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Sustainable farming will require ways of thinking that are fundamentally different from the mechanistic, industrial thought processes that have dominated human thought for the past four centuries. Industrialization is the physical manifestation of a mechanistic worldview, which dates back to the seventeenth century, to the “enlightenment” and the birth of science. Rene Descartes, a Frenchman, suggested that the world worked like a large complex machine — specifically like a large clock — with many interrelated but separable parts. Sir Isaac Newton, an Englishman, built upon Descartes’ ideas and developed many of the fundamental principles of modern mechanical physics.
At first, the new principles of physics were used only in dealing with “non-living things” — inanimate materials, such as water, minerals, gases — as Descartes suggested was their appropriate use. Over time, however, scientists began to use the same principles to study and to manipulate “living things,” even “thinking things.” Today, modern science treats all things as if they were mechanistic, including living things — plants, animals, and humans. Muscles and bones are nothing more than a complex system of levers and pulleys, the circulatory system a complicated plumbing system with pumps and valves, and the mind, a sophisticated computer with electrical circuits and connections.
This mechanistic worldview has led to the many marvels of today’s world of science. It provided the conceptual foundation for the industrial era of human progress. Machines could duplicate, extend, and eventually replace the productive processes of nature. Factories could be built that would use machines, fossil energy, and human labor to transform various raw materials into useful finished products, much as nature uses plants and solar energy to transform minerals from the earth into food and fiber. People were no longer dependent on nature. They could manufacture the things they needed or wanted. They didn’t have to wait for nature to provide them.
The industrial era brought many benefits. It removed much of the drudgery from day-to-day life; it challenged the then constant specter of starvation, and it suppressed diseases and extended human life. Few would willingly choose to return to a pre-industrial world. However, in the past few decades, we have begun to realize that treating living things as if they were non-living has inherent negative consequences. In fact, nearly every social ill of today can be traced to the separation of people — the destruction of family and community, the domination of the masses by the few are all consequences of a specialized, standardized, centralized industrial economy.
Nearly every environmental problem confronting society today is a consequence of people becoming separated from the land, from the earth, then treating inherently diverse and dynamic natural ecosystems as if they were specialized, inanimate machines or factories. The economic problems that today confront individually owned and operated small businesses are all direct consequences of corporate consolidation of economic power and control, which has characterized the industrial era. And, nowhere are the social, ecological, and economic problems of mechanistic thinking more evident than on American farms.
A farm is a living organism — soils, plants, animals, people, all are living, growing organs. The social, ecological, and economic problems of American agriculture today are all direct consequences of treating the soil, plants, animals, and people as if they were separable, replaceable, mechanistic parts of some sort of sophisticated “biological factory.” The current “biotech craze” in the “life sciences” community is but the latest product of an outdated worldview that life is nothing more than a sophisticated mechanical process to be manipulated for economic gain. But a farm is a living organism made up of microorganisms, plants, and animals. And farmers are breathing, thinking, caring, living beings. Solutions to the current problems of American agriculture will require new ways of thinking — a new “living” worldview.
Living things are “self-making” — they have the capacity to grow and reproduce; dead things cannot. Machines are manmade; they are designed to perform specific functions to achieve a specific purpose. They may be well maintained, but all machines eventually wear out. Worn out machines must be discarded and may or may not be replaced. Living things are conceived, born, germinate, hatch, or otherwise come to life. As they grow and mature, they learn to perform various functions to fulfill their purpose in life. They may be well nurtured, but all living things eventually die. Before they die, however, living things have the capacity to reproduce — to regenerate their communities and their species.
Because they are self-making, living things are dynamic; they are ever changing, even though the pattern of a living thing, its DNA, remains unchanged throughout its life. A human is a human at all stages of life — whether it’s a bouncing baby, a strong mature adult, or a feeble “senior citizen,” it’s the same human, but ever changing in physical structure and appearance.
Living things are also holistic. If the various parts of our bodies were surgically separated and laid side by side on an operating table, our life, the essence of who we are, obviously would have been destroyed. Our life would be gone. Dividing an elephant into a dozen pieces obviously doesn’t result in a dozen little elephants. A living organism is more than the “sum of its parts,” living organisms are inseparable, holistic.
