Sunday, January 26, 2014

Cry, California

The annual EcoFarm conference, which we attend biennially, took place last week. On the way down to Pacific Grove, we drove 100 miles of the Interstate 5 corridor, past vast acreages of almond trees. On the way back we noted a change - thousands of pallets of bee hives had been delivered and parked on the edge of the orchards. That means that blossoming is just days away, fully 8 weeks before the spring equinox.

The enormous monocultures of almonds in the San Joaquin Valley leave no room for biodiversity - no hedgerows, no remnant patches of native flora, thus no native pollinators. The almond trees are 100% dependent on honeybees for pollination, and the value of the pollination service is such that 90%-plus of the honeybee hives in North America are lured to the valley while the almonds are in bloom. Some have speculated that the stresses of transport, the sharing of parasites, and the restricted diet while on almonds have been a factor in the the widespread collapse of bee colonies across the country.

"EcoFarm" - the 34th annual - was as always both inspirational and overwhelming, an intense, compressed learning experience and large social gathering.

We return to just-opening blossoms on our earliest apple, pictured above, and to continued dryness which will mean daily irrigation somewhere on the farm henceforth unless by some miracle we get significant moisture this winter. That possibility seems increasingly slim as dry day follows dry day.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

two degrees

I received in the mail earlier this week a very special gift from a thoughtful friend who's known me all of her young life - an inscribed copy of Wendell Berry's latest book. She's now a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry; he was there for a symposium. I've long hoped to meet Berry and doubt that will ever happen.

Berry is an author, activist, and farmer. His dozens of novels of the fictional Port William community chronicle six generations of rural small town and small farm life in Kentucky, doing so with a depth that astounds, an abundance of generosity, and a healthy dose of gritty realism. His poems are accessible, often spiritual, and frequently very moving. In his non-fiction, he focuses a pithy wit and keen analytical sense on the bloated target of modern culture in general and large scale industrial agriculture in particular. He understands the severity of the climate crisis and the enormous extent to which modern agriculture has contributed to that crisis.

Berry's most noted work of non-fiction is The Unsettling of America, published in 1977. It's a comprehensive critique of modern agriculture with its focus on mechanical efficiency, over-reliance on petroleum and petroleum-derived chemicals, abusive exploitation of animals, and obsession with monoculture. Berry connects the dying of the soil - through erosion, poisoning, and paving - with the loss of community at all scales of public life. A line from "Unsettling" -  The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all - could serve as epigram for the entirety of the Port Williams fiction.

Another quote from "Unsettling" captures both the wit and the thrust of Berry's critique:

Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commercial fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.
Reading Berry might be more fun if he were less right. He is right - profoundly and fundamentally so - and the world will catch up some day. There are glimmers, such as last month's United Nations Commission on Trade and Development report titled "Wake Up Before It's Too Late," concluding that small-scale organic farming is the only way to feed the world. 

We need, according to UNCTAD, "a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers." Without the hyphens and tech-speak, it could be Berry.

2014 is the International Year of the Family Farmer. 

Thank you, Maggie, thank you, Wendell, and Happy New Year to everyone!

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