I’m just an amateur gardener; I’m not even a real gardener, truth be told. I’ve got two short rows of corn, which I’ve never grown before this year, enough beans to fill my pantry for a while, and tomatoes to keep us happy. I’m also experimenting with cucumbers and a couple of apple trees, carefully pruned to keep them compatible with my small-city urban lot. But John Médaille’s recent note on the current woes of chemical farmers seems to call for further comment.
As an amateur gardener, I latched onto the organic bandwagon pretty quickly. It’s much cheaper, for one thing; I’ve got the garbage that I need for composting anyway, and I need little else in the way of fertilizer. I buy open-pollinated crops (Redwood City Seed Company has some interesting breeds, but they’re everywhere these days if you keep your eyes out) so that I can save the seeds, so once I’ve bought a packet I’ve got seed forever, barring some catastrophic crop failure. More importantly, though, it allows me to pursue (very) small-scale agriculture without complete dependence upon fertilizer producers and Monsanto; they won’t let you save their seeds.
Geoff Hamilton’s Organic Gardening was such a wealth of information to me that I can’t begin to praise it enough. Eminently practical, Hamilton acknowledges the huge advances made in agricultural science in the past century; he then proceeds to harness those advances for organic production. He explains, “[t]he purely chemical gardener uses his soil simply as a means of anchoring plant roots and of holding artificial fertilizers to provide plant nutrients,” noting that “[t]his approach does have excellent results, in the short term.” On the other hand,
[i]n the long term…it has two disastrous consequences. Because organic matter is not replaced, the soil organisms die out; without them the soil structure breaks down and the soil becomes hard, airless and unproductive. Attempts at “force-feeding” the plants result in soft, sappy growth, which is prone to attack by all manner of pests and diseases. In order to control them, chemical pesticides are used, often with short-term success. But, in killing the pest, they also kill its natural predators so, eventually, the problem gets worse. Stronger and more poisonous pesticides have to be resorted to, and so it goes on. It is a vicious circle that, once started, is difficult to break.
The organic gardener, on the other hand, is really cultivating soil rather than merely plants; he’s ensuring that the earth is healthy, so that the fruit of the earth will also be healthy. Hamilton illustrates these principles throughout the book, and he does so in such an erudite and convincing way, based on his own decades of experience as both a chemical and organic gardener, that it convinced a puny little upstart like me most thoroughly.
Nor is Hamilton the only one singing the praises of organic crop raising. For example, Gene Logsdon, in his own words a “contrary farmer,” has published a new edition of Small-Scale Grain Raising, a fantastic explanation of organic grain raising on a reasonable scale. (This, incidentally, is what convinced me that growing corn on my little bit of land wasn’t an idiotic idea; next year, if I can get a decent crop this year, I’ll grow a lot more, Deo volente.) Logsdon has written extensively, and an abnormal amount of very interesting work can be found for free at his blog. He’s been farming since horses were the up-to-the-minute tools, and he continues to farm even in his old age. And he’s got some very interesting things to say about chemical and organic farming.
What sparked this article was a note that weeds, especially pigweed (a useful plant in itself, but not compared to the crops it’s supplanting), are becoming resistant to Monsanto’s famous wide-ranging poison, Roundup. But in Small-Scale Grain Raising, Logsdon notes that there is one weed control mechanism that pests will never become resistant to: the hoe. And on his blog he has a paean to hoemanship that nearly brings tears to the eyes of a romantic wannabe agriculturalist like me. This is just one of Logsdon’s examples of where our modern farming methods are going wrong, and really a pretty superficial one at that. But Logsdon has written countless works illustrating the problem with modern farming methods; all are worth some perusing.
