a reasonable living for a person?  Wonderful as the farming lifestyle can be, financially it’s still usually a stretch, and burnout is a real threat to the health of minds and marriages in farm families, if we are honest about it.  Playing by the rules of the fossil fuel economy, it is going to win almost every time.  Since that economy completely dominates our financial and monetary systems, this extends to most financial transactions and enterprises.  That is to say, as soon as you start trying to sell something or make a living at agriculture, your endeavor is to some extent exposed to these inexorable pressures.  That terrifies me.

To my way of thinking, this dynamic is wreaking serious havoc with the very soul of agriculture, dismissing as irrelevant nearly everything I treasure.  The most maddening part of this is how clear it is that what I love about agriculture—its essential connection with the land and its regionally specific character—are the parts of it that are non-negotiable in the long run even though they are almost completely marginalized now.  I identify this as one of the most important conundrums facing the sustainable agriculture movement in our time, and that is why I wanted us to turn our focus today towards that tension and how we can continue the work we know we must do in the face of the barrage of counterincentive.

So what do we do?  Well, of course I’m not convinced I have any answers, but, heck, how about a three point plan to get us started?

Educate Ourselves and Others
Strategize for Success
Tend the Sacred Flame

Educate Ourselves and Others

If we really want to do the right thing, it’s important to understand why it’s so hard.  One definition of education is the raising of one’s level of consciousness; I would contend that in order to practice agriculture sustainably, which is to say according to bioregional limitations, we must always be conscious of the ways the fossil fuel economy undermines our efforts and incentivizes devastating compromises.  This is harder than it sounds.  We are creatures of culture, and we naturally listen to our culture’s messages as clues to how to succeed.  The messages the fossil fuel culture sends our way are constant and relentless.  It’s the easiest thing in the world to stop digging in our heals and just go the way the rope wants to pull us.  The difficulty in holding the line is partly because of our own conflicts of interest.  How many of us would be o.k. if the energy tap we’ve grown accustomed to were to dry up next week?  I would wager that my homestead would be more o.k. than most of yours, and we would most certainly not be o.k.!  These are not easy thought experiments; it’s hard to think the ground out from under your feet!  

It helps to have other like-minded folks to bounce things off of, but I have personally often found connecting with people on these topics challenging.  Even those who have put some thought into it seem to shy away from a conversation lasting more than about five minutes on the subject, and I feel the same resistance in myself sometimes, maybe owing to the conflict of interest I mentioned, or maybe just from lack of familiarity, or lack of ideas.

Or maybe it’s just plain hard to talk about.  It takes courage to question your culture, and more courage yet to face the implications of these doubts and questions in particular, with catastrophic climate change looming large as a consequence of failure to amend our ways.  And there’s the difficulty of trying to convince the older generations that many of the conveniences that were such a welcome relief to them were unknowingly purchased by their generation at a very dear price indeed–purchased on credit, as it were, from our children’s generation, for whom inconvenience may well be the very least of their worries.

These challenges are part of why I have come to think of part of this work as grief work.  It’s a shock and a loss for many of us to make these realizations, and we are having trouble coming to terms with the reality we are in that is so different from what we had thought it was.  Many of us are still in the first stage of grief, which is denial.  We want to believe that by simply substituting organic-approved farm products for synthetic, we’ll be able to transform the system to a sustainable one.  Or we want to believe that if we just learned better business management most sustainable farmers (or any farmers) could expect to earn a living commensurate with our peers’.  Many consumers want to believe that purchasing at the farmers’ market at the prices producers are asking is supporting local, sustainable agriculture at a living wage.  Do they know that nearly all of these farmers rely heavily on fossil fuel and other off-farm inputs, and that most of the farm families have to make use of off-farm employment to keep their finances in line?  Can folks on either side of that transaction admit to ourselves that this better alternative is not a sustainable system either?  Would customers be willing or able to pay the true cost of their food?  I will have to confess to thinking that as long as they are steeped in the prevailing economy they will not.  As such it is hard for me to imagine any securely profitable farm operation currently being able to go all-in for a truly sustainable enterprise as defined above.  There is a lot of pressure to put a positive spin on these issues at conferences like this and we actually do have more to celebrate these past few years than there had been for quite some time, but it’s important to be honest about where we are.

