The MOF&G Online
Editorials -- June 2005
Passion, and Patience
In the spring we are filled with optimism, and we tend to think that what we do will succeed, and last.
Each time we plant a tree, we want it to grow and thrive. I know when I plant an apple or pear in my small orchard, I've thought about my daughters, and beyond, as potential eaters, long after I'm gone. With a tree, it's easy to visualize that long-term growth, and its potential use and impact. Yet it may be the small seeds we continually plant that really have the significant impact over time. This is true in the physical sense, in our farms and gardens, and perhaps even truer in the world of ideas.
Here in Maine we have reached a point where organic, and local, are considered real and viable options for farmers across most of the state. This is the result of over 30 years of hard work by thousands of MOFGA members, and many thousands of the people who eat the food grown by these same farmers.
But for those of you who are, like me, reaching the point in life when tangible results are greatly appreciated, sometimes it's hard to remain patient-particularly with issues such as genetic engineering and fossil fuel energy depletion.
Consider genetic engineering (GE): For a decade, MOFGA has been advocating for labeling of GE foods, for a statewide moratorium on growing GE foods, for actions that would take Maine off this track where everyone is apparently supposed to grow and eat GE foods, whether they choose to or not. So far the only Legislative movement on this issue in Maine has been a law that requires sellers of GE seed to provide information to farmers to minimize cross-contamination, a law that the Department of Agriculture interprets more casually than we do.
This year the department sent a letter to several communities saying that "GMO-Free" ordinances that the towns were considering would violate the state's Right to Farm Law. The department said explicitly that growing crops with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is a "best management practice." Here's a place where progress is slow. The Department of Agriculture doesn't see the opportunities for a Maine that differs from the rest of the country, on genetic engineering or marketing strategies.
Consider energy: Kamyar Enshayan, a long-ago MOFGA apprentice, recently wrote a short book (reviewed in this issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener) about issues that will arise as fossil fuel energy becomes less available and less affordable. This is just the latest in a series of books and articles that flag energy as one essential building block for a sustainable society. Here's a place where MOFGA has been involved for decades, yet we know that here is an opportunity and a challenge, not just for agriculture, but for our entire society.
Consider old, and new, farmers: Eventually, the decisions of thousands of farmers, and tens of thousands of Maine citizens, will shape our neighborhoods, our communities, and our state.
My neighbor up the hill, Clyde Clough, kept fields open for decades when he could have sold his land. This fall I picked a few apples at the top of Clyde's field--apples that John Bunker identified after last fall's Apple Day as 'Danvers Early Winter Sweet' and 'Munson Sweet,' two cultivars that have fallen out of commercial availability. Clyde's father, and grandfather, planted these trees, and kept them growing for decades. They had no expectation that their trees might be the last of these trees in Maine-yet they kept them going. That continuity is a part of what we all hope for-and need to support and develop. Though Clyde died this winter, these apples can be propagated and distributed now - because of that family's persistence through more than a century.
Two ridges to the west, in Fayette, my friend Andrew Weegar was busy restoring and rebuilding an old farm, bringing in cattle and pigs and turkeys, bringing new life to a farm that had started to fade. Andrew died in a tractor accident in April. Yet the fields are newly fenced, the barn has a new foundation, and the woods have been thinned. He sawed curly maple boards that will become furniture, and that furniture will last for decades to come. Sometimes energy and passion, not longevity, make things happen.
Because it's spring, because we want to plant seeds and see them grow, we are in the position of using our energy and passion, while we hope for the persistence and long-term commitments that can never be absolutely assured.
How can we make that happen? We really can't. All we can do is trust that the steps we take today will lead us in a good and right direction. I was struck a few years ago when I read that one planting of lilies of the valley was estimated to be 670 years old, as the clonal descendents of the original plants spread outward. That's the kind of long-term impact that happens when we keep working with passion-and patience.
In at least one of his many books on the nature of life, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes of the "Five Remembrances." Number five is my favorite: "My actions are my only true belongings. I can not escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand." Though intended for everyone, these words have special significance for the farmer and gardener who is making compost, tilling soil, planting seeds, digging weeds, spreading mulch, harvesting crops. The plants know when those actions are skillful and well timed. And they know when they are not. The seed itself may possess the ultimate miracle within, but we as farmers and gardeners play a leading role. Without us there won't be much of a crop.
Those of us who grow our own food are ourselves quite literally the consequences of our actions. What we grow --and how we grow it-- becomes us. How we raise the plants and livestock on our farms defines who we are in the most physical sense. But, this is not quite simply, "you are what you eat." This process begins many steps before making a selection from the supermarket shelf. This is not about one particular behavior, but about many.
