By PETER SCHUTT
Americans born in the 1950s and 60s may be the last generation to understand the meaning of the term “home place” – the original home built on a family farm. Until the latter part the 20th century, most farms had home places – or at least the remnants of home places.
Some of these family farms would’ve been small spreads, the size determined as much by the character of the land as by the monetary wealth of the family. In the hills of middle and east Tennessee or the Ozarks in Arkansas, home places would’ve been more modest than, say, in the Mississippi Delta, where sprawling plantations were more common.
Anyhow, regardless of the size, home places were, well . . . home. Home to successive generations of families who, in varying degrees, had a love for the land and called it home.
I remember the warm feeling of some of these places from my youngest days in the 1950s and 1960s. My brother, dad and I would walk the fields and briar patches hunting quail, then we’d be invited in to the farmers home place to warm by the fire and tell stories. I don’t think we even turned on the TV.
During this time, unbeknownst to me, America was fast becoming urbanized; when I was born in 1950, 20% of the populus lived on farms. By the time I was grown, only 2% did. In the span of a couple decades, farming had taken on the aura of a second-class career by most “educated” folk.
And so was lost the ideal of home place.
We became mobile – upward mobility was, and is, the aim of higher education. Our economy morphed from a market of small businesses into what is now basically a financial system – the marker of success less about doing good work than making as much money as possible, with less regard about the means than the end.
Sons and daughters of farmers, then, were encouraged both at home and at school, to “go off” to college, get a degree and pursue a career. The idea of coming home, or “homecoming”, was lost. If you went to college, you pursued a career based mainly on pay, regardless of where the career took you. You probably didn’t think about your home place.
Today, as father of three sons who I have tried to raise to value home, land and nature’s economy, it is hard to compete with the teaching in high school and university that we now live in a “global economy”. That there are big solutions to “global” problems such as poverty, disease, injustice, etc., when in reality, there are no such big solutions.
On the contrary, there is need for revolution, not big solutions. And all importantly successful revolutions start at home, in local communities. The brave, truth-speaking Pope Francis recently challenged people of faith: “A Christian who is not a revolutionary today isn’t a Christian,” he said.
Though American history taints the word revolution with violence and bloodshed, revolutions need not be violent. Some effective revolutions today might include:
- refuse to buy herbicides that poison the land
- refuse to buy foods that are produced on the backs of poor people, or are grown using toxic chemicals
- buy food, clothing, etc., produced locally – at farmers markets or Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs
- grow a vegetable garden, no matter how small
- learn something about nature, every day
- make it a point to have a family meal, homecooked, at home
- read “The Unsettling of America”, by Wendell Berry
America has come to depend on a food system wherein the average serving of meat, grain or vegetable travels about 1,500 miles before it reaches our plates. Whether the disappearance of concept of “home” is a cause or effect of this broken food system, the fact remains that until we value and honor the land and our homes, we will be stuck with a system that poisons the land and our bodies; less than neighborly neighborhoods and an economy based on random consumerism and large amounts of personal debt.
We can do better, and it all starts at home.
By PETER SCHUTT
I love to hunt wild ducks in Arkansas – it’s what I grew up doing starting in the early 1960s. When I say “love” I think I really mean love in the deepest sense, as the cypress and oak bottoms along the St. Francis River were pretty much pristine back then, and the killing of the ducks in hindsight was secondary to being alone in that beautiful setting.
It was still a time when, all along the road we drove to the hunting grounds, I recall seeing black people lined up in November cotton fields, picking by hand and stuffing the white stuff into huge bags slung over their shoulders. Probably working for pennies a day, they at least were making some sort of a living and able to feed themselves. Their old tenant houses weren’t fancy, but they all were in the country, near nature and their work.
The cotton mostly went to Memphis, where it was graded, sorted and traded on Front Street. I had family and my family had many friends in the cotton business. It was some fashion of a local farm economy.
