On Agriculture, Permaculture and Primitivism: What is Truly Sustainable?

Today’s guest post, a response to Nelson’s post on the farm bill yesterday, comes to us from primitivist Rob Archangel, an NYU alum and current employee of the NYU recycling shop.

Yesterday, Nelson posted an article about a panel discussing the 2007 Farm Bill, held at NYU’s Wagner School of public Policy. He pointed out that the farms hit hardest by the Farm Bill’s ill-conceived subsidization standard are actually not small farmers (those defined as cultivating between 1 and 50 acres) nor the super-size farms of over 500 acres, but the mid-sized farms between that. The small farmers are able to feasibly load up a truck and come to green markets, while the massive farms are receiving the subsidies, for the most part. The argument was that there was a need for local wholesale markets to make these farms viable.

In comments, Adam cautioned that he’s concerned about how sustainable farms beyond 50 acres really are, and Annie Meyers suggested that there’s no inherent reason for mid-sized farms to be unsustainable, and that there in any event are many layers of ‘sustainable.’ In her estimation a farm using organic methods, practicing crop rotation and selling locally is doing quite well. All of this got me thinking…

I tend to agree with Adam; crop rotation and an absence of poisons is good, but that characterized just about ALL agriculture before the mid-twentieth century when chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides came into vogue, and we have deserts across the world to thank for it, not to mention the growth of empire, the enslavement of populations, and the destruction of ecological integrity everywhere agriculturally-based civilization has spread. These are not casual claims, but the evidence is there, and numerous commentators have pointed it out.

Jared Diamond of ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ fame argued that agriculture is ‘the worst mistake in the history of the human race‘, pointing out that our health declined, inequality (including gender inequity) rose, we began working harder and longer hours, and our food supply actually became less, rather than more stable, since we now relied on a handful of crops, rather than hundreds of wild species, increasing the likelihood of a blight wiping us out (Irish potato famine, anyone?). Not only that, we increased our population, forcing us to cultivate more, which facilitated an increase in population, which in turn demanded more cultivation; this continues to this day, in what Daniel Quinn, author of ‘Ishmael’ famously calls the ‘food race.’ This expansion was not always done benevolently, and thus the birth of imperial conquest.

On the note of empire, food grown is kept under lock and key, which meant there were key-holders who held the fate of the rest of the population in their hands, which allowed deep systemic class divisions to develop where hunter-gatherers had none. Plus, with the burgeoining population of people in permanent settlements, we became a more viable resource to pathogenic microbes, and infectious disease for the first time really took hold. Meanwhile, integrated ecological landscapes are transformed into farms, where the biological productivity of a given bit of land is monopolized for human use, squeezing out biodiversity, and the topsoil, the land’s accumulated nutrient reserve
and basis for all ecosystemic life, is continually eroded (for more, see A Short History of Western Civilization, by the Anthropik Network). All of this coming from agricultultural practices which didn’t require mechanization or chemical additives of any sort, farms which by and large rotated crops and were ‘organic’ in the ways many allegedly ‘sustainable’ organic crops are today. Thus, I have my doubts about agriculture.

Permaculture/horticulture I think is a different stripe, and works in conjunction with succession, rather than against it, as agriculture does (by which I mean monocropping, since that’s what the vast majority of agriculture worldwide is). In my mind, the crucial difference is this: permaculture takes a temporally long look at the ecology, and acts now in such a way as to lead nature to take over and finish the job of creating the desired outcome, allowing wildness, the path of least resistence, to simply switch paths, but remain flowing. Agriculture, however, with its weeding and continual fight against succession (tilling the soil every year, and ideally having nothing at all grow except for what we plant) is a battle against wildness, and thus against the path of least resistance. That’s why agriculturalists the world over work hours and hours more per day than foragers and horticulturalists.

When you’ve got your back against the wall, fighting the tides of nature, you have to work damn hard to stay afloat. But if you’re instead riding the currents, and just choosing one over another route in the river, your workload is not nearly so great. No wonder indigenous, old-growth culture humans the world over continually described their land as ‘paradise’!

All of which is not to say that I don’t support local food economies, nor that I don’t have in many cases probably a great deal of respect for these mid-sized farms trying to compete. But we need truly local economies, on the scale of you and me and a dozen of our friends procuring our own food, whether by hunting, gathering or gardening it. These local wholesale depots for nearby mid-sized farmers are a step in the right direction, and insofar as they inspire people to know personally what they eat, they’re good. But I don’t have much patience for the abuse of the term ‘sustainable’ so prevalent in green discussion these days (no offense to Annie).

