We need all of our farmers. I firmly believe that. Trial and error and ten years of trying to learn how to manage something resembling a farm has taught me that no one can wave a magic wand and make a professional who can wisely manage natural resources, operate and maintain machines, fix buildings, design and construct infrastructure, supply field labor, deliver lambs at 1 AM, fix a leaky kitchen faucet, push a teenager to get the chores done and drive an 11 year old to hockey. We need all of our farmers because they know something about everything.
When I came back from the ACORN conference in Halifax last week, pumped full of information until it was leaking out of my pores, I called on a young farmer in my neighborhood to share the information I'd learned with him. You see, one of the things I learned at ACORN was that this potent and highly concentrated input needs to be spread around. It's no good just keeping it in a bag in the barn.
So we talked about soil and seeds and fertility for about an hour when this young conventional farmer said, "You know, I've been looking at it. And it all comes back to manure". He'd just this year produced the best corn crop he'd ever had by loading up his soil with manure from his cows instead of buying in chemical fertilizer.
In 1969 an oil well blew out in the Santa Barbra Channel and flooded our beaches with crude oil. It was an environmental disaster that created the first Earth Day. The students of the new environmental sciences, our "alternative" neighbors and people all over the world woke up and saw that we were making a mess and something had to be done about it. Lines were drawn. The politics of the environment were born. Many good things came of that movement but something went wrong.
Santa Barbara County is an agricultural area on the coast of California that also has fishermen and oil production. We have old cowboys from families that go back to the Spanish and Mexican land grants of the colonial era. These families worked to manage grazing and pasture for beef and tended their lands responsibly for generations. They weren't ready for the kind of people promoting Earth Day in 1970. When the lines were drawn around the ecological movement, these "descendientes" excluded themselves and there was no effort made to include them in. That was a mistake on both sides.
When I was 24, I volunteered to help work 350 head of range cattle on a family "brush ranch". I met a rancher who was the descendant of people who had worked that land for 130 years. The owner had been educated at UC Berkeley. This was not the red-neck cowboy I had imagined. And in fact I later learned that our University system had been supported by families like his so that their sons and daughters could get a first class education in their own state and bring that education back home to the farm and their communities. It turned out that that old cowboy was the one who lost the family ranch a few years later. I know for a fact that he later died of a broken heart. I was at his memorial with his stetson, his riata, his work saddle and his family who no longer had the home their grandfathers and grandmothers built.
The young farmer I was visiting last week was interested in the material I brought back from Halifax on soil science. We started talking about biological farming. And we talked about an old man in our neighborhood, recently departed, who farmed naturally all his life. Not because it was the thing to do, but because it was something he'd proven over a lifetime. The young farmer and I talked about bringing up seaweed from the shore for mineral supplement to feed the fields. And we talked about pellet fertilizer. The young farmer thought for a moment. "The old man said, 'You don't need to put that "hail" on the field. Everything you need is right here. We never put that stuff on and we always had a good crop'." The old man put kelp and manure on his fields and rotated his crops. "It all comes back to manure"
We need our farmers. All of them. The young farmer and I have listened to and learned from "Los Viejos" - the old ones. When we lose a farmer we break the chain of generations of knowledge on the land. And as the young farmer and I can tell you - it's a long hard row to hoe getting it back. But the old men still try to tell us, "Don't lose what we worked for. Nature is giving you everything you need right here".