We should also understand the differences between the standard economy and the sustainable economy.  For example, the standard economy converts agricultural products into uniform commodities, and it seems able to do this to the unlikeliest of candidates, such as microgreens, rotisserie chicken, and pre-sliced apples.  This is a function of one of the main differences between the industrial and sustainable economies, in that the first tends to prize universality of form, or interchangeability of parts, whereas the second, while employing some principles and even patterns that could be said to be transferable, has no choice but to deal in honest expressions of particular places in all their complexity.  This being so, we can better understand why bioregionalism comes off as irrelevant to industrial agriculture.  It might therefore seem as if the inevitable influence of the biogregion on its agricultural forms is the economic Achilles heel of sustainable agriculture.  I think our task involves owning this reality and learning to make it our strength instead.

Having understood this well, we stand a better chance—when designing our home economies and business structures—of baking in some defenses against and coping strategies for the pressures the industrial economy will continue to exert for as long as it lasts.  And then when the sustainable economy is built out we’ll be ready for that, too.

I could go on, but I am far from the best person to educate us all on these issues, I’m mostly tryng to point out the need for this education.  What I have to offer is the method I use for the raising of my own consciousness and a few questions for us to consider.  My method can perhaps best be described thusly:  “Talky-talk-talk, listen-listen-listen, ready-read-read, thinky-think-think, observe, observe, observe, repeat until satisfied”  (Thank my friend John McRay for convincing me to leave that in for your comic relief).  But in all seriousness, reading and pondering what others have written on various topics is of course a crucial component of the sharing and development of ideas, and then conversing with our friends and associates about the subjects helps us contextualize and cement the knowledge we’ve acquired.  Most of us do some of this already!  As much as anything it’s a question of where we direct that focus; which questions we’re trying to anwer.

Here are a few questions I’ll throw out there as options for getting started:

  • What distinguishes my place from other places?
  • How is the character of my place reflected in the lives of us who live here?
  • Where can I see the influence of the fossil fuel economy around me?  What has it not yet overwhelmed?
  • Are my systems designed to utilize and respond to the resources and forces of my place, or to outside resources and forces?
  • Am I a functioning member of the ecosystem?
  • What would the sustainable version of my enterprise be?
  • Does the focus of my endeavor accurately reflect the core reasons I have chosen this line of work?
  • If I could only do one part of what I’m doing, what would it be?
  • Is every member of this system thriving?
  • Are the relationships mutual?
  • Are there meaningful opportunities?
  • Does everyone feel a sense of power and autonomy?

A second definition of education comes from the etymology of the word, which supposedly literally means something like “to draw out.”  Translated for today’s topic, I think of this as learning to elicit from ourselves and others the finest visions we can imagine for our selves, our families, our homes, our enterprises, our communities, our economies, our societies.  Learning, in short, to discover optimal versions of each element and layer of our existence.  Without having done this reflective work, we can spend a lot of time and energy pursuing a dream that doesn’t really reflect our deepest values and convictions, or that just doesn’t fit us very well.  In my life this process was perhaps best engaged during a Permaculture Design course that was taught by Dave O’Neill, Dave Jacke, and a few others.  The sense of purpose that was honed for me during that visioning time has continued to be helpful in guiding the development of our home place.  It was there that I most clearly identified and accepted my penchant for playful, exploratory, and innovation-oriented development of agricultural ideas and forms and my relative disinterest in spearheading an ambitious money-making farm product enterprise.  That’s a good thing to know before you take out a loan!

