Wednesday, June 10, 2020


When I was serving the Unitarian Fellowship in Saskatoon, it was a small place that rented it’s space to folk-dancers and a group of progressive farmers.  I liked to attend the meetings of the latter, though I wasn’t a farmer.  (Some did “prove up” the new Yukon Gold potatoes in the backyard.)  They were young, vigorous, full of energy, and made the space pulse with ideas.  I don’t remember what the name of their organization was but their kind persist on Twitter, people like James Rebanks in England, Great Alone Cattle in the US, and Stuart Somerville in Alberta, CA.

The context is reconciliation of the traditional ways of using the land with the Procrustean demands of the industrial revolution.  Searching the world for crops that can fit the soil and rain levels of where they are, they find themselves having to reinvent the mega-machines of modern corporate farming of monocrops. One amusing story was about a very tough and thriving plant that was grown on a few acres as a test crop, but grew entwined together so densely that there was no way to harvest it -- no paths between rows.  One could grab one side of the field, shake it hard, and make the whole field rock and roll.

Nor do they neglect the cutting edges of science in several contexts: animals and plants in terms of their genomes, the way they relate to each other, how they are sustained by the soil and the climate, how they group and move and eat, how we husband them, and how we profit or simply survive.  Farming and ranching are intricate work dependent on careful observation and sometimes extreme effort.  The smallest bits, insects and viruses, can be a major force.

In the beginning we were gatherers of plants or maybe carrion, then we learned to hunt, and finally became pastoralists, roaming with herds of domestic animals.  Once we became sedentary, we became farmers and ranchers, and our relationships to everything changed.  It was emotional as much as practical.

We set about replacing the interactions that had gradually evolved over aeons — bison and certain grasses — with our own plans, which were often derived from what worked in Britain — cattle and corn.  Once the indigenous people were starving for lack of bison, sheep were introduced.  For a while the flocks were successful but they worked better for the Navajo. Then the focus moved to cattle and then the problem was the climate.

This is wheat country.  One of the first “improvements” allowed by irrigation was growing alfalfa that could be baled and fed in winter.  A remarkably deep-rooted, hardy and tenacious plant, it is perennial for a few years before needing to be reseeded.  Also, it has many nutritious qualities but it is the worst weed in my yard, seeds blown off trucks.

But many other changes were made to wheat itself, breeding them for better performance either by meddling with the genome or the old-fashioned selection and cross-breeding methods that are part of farming. Wheat was bred to have shorter stems and to eliminate the hollow center that could house insects.  In the process the nutritional advantages were lost and allergenes were acquired so that an industry grew up around the exclusion of “gluten.”  “This protein complex supplies 75-85% of the total protein in bread wheat. It is found in related wheat species and hybrids, (such as spelt, khorasan, emmer, einkorn, and triticale), barley, rye, and oats.” (Wiki)  

“Gluten ataxia, an autoimmune disorder, affects certain nerve tissues and causes problems with muscle control and voluntary muscle movement. Wheat allergy, like other food allergies, is the result of the immune system mistaking gluten or some other protein found in wheat as a disease-causing agent, such as a virus or bacterium.” (Mayo Clinic)  Some people who can’t tolerate modern strains of wheat can happily eat early kinds, like emmer wheat if they can find someone who raises it.

In terms of livestock, even chickens, it is proven that free-range animals as compared to those from feedlots are free from the infectious gut dwellers that accumulate inside them as well as the antibiotics used to prevent illness in the animals and then consumed by customers. The industrial revolution encourages gathering individuals into crowds that can be treated all one way repetitiously by low-pay employees, right on through the slaughtering centers.  No poetry — just hard work that infects the workers, as demonstrated by the covid-19 patterns.  Only recently have we realized that migrating birds who move across continents and hemispheres can carry viruses to free-ranging pigs.

To address severe climate, livestock — including domestic bees — are trucked to milder climates in winter, but still are confined and forced to adapt to strange environments where their inner maps are disrupted.  They become even more dependent on human intervention, which may not be adequate or knowing.

The vigorous and resourceful group of people in Saskatoon found that one change required another.  For instance, moving from wheat to pulse crops (peas and beans) meant finding proper machines to harvest them, often in smaller fields where wheat machines wouldn’t even have room to turn around.  Smaller scattered acreage plots are left over after the corporate farms accrue vast swathes, so previously they went fallow until beginners and idealists began to make them work. They found smaller and better adapted machines in foreign countries. 

But then it’s necessary to convince a banker that the system will work. US and Canada are dominated by single overbearing concepts; thus the need for progressives to band together.  Consumers must also be convinced to learn to cook and eat the products.  Slowly this is happening as the well-traveled elites begin to be “foodies” and immigrants look for what they know.  Then the manufacturers must produce the necessary pots and kettles, the rice cookers and woks and shish-ka-bob skewers.  

All this is hard on farmers who have been taught to do the same thing in the same way every year because in the past that has yielded above average results.  It becomes even harder as the planetary climate change produces unexpected flooding, drought, temp change and wind. If machines that operate on energy (gas, oil, and chemical fertilizer) begin to be too expensive and their huge machines compact the soil too hard for roots to penetrate, the big hearty laughing people I used to love watching in Saskatoon will have arrived at their natural time to thrive, and so will their crops and animals.

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