City Grown, 2.24.16, "Principles & Pragmatism"

There are about as many different kinds of farms and farmers in the world as there are organisms in the soil. Sometimes the job title of “farmer” doesn’t feel as if it has any internal coherence, that it can encompass so many meanings as to be meaningless. But I guess we’re united by the fact that we’re growing food for someone, and we get to decide how exactly to do that.

It’s that second part where the divergence comes.

We all get into farming for different reasons, with different circumstances or value-systems driving us toward this work. Some grew up in the field, inheriting a family business. Some want to work with their hands, to work outside, to work in tangible ways. Some are drawn to the healing nature of working with plants and animals and broader life cycles. Some are driven by a sense of economic justice, or environmental restoration.

Me? I was a lefty / hippie / treehugger type in college, and the seed that became my farming career was planted when someone pointed out that eating (and buying) food was the most tangible environmental act I partook in everyday. Bit by bit that realization led me to want to grow food in a way that healed the earth, and that made us humans more resilient.

And so it’s funny to me that I’m now a big advocate of mechanization on farms. Not giant-scaled mechanization, of course. But rather small-scaled, smartly-designed mechanization that helps the ecological farmer balance the many challenges she faces, from financial realities to botanical and biological necessities to physical frailties. I want small and ecologically-minded farms to grow as much of our food as possible. To me, fossil fuels are a miracle that should be used sparingly and smartly, and pouring them into the engine of a machine that’ll help a small farm become more productive and efficient while feeding more families and minimizing harm to the soil ecosystem, well… that’s a smart use in my book.

Those engines feel loud, of course, and the machines feel destructive. But one of the many instructive things about farming (to me, at least) is that it requires you to put your principles into action. You have and hold your beliefs, yes, but you also are given this bag of seed and this field and this CSA member list and this climate and this market and this pest/weed pressure and this soil quality and this rent payment and this medical bill and this…

Your values get put to the test. Some of them stand up to the challenge and help you be a better person / farmer, and some of them are proven to be foolish or naïve, and they are adjusted to better fit reality.

As farmers, we get so many choices: what to grow, when to grow it, what tools and systems to use, how to sell it, how much to sell it for, whom to partner with, how much to value our own work and that of those around us, and on and on and on. It’s overwhelming, and you certainly need some sort of value system to help you navigate it all. But that value system must remain living, because blind faith quickly becomes dogmatism, and, if nothing else, dogmatism rarely proves successful in the realm of business and biology.

This weekend is Rooting DC, and I can’t wait. I’m excited to see folks and present a few of my own thoughts and ideas, but more than that I’m always thrilled to hear everyone else’s balancing act between their values and the realities of their situation. Within farming, learning how to better hold principles and pragmatism at the same time is one of my forever tasks.