I grew up Mennonite, in a house shared by my parents and grandparents in Maryland. My mother’s father was the minister of our church; my father’s father a retired dairy farmer in Nebraska. Many people will have a preconceived notion of what it is to be Mennonite – and I will likely disappoint them. I grew up in a modern household, yes with electricity and (gasp!) a TV. The greatest legacy that the church left with me is a strong moral imperative to care for those who are less fortunate than I am, and a strong ethic for caring for this earth that we have inherited. I identified early in life that food is the most direct medium by which most people in the modern world interact with the natural environment on a daily basis. It is the only place where we pay directly for services that are provided to us by the soil. And I still love the smell of freshly cut hay; the rich smell of cows and milk and manure that bring me back to childhood excursions around the dairy. So, I have ventured into agriculture. My father at times has both seemed chagrined to see me returning to a career and lifestyle that he worked hard to leave; and at other times eager to share with me his experiences and memories from a coming-of-age on the farm.
I am not a farmer, though many of my career choices have lead to me doing research on farms. Farming is a hard and very risky business. The profitability of an entire year’s worth of work can be determined by the whims of the weather during a few short weeks. Even if a farmer isn’t exporting on the international market, the global market can compete at home and make a family business that has been operating for generations unprofitable. Aside from financial risk, farming is one of the professions with the highest rate of on-the-job injury because of the long hours of work and heavy equipment it requires. I was once loading squash into a bin that was being hauled on the front of a tractor; as I was leaning over the side to put an armload of squash in the bin, the operator accidentally knocked his controls causing the pneumatics to buck and knock me backwards with bruised ribs. All in all, I have avoided farming because the risks scare me. I have tremendous respect for the people who take on this challenge in spite of the weaker insurance programs for farmer workers than are available for many lower-risk desk jobs.
Unfortunately, our ecosystems are deeply threatened by our global civilization. Much of this threat comes from land-use conversion and degradation. Many people blame agriculture, and the ethical imperative to fix the societal-scale environmental problems are foisted onto the shoulders of the already burdened farmer. This is a trap. The farmer needs to make a living just like everyone else. We should not hold them responsible for our own excessive consumption. But this does not mean that farmers are not responsible for their own decisions on how to manage their land. We are all responsible, together. And so, we must solve the problem together.
I think of farming as one of the few places where everyday people can make a very significant positive impact on a global problem, and this brings me hope. Farms can function as intact ecosystems. In many ways we know how to do this already. The question that I spend my time studying is how we can get farms to function as intact ecosystems and still meet the needs of our global civilization? We will need to create markets that do not currently exist; create novel production systems; find synergies between ecological processes and human needs; and create an economic space where transitioning to these new methods is not risky for the farmer, but just makes good business sense. I believe this is possible. Nothing here is unprecedented; a decade ago few people carried a small personal computer in their pockets. Now virtually everyone has a smart-phone. I hope that in just a few decades people will take it for granted that much of our food comes from perennial systems. For now, there is a lot of work to do to make this possible.