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Fruitful Labor (excerpt)

March 20, 2018

The following is an excerpt from Fruitful Labor: The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm by Mike Madison. You can find out more information about the book on the Chelsea Green website here.

The Premise

For the last 4,000 years the commonest human occupation has been small-scale agriculture. Although it has been a few generations since that was the case in the United States, the image of the small family farm is still a powerful icon of our cultural identity. Urban dwellers weary of the chaos of city life, and tech workers in their cubicles spending their days in extremes of abstraction, dream of a simple, agrarian livelihood. It is not a thousand-acre industrial farm that they are thinking of, although such farms command the majority of farmed acreage in North America, but a small, diversified farm that operates on a comprehensible human scale. And each year thousands of people, mostly young, mostly inappropriately educated, start small farms with hope and courage. Most of these farms fail, some quite rapidly, but I imagine that regrets are few.

Given the ubiquity and long history of small farms, it is surprising how little has been published describing the operation of such a farm in a logical and thorough way. There are plenty of agricultural memoirs that favor a narrative—romantic, or lyrical, or amusing—of farm life, and there is much to be learned from these, but they are unsystematic and unquantified. And opposed to these is a large academic literature that is based mostly on statistical analysis of aggregated data in which the individuality of a particular farm is entirely lost.

My intent in this work is to describe the operation of a successful small farm over a period of thirty years. All agriculture is local, and the particular details of my operation might not be applicable elsewhere, but the basic variables are universal, and every farmer has to solve the same set of problems in whatever way works in his or her circumstances.

I should point out that my approach to farming is a contrary one, and my ideas of a good way to farm are at odds with mainstream farmers. There are other farmers with philosophies similar to mine, but all of us are operating at a small scale, and our collective acreage is minuscule in the big picture of American farming. So be advised that what I am presenting here is not the orthodox story.

The Scope of Agroecology

Each year, starting in mid-April, I plant 200-foot rows of cucumbers at ten-day intervals for 70 or 80 days. As the cucumbers come into readiness, I harvest them and bring them to the local farmers market on Saturday mornings and Wednesday afternoons, where I offer them for sale at three for a dollar, or, if business is slow, four for a dollar. I may barter cucumbers with some of the other farmers for produce that I don’t grow myself, such as strawberries or avocados. Cucumbers that are damaged I bring home to feed to my chickens, and the rest of the unsold cucumbers I donate to a soup kitchen that feeds homeless people. This enterprise is so simple that any Chinese peasant or medieval European serf would readily understand it without further explanation.

And yet, the enterprise is crowded with questions. Would I be better off growing an expensive hybrid variety of cucumber rather than the old open-pollinated strain that I grow? Would the cucumbers benefit from trellising with respect to increased yield or freedom from damage? Would this pay? Could I use a sturdy crop—corn or sorghum—for the trellis instead of wood or bamboo poles? Would this require more water? Instead of plowing down my cover crop of beans and oats and working up the whole field, would it be advantageous to just mow the cover crop and till only narrow strips for the cucumbers? Could I do this with equipment that I already have, or would I have to purchase or fabricate striptillage equipment? How would strip tillage affect the populations of burrowing rodents—gophers, voles, and squirrels—that damage the cucumbers? Would the straw from the mown cover crop benefit the cucumbers by keeping them off the soil, or would it harbor insect pests? Should I add a band of compost, or gypsum, to the tilled strips to improve soil tilth and fertility? If I mow the cover crop, would I have to harrow the ground to plant a cover crop the following year, or could I just sow the seeds into the straw from the previous year? Would it be more profitable to grow a more valuable crop—for example, Charentais melons—instead of the cucumbers? Can I grow the cucumbers in the same field several years in a row, or should I rotate them with an unrelated crop, such as sunflowers or tomatoes?

These questions, and hundreds of others like them, find a home in the formal field of agroecology. The term “agroecology” is used in two senses. In the narrow sense, it refers to the application of the concerns and techniques of traditional wild-lands ecology in an agricultural setting. The investigator is interested in nutrient cycling, water relations, energy flow, canopy structure, interactions among species, population dynamics, phenology, and succession. Much of this literature may be found under the heading of “crop ecology.”

In addition to these classical ecological subjects, agroecology in the broad sense expands to encompass inquiries into the economic and social context of the farm: for example the regulatory environment, the structures of markets, the operation of subsidies and tariffs, the role of publicly funded irrigation projects, political lobbying efforts of the farmers, access to credit, cooperation and competition, the flow of information, the influence of land-grant universities, and the operation of corporate cartels.

