Our Ecological Umbilical
While I enjoy reading and writing, I occasionally suffer from writer’s block – which is the condition of not being able to come up with something to write about. Many of the “View from the Country” articles have their origins out in the pastures among the livestock, grasses, and elements of nature. There’s something about being outdoors and part of the fabric of the natural eco-system that stimulates thoughts of the why’s and how’s of food production versus the methods of commodity production I see the farms of convention around us taking. Often when I’m gripped by writer’s block, a breakthrough comes while out working. But sometimes all it takes to stimulate the inspiration is thought provoking feedback such as this:
I love your weekly emails. We are a kindred community of sorts. I so enjoy supporting your efforts by purchasing from you and referring my friends to your farm. Yes, it is about the food. But let us not forget the connection to each other and the land.
Good fortune and abundant health to you and your family this Christmas and the coming year.
Thank you, Ellen. I don’t if you’re aware, but you touched on a piece of ancient truth. I have a deep appreciation for people who realize that the modern illusion of human independence from the land is just that – an illusion. Throughout history, humans have always been dependent on each other and the surrounding eco-system for survival. But due in part to the industrialization of human food within the past century – including the emergence of a food processing industry who has taken food production from a local endeavor to a national and even a multi-national business. Food, which in times past was sourced from local farms and home gardens, now comes from nameless, faceless corporations (often with little resemblance to its raw form). This creates a fantasy of not only human independence from the natural elements man has always relied on for sustenance, but also a false impression of food security.
That man would no longer be bound – yes, helplessly dependent – to the natural elements of soil, air, and water is one of the biggest myths of all time. In his writings, Joel Salatin often refers to our interaction with the earth and dependence on its fruits as our “ecological umbilical.” At first, I considered it to be too strong a term, but I’ve changed my mind. Our dependence on the earth and its natural elements is not unlike the utter reliance an unborn baby has on the continuous stream of nutrients from the mother via umbilical cord. In the foreword of Forest Pritchard’s excellent book, Gaining Ground, Joel penned these words; “We cannot escape our responsibilities to, nor our interactions with, soil, air, and water – the basic ingredients in the farmer’s alchemy…… Unlike other vocations that are arguably more or less necessary, farming is basic to human existence. Because it is at the root of civilization, it has the greatest capacity to either heal or hurt humankind’s planetary nest. As co-stewards of this great creation, we all owe future generations the benefit of knowing something about farming, food production, and land care. Few intellectual journeys could be this necessary and far-reaching.” Profound!
As the farmer population continues to decline – largely due to either age or bankruptcy – it becomes more obvious than ever how dependent society is on the land and the food derived from it, either directly from plants or indirectly from animals. While agricultural statistics give plenty of reason for concern for the declining farmer population, general society is barely aware of it.
One of the abnormal aspects of modern America is the fact that many areas are literally food deserts, meaning there’s no food being produced in a given vicinity. This is true not only in cities and urban areas, but in many rural areas as well. There may be plenty of farms in the vicinity, but they’re producers of agricultural commodities for–in most cases–a national food manufacturer or processor, not food for the local folks. Whether there’s corn, soybeans, wheat, or hay in the fields, it’s a commodity that goes for animal feed, or, further down the line, human food. They may have hogs, dairy cows, beef steers, or a barn full of chickens, but there’s no food to be obtained from the farm. We’ve become a society that expects food to come from the grocery store or supermarket, not from farms. If this isn’t an indicator of the stronghold the processing industry and food distributors have on our food supply, I don’t know what is. And we must recognize that it’s not serving our land or our bodies in a friendly manner.
The options for beginning farmers are few. Either signing a contract with a meat or dairy conglomerate – which is to become a feudal serf who dances to a corporate whistle or raising grain or hay crops that necessitate deep investments in equipment and infrastructure, only to settle for less-than-optimal returns at harvest. Or, like us, taking the path of lunatics who are driven to improve the system and begin producing food for the community. While I’m inclined to favor this option, it’s a high-risk venture that takes years to establish. I’m not complaining, for we have been blessed beyond measure by a responsive community, but it’s a rather risky endeavor that requires long-term thinking.
There’s substantial evidence that an industrialized food system revolving around relatively few multi-national corporations who turn agricultural commodities into so-called food cannot replicate the security or quality of the community-based food system of a bygone era. By the same token, neither does any of us desire to go back to the hardship and toil formerly necessary in order to eat. However, that’s not to say that a community food effort is a thing of the past. As I see it, the most promising means of not only solid food security, but also a rewarding connection with our ecological umbilical, is the grassroots crusade already underway in many areas.
The folks driving this movement demand that their food be local and ecologically sustainable. They seek out alternative local sources in an effort to know the why’s and how’s behind what they’re eating. If the type of food they want isn’t available in the locality, they either become farmers and gardeners or ask local farmers to produce the food they need. It’s a movement that recognizes – and seeks to influence – the inevitable dependence we have on our ecological umbilical. And that’s The View from the Country.