Likewise, lots of our vegetables came from local “truck” farms. Mama would go to the “Curb Market” on Scott Street to get seasonal produce. She would know, personally, the farmers who grew the best tomatoes or butter beans. She would look them in the eye and smile and love what they sold her; and she appreciated the experience.
Not much of what we ate back then came from Mexico or Florida, other than citrus. In fact, for many years there were local truck farmers, especially in West Tennessee, who grew vegetables not only for the local market, but also for PictSweet in Brownsville, which bought, flash froze and packaged them for distribution.
Nowadays, most all the vegetables processed by PictSweet come from Mexico. Haywood County locals couldn’t compete with the low prices of Mexican produce so they went on to something else. It’s all about the price you know.
Most people today don’t know from whom or where the food they eat comes. They don’t think about where the money they spend on food ends up or where the farmers who grow the food live or who they are.
Today, I make pretty much the same drive to go duck hunting. Now, driving through Arkansas in the fall and early winter is like driving through a deserted wasteland – there are no people anywhere. The field hands have been replaced by large tractors and attachments that do the work of dozens of men, using only one driver. That driver sits in a climate controlled cab, and the machine is guided by a GPS system.
The tenant houses are gone or nearly so. The farm workers have moved away – mostly far away. Farming towns such as Cotton Plant, Hickory Ridge, Cherry Valley, etc., are either ramshackled and mostly deserted. The St. Francis River and other drainages have been “controlled” by elaborate dredged canals that get flood water off the woods and fields as fast as possible.
The former field hands of the 60s, one would think, have a better life now that they’re out of tenant houses. But drive thru some of the remaining farm communities like Cotton Plant or Jonestown or Tunica, and see the living conditions the descendants of these folks enjoy today.
Of course, cotton fields have mostly given way to corn, soybean and rice. The cotton trading on Front Street in Memphis is gone. The corn, beans and rice get loaded on barges and shipped to granaries, or ethanol plants or feed lots. And so on.
Practically none of the crops grown in our area are in any way part of a local food supply.
Farms are now industrial size and farmers are now agribusinessmen. The land is just a growing medium, there to take “inputs” ranging from toxic herbicide and pesticide to chemical fertilizers. There are no earthworms or dung beetles or much of any life in the millions of acres of “row crop” land in the South, or Midwest.
Farmers work pretty much isolated from the people who consume what they grow. I don’t think I’ve met a one who has had someone look them in the eye and tell them how good their corn or soybeans are. Farmers in agribusiness more or less work for the banks and the seed and chemical companies. The price they get paid for what they grow is determined by traders far away from the Mid South.
The farmers are the least compensated part of a far-from-local food system.
By contrast, at Winchester Farm we are making good progress towards being an integral part of the local food system, although we are not there yet. For example:
- – All our cows are born on the land and fed off the land. We don’t have to buy much feed.
- – We don’t owe any bank for the equipment we use. In fact, most of our tractors are 30 years old and were made in Memphis. When they break, we fix them on the farm.
- – Our employees all eat some of what is grown on the farm. They are all from the local area. They have had people who buy our food tell them how good it is.
- – When something does break on the farm, we usually buy recycled parts, or use local repair companies.
- – We sell our meat and eggs locally. Local people eat the food. The money we receive goes to support the farm.
- – Our land is not just a medium for applying various poisons to it, in order to “increase our yields”. Rather it’s a living, connected system, full of earthworms, dung beetles and other life.
In other words, as John Muir described a hundred years ago, when we try and identify one part of our land community, we find that it is attached to every other part of our land community.
No one on our farm is alone. We are all together.
The Evil “M”pire
By PETER SCHUTT
Over the past several weeks, we have been struggling to connect the dots as to why the forage value of our hay hasn’t been improving like it should, while also our mama cows have not been not coming into breeding season like they have in the past; and that our laying hens for months have dropped production by 80%.
How can this be? We haven’t used chemicals on our farm for almost 10 years. We have applied copious amounts of ground limestone to all our pastures and cropland. Our cows have been dispersing manure and urine all over the farm, adding natural nutrients to the soil. Our soil IS getting healthier – we’ve seen native grasses like switchgrass, bluestem and white clover return to our pastures. And nightcrawlers are showing up in great masses in some pastures.
