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New agriculturists seek a rich reward

The Dirt on Dirt

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New farmers aren't old farmers, and "old-school" farmers, figuratively speaking, are a dying breed. I don't necessarily mean aging ones. The average commercial grower now tops 50 years of age, but more concerning than the geriatric demographics of agriculture are "old" farming methods, the commercial system of mass production that flourished in the post-war period of 20th-century industrialization. Because if you look at what they do, those people really aren't farming at all.

Of course, new farmers aren't really farmers either. I call them "New Agriculturists," mostly because they tend to be generalists rather than specialists, but mainly due to the difficulty in calling anyone, in any place, a "farmer" when the basic community that farming depended on — the seed stores, small implement dealers, and small-town epicenters — has been decimated by suburbanization and big-box commercialism. Perhaps one can just conclude that farmers, the really old-school ones, the kind sung about in Old MacDonald and that inspired bucolic landscapes on milk and egg cartons, only exist as lost remnants of a glorified and idealized past.

Meg Moore is a new farmer. She began with little experience and came into it naïve, optimistic, and determined. I don't know the details of her past, but after spending six months sitting next to her in Clemson University's New and Beginning Farmer program, I know what she aims to become. It's not what most people might even consider "farming." Her Dirthugger Farm is only an acre. She is debt free. Conventional farmers, with thousands of acres under the plow, heavily leveraged with the bank, might call it a garden, and besides the standard crops that she sells through a small Community Supported Agriculture operation (in which individuals can pre-buy shares of the upcoming season's crop), she's experimenting with hops, ginger, and turmeric. She gathers her CSA customers for after-parties, which mean beer, music, impromptu dancing, and maybe a bit of helpful weeding after picking up the week's allocation of veggies.

Ask her about the future, and she says, "I see lots of opportunities for bringing the community together with the farm through educational opportunities, agritours, small events, and possibly having therapists come out with the children they are working with to learn in a natural environment."

The largest part of her website is dedicated to honoring the people who've helped her out — and there are many. In a world where the farm lobby recently pushed for legislation outlawing unauthorized photography of farms in an attempt to avoid media revelations of industrial farm practices, that's about as far removed from agribusiness as one can get.

A diverse group of folks join Meg and me in the Clemson program. There were goat people, for meat and milk. Our new friend Al was putting together a plan to herd water buffalo down near Edisto in order to make fresh mozzarella. Some folks raised cattle. Former Clemson linebacker Patrick Sapp wants to establish a sustainable farm and community development center in the middle of Greenville's toughest neighborhood. As different in background as we all are, during the weekly meetings our similarities became much more striking in our discussions.

Our program introduced the economic rather than practical aspects of farming. And when we began, a good many people seemed rather conventional. Even the director, Dave Lamie, took pains to explain that he understood differing opinions on agricultural practice existed but said everyone should feel welcome. By graduation day, we found a common spirit, and it surrounded those themes of community, of sharing, and not the cold, crass commercialism of economic competition.

What began as conversations about tractors and horsepower, the good ol' ways of spraying for this or that, turned to compost and soil fertility, the impact of no-till agriculture, and the travails of fellow participant Eric McClam's City Roots operation, which he runs with his father.

McClam's farm lies in the middle of Columbia on a wedge of land out by the airport. Like Moore, he grows all matter of produce, runs a very successful CSA, sells to local restaurants, and sponsors events and workshops at what he dubs "Your In-Town, Sustainable Farm."

My own "farm" is located out in Ravenel, but few would call it much more than a spot of dirt. I started with 50 acres of pine trees, a lot of big dreams, and a lack of experience that meant I had no idea how to even operate a tractor. I've learned that such "experience" doesn't reside in knowledge, but in wisdom, and that wisdom comes at the cost of failure and the observation of others' failures as well.

As I make my way to my land, I often pass a guy who grows acres of soybeans. He has a nice tractor that probably costs more than some people's houses, and in the heat of the summer I was understandably jealous of the enclosed, air-conditioned cab that is mounted on top of it. The day my puny little two-wheel drive job got stuck in the mud, I wished I had those big tires and abundant horsepower. When I crawled home covered in mud, sweat, and a bit of blood, I began thinking about what makes a farmer "authentic," and what really bothers me about the way "old" farmers — meaning conventional, industrialized ones — go about their business.

