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book cover artI’ve been teasing you long enough with quotes from the essay collection Cultivating an Ecological Conscience by Frederick L. Kirschenmann, and now I have finally finished the book. You may or may not be happy to hear that depending on whether or not you have liked the quotes I’ve shared (microbes, GMOs, education). If you have enjoyed them, you may be interested to know you can read a few of the essays from the book and more recent ones that weren’t in the book courtesy of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture (The center has been in operation for 30 years and recently the Iowa legislature decided to eliminate it. However, the governor vetoed that portion of the bill. Sadly, while the center was not eliminated, its budget was, so unless they are able to find funding from other sources they will be closing their doors anyway.) Kirschenmann is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center as well as President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. He also is a professor of religion and philosophy.

What makes Kirschenmann and his writing so good is his philosophy and religion background. But he is not without the farming background either. He was raised on a farm in North Dakota and in 1976 he converted the family farm to a certified organic operation. But it is not just any organic farm. He developed a crop rotation system that enables his farm to be productive without synthetic inputs (fertilizers or pesticides – yes organic farms are allowed to use certain kinds of natural pesticides like BT which is actually a bacterium) while at the same time improving soil health (you’d be surprised how many farms do nothing to improve soil – that’s why they have to use so much fertilizer). Kirschenmann is a man who knows his stuff and he brings to the table a genuine ethic of care for farmers, food and the land. He is one of those big picture people who also knows the details and realities of a situation making his proposals and thinking realistic and possible and not impossible idealism from a clueless outsider.

The essays are organized into three sections. “Working at Home: Lessons from Kirschenmann Family Farms” focuses on Kirschenmann’s personal experience and also has a number of reflective essays about home, food, what being a good farmer means, and his vision of sustainable agriculture. Section two, “Cracks in the Bridges: Inspecting the Industrial Food System,” has essays that discuss why American agriculture as it is practiced is unsustainable, biotechnology (including GMOs), science, and ecological farming. There is also much in these essays about policy and economics and our relationship to food. The final section, “Envisioning an Alternative Food and Farming System,” proposes a future for agriculture much different that its current practice. There are discussions about farm cooperatives, land-use values, soil health, how humans feed ourselves, and revitalizing rural communities.

Admittedly some of the essays get deep into farm economics and can be ho-hum, but for the most part, they are full of wisdom, insight and love. They carry a sense of urgency too. While farmers do the work of growing our food, they are not solely responsible for how food is grown, what is grown, how it gets to market, or how much it costs. We, as people who eat the food that is grown are also responsible as are government and corporate interests:

Here is where farmers need to begin holding environmentalists and food activists to account. Farmers can’t change the infrastructure by themselves. Such changes must become the social agenda of all citizens. Farmers cannot adopt a greater diversity of crops unless there are markets for those crops, and there will never be adequate markets as long as 90 percent of food is manufactured from just four commodities. All eaters and food activists have a role to play in diversifying the food and farming system.

We have become disconnected from our food. As a society we have industrialized it and turned it into a thing that is manufactured instead of the relationship that it should be. If we want to change the way farmed animals are treated, if the idea of our food being manufactured from corn, soybeans and sugar makes us feel ill (and it does!), then it is up to us to stop buying the factory food. We don’t get to say, the industrial food industry is terrible something has to be done, while continuing to eat a bowl of Frosted Flakes and drinking a can of coke. What we buy at the grocery store or the farmers market makes a difference. And yes, I know there are many people in the US who don’t have choices because the cheap “food” is the unhealthy food and sometimes the only thing people can afford. But the cheap food is only cheap because it is heavily subsidized by the government (if it weren’t, a hamburger produced on rainforest land sitting on a US dinner table would cost $200). There is so much wrong it leaves a person wondering where to start making changes.

Kirschenmann asks,

How might food and agriculture transactions be transformed to enable people to become customers of local economies serving human interests, instead of consumers of global economies serving corporate interests?

There is no one-size-fits-all solution. What works for farms in North Dakota will not work for farms in Minnesota or Iowa. But there are solutions. Kirschenmann has found some and has been working for a couple decades to help others figure things out too. It is not a hopeless situation but it is something we all need to work on together instead of relying on someone else, not me, to fix it.

Allow me to leave you with one final quote, this one from the essay “On Becoming Lovers of the Soil”

I submit that becoming lovers of the soil is absolutely fundamental to the work that all of us are doing. Soil is the connection to ourselves. From soil we come, and to soil we return. If we are disconnected from it, we are aliens adrift in a synthetic environment. It is the soil that helps us to understand the limitations of life, its cycles of death and rebirth, and the interdependence of all species. To be at home with the soil is truly the only way to be at home with ourselves and therefore the only way we can be at peace with the environment and all of the species that are part of it. It is literally the common ground on which we all stand.

…Our arrogance may prevent us from acknowledging our tie to dirt…But the fact remains that we are tied to it. My friend John Pitney…has put it eloquently: ‘The fact that we are not now dirt is only temporary.’

This reminds me a bit of the sci-fi novel I read earlier this year, The Book of Joan and how Joan, who is aligned with the Earth and Nature, is called “Joan of Dirt” while her enemy, who destroys the Earth and lives on a space station, is called “Jean de Men.” And the nonfiction book I read not long ago, The Ground Beneath Us, covers some of these same issues but has a wider focus than farming.

If you are interested in food and agriculture issues, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience is a must read. If you don’t know anything about the issues or only a little, this book is also an excellent place learn.