Those of us who raise trees or perennials or livestock get to see the remarkable results of past ventures expand like the rings of rippled water when the pebble is tossed. Whips become trees; calves become cows; a rooted cutting becomes an arbor of grapes; a few small crowns become a mass of flowers in spring or summer. Reminders of the consequences of actions I took decades ago are now sprinkled throughout our farm. It's rather mind-boggling to plant a tree half the thickness of a magic marker and then find yourself one day dangling high off the ground picking apples.
All of us today are living with -and in many case enjoying-- the consequences of small decisions made by farmers generations ago. I wonder what my life would be like if Nathaniel Haskell had not discovered the wild seedling apple 215 years ago that came to be known as Black Oxford. Who would we be without the collective efforts of countless farmers over the millennia. Would we be eating wheat, rice, corn?
Of course not all consequences are entirely pleasant. I'm still living with the consequences of the day I planted comfrey on my farm. And horseradish. And sometimes I cringe at pruning cuts I made way back when. I can remember standing with my pruning saw in front of one tree, immobilized with fear. As I look at it now, I wish I hadn't made that cut. (Well, it lived.) Someone many years ago planted autumn olive up on Turner Ridge. Everyone on this side of town is living with that one. Not to mention the farming practices that led to -among other things-- the "Dust Bowl." We all live downstream, as they say.
But rather than use the Fifth Remembrance as another excuse to blame someone else, let the past serve as an inspiration. How we treat our own gardens and our own yards; how we support local farmers; how we plant and maintain MOFGA's Common Ground in Unity; how we steward our state: All these actions will have consequences themselves. This is where each of us makes a difference. What we do now will affect generations to come. Perhaps each of us as a farmer or gardener can be the model of Thich Nhat Hanh's Fifth Remembrance for the rest of the world. Each seed we poke into the soil can be like the pebble tossed into the pond.
--John Bunker, MOFGA president
A complex biological revolution is ready to blossom-and just in time, as the dinosaur, oil-fueled revolution approaches extinction. The flame kindled by cheap oil won't burn much longer, and its demise is actually a good thing, potentially saving us from global warming and pollution…not to mention war.
At MOFGA's Spring Growth conference in March, Fred Kirschenmann described one aspect of the coming biological revolution: the mycorrhizal connections that thrive in a forest when we begin to understand nature, stand back, stop interfering, and let her grow. A 1997 article by S. W. Simord et al. in Nature (388), said Kirschenmann, showed that photosynthates from healthy forest trees growing in full sunlight at the edge of the forest travel via mycorrhizal fungal 'bridges' until they reach and nourish shaded, weaker trees within the forest-even trees of differing species; and a 1998 article by T. Helgason et al. in Nature (394) noted that these mycorrhizal bridges also grow about 60 km into the field-if plowing, fertilizing and fungicides don't stop them.
Studying, understanding and enabling Nature's complex web of life to thrive will be one key to our survival. Not oversimplifying Nature as we gain the ability to manipulate her will be another. Some might consider that jockeying genes is a biological revolution, but doing something pretty crude and simplistic just because you can, or, worse, just for profit, doesn't always help us live and thrive in Nature.
The biological revolution combined with the best of small-scale, local industry holds great promise. Consider the new tools for small-scale farmers and large-scale gardeners introduced by Johnny's Selected Seeds this year: a lightweight "tilther," powered by a rechargeable electric drill, that cultivates only 2 inches deep but 15 inches wide; a six-row seeder replacing an older, four-row one; a harvester for baby salad greens; a seed stick planter; and a wider, seven-tined broad fork. Some of these items had been brewing in Eliot Coleman's brain for years, waiting for the right technical help and some funding. Like mycorrhizal bridges, Coleman connected with two Maine-based, talented engineers-Jon Hill of Johnny's and Art Haines; he put up some of his own money to fund prototypes; and the team came up with the ergonomic greens harvester that will enable Coleman and others like him to keep thousands of dollars a year in profits that they previously spent for labor. These new tools will help former laborers and others become thriving, local growers themselves. Johnny's new tools are made in Maine-yet another bridge to a growing, local, sustainable economy.
Change takes time, as Coleman, Hill and Haines' inventions show, but change can come faster if we believe in it; if it's properly supported (a more functional USDA would have made these guys U.S. Farmer-Laureates years ago and funded them fully); and if barriers to change (toxic chemicals, practices that harm the soil, wanton genetic engineering) are disabled.
Molly Anderson, the U.S. Regional Program Manager for Oxfam America, also spoke at Spring Growth, where she told conference participants that they are part of a subculture that has a different food norm than that in most of the country. Her use of the term 'subculture' seemed to relate back to the mycorrhizal cultures that Kirschenmann described, and that's how I think of us now: as a well-nourished, ecologically-sound, biological farm and garden culture just waiting for barriers to be lifted so that our fungal-like threads of knowledge and philosophy are free to feed into other cultures.
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