Winter is Natures Gift to Farmers
By Joe Detelj
Winter is Nature’s gift to farmers: it requires the steward, the soil and its near limitless subterranean inhabitants, as well as the terrestrial trees, shrubs, and grasses to rest and recuperate in anticipation of their soon to be Spring solar reunion. All too quickly we will engage the dusk to dawn effort that combines sun, soil, seed, sweat, and water, with air and mystery to produce the sustenance and surplus necessary for our replication and reproduction. All that we see and dream proceeds from this alchemy.
While more often than not farming is a labor of love, the winter interlude is a welcome relief and affords an opportunity to refresh old knowledge, catch up on what is new, and expand upon complimentary topics of interest. .We have had an extended snow cover this season which has favored an expanded menu of reading matter. Old favorites, Wendell Berry, Thomas Berry, Edward Abbey, Bill McKibben , Will Durant, and the pioneers featured in Acres USA have provided invaluable insight and inspiration. Most are familiar names to environmentally like minded souls, but it is a book with a title not likely to attract tree huggers (I love that term; hugs ought to be nurtured) that lingers and conditions my thoughts at this time as I struggle to shape my life and labor in a more benign and harmonious pattern.
Herman Daly is an economist, a practitioner of the dismal science whose experience at the World Bank has provoked, at least in part, a valuable critique of the official, current orthodoxy which is employed in defense of the mindless destruction of the natural world that has characterized the era of ” free market” economics. Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, is an accessible technical presentation that turns classical economics on its head. It argues for a zero growth economy and elaborates what that means and how it may begin. Clearly, it is a heretical piece contrary to the body of accepted thought and mythology, however this is not the arcane stuff that would repel as would grandma’s cod liver oil, and it would be good for you.
The main point, or pre-analytical vision, is the experiential recognition that the environment is not a sub-set of the economy, but rather the environment contains finite resources and climatic regulation that ultimately dictates the scale of a functional economy .The limits are imposed by Nature. Undifferentiated growth does not proceed forever, it is called cancer, and it results in death if not checked . Daly puts forth an elaboration based on the notion that the abstract world of economics is subject to the same physical laws as the real world. Elaborate mathematical models whose assumptions invalidate those laws are no more scientifically sound than the medieval models that demonstrated the sun revolving around the earth .Scientific dressing can not substitute for substance. Daly explores theory and practice from this corrected plane of vision.
One sub-text of this argument that is of particular interest to my agricultural bent is his treatment of free trade. That free trade is a good thing is not open to question by any institutional authority. The textile mills in Central Pennsylvania, the steel mills and fabrication plants of the Mid West, and the major appliance makers that populated the more Western regions of the Nation might have former workers shaking their heads in disbelief but forgive them for they have not had the benefit of formal training in the subject. Farm Bureau extolls the virtue of free trade having received the proper instruction. We come by this bit of scripture via the writings of a 19th century philosopher David Ricardo. His theory of comparative advantage is illustrated by a model of two countries. He gives as an example England and Spain. Simply , he says that if both countries manufactured wine and cloth and one was more efficient at the production of one item over the other, and the reverse were true in the other country then a comparative advantage existed. It would benefit both countries to specialize and trade. In his example England would concentrate on cloth, and Spain on wine, even though Spain may have possessed an absolute advantage in both. Ricardo goes into great detail as to why this is so and makes a plausible argument that holds merit to this day. What does not hold true to this day is his fundamental assumption that capital was not mobile.
In those times of yore a manufacturer would never consider an investment in a foreign nation . Nationalism, the threat of war, competition for colonial exploitation, as well as a host of cultural barriers would completely inhibit that course of action. Obviously, that golden age of harmonic equilibrium no longer exists. In fact, today there is nothing more mobile than capital. Multinational capital owns no limits or restrictions. If our time is marked by any distinction it is the rush of capital to those places where the most pronounced absolute advantage exists. Labor being a vital and major factor of production has influenced the exodus of capital to those nations with the cheapest labor. This action has not resulted in a tide that raises all boats but rather one that has left most high and dry. For those service economy workers who were thought to be exempt, their tide had also gone out to distant shores.
The reality of our time forces us to confront the dual problem of climate change and a failed free market economy. Local, sustainable agriculture properly scaled , dispersed and diverse, networked into a larger universe where fair trade integrates us into a greater whole is, in my opinion, a major component of the solution we need to incorporate. A cooperative human effort, not a legal exemption is the sought after organizational form. Comparative advantage is a reductionist concept, not at all suitable for a complex biological process as is farming, and Daly has surely shown that comparative advantage is not a brief for free trade. Can we be happy if it is at the cost of child labor, conscripts and a chain gang? What is of value if purchased with the sweat of 14 hour, six day, weeks of displaced peasants? Are we better off with melamine in our infant formula, and lead in children’s toys? The answer to all the above according to the tried and true is yes. But, I know in every fiber of our being the answer is no.
In this winter interlude, as I said earlier, I get to catch up on this good stuff. In this winter of discontent it appears there are more and more of us who see the need for major change in the way we think about the world as well as the way we live in it. .The barn chores wait and the seedlings that will feed this seasons CSA shares need water and Remay covering for the chill that seeps into the greenhouse at night. Soon it will be Spring and we will rejoice in life. I welcome the change that will surely come about with the passage of time and tide.