Organic Gardening and Farming, Continued

Last year +Jeff Sullivan started a debate that got into, among other things, the hazards of BT (Bacillus thuringiensis), a natural bacteria culture that causes slow, apparently very painful, death for caterpillars but usually doesn’t bother humans at all. (Individual monarch caterpillars are vulnerable to BT; the species as a whole was not endangered by it.) BT is organic. Right. But we’re talking about three different possibilities with BT:

(1) The bacteria are naturally transmitted among insects, at a relatively low concentration. Humans are exposed to very few bacteria unless they eat or handle insects daily, which nobody we know does, right?

(2) The bacteria are cultured in laboratories and the culture is sprayed or poured, in much higher concentration, on vulnerable plants at the key time of year. Humans are exposed to more bacteria than they ever were before microscopes and systematic bacteria culturing were invented, but that’s still relatively few bacteria. (Human volunteers have demonstrated the ability to eat a cupful of live BT culture at a time without showing symptoms.)

(3) DNA from the bacteria is spliced into one or more foods that humans then unknowingly eat every single day over a period of years. Arguably humans are exposed to fewer living, “natural” bacteria than in the first two situations…but reality is that a small minority of humans (who apparently ate a great deal of BT-DNA-enhanced corn) have developed chronic symptoms that they describe in terms similar to the early stages of death-by-BT in infected caterpillars.

It’s not scientifically rigorous to say that pesticide A is “worse” than pesticide B; you have to specify how much of each pesticide under what conditions–and obviously the article linked below is comparing apples and oranges, in terms of the ways serious organic gardeners and small farmers use these pesticides. On the other hand, if we’re talking about commercial “organic” agribusinessmen thinking they can just substitute concentrated tobacco juice for “Roundup” or plant BT-spliced corn instead of spraying the corn with “Raid,” we could be talking about a serious health hazard. Potentially. If they’re trying to plant acre after acre of the same thing, year after year, and “protect” it by poisoning it instead of rotating crops the way serious organic farmers do…

Protecting our environment is not merely a matter of substituting one poison for another poison. We have to learn to raise food crops efficiently enough that nobody has to rely on poison.

This can be done, but it’s not a quick, easy process. Vegetable gardeners and “organic” farmers need to be prepared for a long haul.

Helicoverpa zea, the Corn Earworm Moth, used to be a rare species. This drab little moth is, perhaps surprisingly, not nearly so well protected against predators as the showy Monarch. The Monarch’s vivid colors warn most predators that they don’t want to eat it. Birds, bats, bugs, wasps, and other creatures prefer to eat the Corn Earworm Moth, which apparently tastes good to them. However, when humans started spraying insecticides on whole fields, Corn Earworm Moth populations exploded! The insecticides were killing predators more efficiently than pests. The Corn Earworm Moths reproduced faster than poisoned birds and bats did, and when the next generation of moths hatched, there weren’t enough predators to thin their populations.

(Credit: “Pollinator” at Creative Commons.) I grew up in a world that had probably ten times as many Corn Earworm Moths as the world had a hundred years earlier. According to Wikipedia…

…the caterpillars infest one ear of corn (or sorghum) apiece. This, I learned as a child, is not necessarily the case. The first year we tried planting corn without spraying a field that had been poisoned every year for several years, we hardly found an intact ear; three and four earworms per ear of corn were not uncommon, and the chickens got more of our fresh, organically grown corn than we did. It took about ten years for predator populations to recover, even locally, to the point where anybody could count on having intact ears of organically grown corn for dinner.

This is typical, Gentle Readers. The first year you stop poisoning a field, you’ll be raising insects and will need to find Green ways to kill the ones you can’t just throw to the chickens. It will take time to rebuild predator populations. You’ll need to rotate crops (sustainable agriculture involves rotating crops anyway) and hand-pick a lot of pests. We used to go out to the vegetable garden with a little jar in our pockets to pick up all the insects, so we could burn or drown them all at once instead of having to squish them on the ground. We tried all kinds of dodges like tying nylon stockings over ears of corn to discourage those corn earworms.

After ten or twenty years, though, all this effort will pay off in beautiful, healthy food. If you want an organic garden, don’t give up too easily. Organic gardening does work, even though the local ecology will need time to recover from the Vicious Spray Cycle. Most of the corn grown in my corner of the world today is earworm-free.

Book Review: Another Turn of the Crank

A Fair Trade Book (hurrah!)

