I bought a head of lettuce yesterday, something I haven’t done for years. We grow our own most of the time and when we don’t have lettuce in winter, we usually can find some other green like fall-planted spinach or wintered-over chard or kale to provide something fresh for our meals.
But yesterday the spinach was deep under row cover and snow. I could have foraged for some leaves but I didn’t want to disturb its sleep. Better to let it rest under its blanket until the snow thaws and the days warm up again.
We also normally have greens growing in our smaller unheated greenhouse this time of year, but that building is being renovated right now. Nothing for a salad is growing in the construction zone. So I went to our thirty-year-old local natural food store and purchased a lovely head of organic lettuce.
We were having a guest for dinner; I had planned to put spinach in the lasagna, as I usually do, and to make a spinach salad with our own sundried tomatoes as well. I could go without the spinach in the former but couldn’t completely give up the latter. I wanted something fresh, despite February’s chill. Remember American Pie: “February made me shiver, with every paper I delivered”? February is the month that can go either way—sun warmed or frigid cold, on any particular day. We’ve had plenty of snow and low temps so far but not like last year when schools closed because of below-zero temperatures. I grew up here and so did my daughter but never did we get a Too Cold Day off from school.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the future of farming in terms of efficiency vs ecology. We’ve just lost the fight against GMO crops on our county open space land and pro-GMO advocates and their big backers are organizing to influence the upcoming county commissioners race. Organic farmers and organic consumers are small potatoes, so to speak, in the world of Big Ag. Even the biggest organic producers still maintain a very small part of the overall market.
It’s not just being smaller, though, that makes us less efficient. Being sustainable—and I mean that in the environmental sense, not the co-opted financial sense purported by the ag industry—brings a commitment to ecology that precludes some kinds of efficiencies such as chemical inputs, i.e., synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides.
Another efficiency, monocropping, lessens plant diversity and, even more worrisome, the rush to patent all forms of seeds threatens to diminish even the continuance of plant availability. Loosing diversity will bring untold vulnerabilities to our food systems—think Irish potato famine—as well as increased dependency on food and seed monopolies.
None of that is ecological. Industrial agriculture doesn’t support a balanced ecosystem in which farmers work within natural systems as closely as possible to produce food that is healthy and nutritious while preserving soil, water, and air for future generations. Further, the efficiency imperative puts more and more power in the hands of a few biochemical companies, increasing costs for small farmers that is already driving them out of business. It may increase efficiency—bringing down the cost of raising food but not necessarily of food itself– until the point that vulnerabilities to unforeseen consequences (the rise of resistant diseases, for example) or uncontrollable circumstances (our increasingly volatile weather patterns) overwhelm the system.
It’s complex but thinking about how efficiency and ecology can overlap, both on small, organic farms and in the larger scale of agriculture, is helpful to me. Next week John and I are going to the Colorado Big and Small conference. That says it all. How can the actions of Big not threaten the existence of Small? And can Small become any bigger without subscribing to the problems inherent in Big? We’d all like to think we can work together as “good neighbors,” but the stakes seem to be getting pretty high. I’m just not down with world domination of seeds, no matter how efficient that may seem. We’ll see what people have to say.
February is a transition month. Our small starts in the big greenhouse look good, our members are sending appreciative notes, and we’re excited to get back into the fields. A new season always brings promise. That’s the encouraging thing about ecological farming. We’ll get our “bluehouse” rebuilt and grow some winter greens; the spring will come around; and we’ll get a fresh start once again.
PS Did you notice that today’s date is palindromic?