During our experience, a man named Ray Archuleta spoke to the Clemson class about the adverse effects of conventional tillage. These effects are well known, and even conventional agribusinesses have now embraced "no-till" practices. But Archuleta opened his talk with a profound observation: "There are more living organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are humans who ever walked upon the earth." He went on to explain the impact that conventional practices have on that diverse community of beneficial organisms living beneath our feet. I'll never look at a field the same way again.

In Ray's biological realm, the world consists of a rich diversity of interconnectedness. Roots interact with fungi; microscopic bacteria fight an epic battle among mites, nematodes, earthworms, and protozoa. I learned that there is a holism to agriculture that has been lost, and there is minuteness to our own existence that we would be wise to heed. In the zeal to industrialize the world over the last century, farmers moved away from integrated practices and modeled production as if nature could be bent to the will of an assembly line. In this guise, the power of science is formidable indeed, and the productive capacity of American farmland is unparalleled today, but the true costs of such production are carefully hidden. Large commercial operations and the political lobbies that support them don't want to consider the whole picture. In fact, if they had their way, it would be illegal to photograph it.

The impact of holistic methods can be witnessed on Meg Moore's farm. She tends a soil full of earthworms and compost; "old" farmers utilize chemical fertilizers and carcinogenic pesticides. Similarly, most livestock isn't raised on a lush grass pasture, but in a factory, where the waste pools into gigantic reservoirs and a pig's feet never see the earth's soil, only concrete floors. Agricultural production in America is geared toward the maximization of corn yields, which supports ethanol production and efficiently feeds the demands of factory-line beef, pork, and chicken. Constant reports of food-borne illness, animal mistreatment, and soil degradation should lead to increased awareness of the problem, but the signs of a sick agricultural system are all-too-often ignored, because if there is one true thing about Americans and food, it's that they don't like to look under the hood and see how the sausage is made.

In the end, it's all about energy. The New Agriculturists look at a field of beans or a pasture for grazing and see a giant solar collector. They visualize the energy that plants have the miraculous ability to absorb and transform into tangible gains through photosynthesis, and they seek to manipulate that natural process to maximize its effects — to collect energy and store it naturally in the soil, affecting a "return" that buffers next year's production. We might picture them as a new form of investor, with land as currency and quality as the measure of success.

Conversely, industrialized agriculture sees the soil as a container, a substrate that functions to hold plants in place while they are chemically fed through the use of fossil fuel (which is what fertilizer is made of). But fossil fuel is also stored energy, a form of sunlight captured in a barrel of oil — sunlight that rained down a few thousand years ago. Soil worked in this manner becomes depleted of its usefulness over time, requiring ever more chemical input to remain productive, resembling an economic culture more akin to mining than what we might traditionally think of as a farm. So as gas prices rise, so does the cost of industrial farming, and as that system begins to come under pressure, New Agriculturists respond with a different vision. If we are correct, then a new agriculture is truly emerging, one that doesn't depend on non-renewable resources and unregulated pollution, and one that builds local land and communities, rather than corporate stock offerings in a faraway city.

Among the people I've met, "young" farmers overwhelmingly think this way. Rather than economies of scale, they see the potential for robust local markets servicing neighbors. These farmers relish the opportunity to educate their customers personally about the qualities of the thing they grew or raised. Rather than a commodity, they see a distinctive product, one that they want to share, with unique virtues they extoll. New Agriculturists often share a vision of collaboration, rather than commercial competition. The aim is not to get rich, but to be richly rewarded with a purposeful life. That type of community was traditionally an integral part of farming, a concept proven the world over for centuries.

If these new thinkers and doers are to prevail, then such communities must be restored. Consumers must become customers. Industrialism must yield to holism, and the awful outlays of waste and poison that economists sanitize as "externalities" will need to be fully valued, their price included in a gallon of milk. When polite people sit around and chat, the idea of calling yourself a "farmer" should come with a badge of honor and recognition within our society.

Eric McClam summed it up well. Both of us graduated from college with degrees in architecture, both of us went on to success in post-graduate programs of study. Both of us want to be farmers. One day he revealed his misgivings: "I've been running this thing for two years now. I can really say that only in the last few months have I been able to tell people [when they ask what I do] that 'I'm a farmer.'"

It's about time farming stopped being a victim of the industrialized food chain and came back to the land, where growing food for your community is once again a noble profession. 

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