Title: Another Turn of the Crank

Author:  Wendell Berry

Date: 1995

Publisher: Counterpoint / Publishers Group West

ISBN: 1-887178-28-7

Length: 109 pages

Quote: “[C]onsumers…are beginning to see that a sys­tem of food production that is dependent on massive applica­tions of drugs and chemicals cannot, by definition, produce ‘pure food.’”

The thing I can’t understand about Wendell Berry is why his books seem to be better known in Washington, D.C., than in my home town. I suspect prejudice may be involved. Virginians who didn’t go to Berea College can form a habit of looking down on Kentucky. Big mistake. By way of correction, I’ll disclose that Berry is one of the few contemporary thinkers (as distinct from reporters) George Peters used to read regularly; when I miss working on his FacTapes, I read Berry. It would be hard to think seriously about the role of farming and hand crafts in the twenty-first century without reading Berry.

Wendell Berry wrote many different kinds of things: biography, fiction, poetry, literary criticism, and practical essays about his farm in Henry County that used to be published in Organic Gardening & Farming; but Another Turn of the Crank is a sort of quick summary of his philosophy.

It’s a Green book, of course. Finding myself frequently out of step with people in the Green Party, I’d even go so far as to say that Another Turn of the Crank is, for me, the Green book. I’ve written about Sick Greens, Bitter Greens, Hazy Greens, Poison Greens, Fluorescent Greens…this book defines what I’d call True Green ideas at their best. Except for the last one, the points made in this book repeat ideas Berry has written about at greater length in other books, but this is the book that pulls his politics and philosophy into a coherent order:

  1. “Nothing that I have written here should be construed as an endorsement of either of our political parties as they pres­ently function…The ‘conservatives’ believe that an economy that favors its richest and most powerful participants will yet somehow serve the best interest of everybody. The ‘liberals’ believe just as irrationally that a merely competitive economy, growing always larger in scale and controlled by fewer and fewer people, can be corrected by extending government charity to the inevitable victims: the dispossessed, the unrepresented, and the unemployed.” (Pages ix-x.) “Communists and capitalists are alike in their contempt for country people…Moreover, the old opposition of country and city, which was never useful…is, in fact, damaging to everybody involved.” (Pages 15-16.) Berry predicts that the real political issue of the twenty-first century will be between the current powerful support for an unsustainable global economy and the efforts of small farmers to preserve a sustainable local economy.
  1. “A reader would also be in error who concluded, from this book’s reiterated wish to restore local life by meas of local economies, that it is ‘antigovernment.’ On the contrary, one of the fundamental purposes of these essays is to serve the cause of democratic government as established by the Consti­tution…[C]entral planning is of a piece with absentee ownership and does not work…The proper role of a government is to protect its citizens and its communities against…economic conquest just as much as conquest by overt violence.” (Pages x-xi.)
  1. “I believe that for many reasons—political, ecological, and economic—the best intelligence and talent should be at work and at home everywhere in the country. And therefore, my wishes for our schools are opposite to those of the present-day political parties.” (Page xi.)
  1. “Now that the issue of sustainability has arisen so urgently…we can see that the correct agri­cultural agenda following World War II would have been to continue and refine the already established connection be­tween our farms and the sun…Instead, the adopted agenda called for a shift…to the expen­sive, filthy, and limited energy of the fossil fuels…It called also for the displacement of nearly the entire farming population.” (Page 2) “[F]armers…must learn—or learn again—to farm in ways that minimize their dependence on industrial supplies. They must diversify, using both plants and animals. They must produce, on their farms, as much as the required fertility and energy as they can. So far as they can, they must replace purchased goods and services with natural health and diversity and with their own intelligence…If farmers hope to exercise any control over their markets…then they will have to look to local markets. The long-broken connections between towns and cities and their sur­rounding landscapes will have to be restored.” (Page 5.)
  1. “Always ask of any proposed change or innovation: What will this do to our community? How will this affect our common wealth? Always include local nature—the land, the water, the air, the native creatures—within the membership of the community. Always ask how local needs might be supplied from local sources…Always supply local needs first. (And only then think of exporting their products, first to nearby cities, and then to others…Develop small-scale industries and businesses to su­pport the local farm and/or forest economy. Strive to produce as much of the community’s own energy as possible.” (Page 19.)
  1. “To say that the right of private property has often been used to protect individuals and even global corporations in their greed is not to say that it cannot secure individuals in an appropriate economic share in their country.” (Page 49.)
  1. “[N]ot just forest land but allland, private and public, farmed and for­ested, is ‘natural.’ All land is natural and all nature is a com­mon wealth.” (Page 54.)
  1. “[Y]ou cannot get good care in the use of the land by demanding it from public officials…If we want the land to be cared for, then we must have people living on and from the land who are able and willing to care for it.” (Page 55.)
  1. “We have tried…preferring ourselves to the exclusion of all other creatures, with results that are manifestly disastrous. And now, conscious of those faults, we are tempted to correct them by denigrating ourselves…[W]e cannot be made kind toward our fellow creatures except by the same qualities that make us kind toward our fellow humans. The problem obviously is that we are not well practiced in kindness toward our fellow humans…especially, I think, toward human children…who are being aborted or abandoned, abused, drugged, bombed, neglected, poorly raised, poorly fed, poorly taught, and poorly disciplined. Many of them will not only find no worthy work but no work of any kind.” (Pages 78-79.)
  1. “I am moreover a Luddite…not ‘against technology’ so much as I am for community. When the choice is between the health of a community and technological innovation, I choose the health of the community.” (Page 90.)
  1. “Why should rest and food and ecological health not be the basic principles of our art and science of healing? Is it because the basic principles already are technology and drugs?” (Page 98.)
  1. “[W]e had better under­stand: sex and fertility are joined…sex and the world are joined.” (Page 81.)

