Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sustainable Ag needs your help.

I just got forwarded an e-mail from a group called "Food Democracy Now!" with a list of endorsements for various candidates to fill important undersecretary posts in the Obama Administration's Department of Agriculture. The endorsements can be viewed online at www.fooddemocracynow.org . If the group is legitimate, and they appear to be so, then I think the people named are worth our support. The folks all appear to have a strong track record of supporting family farms and "sustainable agriculture." The list is weighted heavily with Midwesterners--but that's probably as a it should be. I hate to say it, but the Midwest is way ahead of Hawai'i in the area of sustainable agriculture--partly because sustainable ag never totally died out there to start with.

I should know. I grew up on a family farm. My folks owned 320 acres in Northwest Missouri; my grandparents owned another, 180-acre farm. Both practiced, to a great extent, what would now be called sustainable agriculture, though it was the norm for many farmers in Missouri in those days. My parents grazed cattle on the hilltops and grew corn, wheat and soybeans, roated with clover to renew the soil, in the bottom land along the two creeks that crossed our farm. They left the slopes along the creek valleys in timber to prevent erosion. We kept hogs and chickens (it was my duty to get up every morning before school and help feed the chickens, and to shovel corn to the hogs when I got home in the evening); a big garden plot next to the house supplied most of our veggies and grapes and strawberries. Fruit trees in the yard and in my grandparent's small orchard gave us plenty of apples, apricots and peaches; the woods and fence rows supplied blackberries, raspberries, gooseberries, elderberries, wild plums and pawpaws. In the spring, we'd range the woods looking for morels, the best of all mushrooms (sorry, truffles), then take them home, soak them overnight in saltwater, and then fry them up with home-made butter and a batter made from flour and home-grown eggs, which came from chickens raised mainly on oats and corn and wheat from our farms. Both we and our livestock ate mostly the produce we'd grown ourselves; sales of excess grain livestock and eggs fueled our tractors, bought what fertilizer and pesticides my dad used (he used both sparingly), mineral and protein supplements for the livestock, and whatever else we couldn't make or grow. The "egg money" bought a few groceries such as the Wonder Bread that my mom loved (having grown up on home-made bread, she regarded white bread as a delicacy. We kids, growing up on Wonder Bread, craved the home-made stuff). We were often below the poverty level, but that didn't matter so much because we never went hungry.

It was a good life but a hard life, and I figured out pretty early that I wasn't cut out to be a farmer; my talent was with words, not with keeping a cultivator's weed-rooting blades in between the soybean rows all through a hot, dusty early summer day.

I was grateful that I could choose a different path for my life. But my decision to leave helped to doom the farm. It wasn't just that the big agribusiness conglomerates were pushing enormous tractors and designer seeds and expensive fertilizers that only huge farms could afford, or that enormous corporate feedlots were operating on a cost of scale that drove down beef and pork prices below what small farmers could compete with, or that development pressure was driving the cost of land up and almost any business could afford to pay hired help more than family farmers could. Farming takes not just labor, but skilled labor. When I left, I broke the chain of knowledge. I took away from that farm an enormous number of folk skills, from how to repair a tractor to how to pluck a chicken to how to make the little twists in wire that are essential to successfully repair a fence.

As a Midwestern farm boy, when I came to Hawai'i, I was astonished at the horrible land management practices that the sugar plantations were engaged in--such as denuding several square miles of sloping cane fields at once, so that Hamakua's unchecked torrential rains could wash tons of soil out to sea in a single night--and then replanting again in cane without rotating in another crop to replenish the soil. This wasn't farming; this was soil-mining for profit.

My father, rest his soul, always talked about being a steward of the land, and leaving it more productive than he'd found it; the cane companies seemed to be bent on wringing every last calorie of profit out of their lands before they abandoned them.

Unfortunately, the same thing is happening on the mainland. When I left the Midwest, it was losing topsoil at such a rate that much of it would have been desert by the 2030s; I wrote some of the early articles about low-till and no-till agriculture techniques that farmers were starting to adopt to combat this problem. But no-till ag was even more dependent on expensive chemical pesticides than was standard cultivation--forcing operating costs for family farmers still higher and increasing their dependence on the agrochemical giants. Farmers were giving up at an alarming rate, and taking the knowledge of how to do it with them into retirement. Now I've heard that only three or four percent of the population is feeding all the rest of us. Sustainable farms aren't sustainable without farmers.

