I filled him in on the "green" revolution and the shift from more sustainable agricultural practices of the past to the implementation of fossil fuel based farming. I went on and on about soil degradation and the state of clean water in this country. We talked food miles, farmer's markets and contrasted the states of agriculture in Cuba and North Korea following the fall of the Soviet Union. By the time we were finished I felt like we'd just read Dale Allen Pfieffer's book Eating Fossil Fuels, aloud- too loud as by this time we’d had a few beers! As this particular night carried on, we began to swing wildly from overly pessimistic predictions about the future of the human race to excessively optimistic forecasts of a shift to ecovillage living for all! We called it a night when we both convinced each other that the end of modern civilization was neigh! and that everything would be fine because those left would be small enough in number to survive on the ancient practices of hunting and gathering. Time to pay the tab.
In successive discussions I filled him in on more background information- more of the research I was doing for the book I would be writing. Mark always listened intently and offered ideas, comments, criticisms and general thoughts on the idea that the way we grow food and the way we eat food is way out of whack with the physical realities of planet Earth. He suggested that shortly, we’re in for a shift kick in the pants.
It had been several weeks since I had explained to Mark the idea of a lot of new farmers- 100 million new farmers in America- when he asked me to meet him for a drink so he could share a surprise. I was intrigued and, as always, ready to drink beer and talk about change. When Mark arrived he walked over to the table where I was waiting for him. He sat down, ordered a drink and wasted no time in sharing his news.
"So I bought a tractor," he said "and I'm going to be one of your new farmers." "One of my farmers?" I asked amused but slightly confused. "Your 100 million new farmers," he said, "now you only need ninety nine million, nine hundred and ninety nine thousand, and nine hundred and ninety nine new farmers to meet your goal."
Mark slowly filled me in on his plans. He lives out in the country on enough land to grow quite a bit of food. He thought more about our ongoing discussion concerning the future of agriculture and had decided to change the way he gets his food. It sounded reasonable- compelling even, so he had decided to start farming. And the very first step he took was to buy a tractor.
It's worth noting that the majority of the world's farmers don't have tractors. Most farmers worldwide don’t have enough land to warrant tractor ownership and they work their land by hand. The mechanized labor a tractor offers makes the most sense financially on larger tracts of land. But I listened as Mark described his new purchase, an old Massey Ferguson that sounded big enough to pull his house down. The tires needed replacing and also he needed to replace all the parts that had gone bad mostly from lack of use. This particular tractor had been sitting in the barn of a widow of nine years who couldn't quite bring herself to sell her husband's old iron icon of late 20th century farming. Mark bought it at a steal.
I knew how much land he had available for cultivation, about 2 acres total. And I knew that he was coming at this as a new participant in the movement of people growing more of their own food, which is a nice way of saying that he didn't know how to grow food but he was eager to learn. I could tell he was dedicated to the idea and I felt that supporting him including not pointing out that a tractor was neither necessary nor even a good idea given his circumstances. But I bit my tongue and he talked on.
The next time we got together I inquired about the state of his new farming adventure. He told me it was coming along nicely but slowly. He had purchased new tires and torn the engine apart. He had parts on order and had lined up someone to paint it all red once he was done mechanically overhauling his machine. I suggested that this sounded like a complete restoration project to which he replied that yes, it had taken on quite a life of its own. I asked if he was still going to grow food and he said yes, that was still his goal, but I got the feeling his shiny new restoration project was first and foremost on his list of things to do.
As spring progressed I didn't see Mark as much but often enough to hear about his tractor and its progress. It was up and running and he'd used it to plow a field and he had planted crops. I got a chance to see his garden on a day in late May. It was still rather barren with more red clay than green leaves but it was level and the surface smoothed. I asked about mulch and he suggested the tractor could help with weeds. He mentioned running a house form his house for general watering. I asked about cover crops and he mentioned planting all two acres in food he could eat. What with the state of industrial agriculture he could not be under prepared! I suggested that one person in charge of 2 acres worth of vegetables might find himself busier than he ought to be but Mark said he was counting on the tractor to help and on evenings after work and weekends to do most of his garden labor. I was impressed by his ambition.
