As many of you know, more and more I have become interested in learning how to better live in my place, wherever that is and whatever that means. This blog is my attempt to learn how to answer those two questions, and to share some of those lessons with you. Two notes before I begin.
1) In no way am I an expert on how to live well in my place. I am merely trying to learn how to do so, fumbling as I go, frequently making mistakes and only occasionally achieving anything that could confused with success. Furthermore, I not only highly doubt that I will ever be an expert, I highly doubt that anybody can ever truly become an expert.
2) I have made a promise to myself that this blog will not ever turn into a place where I air my rants. Not that I can’t rant mind you. Those of you who know me know that I am perfectly capable of ranting with the most cantankerous of old coots. But I really don’t want this to be the place where I air my rants. Instead, this will be an experiment in seeing how how close to the line I can get. It is up to you to hold me accountable.
So having now written that preamble, I will begin.
At the moment, due to the circumstances of teacher’s college, I currently find myself living in the small town of Palmerston, Ontario, about an hour north of Guelph, where I am working as a student teacher at a small, integrated environmental leadership program. While I won’t gush too much about this placement (it’s absolutely incredible), it has, within a week and a half, already afforded me with a tremendous amount of material for sharing in regards to issues of place, especially as those issues revolve around sustainability in agriculture. Over the next little while, I will share many stories, most, extremely positive, about things that I am learning, encouragements that I am receiving, and moments that I am experiencing. Today however, I want to share a story that is somewhat saddening.
Today, my class went to an agricultural career fair, of which I am sure to speak more of in future posts. There were many speakers and organizations present, from research organizations to equipment dealers to conservation groups and so on, all highlighting the incredible job potential currently existing in agriculture*.
One of the speakers was the owner of a local tractor dealership. He shared about the movement towards bigger tractors, how, for example, ten years ago a tractor may have had 15,000 hp and a highway speed of 40 km/h, while today, the tractors have 150,000 to 300,000 hp, and he’s seeing some with a highway speed of 60 km/h. It should be noted that I didn’t quite catch the exact horsepower numbers due to his accent (more on that later), and, since I’m am not even remotely knowledgeable about horsepower and have no real idea as to how much power those figures represent, I’m not sure if they’re accurate or even make much sense. The point, however, still stands that today’s tractors are notably more powerful then they were only ten years ago.
He then mentioned something that was very interesting, something that stood out for me, especially coming from somebody whose trade comes from selling those more powerful (and, I would posit, more expensive) tractors. “The way we’re heading is to bigger farms; is this right? No, but it seems to be the way that the industry is going.” He then mentioned that expectations were that farmers would need to farm three times the amount of land that they currently farm, though he wasn’t clear on why this was expected. I have my theories, but I will hold them to myself for now.
Three things stood out for me. The first was his tone. Though obviously you cannot hear it yourself, he seemed saddened by this trend. Or at least that is what I heard (it may have been my own bias detecting this inflection however). The second thing was his question to the audience. “Is this right?” Followed quickly by his answer, “No.” The third thing was his belief that this process was inevitable, a topic which I will let alone for another day.
Here was a tractor salesperson, dealing with quarter-million dollar tractors, who genuinely appeared saddened at the loss of small, family farms. I couldn’t help but want to find out more.
During the break, I approached him and first of all, asked him about his accent. I usually have a fairly good ear for accents, yet was completely unable to figure out where his was from. He smiled and told me that it was Pennsylvanian Dutch, which is not unusual I suppose for this area due to the large number of Old-Order Mennonites that live and farm nearby.
We then began talking tractors, though only in the most general sense since, as mentioned before, I am a complete neophyte with anything to do with tractors. I mentioned that, from the substance of his talk, it seemed that tractors had really gotten powerful.
He responded by mentioning the following**, “Sometimes, I think that the technology is moving too quickly. I mean seriously, I wonder where it’s going to stop. Right now, you have a tractor that all you have to do is press a button, and the tractor knows exactly how deep to plough, when to turn, and so on. All you have to do it push a button!” Keep in mind that his description of what the tractor does was much more detailed than mine, but the essence was the same. With the push of a button, you could now run a tractor.
Again, he seemed saddened by this change, which, considering that he could only profit by the large scale adoption of this new technology, I found interesting.
Compare this with the presentation by the speaker representing the 4H organization. “Technology is so cool nowadays! Farmers can now sit back and play Angry Birds [on their smart phones] while the tractor does all the work!”
It reminds me of a quote from a letter that Wendell Berry wrote to Wes Jackson many years ago, a quote which is one of Jackson’s favourites and can be found in the book Wendell Berry: Life and Work and also, I believe, in the book Consulting the Genius of Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture:
“As one who has farmed with both tractors and teams [of horses and/or mules], I would insist (to you; I would be more cautious, at present, in a public statement) that with the use of a tractor certain vital excitements, pleasures, and sensitivities are lost. How much numb metal can we put between ourselves and our land and still know where we are and what we are doing? Working with a tractor is damned dulling and boring. It is like making love in boxing gloves.”
* It should be noted that by agriculture, the speakers were including everything from farm to fork, including food processing and food sales. According to the career fair, agriculture is a very broad industry.
** I should mention that all quotes contained within this post have been edited by my memory of it. I did however write his first quote down as he was speaking, and also the quote of the 4H representative found below, as he was speaking, so they are much more likely to be accurate. For this quote, I was unable to take notes at the time, as this was a personal conversation and I didn’t want to be rude.