Over here, Hawai'i has millions of acres of worn-out cane land, and it's importing most of its food. Even if all that land isn't planted in eucalyptus for biofuel, it's going to take a lot more than the right DOA undersecretaries to make sustainable food production happen again. It's going to take legislation to remove ag lands permanently from development pressure, because farmers simply can't compete with golf courses and condos for available land. It's going to take legislation that makes agricultural subdivision--FOR AGRICULTURE!--cheap and easy, and to encourage the big landowners to engage in it, because family farms, by nature, need to be small enough that each can be run on a family's own manpower, but large enough to produce some excess goods for profit. In some cases, it's going to take massive soil rehabilitation programs. And above all, it's going to require knowledge and love.

Right now, many of the people here involved in the sustainable ag movement have the love, but they're struggling to regain the knowledge. A couple of years ago, for instance, I saw an notice on Freecycle Hawai'i from someone who wanted a fisherman's throw net for catching chickens. Chickens are designed to look out for threats from above; a throw net just ain't going to do the job. So I wrote the person, telling him how to make a chicken hook--a device made of heavy wire, that looks a little bit like Bo Peep's shepherd's crook and and is used to catch chickens by their legs.

So by all means, sign that petition at www.fooddemocracynow.org . And encourage your local legislators to put food independence on the same priority level with energy independence, because biodiesel isn't going to be that important if we can't afford the imported food at the grocery store once we've driven there.

And for those of you who have questions about the basics of family farming, or knowledge they'd like to share, I offer the comments section below this piece as one more place where you can get together and share knowledge. If I know the answer, I'll share it, and maybe someone else can answer the questions that I can't.


Anonymous said...

Hawaiians have been practicing sustainable agriculture for centuries.

Alan McNarie said...

Yes, I'm aware of that, and I should have written more about the Hawaiian system. Hawaiians obviously can tell us more than anyone about how to grow traditional crops here, and I've written extensively about Hawaiian agriculture in other articles over the years. The ancient farming terrace system of South Kona, for instance, is a true marvel. But it's been abandoned for centuries. The number of Hawaiians who practice something like sustainable agriculture today has shrunk to a relative handful, And the land that they control is probably an even smaller fragment than the percentage of land in the Midwest that is still controlled by family farmers. There are almost no places left where the ahupua'a system today is close to intact; one of the few spots that come close is Waipi'o Valley. In most places, cane plantations or cattle ranching have left the Hawaiian agricultural system in wreckage.

The ahupua'a system, in fact, was very similar to my parent's farm, in that it used the different altitudes and characteristics of the land to produce the crops that were best suited for each area. But it was a macro-management system, requiring all the land in pie-shaped swath from the mountains to the sea, and it was decapitated by the Great Mahele.

I honor those who are attempting to preserve or recapture the wisdom that ancient Hawaiians once exercised in caring for their land. We need to support them and learn from them, and if we're going to have any chance of establishing a new sustainable system here, I suspect we also need to learn to eat more like them, too. We need starches, for instance, and though I love bread more than almost any other food, it's probably much easier to grow taro, sweet potatoes and breadfruit here than wheat. Right now, though, we don't have enough poi farmers left to supply even those who already like to eat it regularly.

But unless we can persuade Kam Schools and Parker Ranch and the other big landholders, including the state, to give their land back for ahupua'a management, we may have to synthesize some new model of sustainable agriculture, borrowing from the wisdom of all the island's cultures and adapting to Hawai'i's changed environment. That may mean apple orchards intercropped with koa trees in the Hamakua uplands, olive trees in the dryer parts of Kohala and Ka'u, taro in the wet lowlands, revived fish ponds (and better wild fisheries management)along the coast. It may mean domesticating pigs again, instead of letting them multiply unchecked in the rain forest and hoping we can hunt enough of them to prevent ecological catastrophe. Who knows what other components people may come up with? But we need to strengthen the dialog now, to get the land and keep it, to preserve and distribute the seed stock, and to pool and preserve and distribute the knowledge.

Simply saying "Hawaiians have been practicing sustainable agriculture for centuries" does none of that,unless you follow up by sharing the knowledge of what Hawaiians have done and talk about how to implement that knowledge in modern Hawai'i.

And we need to get our government back from agribusiness interests. I personally would love to see Barack Obama appoint somebody from his home state to a high position in the DOA--and preferably not some GMO advocate from CTAHR. Anybody got a candidate that we can unite behind (and fast)?

Anonymous said...

Simply saying "Hawaiians have been practicing sustainable agriculture for centuries" does none of that,unless you follow up by sharing the knowledge of what Hawaiians have done and talk about how to implement that knowledge in modern Hawai'i.

Maybe later. At least I got you to acknowledge that Hawaiians have been practicing sustainable agriculture for centuries.