You know who are amazing? Farmers. I think farmers are just the smartest, greatest people out there. Sure they have one of the most important jobs in our society, growing food, but there’s something else. Farmers just seem to get it.
It started for me 25 years ago when I worked for a magazine that sent me out to some meetings directed at farmers. I can remember learning about clover, which can “fix nitrogen.” Nitrogen, a colorless, odorless gas makes up 78% of the Earth’s atmosphere by volume. Nitrogen is essential for plant growth and many farmers purchase nitrogen-based fertilizer that is produced from natural gas. With North America’s supply of natural gas dwindling we don’t make very much fertilizer here any more. At the meeting though they were talking about the natural rotation of fields and how it’s good idea to leave a field “fallow” and not plant any crops in it. Or you can plant it with clover and leave it for a few years. Clover, as a nitrogen fixer, can actually take nitrogen from the air and transfer it to nodules in its roots. The nodules have symbiotic bacteria called rhizobia, which produce the nitrogen. When you eventually plow that clover under to grow a crop, the soil will be more fertile and as the clover plant decomposes it releases even more nitrogen into the soil.
I think this is the coolest thing ever and farmers have been doing it forever. I’ve tried other “green manures” as they’re called like buckwheat, to make areas of my garden more fertile.
As we got into renewable energy and started attending green energy fairs I met farmers and became amazed by the ingenuity of farmers when it comes to making things like wind turbines from scrap alternators they had lying around. After spending some time haying I realized why. Things like hay bailers always break, and you’ve only got so much time to get hay in, so there is always a box of tools on the tractor to fix things and you figure out a way to make due to “get’r done”.
Last night I attended a meeting in town about switchgrass, which is a prairie grass that grows very vigorously and can be processed into “biomass”, or a product to provide heat. Lyle Van Klieff, a farmer who has planted 70 acres of it, spoke at length about his experience. I try to keep up on most things but listening to him speak was like listening to Stephen Hawking. A lot of it was just Greek to me. “We tried swathing it in the fall but found a John Deere XYZ disc tine harvester produced… etc etc etc.” It was like that high school biology class you took where it was like the teacher was speaking in a different language. He spoke about what was required for planting, for stimulating growth, for harvesting and for preparing the biomass for sale.
We’re very lucky to have a group like this supplying our food. For eons farmers grew enough food for their family, and then maybe some extra to sell, but they supported very few others. Today each farmer in North America provides food for about 180 other people. We are really dependent on them and yet many still do not make what would be considered a very good wage. Beef farmers where I live are getting about the same price for beef that they were getting 25 years ago. It looks like it may be more profitable for them to grow crops for biomass to heat homes, than to feed us.
Regardless of the challenges they face I’ve rarely met a farmer that doesn’t seem happy. Some of the happiest people I’ve met are farmers. You can tell, they always have a smile on their faces. Our neighbor Agnes Hagerman loves farming. She has found her calling and in the 10 years we’ve known her I can never remember a conversation that wasn’t positive and informative. It’s a good thing that the people who put food on our table are happy. They’re about to become more and more important all the time. Food and energy are going to become the two biggest issues in our lives so it’s probably a good time to get to know a farmer. The easiest way is through a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. You can visit www.localharvest.org to find one nearby. It’s the best way to move towards a 100-mile diet and get to know the person who supplies the fuel to power your body.