Monday, August 24, 2009

Groping for alternatives--more on the search for solutions

Selaginella densa (little club moss) growing on native mixed-grass prairie

Craig Larson, who lives (and writes a couple of fine blogs: Haskap Wine and Native Shores) on a farm in the Swan River Valley, Manitoba, and raises hay, lamas, and haskap berries, sent me an email about the three questions I left at the end of the last post.

He said “No one has so much as given me the time of day when it comes to thinking alternatively to my procedures here - I'm seen as an oddity just being organic. My local extension officer won't even talk to me when we meet.” Craig went on to describe the provincial government’s offers to help him market his haskap berries and said that they assume they have better ways “to access agri-industry so that I can become wealthy (the latest marketing seminary to be put on by Manitoba is entitled 'Show Me The Money' - gag). It's all marketing...smoke and mirrors.” He closed by saying, “Personally I think that an independant system needs to be started by people who will not compromise - but then you get ideological types in there as well and the next thing is that everyone is held hostage to principles again.”

There’s a lot to think about in the experience of any one person trying to grow food in ways that conserve some of the natural values of the farm. Often their troubles begin when they engage with the government and non-government agencies that either try to help farmers grow and sell their produce or minimize environmental degradation caused by intensive land use.

I wonder if the problem, though, is not the agencies and programs, which after all are trying to help reduce the chaos and mop up some of the mess, but something larger at work. Craig’s word “independent” may be important here. Cattle producers depend upon, are at the mercy of, an industrialized beef-fattening, slaughter and processing system that most of them would not choose if they had a choice. The two or three large corporations running that system are not evil; they are just doing what corporations do—maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. We can’t expect them to do otherwise, any more than we’d expect a wolf to give up killing for a living. It is a big system, though, and it holds all the cards—including government approval and support—so any independent alternative would have to grow slowly over a long time frame.

photo by Karen Herriot

Who has the incentive to undertake such a big task? I can think of at least three elements that would have to come together to transform or circumvent the existing system of growing food in grassland ecosystems: farmers and ranchers who to varying degrees would like to make a reasonable profit and produce healthy food without having to draw down the ecological resources of their land; consumers who to varying degrees would like to be able to buy healthy food grown in ways that conserve the ecological resources of the land; and naturalists, scientists, and nature advocates who want to conserve and restore grassland ecosystems.

Together, these three interests are going to have to grope for new and better ways of bringing food to our tables, with some help from more visionary NGOs, but not likely from any institution or agency that is caught up in the mainstream of agriculture and economic growth. Driven by honourable goals, we will likely get impatient and justify less than honourable means to get there and that will take us down some blind alleys. In the end, if any progress is made it will be through patience and ensuring that the means we use are congruent with and worthy of our vision of restoring and conserving the integrity of the prairie and its natural biodiversity.

The model on this journey is Wes Jackson and his Land Institute in Kansas. Wes is in it for the long haul as he searches for permaculture that will work in growing perennial and sustainable grassland crops. Anyone trying to use grazing in ways that will conserve and restore healthy grassland ecosystems has to adopt the same moral, patient, and uncompromising vision.

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