The tractor meanwhile was a sight to behold. It was big enough and red enough to be driven proudly in a rural 4th of July parade. It had been restored to perfect working order and Mark showed me all he could do with his fancy renovated machine. My daughter thought it was great as Mark hauled her over to the garden from his home across the street. He pulled the neighborhood kids around on occasion and I admit to being a bit jealous of all he could do so quickly with a machine of such power- cut brush, plow soil, move mulch and more.
But over the coming months I watched as Mark's garden got away from him. It was too much for one man to keep up with on a part time basis. The tractor helped but it could not do all of the small labor of a vegetable garden- pick tomatoes and can them, put up bean trellises and keep the deer out of his corn.
But even as the food he was growing got out of control, Mark's love of his tractor grew. It was now a part of any standard visit to Mark’s house, a lap around the neighborhood on his tractor. He contracted for the construction of a small detached garage as a home for his tractor and I knew doing so had cost quite a bit of money.
In the end he did have quite a harvest that year- lots of corn and potatoes and beans. The tomatoes had come all at once and some sort of fungus had set in. The pumpkin patch was overrun with weeds that choked out the vines as borers set in to finish off his hoped for jack-o-lanterns. 15 pepper plants meant more than enough of those for a month or two but no time to dry them. He talked about getting a chest freezer for storage. And while I think my friend Mark had the best intentions, I know he spent an awful lot of money on seedlings and fertilizer and hoses, not to mention the tractor.
That was last year. This past year Mark didn't plant a garden. He had a self described "busy spring" and decided not to bother until next year. Besides he can still get out his tractor even if he isn't taking it into the field. And food is still so cheap. I've mentioned some easier, long term projects for Mark’s farm: cover crops and maybe building a small pond for rainwater harvesting and for keeping a few fish or maybe some fruit trees and bushes planted along the northern edge of his garden; some perennial crops he wouldn’t have to plant again every year. I don't push these ideas though. Mark is a busy man and open minded, but the kind who doesn't take well to pressure from others. He'll do it when he is ready.
I can't help but lament that idea of the tractor supplanting his mission. Mark set out to involve himself more in the process of feeding himself. But he got sidetracked by the allure of shiny farming tool. I don't think bad of him for his detour and I hope he'll return again to his idea of growing more of his own food. I have made my own agricultural mistakes in the past. I put too much under cultivation at first. I originally adopted the practices of row agriculture to the exclusion of other ideas. I didn't learn the value of sheet mulching for a few years and I still keep lousy records even though I know how valuable they can be. But I think Mark's pitfall hints at a greater hazard luring out there for would be converts to the newly anointed return to small scale farming. All of us, even those raised in very urban environments, have a notion about how farming happens. For many it's the idea of a white guy on a red tractor riding proudly over his 500 hundred acres.
But the truth is that's not what we're talking about when we suggest a return to small scale, sustainable agriculture and 100 million new farmers in America as a reasonable response to peak oil, climate change and widespread social injustice. There will be likely be a continuation of large scale industrial agriculture even as the resources support system that makes it possible breaks down over the coming decades. And there are already more and more people growing food and selling it locally with farmer's markets representing the largest growing sector of the food economy in America. Urban gardens, community gardens, even new victory gardens are beginning to pop up all over this country. Spurred by the higher price of food, a dissatisfaction with the industrial agriculture and its products, a longing to engage with others in one's neighborhood- plenty of reasons are driving change even while the existing system continues to lumber on. The pitfall I mentioned was the idea that agriculture in the future must look like agriculture in the past, that to grow food you need a tractor. Not only do you not need a tractor, but such a shiny trapping from the past might serve to distract you from learning what you really need to know in order to grow food effectively.
Moving forward we think it's worth suggesting that more people grow food, lots more people- 100 million more Americans actively participating in the growing of food in this country. Moving forward we don't expect the tractors to stop simultaneously as a new philosophy of food takes hold in this country and sudden and rapid transformation turns us into a nation of farmers. Real change is more messy and more chaotic and harder to label because it happens without a roadmap and sometimes seemingly devoid of human direction at all. It will serve us well, moving forward, to put aside our notions of who farms, how it's done and where people can and cannot grow food. The 21st century and its challenges will manifest themselves agriculturally in ways we can't accurately describe today. Being flexible, being redundant, and being willing to consider any alternatives to even the most seemingly useful ideas will be helpful in addressing the coming change. Good luck to all of us, tractors or no.