Reflections from the Country’s Best Local Farmers
[This article was previously published in the summer issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter.]
by Linley Dixon, PhD
Farm and Food Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute
The Elders gathered for a second time this past January. They were joined by 13 “Youngers” to exchange ideas and information with the next generation of farmers and discuss the future of organic and sustainable farming.The “Agrarian Elders,” a group of legendary organic farmers, first formally met in January of 2014 at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, CA with the goal of sharing and preserving the wisdom from their combined 800 years of growing experience.
Many of us are seriously concerned about the future of agriculture. However, the Agrarian Elders have already provided us with a roadmap toward a locally based, truly sustainable food system. In defiance of the status quo, they have courageously modeled their lives around hard work, a sense of place, innovation, and forward-looking ideas.
The discussions at their meetings have centered on basic social, economic, and ecological values of local/organic food production and how they relate to community engagement, transparency, collaboration, and bottom-up innovation.
The Elders have developed farming techniques that place great value on the complexity of natural systems, using years of environmental observations and intuition to drive their production practices.
With many of the Elders now either in retirement, or close to it, they’re wondering “What has it all meant?”
History has yet to reveal whether mainstream society will embrace and expand on the Elders’ dreams of a critical mass of farmers directly feeding their communities from diversified farms.
Is the combined life’s work of the Agrarian Elders, and others like them, a blip among the seemingly inevitable economic forces that drive agriculture commodification and increased production at all costs?
Those that have a call to intimately work in the dirt and tend to the health of the soil and a diversity of farm species remain on the fringe. Is there hope for a future where farmers who work in harmony with nature eclipse the prevailing industrial agriculture complex that destroys it?
“The Agrarian Elders gatherings have been wonderful and have allowed us to discuss at great length where we are, how we got here, and where organic is going,” said Maine organic seed farmer and Cornucopia Policy Advisor Jim Gerritsen. “I’d say every one of us is feeling great trepidation at the prospect of authentic organic farming now having to fight for its survival against the unholy alliance of USDA and corporate special interests which have bought their way into the organic industry.”
These esteemed men and women have demonstrated that small organic farms can feed the world in sustainable perpetuity better than corporate industrial agriculture.
During their time at both gatherings, they discussed specific techniques used on their farms, many quite economically successful, to increase biodiversity, soil fertility, and organic matter, while conserving water and fossil fuels.
Despite many cumulative awards and wide recognition, these farmers share humility, agreeing that humans are just scratching the surface in our understanding of farming with nature’s complex systems.
They acknowledge weaknesses, including a desire to move completely away from tillage and fossil fuels. All agreed that the way to continue to improve comes from collaboration, a sharing of ideas and scientific research that is transparent, open-sourced, holistic, and supportive of organic practices.
Both meetings have gone beyond the practical “how to” of organic farming, into more theoretical discussions. They confronted each other with important questions: Are we going to make a long-term difference? What is our role in carbon mitigation, social justice, and articulating the links between genetic modification technologies, dwindling genetic diversity, and food sovereignty? How do we balance our ideals with the economic constraints of making a living?
Against the odds, the Elders do have hope for the future. They especially see that hope in the next generation of educated and motivated young farmers who have continued to inspire consumers to join them in a larger “food justice movement.”
They acknowledged the benefits that their farms, and others like them, have brought to communities in terms of jobs, biodiversity, education, and recreation.
The Agrarian Elders came together with a sense of urgency, in hopes of supporting and increasing the number of diversified organic farms that will carry their innovative practices forward. In conjunction, they expressed the need to continue to engage the public on these complex issues.
Their end goal: a future where communities with healthy economies almost completely feed themselves based on their local food systems.
As aging farmers, the Elders recognize their limited personal capacity to accomplish these goals and have expressed a desire to connect with strategic partners who can.
There is no doubt that there is power behind their stories. Their lives were spent practicing what they’ve preached. It is now our job to pay close attention to their words and amplify their voices.