Hamilton and Logsdon are just two examples of the great organic revolution that seems, slowly but surely, to be gaining ground. It’s gaining ground because there’s a fundamental problem with the way we currently do our agriculture. That fundamental problem is this: we’re extracting the nutrients out of our soil without replacing them, in the same way that we’re pulling oil out of the ground without replacing it. Because we’re not cultivating healthy soil, we’re forced to rely on chemical fertilizers, which are expensive and make the farmer dependent upon fertilizer producers for his livelihood. Furthermore, this chemical farming encourages enormous plots, making traditional weed-control methods impractical. As a result, farmers are forced to use chemical poisons like Roundup, which leads to the development of Roundup-resistant weeds, which leads to the application of still more Roundup mixed with still more chemical poisons. These large plots also tend to be monocultural, allowing pests that feed on those crops to reproduce much more quickly than they otherwise could. The solution to this, of course, it still more poisons, these directed at insects rather than weeds. The cycle continues indefinitely.
The sad thing is that weeds can be controlled without this expensive dependence on Monsanto, with the plow and the hoe. The sad thing is that soil nutrients canbe replaced, and even sustained indefinitely, without this expensive dependence on chemical fertilizers and their producers, with manure and green manure crops. Logsdon shows this through the example of his own farm, and can cite many other examples and techniques by which this is done. Some studies have even shown organic farming to produce as good or better yields than chemical farming, and that organic farming has some other significant advantages, as well.
Organic methods are more sustainable, at least tolerably efficient, and most significantly less poisonous than chemical methods of agriculture. So why can’t they be more widely adopted?
The answer is that these methods can’t be used on our modern enormous monocultural fields run by huge and distant businesses. Such businesses have a vested interest in the highest possible yields per acre and the purchase of chemical fertilizers and weedkillers; they have no interest in preserving the long-term stability of the soil (they can just keep dumping chemicals on it, after all) or in the massive pollution of the countryside, an externality that has little to no effect on their bottom line. Society needs smaller farms run by independent farmers, farms small enough that these traditional, and invincible, methods of soil cultivation and weed control, coupled with new scientific discoveries and practices, are both practical preferable. In other words, we need Distributism applied to agriculture.
But wouldn’t this drive the price of food up? Isn’t that why organic food is more expensive than “regular” food? Yes, it would. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The fact is that food is expensive. It’s the most important thing that a society produces, without which society can produce nothing else, and it takes time, work, and resources to do so. That all adds up to cost. But what the above paragraph is concerned about isn’t cost considered simply; rather, it’s cost in the grocery store. If Americans can’t get their beef for three dollars a pound, why, there’d be a riot!
But the cost in the grocery store is only a tiny part of the whole picture. The real costs of food production aren’t remotely all reflected in the price we pay for it at Food Lion. Time Magazine not long ago ran a piece well titled Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food which explains some of these extra costs nicely. Take, for example, chemical fertilizers. These are not natural chemicals, and the natural world does not react well to them. Millions of tons of the stuff is poured onto crops within the Mississippi basin; this fertilizer washes out of the soil and into the Gulf of Mexico, where it produces a huge region with little oxygen and therefore few fish. Nor is this, by far, the only “dead zone” in the oceans. And that’s just one effect of the fertilizer bombardment, leaving out the problems of the pesticides.
These costs are there, an integral part of modern industrial food production (which we still euphemistically call farming). But they’re not passed on to consumers; they’re shoved onto society at large. In other words, these costs are externalized. So we feel like we’re getting cheap food when we buy a pound of apples for a dollar at the grocery store; but we’re not. We’re getting food that doesn’t cost much money; it’s still extremely expensive, more expensive than we can really afford. It costs us a dollar a pound; but it also costs us our topsoil, our fisheries, the health of our rivers, and the health of ourselves. Rationally, we ought to pay the farmer a bit more money than sacrifice everything else.
So not only do small farmers need Distributism in agriculture; the world needs it, as well. We’re not only wiping out our small farmers with our current methods, we’re also wiping out our soil and the rest of our natural world. Catholic social teaching provides us the solution to this societal problem. We need to apply it to agriculture, the fundamental industry of all human civilization.
Praise be to Christ the King!