Monday, March 21, 2011

Putting our methods where our mouths are

Davinci's human powered "wing flapper" plane
After four hours of hard digging what will be the first of our future vegetable beds, I looked at the small patch of soil that had been cleared; it made just enough space to sit down in Buddha-style.  This is appropriate, because I was suddenly pondering what we thought was so important about human-powered farm techniques in the first place.  The image of a mini-back hoe I had seen in a rental company catalog came to mind.

In every farm project we undertake, we employ human power over machine (and gas driven) power if possible and rely on scavenging existing materials from around us instead of renting or buying new.  Perplexed looks abound, from my mother looking on as I haul a volleyball sized rock out of the ground to a local well guy who thinks my shovel should be hanging up in the Smithsonian next to the horse-drawn buggy.

In an American culture with abiding faith in the unquestionable benefits of technological innovation as a cure to what ails us, the idea of choosing "inefficient" practices (time-intensive, small scale, requiring labor) over "efficient" ones (low labor, highly mechanized, scalable, and profitable) draws disbelief and doubt.

So with all the obvious costs from "inefficiency", why are we trying to practice this type of farming in the first place?  What belief system makes this pursuit worthwhile in the face of all of those blisters, back aches, and creeping progress?  Here is a summary of the beliefs behind our chosen methods:

It makes farming more accessible and affordable.  For someone without a lot of savings or money, the upfront capital costs of getting into modern-day farming are a high hurdle: tractors, front loaders, fence post diggers...the list can go on and on once you set down that path. Truly sustainable farming means building
a system that relies on expensive external inputs as little as possible (like gas and new machine parts). We hope that if we prove that the most beautiful and productive things can be built simply with human hands and plain old tools, it makes farming accessible to many more would-be farmers and gardeners (not only in rural areas, but in cities and suburbs as well). 

It values  human labor instead of looking for ways to eliminate it.  I've taken economics and a lot of the logic never made sense to me.  Industrial production and service economies find new ways to downsize jobs for humans in the name of "progress" and "greater efficiency", which looks like anything but progress when we consider the growing ranks of people without full-time jobs or opportunities to make a decent living.  Sustainable agriculture is the original green job and to do it right you need a lot of people working.

It encourages healthy limits to the scale of farming.  The more you get away from human-powered work techniques, the more you move towards farms so large that the only choice is to operate them with heavy machinery, chemical pesticides to kill weeds, and mono-crops that make farm operations more cost effective. A small farm is best-suited to practice the little-bit-of-everything agriculture (animals, vegetables, herbs, flowers, fruit, fungi, water harvesting, green manure cover crops) that is sustainable and best for the environment. Plus, small farms leave more space for the next farmer, fostering community instead of competition.

It's just plain good for the soul.  That type of talk may make you blush, but working with your hands close to the land forces us into communion with all of the living systems we are a part of.  It is a good reminder of our scale in relation to the world around us, helps re-orient our perception of time to nature instead of modern mentality that deems a two second download unacceptable, and keeps us vigorous and healthy to boot.

That's the madness behind our methods.  I'm sure it will evolve as we go through the year -- finding the right balance between human power and machines that make the end-goal remotely possible involves a lot of gray areas.  Is it OK if the machine is borrowed from a neighbor or bought as part of a collective?  Maybe.  Hell, for all I know, I might be riding a mini-back hoe next Spring.  But for now, we're trying to put our methods where our mouths are.  Maybe I'll get these beliefs tattooed on the back of my hands -- something to keep the faith when faced with the next big rock.

No comments:

Post a Comment