Once upon a time in America, farms were family operations. If a farmer was going to be successful, he had to know the best way to manage his land, extracting maximum profit for minimum expense. Sustainability was a necessity! If a farmer didn’t want his family to starve, he needed to figure out how to make his farm sustainable. Yes, some farmers failed. But not all of them. Not even most of them – otherwise we wouldn’t have any food to eat. Or we would be living Soylent Green!
How does this translate into successful farming? First let’s consider the land. The concept of crop rotation is mentioned in Roman literature. The Hebrews used a form of crop rotation by giving fields a sabbatical year. Obviously, this isn’t a new concept, and yet, it took the disaster of the Dust Bowl in this country to put the practice into use. And we seem to have forgotten the lesson not eighty years later: industrial farming has farmers planting the same crop in the same field, season after season, fortifying the soil with chemical fertilizers; a wicked cycle.
What makes good practice when it comes to the land? Rotation. The ancients knew that the fields needed to be changed up and that they needed to rest: that is what “sabbatical year” means – a year of rest. Every seventh year, a field rested. A resting field was a growing field: the next year, it was full of grasses for the cows to graze. And then they pooped in the field. And the next year, that field was ready to be planted, made fertile by some of the best fertilizer known to man (manure). And best of all, that fertilizer was free.
Rotation also refers to a system of interchanging crops so that what one plant uses, another puts back into the field. George Washington Carver (of peanut fame) was the genius who figured out that plants could help to sustain one another. That was back in the 1800’s. Rather than spending money on chemical fertilizer, which does help increase yield, farmers could plant crops that could be sold, or used to feed farm animals, and prevent the soil from becoming depleted, all in one. So what’s the problem? Maybe it is just too simple.
Small family farms are nearly a lost culture in America. The good news is with more and more people seeking out sustainably produced food, the small family farm just might make a come back. My son told me that he wants to be a farmer when he grows up. He was seven at the time and I know he will change his mind about 17 million times between now and when he actually chooses what he wants to do with his life. But it made me sad to think that the conventional odds are against him. Luckily, we have good examples in our lives thanks to the farmers in our lives: the Nolts, the Fishers, Jeff Tober and our friends at the Fernbrook Farm CSA, and the writings of people like Joel Salatin, who have all made a success of farming.