Sustainable doesn’t just mean doing less awful shit. It means, really, giving more back to your ecology so that your niche remains intact and the ecology depends upon you in the same way you depend on it. It means having no foreseeable future (not by 2020, not by 2100, not by 3000) when your landbase is fully depleted and you’re no longer able to live as you once did. It means sustaining, and really, it means thriving as a dynamic member of a living community, as is our birthright. And for me, that’s where the discussion of primitivism begins.

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7 thoughts on “On Agriculture, Permaculture and Primitivism: What is Truly Sustainable?

  1. Jeremy Friedman says:

    This is a fantastic discussion, folks, and I’m eating it up (no pun intended). I’ll throw in my cautious sympathy with those who hope to see a place for so-called midsize farms in our future –

    One way to think about it is that the size of the farm isn’t really the most important thing – more important is how many people are involved in the farm (whether volunteers or employees), and how many people are supported by it in a direct and meaningful way. Think about it – what if we reimagined land ownership – how would we define the end of one farm and the beginning of another? it would be meaningless to say that two adjacent farms were “5 acres” and “1500 acres” – so I don’t think size is the issue per se.

    Rob made the superb point that a monocultural, or erosive, farm is harmful, whether it’s five acres or five hundred. Arguably, most of the USA was a permacultural farm (including “tree-farm” Eastern forestland), given millennia of light management exerted on it by generations of native Americans (a fact which has only more recently come to light – read the extraordinary book “1491”).

    Also, imagine there were only a few hundred million people on earth – would it be so awful if we lived in clusters of several dozen on 500-acre farms? Sounds like in that situation, there could well be land aplenty for us and for our fellow species.

    My grandfather has spent his entire life working a 480-acre half-forested dairy and grain farm in northern Michigan. While the practices up there are a far cry from organic, and to a certain extent suffer from the blights of industrial agriculture, this “mid-size” farm shapes many of my childhood recollections, and those of my mother – who was one of ten children living on that farm as a kid. This personal knowledge certainly influences my sympathies for mid-size farmers, who are all but gone in the region.

  2. Rob Archangel says:

    That’s a very good point, Jeremy: a mid-size farm which is run by one dude with industrial tools (a la the corn farmer in ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ but on a smaller scale) implies a greater degree of destruction than a hundred people who see 500 acres as their garden and are cultivating it.

    I also think you bring up a very good point about clustering. In permaculture, you always need the outer zones of greater and greater degrees of wildness. Even Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms understands the importance of the non-cultivated areas in facilitating the productiveness of the cultivated areas. Horticulturalists depended on wildness, in large part because that’s where game came from, and where other foods were gathered. It wasn’t a sacrifice on their part to keep areas wild, as it is for the farmer who is forfeiting food by not cultivating; horticulturalists could not live without it.

    I think that’s the direction we need to head in. We need ways of life that depend on biodiversity in very immediate ways, and practices which support that. Otherwise, even if the ‘sacrifice’ makes sense in the long term, people will be outcompeted by those benefitting in the short term.

  3. Roxanne Christensen says:

    A new farming system called SPIN-Farming is re-casting farming as a small business in a city or town, and it is giving rise to a new class of citizen-farmer who is showing that agriculture can be incorporated into our built environments instead of being segregated outside of it.
    SPIN is a vegetable farming system that makes it possible to generate significant income from sub-acre – less than an acre – land masses. It also greatly reduces the need for capital. Minimal infrastructure, reliance on hand labor to accomplish most farming tasks, utilization of existing water sources to meet irrigation needs, and situating close to markets all keep investment and overhead costs low and environmental impacts contained.
    SPIN removes the 2 big barriers to entry for first generation farmers – they don’t need a lot of land or money – and it begins to integrate agriculture into urban and suburban communities in an economically viable manner. Once food production becomes embedded within densely populated areas, the “farmers in the middle”, those with hundreds or thousands of acres on the suburban fringes, can shift to resource farming which will help restore ecosystems and make some amends for the centuries of abuse that agriculture has inflicted on the environment.

  4. Rob Archangel says:

    Hi Roxanne,
    That sounds cool, and I’m all for experimenting and trying new things, but another element of the trouble with agriculture (and horticulture) is soil fertility. Your post made me think about the guy who made headlines and wrote an article for New york magazine, who had his own farm in his backyard in brooklyn. he had to import literally tons of compost in from Long Island. Granted, LI isn’t California or China, but how exactly are we going to do this?