Whether a particular investigation is framed in the narrow sense (crop ecology) or the broad sense of agroecology is especially significant in two respects. The first has to do with scale. A purely crop-ecological study of a set of practices with respect to irrigation, soil management, fertility, and pest control might find them to be scale-invariant, and thus equally valid for a farm of twenty acres and a farm of two thousand acres. But adding the social and economic dimensions to the analysis would show it to be sensitive to scale, and the same practices would not have equivalent implications on the big farm and the small farm. The other area in which the narrow and broad approaches to agroecology might reach opposite conclusions is in the analysis of sustainability. A farming system that could be carried out indefinitely without harm from a purely agronomic viewpoint might nonetheless be unsustainable when analyzed in its social context.

Agroecology and Deep Ecology

Agroecology, in both the narrow and broad senses, presents itself as an objective science. Its goal is to describe the mechanisms by which the agroecosystem operates, without imposing a value judgment on the findings. But the pretense of objectivity is not valid; merely by the questions that they choose to ask, the students of an agroecosystem are smuggling values into their studies, and most often these values are utilitarian. The researchers are interested in manipulating the system to increase its utility to humans, for example by eliminating troublesome pest species, or increasing yield, or increasing efficiency.

Deep ecology is an environmental philosophy that advocates the rights and values of all species regardless of their utility to human enterprises. It promotes a program of radical restructuring and simplification of human life in deference to sustained health of all ecosystems. While it encompasses the subject matter of agroecology, it does so in a context of explicit values, without pretension to objectivity. My formal education and early employment were as a naturalist in the tropics; I feel a particular congeniality with all sorts of organisms, and I embrace the premises of deep ecology.

It is often supposed that if a person does not adhere to a religion, then they are a secular humanist. I am neither religious, nor secular, nor particularly a humanist. Humans, at their best, are a wonderful species, but this is uncommon; the majority of adults, especially in groups, are multiply flawed and often very discouraging. On the farm there are a few animals that I might rate above humans in a scale of excellence: the black-tailed hare, a superb athlete who carries with dignity his absurd ears; barn swallows, who fly so adeptly and joyfully; and the little burrowing spiders that run nimbly about among the weeds. I mention this because it bears on how I go about operating my farm, at times following a course that appears irrational and unprofitable—at odds with the common utilitarian paradigm.

Method of the Work

The method of the work is based on close observation and informal experimentation. Observation is not so simple as it might seem; humans tend to see what they expect to see rather than what is really there, and vigilance is required to avoid this trap. The first requirement for close observation is to be fully attentive; the farmer with a wire dangling from his ear, connected to an electronic device, will be a poor observer of his farm. Often some intervention is appropriate. Open your pocket knife and chip off some flakes of bark from a tree to see what’s going on underneath, or slice open some developing fruits to check for color and texture and aroma, and to scout for fly larvae. I find that digging a hole in the soil with a sharp spade is always informative. You can check soil structure, soil moisture, the condition of roots, the presence of fungal mycelia, and the activities of soil organisms.

Another requirement for good observation is to be unhurried. The pace of animal life, especially of invertebrates, tends to be slow, and sometimes you have to sit and watch for a while (twenty minutes is not wasted) to see what is going on. Make rounds at midnight with a flashlight; you may find earwigs at work on your crops, a fox studying the construction of the hen house, an opossum in the fig tree, and a rat chewing on the corner of the seed cabinet. The farmer who never goes out at night misses a lot. Finally, a good education in botany, zoology, chemistry, and agronomy provides an intellectual structure into which observations can be fitted in a useful way.

Experimentation is another means to understanding. How does the watermelon crop fare when grown with one irrigation versus three irrigations? Well, try a few rows of each, and see. By dividing my planting of tetraploid anemones between two soil types, I find that the flowers grow taller in the sandy loam of the creek, but the plants in the silty clay loam of the field come into flower a good ten days earlier. Based on this experiment, I now divide my planting between the two locations in order to extend the season. This informal experimentation is a poor cousin of the formal experiments conducted at universities, which likely involve randomized block design, blinded data collection, and rigorous quantification and statistical analysis. My experiments are not randomized, the observations are not blinded, and I estimate rather than measure the quantitative variables. An account of these informal experiments would be rejected by a scholarly journal, but that does not mean that the conclusions are invalid—only that they fail to meet a particular arbitrary standard. And if the differences between two groups are so subtle that they can be inferred only from large experiments and complex analysis, then probably they’re not important.

Fruitful Labor The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm (Chelsea Green Publishing) by Mike Madison is available now.

Mike Madison

Mike Madison lives with his wife, Dianne, in Winters, California, where they operate a diverse organic farm, growing olives, apricots, citrus, melons, and a variety of cut flowers. In addition to Fruitful Labor, he is also the author of Blithe Tomato and Walking the Flatlands.

Tags: Building resilient food and farming systems, small-scale farmiing