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Archive for August 22nd, 2015

7 Aug 2015


I sit on the porch and do some bird watching. Hummingbirds dart around the ornamental ginger, peeping and squeaking as they perform incredible aerial maneuvers during their dogfights. Montzuma’s Ornapendolas shout noisy combinations of metallic mechanical sounds. Parrots screech as they fly overhead.

It’s easy to fall into a rhythm here on the farm. Morning bird watching, breakfast, email, some farm work, lunch, chop wood, forage, bath, reading, dinner, cards, bed. I must admit that I haven’t strayed much from this. It gives me plenty of time to philosophize. Lately I’ve been thinking about how we can integrate holistic food production systems, like the one at MMRF, to a greater extent. Some people argue that we need to “go back” to more primitive, less intense agricultural systems. I don’t know if it’s feasible on the time-scale that is necessary to avert many of the problems ecosystems and humans are going to face in the immediate future. We will never be Lacandon, or Haudenosaunee, etc. We lack that long-standing cultural and physical connection to the land that has been developed over generations. The chain has been broken somewhere along the way, be it as a result of the Green Revolution, or the industrialization of agriculture, or market-based agricultural production, or something even further back. Although I think that it is absolutely essential to regain our connection to the land, I worry that this is a gradual change for which we cannot afford to wait.

Of all people, the Amish may serve a useful blueprint. First, they are deeply community-oriented. If they can obtain or repair something they need locally, they will do so. Second, they are cautious about technology. It’s not that they are Luddites, as is often believed. They just have a very conservative approach to assessing how a new technology will affect their community, unlike the shoot first, ask questions/clean up the mess approach we have in the western world (US especially). They have no problems using plows or disc tillers, but don’t want to be dependent on “the English” for gas and so don’t use fossil fuel-powered devices to pull them. The reason they don’t use telephones is not because they think they are inherently evil, but rather that they will make it easier not to engage on a personal level with other community members (something we see being increasingly prevalent with social media). This results in their development of ingenious farming quality over quantity production systems.

There are folks like Chris who are working on developing holistic food systems that are good for people and the environment. It’s just that they are certainly not in the mainstream. Just as the use of fertilizers and pesticides was considered a revolution, I think it will take another to undo the damage it has done. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine tells the story of Milton Friedman. Friedman was a right-wing radical free-market economist whose ideas of deregulation weren’t gaining much traction early in his career during the 40s and early 50s when leftist policies like the New Deal were the norm. He decided to wait in the shadows until there was a moment of upheaval and swoop in to implement his neoliberal economic policies when people were distracted by violence or rapid socio-political change. Klein’s argument is that this method was pretty effective and cites the coups in Chile Guatemala, and Nicaragua; revolutions in Yugoslavia and Ukraine; fall of the USSR; etc as examples. I think that we are probably going to have to do a similar sort of thing for agriculture.

I think that chaos theory would agree. Imagine a topographic landscape of peaks and valleys. In chaos theory, this is known as a phase space: a multidimensional representation of all possible states of a given system. Now imagine tossing a ball into this landscape. This represents a particular system state. If it lands on top of a peak (unstable attractor state), it is in a very unstable system, as it only takes a little disturbance to knock it from its place. Valleys are far more stable, as you can disturb the phase space quite a bit before it is knocked out of a given system state (stable attractor state). Of course, different system states have different shaped peaks and valleys and so have different levels of resistance (ability to remain in a given state in the face of disturbance). I’d argue that conventional, post-GR agriculture is in an unstable attractor state (monoculture are not resistant systems). However, we can maintain the system state through inputs of lots of energy (fertilizer, pesticides, fossil fuel-based power, etc.). Even so, it is susceptible to disturbance, which can come in many forms: a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy or Katrina, a spike in fossil fuel costs, disease caused by increasing population densities or antibiotic resistant bacterial strains. I hope it isn’t as drastic as these, but with the energy we are pumping into the system, it may be. The point is then to have alternatives (ie diversity) to adapt to this change and demonstrate its utility in a novel phase state.

While Chris is away, Luke and Connor, the two remaining interns, have decided to undertake some projects around the farm. We gather chikai, a wild plant with a flower which tastes something like an artichoke, set ground mole traps to try to limit their infestation in a banana and cacao grove, and fix up some of the muddier sections of trail. The first and last are successful, but the ground mole traps have yet to catch anything.

Washing clothes at sunset on the Columbia River

Washing clothes at sunset on the Columbia River

In our time off, I read, wash my clothes, and play with a colony of ant-lions by throwing ants into their conical pit traps. Their larva hatch from eggs and build the traps and wait, buried at the bottom. When an ant or other unlucky little arthropod falls in, they grab it with their fearsome pincers. If they try to escape, they kick up sand to knock it back into the base of the pit. The nymphs, curiously, lack an anus, so all their waste is stored and emitted as at the end of the pupal stage. After the nymph stage, it wraps itself in a cocoon and metamorphoses into an adult lacewing, which will never eat again. It’s only purpose in life at this stage is to mate, after which it does.

I swat a “doctor fly,” easily identifiable by its black and white stripes, on my foot. It explodes in a burst of blood. “Why are they called doctor flies?” I asked a Belizean a few days earlier. “Because dey take a blood sample, man!” Enough of this. Time to retreat to the comfort of the mosquito net around my bed.

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