Applying this notion of education more concretely, I’ll mention my shallot breeding project.  I have saved seed from shallots a few times, and I’ve noticed lots of variability in growth form.  Some clumps contain many shallots of small size, some the converse.  Some bulbs have a flower stalk right up through the middle, some have it isolated on the side.  Some clumps have one flower stalk per bulb, some no flowers at all, some only one or a few per clump.  Color varies, too, as does maggot resistance and, presumably, flavor and soil nutrition requirements.  To the market grower this would annoying, so shallots are usually propagated vegetatively, giving a uniform result.  But to the breeder who is willing to try to conceive of the finest version of something, this is an opportunity limited by the genome and the circumstances of our farm of course, but within those constraints limited only by my ability to see the potential and understand what the optimal arrangement of traits would be.  If I as the visioner am steeped in the industrial economy, my vision for the shallot is affected by that.  An industrial breeder, for example, gives little thought to the fertility requirements of the plant, since in modern times enriching the soil is a trivial matter compared to the high per-acre commercial value of a vegetable like shallots.  I try to take a different approach as a breeder, pushing my strains a little harder in each generation to accept and thrive in the conditions available in our location with minimal off-farm inputs.  It takes discipline to keep in mind the values I want to guide my breeding concept, but I am tantalized by the possibilities and excited by what I’ve got in mind to reach for.  

On our farm, by the way, we are a tad obsessed with breeding, and many of the numerous species we work with we also breed to some extent.  We’ve had the best luck so far with spinach (which we’ve developed for exceptional overwintering capability for an early spring freezer-filler crop), onions (which we’re developing for dependable winter keeping and good shape for kitchen use) , and chickens (don’t even get me started on my chicken breeding ideas!), and I’d be delighted to talk with anyone afterwards or by email or phone about anything we’re doing.  Most of what we’re working on is for our own use–they are our varieties (which we freely share if desired…and you can buy our spinach through Commonwealth Seed Growers).  But the trajectory we have in mind–the broader vision, if you will–is to stimulate this process of creative re-imagining realized in tangible substance in our own neighborhood and anywhere else it’s lacking.  Remember that Over the Rhine lyric?: “The scary, scary, beauty of what’s right here.”  I think of Mr. Fukuoka, author of The One Straw Revolution holding up a single piece of rice straw, and pondering the transformative power it contained and represented.  He believed if we could see that potential, we could heal the world.

The work of crafting our visions is important partly because one of the things that I think holds people back from moving into the sustainable version of culture and economy is an inability to imagine it.  CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, emerged when someone well appraised of the challenges and risks facing the farm economy envisioned a way of farmers and customers working together to get everyone’s needs met in a more equitable and responsible way.  CSA in practice most places is far from perfect, and I’m not sure it always hails very truly to its roots, but it has been quite a fruitful platform over the years, especially for folks trying to initiate or explore a career in farming.  I wonder what might happen if groups of farmers and customers in your area were to meet together and put some thought into re-imagining the CSA model for your context?  If we have an idea of what the possibilities are, we are more likely to be able to take the next step towards them.  

Taking it to an even broader view, consider this thought exercise, courtesy of the same friend, John McRay, who preserved for your benefit the infamous Talky-Talk-Talk model of education.  He finds it fascinating to consider the effects of fossil fuels on the development of our whole culture.  How many of the rhythms and patterns in our lives pertain to fossil fuel usage?  Arguably our most esteemed coming-of-age ritual is qualifying for one’s driver’s license!  Do I even have to mention suburban sprawl and children eating prepared foods from cellophane pouches while they play video games for hours on end?  These things add up to a way of living.  But what happens if, for example, a family burns wood for heat instead of heating fuel or electricity?   What ripple effects does that have in family life, relationships, the concept of the world and sense of responsibility and agency children bring out of their childhood with them?  John talks about this as fossil culture versus the culture of sunlight.

Strategize for Success

Forgive me if a religious reference offends or distracts you, but coming from Christian background I find I often think in the sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, who once told his followers to be “crafty as serpents and innocent as doves.”  In other words, keep your heart in the right place but be smart about it.  Nobody is guaranteeing us this is going to be easy, and the world doesn’t owe it to us, no matter how closely aligned with the truth we may be.  Getting clear on our situation and priorities, as mentioned above, is essential, but to get where we are going most of us will need a plan, and some of the details are going to matter.

