Books, Kenya, The Farm

On Agriculture

I started a very small farm at my house in Kenya because I was excited about being more self-sustained and also because I plan to use what I learn when I get back to the United States. I know vegetables aren’t by any means expensive here in Tala, but it’s the principle of the matter! A bonus is being able to control the inputs to my little ecosystem; which means all my crops will be “organic.” Well, I was pretty excited about my endeavors until I came across a passage in Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce. On page 20:

All present agriculture, whether it is slash-and-burn or sod-breaking, involves the reversion of a climax system to a pioneering one.

“Holy shit,” I thought, “he’s right.” Here’s an excerpt from earlier in the paragraph giving some background:

In immature [pioneering] systems, most energy is used to create new growth, so that bare soil is quickly covered. In a climax system, the greater part of energy is devoted to the continuation of the existing plant and animal communities, since all of the ecosystem is, in fact, colonized and inhabited.

It was only when I read this passage that I realized how far-reaching this idea is. With agriculture we not only remove weeds often, but we completely re-till the soil after we harvest our crops; and this is if we’re using “organic” farming. In fact, most of the developed world also uses a cocktail of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and resource-hungry farming machines. This destroys the “natural” pioneering system and allows our crop of choice to spread quickly. We effectively create and re-create a pioneering system with our planting and tilling cycle each season, thus blocking the progression to a mature/climax system.

I believe humans have long been “hunter-gardeners” (Daniel Quinn, The Story of B), promoting the growth/regrowth of our favorite foods. What we practice now, full-time farming, is different. Picking mangoes or bananas off a tree in a natural forest is one thing, but clearing an acre of land to plant only mangoes is another. In “totalitarian agriculture,” as Daniel Quinn calls it, all competition with your crops must die: weeds, other crops, foxes, birds, etc.

Like I said, it wasn’t always like this (remember “hunter-gardeners“). People often think humans had always farmed, but the domestication of plants and animals is commonly believed to have begun only around 10,000 or 12,000 years ago. At the time this was a new concept in the “fertile crescent” (modern day Egypt, Palestine, Iraq…). We’ve come a long way in 10,000 years, but I think that if all agriculture and civilization has brought us is tall buildings, Playboy, and McDonald’s… I’d willingly give it up to live in a world where we did not live at odds with nature, constantly wrestling it to do our bidding.

Can we go back? Probably not. Will I stop farming? No. And I’m positive Paul Hawken will provide some solutions in this book, but I don’t even need to read them to know that that the world won’t listen. Where do we start? I think people sometimes say “information is power,” but I feel even more powerless knowing this stuff. I guess that other adage of “ignorance is bliss” is probably more appropriate.

I’d like to end with a quote from the Planet of the Apes (1968), as it seems fairly relevant to the mood:

Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn. Alone among God’s primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother’s land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him; drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death.

4 Comments to “On Agriculture”

  1. Found your website through facebook-spying! :) So inspired by your stories about Kenya as well as the gardening… I’ve got a little herb garden of mine going (haha, nothing compared to crops, but it’s a start!). Hugs and muchos saludos from Spain! Take care and looking forward to hearing more.

  2. For a moment there I was excited about someone loving agriculture. Then you became disappointed. If you become too conflicted about it ,try aquaphonics. There will be no touching of soil and it’s ecologically efficient.

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