By Greg Swarz
When you drive by a hayfield, your eyes register the pastoral view. Maybe you vaguely think about your neighbor who works so hard to make hay, or the cow who eats it. You might even think about the relation of this hay to the beef you eat or the milk you drink. But most likely, you think of this field simply as a hayfield.
If you get out of your car to look more closely, you might be surprised by what you find. Of course there is grass, but what kind? Orchard grass? Timothy? And what about the clover, dandelion, yellow dock, and plantain? Lying in the field for a few minutes you start to see and hear the many insects buzzing about, birds flitting from hedgerow to sky. Soon woodchucks wobble from the perimeters and eventide brings the deer from their daybeds. And below all that, below the green and discernible sod, thats where the interesting part of the hayfield begins. Take a shovel and turn the sod overyou might see a few worms or grubs. Take a handful of the soil, smell it. One handful of soil contains an average of one billion living organisms. Beyond the easily seen (like the worms) there are the invisibles: countless kinds of nematodes, fungi and bacteria. These fauna are the reason for the soils fecundity and they all live together in an amazingly complex community. Their existence and their relationships create the environment for plants, trees and animals to grow.
This handful of soil, incomprehensible and elegant, teeming with life, does not exist on all farms. Petrochemical fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides kill much of this soil life. These chemicals, coupled with a mania for growing large fields of one plant species year after year (monoculture) has destroyed unfathomable amounts of soil. This model has become widespread in the last century in the pursuit of increased short-term profits.
Thoughtful organic farmers go to great lengths to protect and nurture soil and the larger ecosystem. Organic farming is a creative engagement with all of the life processes on the farm. It takes the long view: an organic farm preserves our natural resources for future generations while providing for the current one. Beyond the ecological benefits, responsibly managed farms produce healthy and safe food. From healthy soil comes healthy crops. Why then would we not take better care of the soil, not only to benefit the health of the ecosystem but also the health of humans?
I wonder if we can transfer the same ethic of care and holistic thinking of organic farming to the creative development of our community. Acknowledge our diversity and complexity. Seek to understand peoples needs, and how those needs relate to each other. Bolster symbiotic relationships. Limit the harms of antagonistic relationships without trying to eliminate them. Take advantage of our resources while preserving them for future generations.
For a strong Upper Delaware River community we should focus on the development of a strong local economy. For example, buy from your local baker, chairmaker or main street business owner, or start a new business which adds value to the community. We could easily grow all of our own food in this region if people wanted to do that work, and if the community supported those farmers. There would be more jobs on the farm, in agricultural support businesses, and more healthy food. A brisk local economy does not have to rely on outside investment. Rejoining local demand with local supply would create many meaningful jobs.
This isnt touchy-feely economics. It is an intelligent way to help guarantee that people have what they need to thrive, that we dont ship profits to faraway entities, that we incorporate quality of life measures beyond salaries into our decisions. It is also planning for a future when the earth will again become small, when global transport of goods will be curtailed by the finite resources of the planet. That day doesnt have to be doomsday. That day can be a coming home. And we can start coming home today.
(After many years of working on different farms in Sullivan County, Greg Swartz is starting his own diversified farm in Abrahamsville, PA. He is currently the Executive Director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, www.nofany.org )
This bi-weekly column is a part of a valley-wide initiative to encourage an engaged citizenry. For a complete archive of visioning statements and for more about the visioning initiative visit upperdelaware.com.