    The reason I think agriculture won’t be viable in most places in the near future is the lack of soil fertility. Even the organic farm where I get my CSA produce from has to import lots of compost, and he has pretty damn good practices. Couple that with the de-mineralization of our soils due to erosion (resulting in apples today that contain an eigth or a tenth the nutrients of an apple a century ago), means we now have a serious problem if we’re trying to cultivate food. The reason we can still feed billions of people on depleted infertile soils is because of chemical inputs. Once natural gas-based fertilizers are unavailable (and they won’t be available forever), we won’t be farming. Gardening, maybe, but even the most foraging-oriented permaculture (forest gardens, for example), demands some outside input typically, and that’s a problem permaculturalists have yet to adequately address in my eyes. That’s the reason for the Green Revolution: we didn’t have any more fertility to extort, so we had to use chemicals to continue to grow. Once those chemicals are gone, with the fertility also still gone and oil’s not available to import compost from far away (which, I might add, just robs somehwere else of its nutrients) that mode of subsistence is not going to be viable.

    Really, the central problem as I see it is, we’ve done a massive relocation of nutrients from the soil, where it’s able to sustain life, to the oceans and seas via erosion and dumps where our treated water’s refuse ends up. We need to figure out how to get that back to the soils. So our jobs in the coming years will be to restore our landbases, and help rebuild fertility. And we’re going to have to figure out how to do this on a local level. Foraging is still a viable option while we figure this out, since if humans can subsist as foragers from the Kalahari desert to the artctic tundra, we can subsist in even the most depleted lands that civilization has left us with. That’s why I think hunting/gardening (where viable) offers us the greatest opportunity for establishing a new ecological niche.

  5. Rosa says:

    Well, if you’re exporting soil fertility in the form of food – which is pretty much what a commercial farm is for – you’re going to have to put something back.

    You can do it solar-powered by cover-cropping in the off-season, if you have an off-season. You can grow a number of crops that add as much to the soil as they take away (especially tree crops and perennials.) Or you can re-import the food you sold in the form of compost or compostables.

    Personally, if I could get our CSA to take back a bucket of peelings & egg shells every week, I’d be ecstatic. (I do compost our food scraps but my raised beds are full, so at this point I’m just adding to them to get rid of waste.) It would be even better if they were close enough that I could pick up our share on a bike and deliver back compostables on a bike, but the housing bubble and sprawl has pushed the “local” farms out 40-50 miles.

  6. Rob Archangel says:

    I agree with all of this Rosa. I wish our CSA took scrapping as well, but we do have the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which composts scraps dropped off with them, which is nice. But to be really accountable for our nutrients, we’d have to compost our humanure as well, to catch the nutrients passing through us first, and send it back to the source of our food, rather than to water treatment plants, never to be seen again by the soil it came from.

    And utilizing perennials and tree crops is definitely interesting to me. Given the right conditions, we can actually build topsoil, and though we’re squandering it way too fast, we don’t have an absolutely fixed quantity of it on the planet. This heartening to me. What do you know about cover-cropping to build topsoil. Can you tell me a bit about it, or point me in the direction of places where I can learn more?

  7. Rosa says:

    I disagree about humanure necessarily going to farms – you can use the humanure on orchards, prairies, and other places that need topsoil as badly as cultivated land. I don’t know how you would do that in New York, all of your green space is intensely human-contacted, even if it’s not used for growing food. Though wasn’t horse manure an important export to the truck farms on Long Island, back in the day?

    Cover-cropping is a basic part of biodynamic and organic farming in the Midwest. I’m sure Rodale’s or the Land Institute have stuff about it. I’ve seen organic and biodynamic farmers use oats and various legumes (including cash seed crops like Scarlet Runner Beans) as early-spring or late-fall crops, or in the fallow year, and till them back into the ground before planting new row crops. I would bet if you ask your CSA farmer they would have a ton of information for you.

    The ultimate soil builder around here (Minnesota) is prairie grass, and I’ve been on hilly farms in Wisconsin where they planted a 10-foot swath of native grasses as a permanent buffer between cultivated plots. The farms I’ve visited that used those kinds of buffer zones were permaculture farms with berry bushes, asparagus, and hay fields between the buffers, but I’m told that over a decade plowed fields between strips of prairie grass show as much as a foot difference – that is, you step a foot down when you walk from the prairie into the plowed strip. You can get a smaller effect with hay strips.

    I’m trying to translate this into things that would be relevant in New York but I really don’t see the city letting a third of the parks go into hay every year (re-establishing lawn grass is a bitch, if you want lawn grass). On the other hand, for a gardener, just growing peas & soybeans (or weeds) for a few years and chopping the plants back into the soil every fall is going to build soil. I have a raised bed made entirely of soybean plants and elm leaves that grew *great* tomatos last year.

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