If what you want or need to strategize is a profitable business based on bioregional, sustainable agriculture, I have to refer you to others.  That is not my forte, and my hat is off to those few who have managed to make the necessary compromises without selling their farm’s soul.  In fact, I am not going to claim any credentials as a strategist, but while I’m up here I’ll give you a few thoughts that pertain to the subject and which are based on my family’s experience and outlook.

The first is the importance of giving the education process due attention before moving to strategy.  In Permaculture design there is the idea that if you analyze and assess a site thoroughly and if you reach a point of clarity regarding the goals of the clients that pertain to it, the final design choices are much easier to discern; at times it feels like at that point the site designs itself.  To me this seems analogous.  If you understand your situation well and your vision for yourself and your systems is clearly developed, some of the major points of your particular strategy may stand out somewhat obviously.

The second angle I have on strategy has to do with risk management, and what I have in mind goes way beyond financial risk, though that is a crucial component.

If your operation were stripped to its core, what would you keep?  Would you buy produce to sell?  Would you retain ownership of your land but put it to pasture or reforest it?  Would you stop growing for the public and just supply your own family and friends?  Would you stop selling anything and just eat like bioregional royalty?  Whichever parts are the dearest to us, as determined in our education process to be the cores of productivity in our lives, we should put those parts beyond the reach of the economy if we can.  Whether these essential elements have a compelling financial function or not, if we value them it is because they are doing something crucial for us.

And why must we not expose our productive cores to the whims and vagaries of the fossil fuel economy?  Because this economy is extremely powerful and pervasive, and it has no qualms at all about chewing up and spitting out nonconformists.  It is also extractive and exploitive.  If there is a place in the world that starts to build up much of value, it will sniff out those pockets of thriving and opportunity and mine them until they are spent, given the chance.  If we are going to re-engage the process of building a life connected to the resources and forces of our places, this is going to build real wealth, and in one way or another that is going to attract attention.  Call me paranoid, but this is my word to the wise.

But how can we avoid this?  And beyond that, how can we cope or even thrive in the face of these strange pressures?  I presume the specific strategy will be customized for each situation.  In considering model strategies, I have found it helpful to think in terms of metaphors.  Here are a few:

Box Turtle–Box Turtles have a soft inside that they protect very effectively with no aggression whatsoever.  They simply have constructed a nearly indestructible fortress with doors that close from the inside, with no handles on the outside..  When the pressure is on, they have the ability to close out the world for a time (sometimes a very long time) and then when they sense the coast is clear they venture out and go back about their business.

Brook Trout–If there is any creature that knows how to make its living swimming against the stream, it’s the Brook Trout.  How does it do it?  It spends most of its time in a protected zone it finds behind a log or a rock, and from that vantage point it keeps an eye on the water surface and on whatever tidbits might be swept by in the stronger currents.  If it sees an opportunity it zips out and takes it, then returns to its haven.

River Otter–Otters seem to often have a pretty good time of it.  Their basic needs being pretty simple, they get them met fairly quickly and handily, leaving plenty of time for goofing off and playfully exploring their surroundings.  This is not wasted time–they are sharpening their abilities and senses for when they really need them.  Taking the otter’s approach might leave us more time to dabble and explore ideas and enterprises, which is not wasted time for us, either.

Beaver–Beavers make their own little world, complete with a secure home, out of sticks and mud, and using only their teeth.  They do this by having a sharp eye for resources, and they know a good flow when they see one.  And, of course, they keep busy.

Volcanic Island–Maybe what you need is total separation.  A place to start over and do what your heart says without distraction or compromise.  If you’ve been nursing a jealous hatred of those picture-perfect Vermont homesteaders, maybe it’s time to join them!  You might not even have to move to Vermont.