So what’s up?
Let’s go back about 8 years, when during the winter, about a dozen of our Tennessee Walking Horses suddenly began dying, apparently due to the inability of their digestive systems to break down the hay we were feeding them. We did everything we could – had a vet come and force natural clay and salt down their throats to try and absorb any toxins in their guts. Nothing helped.
We sent a couple of carcasses to universities around the South for autopsy, and we sent tissue samples. No sign of bacteria, virus or disease! It was a mystery to the experts. The only commonality was that the food in their stomachs was totally undigested.
Here, let me say that the scientific method is pretty simple: you formulate a hyposthesis, fashion an experimental method, do research and try to deduce whether your hypothesis is valid or not.
At Winchester Farm, we have been forced to adopt the hypothesis that somehow, glyphosate is a major factor in the health of our farm’s plants and animals. One would think that almost 10 years without applying glyphosate would be plenty of time for any residue to leach out of the soil. Or is that enough time? Surely someone has studied the lifecycle of the chemical, given its widespread use.
Well, turns out that in the past 15 years almost no science has been done on the effects of glyphosate on animals that are fed grains or hay containing glyphosate – at least none by U.S. labs, most of which are in universities! The reverse is true in Europe, however; in one study I just read, the author (in Germany) cited 59 other studies and papers written recently on the subject. Not one was from the U.S.
The most disturbing impact that has been found by European scientists is its effect on bacteria, particularly beneficial bacteria in the digestive systems of livestock, birds and humans.
The early studies on glyphosate done in the US claimed that when applied once to vegetation, the chemical broke down quickly (a few weeks) in the soil, and that lab animals fed smallish concentrations of it for a few weeks showed no ill effects.
But that was 20 years ago. Since then, farmers generally have had to dramatically increase the number of applications and increase the concentration of glyphosate in order to kill weeds. (Even with area farmers using four to six applications of glyphosate per growing season, several common weeds in our area have become immune to the chemical!) All the while, more and heavier doses of glyphosate enter the soil, get washed into waterways by rainfall and irrigation and disperse into the air.
The results of a recent paper published in the Journal of Organic Systems, 9(2), 2014 showed that since the introduction of GMO seeds in 1996 the amount of glyphosate used on crops in the US has increased from 27 million pounds in 1996 to 250 million pounds in 2009 (US Geological Survey pesticide use maps, 2013). Charles Benbrook (2012) showed that there was a 527 million pound increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011.
The paper quotes a 2012 study as follows:
“The connection between glyphosate and chronic disease has been outlined in a recent review paper by Samsel & Seneff (2013a). The authors show how glyphosate disrupts the metabolic process by interfering with the Cytochrome P450 (CYP) pathways. The CYP is known as a super-family of enzymes that are present in most tissues of the body. They are responsible for around 75% of the reactions involved in drug metabolism and the oxidation of organic molecules. According to the authors, “glyphosate enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins. Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body. Here, we show how interference with CYP enzymes acts synergistically with disruption of the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids by gut bacteria, as well as impairment in serum sulfate transport. Consequences are most of the diseases Swanson, Leu, Abrahamson & Wallet Journal of Organic Systems, 9(2), 2014 ISSN 1177-4258 10 and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.”
At Winchester Farm, we have neighbors on all sides of our pastures who farm conventionally and probably use glyphosate. Through the years, our reputation has spread, and they all know that we are chemical free. While some may not understand why we eschew glyphosate and other chemicals, in the long run they will.
We have found a lab that will test the hay and grain grown on our farm for traces of glyphosate. It’s not cheap, but as we work through our scientific method, at some point we will do some tests.
We’ll keep you posted!
In the meantime, it is now clear that Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Bayer Crop Science and probably others, are unleashing a new herbicide to replace glyphosate in the agribusiness world. It is reportedly much more lethal on the super weeds that have become immune to glyphosate.