People aren't PLANTS

I can well remember a Penn State horticulture professor’s regular classroom emphasis of his fascination with plants.  “Any living organism with roots,” he would say, “cannot get up and run away when conditions become unfavorable.  A plant absolutely must create a way to withstand whatever life throws at it, right in the very spot it sprouts.” 

While I do share a similar interest in the complexities of plant growth, my focus today will be going in quite the opposite direction.  People, much to my enthrallment, are not plants.  Quite in contradiction to this tremendous anatomical advantage, however, I have recently begun to notice a few traits of people that parallel plants.  We, dear friends, like to pretend we have roots.

Think of a farm.  What is the very first thing you pictured in your mind?  A barn.  Farms are represented entirely by images of the monuments we build for ourselves to show the neighbors how well we’re doing.

Mind you, I don’t necessarily have any issue with a building.  I certainly prefer our house over a tent, hay keeps better in a shed and sometimes a windbreak is all you need on a cold day, I get it.  Where my mind starts to grate a little bit is with our seemingly inseparable association of buildings with the quintessential agriculture landscape.

The problem with elaborate buildings is they create a dent in the plane of time into which we settle and stop moving.  They root us to both a physical location and an economic commitment.  Something I have noticed in my life is things tend to change quickly and time truly flies by (I’m told this escalates with every passing decade).  When a farmer chooses to invest a massive amount of capital into a specialized building two things happen: an emotional obligation to use the structure at all costs becomes prominent, and the edifice becomes obsolete relatively quickly.  Soon enough everything will need replaced, and it’s awfully expensive to throw new money into an old facility.

Furthermore, large infrastructure prohibits adaptability in regards to the productivity of a farm.  When prices go bad, a conventional farm will still be exactly what it always was because the owners simply cannot walk away from the elaborate system in place to produce the single crop they have specialized in growing.  These folks remind me of trees in a hurricane, bent over from the tremendous pressures of the world but completely unable to move to a sheltered location.  People are not plants; we are not designed to withstand constant torment when conditions change.

Here is where our human ability to think begins to shine.  Today we have brilliant portable electric fencing that enables us to herd our livestock around the landscape with ease.  Single wire fences for cattle are inexpensive, lightweight, and do not create a mental magnet on the landscape that pulls our attention away from the whole of our managed property; the needs of the land remain in focus instead of the upkeep required of a building.  Portable shelters make every corner of the farm a haven for pigs and chickens truly enjoy travelling about in pasture schooners.  We can put animals wherever we want them, adjusting quickly to weather and seasonal conditions whenever necessary.  To truly appreciate such freedom, try moving a barn the next time you are near one.

When things really go bad, herd size can be pulsed or eliminated entirely and the infrastructure adjusts accordingly.  A lot designed for 100 animals is at half capacity with only 50 and will not operate efficiently, exacerbating the problem, but a paddock size can be immediately redesigned for half as many animals and will continue to operate effectively at any stocking rate.  If cattle completely lose their profitability, the herd can be liquidated and replaced with a different species that utilizes the same pasture.  Freedom of management and the application of our wisdom are what make humans truly human.

Fortunately, consumer demand supports the exact model required to remain productive and profitable with limited infrastructure.  Fringe agriculture is enjoying insatiable demand for beef fattened on forage, eggs and chicken produced out on green fields, pork sourced from pigs free to roam and root, and grains grown from real soil fertility instead of chemical additives.  New farmsteads practicing such rearing protocols cannot be established fast enough and, believe it or not, there is burgeoning interest from young people who want to farm the new way.  Human sweat is replacing diesel exhaust on many thriving, artisanal farms across the country, a reality so bewildering many people do not believe it is true.

Interestingly, the most vehement opposition to changing tides is coming from the ‘wise men’ of agriculture, people who have roots into the past and cannot, or will not, break free from them.  Allan Nation frequently pointed out in his writings that nothing ever starts out as good as what it hopes to replace.  Grassland agriculture is experiencing turbulence as producers attempt to establish people-centric models, meet consumer demand, and bridge gaps between green season production cycles, and the status quo industry is using the rough edges as proof that new systems are flawed and will never work.  Keep in mind that, at one time, the wise men also proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that tractors would never be as reliable as a horse.  Let’s sever our roots and move boldly towards the future!