Parallel Universes–Like toddlers in the nursery…you play your game and I’ll play mine.  Maybe two members of a couple have separate careers, one of which is connected to land and makes little money and the other of which is climbing the corporate ladder.

Whack-a-Mole–In this model you have a protected burrow with many entrances and a healthy population of impudent bioregionalists that cheerfully accept the fact that the economy is going to knock them over the head as soon as they appear, and it only makes them dive down and pop up faster somewhere else with a smile still on their face.

Merry-go-Round, Chair Lift, or Tetherball–Your system might be cleverly set up so that when the economy pushes on one side, unexpectedly things move in the opposite direction on the other.  Make that wheel the giant pulley of a chair lift, add a cable, and you can ride that baby to the top of the mountain!  Or remember the game Tetherball?  Maybe in your model the economy confidently wales your ball as hard as it can and then suddenly gets creamed in the back of the head by that same ball.  Pick your metaphor on this one…the point is you set things up so that the brute force of the fossil fuel economy is put to work in unexpected ways to build your sustainable system.

E.T.–Let’s say you run a homestead that might as well be from outer space if you ask the fossil fuel economy.  Except you have one little point of connection when people pay ungodly sums of money to come stay in a room of your house for a night and weep with pleasure as they eat the earthy breakfast you prepare for them fresh from the garden and henhouse.  They get to brag to their friends on social media and you get to pay your property taxes and keep gardening.

Oyster Mushroom–The oyster mushroom produces best in certain species of wood.  But it’ll make do with Autumn Olive if necessary, even Tree of Heaven!  Heck, strains have even been bred to eat spilled petroleum!  The oyster mushroom is a master of compromise.  It does not make the perfect the enemy of the good.  In a way this model may be the hardest one to pursue with integrity.  I don’t mean you should feel fine about making do with a diet of pizza and soft drinks, I just mean that it might help some of us to relax if we can’t do things perfectly right now.  We can make the best of it and be ready for when a more ideal situation comes along.

Ultimately, of course, you know yourself and your farm and bioregion, so you are the expert when it comes to strategy.  The fossil fuel economy is powerful and thorough, but it is also a bit of a lumbering beast, and I am confident we can outsmart or sometimes even harness the thing.

Whatever model you might take inspiration from as you strategize, it is my belief that as practitioners of sustainable economies one of our most important tasks when relating to the fossil fuel economy is to anticipate exploitive attention and make plans to prevent its draining our communities of their ability to thrive.  A painful example of how things can go when economies collide is the Quinoa story.  Quinoa is a treasured, nourishing food grain developed by folks indigenous to the Andean Highlands of South America.  Recent years have seen a surge of recognition and interest in North America for this wonderful food, which is marketed for its health benefits and also using the charming story of its origin.  As you may know, the market demand has ballooned so quickly that it has outpaced agronomic attempts to produce it domestically and in a mechanized way, such that much of the demand has still been on imports from the Andes.  I was dismayed to learn that now the Andean farmers who grow this grain can no longer afford to eat it.  So our appetite for quinoa and its health benefits has taken from some Andean peoples a central component of their culture and their own health.  In exchange they have money (perhaps badly needed), which will among other things develop the habit of purchasing life necessities on the market.  It is hard to enjoy my mother-in-law’s delicious cold quinoa salads now that I know this.  This year we hope to sow our first quinoa on our place.  Join me in learning how to grow it for ourselves, developing varieties and methods that suit our climate, soils, and lifestyles!  To me this kind of pursuit is the most basic element of advancing justice, health, and sustainability in agriculture.