Farms are living organisms; they are regenerative, dynamic, and holistic. They are not machines or factories. If farming systems are to be sustainable, our ways of thinking about farming must reflect their regenerative, dynamic, and holistic nature. We must have the courage and wisdom to abandon the old, mechanistic worldview and adopt new, organismic ways of thinking about farming.
A farm represents a purposeful “organization” of resources — land, labor, capital, and management. The purpose of a sustainable farm must reflect its multidimensional nature, its economic, ecological, and social dimensions. However, a sustainable farm is not multipurpose. Its purpose is holistic, and thus, is not separable into sub-purposes. A farm cannot make more money, for example, without affecting the land and the relationships among people on the farm and in the community. Nor can a farm reduce soil loss or protect water quality without affecting its economic performance and its contributions to society. So, every decision made on the farm has economic, ecological, and social implications. Every farm thus should be organized with a definite purpose in mind that considers its economic, ecological, and social potential. An essential aspect of the purpose of all sustainable farms is permanence.
The principles by which a sustainable farm is operated constitute its conceptual DNA. Just as DNA defines the nature of a living organism, principles define the nature of a farm. The principles followed in managing a farm will determine whether it is capable of fulfilling its purpose. The number of principles should be sufficient to insure that, if followed, the purpose will be fulfilled, but not more than necessary to ensure the purpose. As humans, we want all of the genetic material necessary to ensure that we are healthy humans, but we don’t want anything extra. The fundamental principles of sustainable farming are those of economic viability, ecological integrity, and social responsibility. The specific principles by which individual farms are managed will be different, reflecting the uniqueness of the farm, the farmer, and the “community.” But to be sustainable, the principles of a farm must be both necessary and sufficient to ensure permanence — sustainability.
The definition of purpose and principles represents the “conception” of a farm. Once conceived, the farm is free to “come to life” — to emerge, to grow, to mature, to regenerate, and to evolve. Creating a living farm is not like building a factory, to be used, worn out and discarded or rebuilt. A living farm is conceived, comes to life, grows, matures, reproduces, and evolves — like a living organism. As farming takes from the soil, it rebuilds the soil; as it earns money, it reinvests money; as it demands personal commitment, it contributes to quality of life. It is dynamic, ever changing in its structure and appearance, but is ever constant in its purpose and principles. Farms also may evolve forward into marketing and distribution or backward into production of inputs. As a farm grows and matures, the farming practices, methods, and enterprises may change, but the farm that remains true to its economic, ecological, and social principles will remain true to its purpose and will be sustainable.
Old farmers eventually must be replaced by younger farmers; sick and worn down farms may be nursed back to life and health. But life in the soil and life on the farm must go on. If we allow living farms to die, they cannot be restored to life. A farm is not a machine that can be restarted or a factory that can be rebuilt. Once a life is gone, it is gone forever. Farming sustainably requires a different way of thinking about farming. We must have the wisdom to reject the old, mechanistic worldview, and the courage to challenge the conventional wisdom that a farm can be run like a factory. We must conceive new systems of living farms that will be capable of sustaining a regenerative, dynamic, holistic, living, human society.
About the Author:
Dr. John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, retired from the University of Missouri in 2000. He was raised on a small dairy farm, worked in private industry, and held several other academic positions, prior to returning to the University of Missouri. In the 80’s, John had a “conversion” of sorts after seeing the failures of the policies he had been advocating to farmers. He then reoriented his work toward agricultural and economic sustainability a means of supporting small family farms and rural communities. Since retiring, John has maintained an active speaking schedule and has authored numerous books and papers, many of which can be found at his university website: http://faculty.missouri.edu/ikerdj/ . John is recognized as a longtime leading voice in the sustainable agriculture movement.
Learn with John Ikerd this December!
John Ikerd is joining our amazing speaker line-up for the annual Acres U.S.A. 2021 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show. Taking place from December 6-9, the annual Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show is where you find farmers and consultants from every facet of eco-farming who come together to share their experience and expertise. John will be bringing his economic expertise to discuss building sustainable agricultural communities!