Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


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(Click the thumbnail for a full-sized picture.) I thought briefly of entering this photo in Dr. Charlie's tomato growing contest, but it would be wrong -- these tomatoes belong to Festus and Mary Lee, and their 16 month old daughter Claire. I did, however, personally plant ever single one of those stakes, of which there are 140. (There will be more, but Festus hasn't finished transplating all his tomatoes.)

Festus is on a mission, to make it possible for people to eat non-toxic food. The repercussions are endless. I'll begin with a couple of high points, but I expect we'll be talking about this for a long time.

First, this farm can only exist because certain social arrangements make it possible. Festus and Mary Lee produce dozens of kinds of vegetables, herbs, maple syrup, shitake mushrooms, and honey. They sell their produce at the food coop in the nearest urban center, and at farmers' markets. The co-op is an essential institution. It began as a consumer co-op but the farmers who supply it now use it as a growers' co-op as well. They put in a joint order to Fedco in Maine every spring for seed and supplies, through the co-op, and Fedco sends down an 18-wheeler.

The produce you see in the supermarket is purchased in enormous quantities. One grower sells tons of those styrofoam tomatoes to a distributor who breaks the truckloads into the smaller quantities that fill the bins at the Stop & Shop. They all have to look uniform, perfectly shaped and unblemished. Producing that sort of product in that sort of quantity is agribusiness -- farming on an industrial scale, using industrial methods, and the industrial form of organization -- large corporations that employ industrial engineers and managers who supervise laborers. These "farms" cover hundreds or thousands of acres, filled with vast monocultures created by first applying herbicides to kill everything that grows, spreading synthetic fertilizer, planting an oceanic expanse of one or another crop plant, and periodic dousing with insecticides. Sometimes they buy systems of herbicides and herbicide-resistant seed from Monsanto, which also sells them the insecticides.

Festus can't sell in that market, no matter what he does. So the co-op is as essential as the land he owns and the tons of compost he gets from his neighbor's dairy farm (more on that later). For today, I'm going to concentrate on the science of organic farming.

Festus never went to college but he is a practicing, creative, and talented scientist. His fields are full of wooden tags. He is constantly experimenting with seed and practices. (He produces a good part of his own seed.) He has almost no trouble with insects because he maintains an intricate system of crop rotation, plant juxtaposition, timing of seeding and transplantation, row covers, etc. While I was weeding his basil he pointed out that insects had been eating the weeds, but not the basil. He actually welcomes certain insects for weed control. He also encourages insects for insect control. For example, he makes sure that he allows some brassicaceous plants to flower because a wasp feeds on the flowers, which in turn lays its eggs in the larvae of an insect that attacks the brassicae. Pesticides are like a narcotics habit -- using them creates the need for more.

Festus and Mary Lee have not gone back to nature, at least not in any obvious sense. Their farm is an elaborate system diligently shaped by human science and artistry. Their food crops could not grow without their constant labor, literally 365 days a year. But it is more like nature than an industrial farm, in important ways. It is a highly complex, diverse ecosystem. The soil is alive, the crops interact with each other and with deliberately maintained fallow areas through soil organisms, insects, and continual recycling through composting and rotation of beds.

Also, like nature, the farm is difficult to understand, and it goes its own way. Festus's success depends on intimate familiarity with the very specific place which he has come to. Instead of radically remaking it, he collaborates with it. And there are enough people in the area who are willing to collaborate with him to make his project possible -- other growers, consumers, and state and town officials and the citizens who elect them are all essential to the social context.

There are profound implications here for all of us -- for how we will live in the future, far beyond the question of what we eat. I am particularly struck by the question of the democratization of science and the social control of technology. Festus remembers the Irish famine as if it happened to him personally, he knows the story of the dustbowl better than John Steinbeck, and he knows all about the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the agricultural industry. He's had to teach himself how to make a different world possible. In coming weeks I'll start to address some specific problems and questions.

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