It is possible that the sort of consumptive energy referenced above can be used to everyone’s benefit, as in agritourism, boutique markets, and the like.  But I get nervous about farmers or farm communities going all-in for this strategy.  If you think the market wants to offer you that boost, I think it can be a good move to develop it as a sideline, but if all our attention turns to catering to these niches, I think that’s a kind of capitulation to the exploitive force.  It’s another example of the prevailing unsustainable economy destroying its resource base, because those agritourism and boutique product markets often depend on the “authenticity” behind the offerings, and when all focus goes to an “authentic” experience for visitors while the true experience of making a life from a place in a stable and healthy community is neglected, there is no authenticity left to market, though this may take a while to play out.  I have seen this in my birth state of Pennsylvania, where Amish-themed tourism has been at a fever pitch for some time.  Development pressure has followed this attention, and now many of the young Amish coming of age are seeking home places in other states where they can live in peaceful solitude, and where land is more affordable.  Lancaster county still has an Amish population, but now outlet stores and restaurants with or without Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs over the door or silhouettes of Amish children in their logo are just as characteristic.  If I sound sad and bitter about that it’s only because I’m sad and bitter about it.

One last word on strategy before I move on…debt.  I can’t help but mention it.  Debt is one of the primary ways our civilization controls people and keeps their noses to the grindstone, creating value for the managerial class.  I am not against workers creating value, and I am not against the judicious borrowing of money, but I am against the economy using debt burdens to transform the natural wealth of our precious places, our families, and our communities into capital to be transported away for investment elsewhere.  My wife Janelle and I are both fairly debt averse, having always worked hard to eliminate loans quickly, and we are profoundly grateful for that aversion.  We do not think the type of debt or level of debt this society takes as a matter of course is normal or healthy at all.  If you have trouble when it comes to the nuts and bolts of debt and financial planning, please seek out someone who knows their way around finances and who understands your values.  If we don’t manage debt well it can paralyze our ability to live the kind of life we know we want.

I always enjoy seeing how each farmer, farm family, or rural community ends up expressing its love of genuine connection to the lands they call home.  The many forms this can take are staggeringly beautiful in their variety, but the undergirding principles are simple and we all hold them in common.  Unfortunately at times it can be far too easy to become caught up in executing our chosen strategies, or to be derailed by the dominant way of doing things that is so easy to choose.  How do we make our way successfully through the tangle of distractions, challenges, and details without losing sight of why we’re doing this in the first place?  I guess it’s time to talk about tending the sacred flame.

Tend the Sacred Flame

With a title like “The Bioregional Soul of Agriculture”, you may have expected me to get into some pretty touchy-feely, if not downright woo-woo territory.  And I’m fine with being that guy, but truthfully I don’t see anything mystical about this aspect.  I do think there is so much psychological pressure associated with interfacing with the broader culture and society that we will do well to adopt practices that keep our minds where we want them.  In this sense, I think the discipline of maintaining the values of a sustainable, bioregional agriculture is akin to a religious discipline.  We might be well served to borrow some of the forms or even some of the language associated with religious traditions.

Many religions make use of flame as a symbol, and I think it is especially a propos for this purpose.  The easy kind of flame to tend is the gas-powered pilot light…check on it once in a while, relight when necessary.  The flame I am talking about is more of a campfire.  It is made from what we find around us, it is something we do together, and it’s big enough to stand around to keep warm.

What exactly am I referring to when I talk about “the Sacred Flame”?  I am referring to the knowledge of how to connect with and make a living from a place.  The permission to believe that that way of life is still possible.  I am talking about a deep affinity and trust in the natural world.  It’s the mindset that remembers…”No, that way of life so many of us has come to assume is not aligned with the truth about how the world needs to work and to be treated in order for our species to persist.  This is what it means to live in harmony with the natural forces and the other creatures of this beautiful planet.”  Among other things, I think I could be finally putting my finger on that mysterious love that keeps farmers farming until they have no choice but to quit.

How do we learn to guard, feed, and fan that flame until it is enough for us, but beyond that attracts and warms others who may be passing by?  I am interested in some of your responses to that question, but here are a few of my ideas:

We should gather together in groups of people who share this mindset, so that when our relatives criticize our choices or the CPA says we’re out of our minds or the news out of the USDA is driving us crazy we can get a little boost for the self-esteem and have somebody to ask, “Am I making poor decisions?  Where is the truth here?”

