Farming: A Dirty Truth

Farm, southern Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

These days it’s common for in-crowd folks to adopt trendy and overused lingo. Maybe you’ve noticed that we don’t have towns or cities anymore. We have “communities.” “Problems” have been banished in favor of “challenges.” Once upon a time there was a notion of “truth.” Now everybody apparently has “their truth.” Perhaps related is the frequently asserted idea of one’s “lived experience.”  (As opposed to watching a movie one supposes.)

An inflexible Truth: Humans on planet Earth confront a more or less central issue. Heat generating mammals of our sort require regular energy inputs to maintain that Goldilocks-Style 98.6 F body temperature and propel our life functions. So we eat—— regularly if we can.

Since there seems to be food in grocery stores currently, questions of food production and the resources required seem….. well….. boring and peripheral. With Oprah’s MeghanLament sucking all the oxygen out of the media room, something as mundane as soil health is unlikely to gain altitude in the Twitter-verse.

But the Maine legislature is virtually in-session. On March 4th the Agriculture Conservation andForestry Committee had a public hearing on LD 437, An Act to Establish the Maine Healthy Soils Program. Most states have either passed such legislation or have related bills drafted.

Monday’s (3/8/21) Portland Press Herald led its related editorial with the sentence, “When it comes to farming, it all starts with the soil.” Farmers understand the critical importance and life-sustaining essence of productive soil, but for many eaters, it’s just dirt. Looking at a soils map of the small city where I live, it’s clear that much of the prime agricultural soil has already been terminally converted to housing, commercial/industrial development, gravel pits, landfills, or cemeteries. There’s still some left, but the current draft comprehensive plan finds that agriculture and forestry “play a relatively minor role” here, and at this point it’s not likely that these resources will be given much thought. Back in Sociology 101 I was taught that southern Maine was destined to be part of the Boston Megalopolis.


The political class here just can’t wait.

While farmers understand that soil quality is critical, the brutal economics of farming make it difficult to husband the soil as well as the crop. Many years ago, in “The Unsettling of America” Wendell Berry observed that “It is estimated that it now costs (by erosion) two bushels if Iowa topsoil to grow 1 bushel of Iowa corn.”

While there are many who apparently live in hope that various technological fixes will deliver boundless “clean” energy, suck excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (saving us from extinction), and develop other means of feeding the 7 billion people currently residing here on the 3rd stone from the sun; color me skeptical. Lately, local influencers have been blithely referring to hydroponic “grow facilities” as “farms.”

Organic Crops Specialist (and former MOFGA staffer) Eric Sideman once wrote, “If humans ruin the soil on Earth, then hydroponics will be very important. And if Earth’s human population continues to grow as it is, all farmland may be occupied….. and soilless production will be necessary.”

But we’re not quite there yet, maybe. In addition to providing calories for the food deserts we call cities, healthy farm and forest soils also contribute to a climate solution——if there is one. They, and the living things they nourish, absorb carbon from the atmosphere and hold it.

At the nation’s founding most colonials were dirt farmers. Up until a few generations ago most of the population had grown up on farms of one sort or another. But we’ve lost those connections to the land now, and have only the most tenuous understanding of natural systems and the web of life. The deep thinkers speak of “environmental services” provided to us by the natural world. It’s all very human-centric, and spectacularly misses the point that we are only one of the co-evolved species with whom we share this world, for good or ill.

There was some testimony against LD 437, mostly centering on the State’s playing a role. Reagan, and Rush built careers telling people that the government wasn’t the solution, it was the problem. The New Deal farm programs like parity pricing and the Ever Normal Granary sponsored a golden age of 20th century agriculture. That legacy has been forgotten. Now we’re told we cannot have a universal public healthcare system either, or free college educations for our kids, a universal flu vaccine, or the polar icecaps.

We’ll see.


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