Monocultures – More than Meets The Ear

Seth Teter

I recently listened to a local farmer describe his extensive crop rotations, soil fertility and how he shunned chemicals.

Far superior to the unhealthy “monoculture” of conventional corn and soybeans planted by his neighbor, he said. And he made it all too clear – he didn’t care what his neighbor thought anyway.

It struck me: here was a farm where bugs and birds, trees and grass, crops and livestock all had a place. The one thing that didn’t belong, apparently, was a conversation with a neighbor.  The farmer didn’t seem to see the contradiction.

It points to a larger problem.

Criticism of our food system today stems from concern of consolidation: fewer food companies, fewer types of crops, fewer farmers, fewer choices for consumers, and so on.

We can debate the merits of each claim, but the fundamental fear is valid: a loss of diversity can mean a loss of security.

As this essay states: “Diversity means many links, many different approaches to the same problem. So a diverse community is a resilient community. A diverse community is one that can adapt to changing situations.”

Going back to the farmer who preached the ecology of agriculture, there was no similar concern for an ecology of relationships, an ecology of community or an ecology of thought.  There was no fear of a consolidation of ideas.

Indeed, monocultures had pervaded agriculture, if not in the barns and fields, then in its institutions, publications and social circles.

People of similar thought had joined together to become louder, and presumably, more influential. But this single-mindedness led to a predictable problem: resistance.

Individuals were reduced to labels: conventional and organic, big and small, farmer and consumer.  Each group had its own monocultural message. Year after year, the same arguments were applied, and our resistance to each other grew.

Fortunately, social media is allowing the emergence of a new conversation – one not based on loudness but on learning.

When it comes to how we communicate, the first thing we can learn is that there’s plenty to learn.

For example, there are farmers who, understandably, are proud of agriculture’s productivity: 1 farmer can now feed 150 people, they say.

Others, understandably, wonder why they should cheer the consolidation of their profession: It’s like teachers boasting about larger class sizes, one beginning farm couple told me – it’s not in our interest.

I once published an image of a dairy display that touted how modern dairy barns protected animals from weather and disease. One reader questioned if I was implying his pastured cows were mistreated.

Then there is the debate about what type of agriculture can or can’t “feed the world.” As if that was something we should or could decide.

In Ohio alone, we have about 75,000 farmers – and as I see it, about 75,000 types of agriculture. Likewise, our state demands a food system that serves about 10 million types of eaters.

We have all heard the farm-circle debate: Is “conventional” agriculture our only hope of producing enough food, or is it depleting the resources it depends upon? Is “organic” agriculture a model of environmental harmony, or will it leave countless to starve?

Those questions ignore the fact that neither can feed “the world”, because the people who eat aren’t choosing just one or the other.  And farmers don’t decide what people eat, eaters do. Farmers give them options.

Just today, I purchased a serving of ultra-pasteurized milk in an anonymous paper carton.  Tonight, I’ll drink milk out of a mason jar straight from a cow named Claire outside my back door. And I’ll gladly spend my days helping a farmer friend share why he raises swine using all the modern trappings before heading home to my heritage herd of outdoor pigs.

Because, in the end, “agriculture” isn’t feeding “the world.” People are feeding people. Not “consumers,” individuals.

As John Steinbeck wrote: “When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking.”

That’s a problem because, in a changing world, sustainability hinges on our ability to adapt. So we need to expand our capacity to learn.

Agricultural critic Wendell Berry, while he infuriates as much as he inspires, gets it right in this passage:

“The most necessary thing in agriculture is not to invent new technologies or methods, not to achieve “breakthroughs,” but to determine what tools and methods are appropriate to specific people, places, and needs, and to apply them correctly. Application is the crux, because no two farms or farmers are alike; no two fields are alike…Application is the most important work, but also the most modest, complex, difficult, and long.”

Talking to each other would be a good start.

Seth Teter is an agricultural communicator at the Ohio Farm Bureau working to facilitate conversations at the intersection of food, agriculture and community.

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