This morning I read a disheartening Facebook status from a friend, she’s a sheep rancher who makes artisanal organic cheese:
“Last night i had to put down my favorite little lamb because my dog mauled her and today i had to put down my dog. Don’t tell me how peaceful farm life must be.”
There it was, a steaming pile of reality right in the middle of the blog post I was about to write. Still high from watching Dan Barber’s Ted talk: foie gras parable, I’d come up with a phrase to illuminate a theme in his talk on a new way to approach raising food: self-reinforcing magical-delight synergistic loop. You can tell I was ready to cook with gas… the light, intoxicating helium-laughing-gas kind. My friend’s heartbreaking losses poked a big hole in my bubble.
Dan’s talk was an artfully delivered sustainable farming/foodie wet dream. He flew to Spain to meet with Eduardo Sousa, a farmer and goose rancher who (according the French), makes the best foie gras in the world. Eduardo says his life’s work is to give the geese what they want. Its clear from Dan’s account that this family business yields not only exquisit results, but a way of life that takes sustainable farming into the terrain of partnering intimately with nature.
My friends post is a parable of the realities of farm life, but also it points to the realities of farm life in an industrialized farm economy where almost all of our ancestral farms collapsed long ago. Not only is she facing the uphill battle of starting a new risky business as a relatively young business woman, she’s doing so without the safety net of nearby ranchers who can infuse her endeavor with wisdom and assistance on a daily basis. She has advisers and supporters to be sure, but she is not living immersed in a community of supportive peers who are working through centuries old traditions.
Contrast this with Eduardo’s farm which has been focusing on animal husbandry techniques that rely on nature for guidance and sustenance since 1812. Yep, thats right, Eduardo’s family has been cultivating his land specifically as a sustainable habitat for geese to produce foie gras for about two hundred years, thats a lot of time to work out the stressful kinks.
Its obvious that Dan has drunk the cool-aide (he admits it himself!) According to him the foie gras is the best thing he’s ever tasted, it contains nuances (terroir) that make seasoning totally unnecessary. If Dan’s description of Eduardo’s frame of mind is accurate, its clear he is living in a self-reinforcing magical-delight synergistic loop. His ecstatic pleasure at his life’s work is so profound it encourages him to make choices that increase the sustainability and vitality of his land and livestock. He is not just working with nature, he’s creating symphonies with her, and falling in love with her over and over again.
So where is my friends self-reinforcing magical-delight synergistic loop? Slaughtering a lamb too young, putting down a dog thats gone bad is just part of that way of life. But I bet those pain points would become far fewer, and even be understood differently, if she weren’t having to start from scratch, struggling in a system and culture that works against her every day.
Last week I rediscovered Wendell Berry through his essay The Making of a Marginal Farm, he helped create the vision for the back to the land movement of the sixties and seventies. He made the rare choice of returning to the farm country of his childhood after becoming a college professor, buying a farm and developing sustainable ‘land healing’ practices well before permaculture came into being.
I do not use the word ‘healing’ out of context, its Berry’s own choice. I was surprised to find someone of that generation, of that level of academic standing using such a word. Despite its emotive qualities, Berry is very non-romantic in discussing his motives for buying a mistreated piece of land and spending a life time nourishing it. He plows the steep slopes of his land with horse teams because they’re too steep for tractors. He measured the feet of soil lost for lack of care and initiated a practical program to remedy it.
“A destructive history, once its understood as such, is a nearly insupportable burden.”
If you backed Berry into a corner, he’d probably confess to a deep love of the land, one that touched the spiritual. When you crack open this case, the one that contains the heart of a farmer who does right by the land, you find a romantic glowing being with an instinctive sense of the sacred. He found his self-reinforcing magical-delight synergistic loop. It required a professors salary to support it.
How do you de-industrialize a food system and make it possible for a supportive farming culture to evolve in a tough, competitive market? Berry had to approach things in ecological time, something almost impossible for a startup business to do in todays world. Still the answer for my friend, the answer for all of us may lay there. That sits regally at the heart of Eduardo’s success, he works with nature, he treats his land as habitat not separate in any way from nature.
Eduardo’s foie gras requires no forced feeding (gavage), he simply works with the geese’s natural tendency to put on more weight before winter sets in. He maintains the genetic vigor of his flock by providing such a welcoming environment for geese that wild geese visit, stay a while, breed with his flock and then continue on in their migration (as Dan can attest, he and Eduardo hid beneath a bush and giggled like children as a new flock arrived). Eduardo and his family have conjured and cultivated goose nirvana.
What if our efforts to restore wilderness always included some form of sustainable food production? What if wilderness restoration meant taking over a corporate farm and formulating a 100 year plan to restore it to its sustainable habitat, both as a farm and wilderness? We need to protect our sustainable farmers and ranchers, the way we protect our remaining wilderness so that they might one day become goose nirvana’s. We need to understand that truly sustainable farms rely on wilderness and at their best are intimately interwoven with wilderness. We need to understand that our food supply goes hand in hand with our wilderness and vice versa.