Obviously, any book that tries to make these points in 109 pages is going to be a slow, dense, serious read even for True Greens to whom the ideas are familiar. This book includes some witty remarks and some anecdotes, but it’s much “heavier” than its small physical size suggests.

There are points on which it’s possible for True Greens to disagree with this book. Berry complains about the plight of small farmers and small business owners trying to obtain loans and credit from big-chain banks. George Peters would have said, and now I would say, that these individuals’ problem is their need to remain independent of the banks in the first place. Berry thinks the Internet destroys communities; online readers probably think it helps build communities. Minor points, these.

Then there’s a point of word usage on which Berry disagrees with most of the English-speaking world. All the English-speaking countries had a postwar baby boom. While the “Baby Boomer” generation in the U.K. was shaped by growing up in economic hardship, and the “Baby Boomer” generation in the U.S. was shaped by growing up in economic “boom times,” there is at least a general agreement that “Boomers” are people born between 1945 and 1970.

Berry, who was born in 1934, learned the slang word “boomer” at the time when it referred to the semi-nomadic lifestyle of those who always rushed toward the sites of the brief economic “booms” created as Americans discovered and exploited our natural resources. He opposes “boomers” to the “stickers” or “nesters” who wanted to stay in one place, use its resources prudently, and form social bonds with neighbors. He admits that these tendencies probably coexist in most of us, and feels that morality requires us to check any “boomer” tendencies we have and strengthen our “nester” tendencies–our topophilia. What Berry means by “boomer” is fairly close to what I mean by “greedhead,” what some other Greens mean by “land-rapers,” and what several people, a hundred years ago, seem to have meant by “capitalist.” In any case, it’s not a demographic defined by date of birth…and it’s not a thing anybody wants to be.

So far as I know, every time Berry has used the word “boomer” in this idiosyncratic, obsolete way he’s taken a page or two to define what he means, so confusion is not possible for those who read the whole book or article. I mention this point for the benefit of those random readers who try to judge a book by reading a page somewhere in the middle, who may have thought Berry was insulting their age group. He’s not…we’ve been his best students and biggest fans.

I’m tempted to say that everyone needs to read Another Turn of the Crank, because I wish everyone had already read it, but no. This is a book for adults who’ve had a fairly extensive, fairly liberal education, and some work experience. In previous books Berry built up his evidence in support of each of his points, and cited his sources; in this book he gives readers an overview of what he’s already studied and concluded. If these thoughts are at all new to you, Another Turn of the Crank would be a challenging place to begin learning about them. Everyone may need to read this book, eventually, but not everyone is ready for it yet.

So, if you’ve not read earlier Berry books, where should you begin? Home Economics and The Gift of Good Land were written earlier, for a more general audience…I think that might still be a general audience of university students, but at least he identified and recommended the supplemental reading that can help you understand his True Green thought.

At latest report Berry was still alive (“They tell me I have a web site, but I didn’t do that”–his publisher maintains a book sale site, and a fan maintains a site for fans) so Another Turn of the Crank is a Fair Trade Book. To buy it online, send $5 per book + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, and from this total of $10 I’ll send 10%, or $1, to Berry or a charity of his choice. (If you want four copies, send a total of $25 and I’ll send Berry or his charity $4.)