News From the Farm | October 26, 2020

Verdant beauties graced by tender pinks!  Maria Grazia Romeo  —  

Outside the wind is howling on this Sunday evening, tonight gusts are expected somewhere near 50 mph. The massive Eucalyptus tree that hovers over the north side of our house is always a concern during powerful winds. Its huge boughs are each themselves an enormous tree. We sleep on the far side of the house out of respectful caution.  As I write here at the kitchen table, under that enormous tree I am thinking that if you are reading this at home dear customer, then I probably made it through -as did the tree.

I heard that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago so that one could be now enjoying the shade- while the next best time to plant a tree is today.  The act of planting a tree is one of hope and love with a bit of activism. It is part of asserting your hand in design for the future- a shady spot that, while it is absorbing heat and carbon, is also cooling and making a great location to build a kitchen under (for example). This tree outside the window was planted near 1900 and was seen bending to the right and left- touching the ground as it was roiled by the 1906 earthquake. It has provided a great home for tree house dwellers- kids with an occasional dog or small goat, rope swings, Northern Harrier hawks, visiting great horned owls and other avian migrators. It has also provided shade for a kids area during nearly 30 Hoes Down harvest festivals.  Long ago planting a tree became an act of love and foresight that we enjoy nearly 120 years later.

Reshaping the thinking about farming here at Full Belly has been central to the partners and hands here over 40 years . Back as far as 1980 we became committed to Organic as a principle that precluded what was seen as commonly accepted science and technologies for growing crops. By ruling out the use of certain tools- herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, GMO’S or generally synthetically compounded materials, the emerging practices of good organic farming were built upon the principles of minimizing harm; asking new questions about strategies for dealing with problems; diversifying the ecology of the farm with new thinking about integrated design; accommodating more layers of life in each field; building healthy soil and making healthy plants; integrating animals into our rotations; creating more beauty with flowering plants and year round habitat for pollinators;  thinking and enhancing the biological life that we have a hand in managing; and being open and transparent about what we do through clearer partnerships with our customers.  

Organic farmers were sometimes criticized as romantic dreamers who chose to invalidate all of the technological progress that had marked modern science by merging biology with chemistry on farm. We were the new Luddites- denying technology and choosing to again metaphorically smash the machinery of modern food production.  The accusation of being a Luddite became a pejorative term for those of us who would condemn half the world to starvation by being against technology. Perhaps this charge requires due consideration or perhaps what we have been doing, in making a productive farm, is designing balance between our biological constraints and ecological potentials.  Or perhaps being a Luddite has been misunderstood historically as ‘technological progress’ has continued to stretch its muscle dismissing other ideas as threatening or backwards….

In a 2011 Smithsonian Article (which I found with a google search), Richard Conniff writes about the Luddites:

“The label now has many meanings, but when the group protested 200 years ago, technology wasn’t really the enemy.”

In an essay in 1984—at the dawn of the personal computer era—the novelist Thomas Pynchon wondered if it was “O.K. to be a Luddite,” meaning someone who opposes technological progress. A better question today is whether it’s even possible. Technology is everywhere, and a recent headline at an Internet humor site perfectly captured how difficult it is to resist: “Luddite invents machine to destroy technology quicker.”

People of the time recognized all the astonishing new benefits the Industrial Revolution conferred, but they also worried, as Carlyle put it in 1829, that technology was causing a “mighty change” in their “modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” 

The original Luddites lived in an era of “reassuringly clear-cut targets- machines one could still destroy with a sledgehammer,” Loyola’s Jones writes in his 2006 book Against Technology, making them easy to romanticize. By contrast, our technology is as nebulous as “the cloud,” that Web-based limbo where our digital thoughts increasingly go to spend eternity. It’s as liquid as the chemical contaminants our infants suck down with their mothers’ milk and as ubiquitous as the genetically modified crops in our gas tanks and on our dinner plates. Technology is everywhere, knows all our thoughts and, in the words of the technology utopian Kevin Kelly, is even “a divine phenomenon that is a reflection of God.” Who are we to resist?

The original Luddites would answer that we are human. Getting past the myth and seeing their protest more clearly is a reminder that it’s possible to live well with technology- but only if we continually question the ways it shapes our lives. It’s about small things, like now and then cutting the cord, shutting down the smartphone and going out for a walk. But it needs to be about big things, too, like standing up against technologies that put money or convenience above other human values. If we don’t want to become, as Carlyle warned, “mechanical in head and in heart,” it may help, every now and then, to ask which of our modern machines General and Eliza Ludd would choose to break. And which they would use to break them.”

I have always resisted the characterization of Organic Agriculture smashing the machinery of “Modern Farming,” and have always sought to convey immense respect for all who farm- no matter what technologies they choose. And in the 40 years of growing Full Belly, we have seen Science re-evaluate the tools of Farming and begin to appreciate the change in design that may be critical to tackle the increasingly sterile, productive and empty rural landscapes, and the deep existential problems of climate change. 

Conventional farmers are now engaged in new conversations about cover crops, water conservation with improved soil biology, soil health, new farmer support, integrated design for greater environmental benefits while production remains high. As Organic farmers, we have been looking to re-charge the potential vitality of rural areas with a different design- choosing technologies carefully, questioning appropriate tools and rebuilding healthy integrated rural landscapes. Change is slow, evolving, and at times threatening to those who cling to either a vision of a great past, or a feeling that their very set of moral principles are being challenged. 

This next weeks election is often characterized as an irreconcilable dichotomy- Rural/Urban; government as the problem/ government as our common construction; conservative/liberal, truth and openness/fake news- we can see how simple dichotomies divide and are exploited by those who seek power asking us to choose and dividing us into one camp or another.  

The tree of democracy planted years ago can be swayed by powerful forces and can come crashing down if the winds are fanned too strong and moral imperatives become too rigid. The roots thrive best when both sides are listened to and understanding/empathy/right relationships nourish the whole. We are proud to be your farm and hope that our efforts are a source of your connection to the earth and all that we share as the gifts of a generous land.  Plant your tree, chose carefully and enliven your activist self.  

— Paul Muller