We should take a little time to observe.  It doesn’t take that long to stick a shovel in somewhere now and again to see how our management is changing things.  Or to stop making noise for a minute and watch and listen for what birds are using the place, and how.  We’ll never understand all the relationships in the natural communities around us, but it sure does us good to try to learn what we can.

We should leave some of our land to its own devices.  To see how the natural communities resurge and enrich using their cumulative processes is so helpful to us as we design our regenerative agroecosystems, and having wild places around helps keep us humble; we are not the only important species using our land.

We should do things the old way once in a while.  Even if we need to compromise and use fossil fuels, electricity, and other outside inputs to keep things running, it will do us good to set aside some places, projects, or time in which we carefully avoid taking advantage of these easy grabs and use the resources at hand.  This can be one of the functions of camping, and helps explain its popularity, I think.  At our place, an example is that my daughter and I are making her a new bunk (suspended from the ceiling), which we are crafting from one of her favorite climbing trees that had to be removed this year, and we are doing all the work that we can with hand tools.  If nothing else, this can make a person remember how much advantage the technology is giving them, but it can also bolster confidence that, if necessary, we could do without those advantages.

We should eat from our land.  How many farmers do you know who produce wonderful raw ingredients, but hardly have time to cook with them?  There is so much to be gained from involving ourselves “viscerally” in the life of the soil we manage.  I’ll extend this also to the gathering of wild foods.  A ritual our family loves is gathering black raspberries and mulberries every year where they appear around our farm.  And for several years now we’ve had the privilege of picking enough wild cranberries from near Janelle’s parents’ place to stock the freezer.  Hiking through the cranberry bogs is one thing.  Eating from them is another altogether.

These practices and many more can be employed as we are able to keep alive in our hearts and minds the love of and connection to our land and ecosystems that are our birthright as humans and drive the process of adaptation to place that I’ve been talking about.  We who attempt to practice agriculture sustainably are not THE keepers of this flame, but we ARE keepers of the flame.  We are very important people who fill an essential function for our peers, whether they recognize it or not.  

Wouldn’t it be nice sometimes if, as is often implied, this were just our particular lifestyle choice?  We rightly recognize that providing wholesome food to the public is of crucial importance, and it is easy to get caught up in the mission aspect of that.  We do nobody any favors wearing ourselves out trying to appeal to an unappreciative public.  The world needs us too much for us to lose our spark; we fill a moral and spiritual function as much as material.  I would argue that as practitioners of sustainable farming, guarding, feeding, fanning and sharing this bioregionally expressed flame is our primary duty to our society, while directly producing food for our peers, while very important, is less essential.

When we truly derive our living, even down to the molecules of our bodies, from a place, we will not fail to bond with it and be integrated to it, eventually (perhaps after a few generations) reaching a point where it is unclear whether the place belongs to us or we belong to it, and it ceases to matter or perhaps even be an interesting question, since we may lose our ability to think of ourselves as being separate from the place.  In some island nations threatened with total destruction due to sea level rise, some residents are adamant that they will not leave the island even if it means they must die if they stay.  How many of us can say that about the places we live?  My interpretation of this is that they simply can’t make sense to themselves in any other place.

The language of reunification, reconnection, and homecoming I sometimes used in this writing project might tempt a person to think I advocate going back in time—adopting a way of life abandoned by our predecessors.  I wish it were that simple, but I am advocating participation in a natural process, and nature doesn’t work that way.  Yes, self-organized biological systems contain and use patterns and expressions that are as old as it gets on this planet, but the astounding thing about life is that no matter how old it is, it is always new.  And the constellation of species and relationships any particular form or expression appears in is always new, too.  Maybe the best way of seeing our challenge as sustainable practitioners is to discern the new constellations that make sense here, now, and to find our places in them.

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One Response to The Bioregional Soul of Agriculture

  1. Kendel

    Really enjoyed reading this. Resonates on many levels. Really enjoyed the metaphorical strategies! Thank you for sharing.

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