Americans are of two minds. Most revere the past and most eagerly participate in the future. We honor our heritage and fret about its decline.
I must admit some ambivalence about the future. I love Wikipedia, the instant communication options, and having done backbreaking farm work as a kid, I love my John Deere tractor.
But, a number of forces in our economy have pushed toward big. Investment forces, often branded Wall Street, have pushed quarterly revenue growth and/or profits as the only test of success. And if growth, by all means not criminal, is success then, just under the radar, exploitation is quick to follow. Plus, Wall Street and big company America is filled with financial engineers whose main job is efficiency. I am not sure what the symbol is for efficiency, but it is saluted regardless of lost jobs, factory closings or shareholder considerations pushing aside employees.
On the farm, Big (apologies for turning an adjective into a noun) has created irrepressible forces that war against nature. An enthusiastic shout-out to farmers who have resisted.
If nature is to be made great again then much needs to happen. And, I am going to narrow the scope of this column to what I see on my farm, Nature’s Reach, and my more youthful experiences.
As a kid I did some farm work. I picked cotton and melons and sold the latter at a roadside stand. Today most of the hand and back harvesting is done by migrants—it is hard, dirty work. Mechanization has saved a lot of backs. But, mechanization and chemicals have also made it easier to turn land that used to be left to wildlife into marginally productive acreage. And here is where the Bigs take over.
Productive is good isn’t it? Well no, if that means that rain water runs straight across open fields gathering up sediment and pollutants that trees and bushes and grasses don’t filter because they have disappeared.
What about those trees and bushes and grasses? They are crucial for pollinators, birds and mammals! And, encyclopedic lists of invertebrates are important actors in a healthy food chain. Yet, where the imperatives of Big Ag and Capital have taken over, landscape health is at best a peripheral concern. Quail, nice to have, but don’t need to have.
I grew up thinking of nature as the out-of-doors. I fished and hunted and then spent many hours canoeing streams that fed the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. And the two farms I worked on had brushy areas and I was allowed to hunt for rabbits and quail. They were plentiful. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my experiences were helping me understand the profound design of nature.
Now I don’t profess to be a scientist, but I have gotten intense experience as a beekeeper instructed by the late Mike Embrey. All of us who were his students are proud to have studied with him.
So let me wrap this up, before trying your patience, with several takeaways. America’s greatness is inextricably linked with its natural resources and not just those that can be mined or pumped.
Agriculture economics have become increasingly capital intensive and you won’t find flora and critters on an Excel spreadsheet. And you won’t find many farmers, who actually work the land, who are not up to their neck in debt from buying the tools and chemicals of so-called efficiency.
Now let me add the final Big. When my wife and I bought Nature’s Reach we applied for a small grant to convert 5 acres into a wetland. The Department of Agriculture employee that helped us with the paperwork spoke disdainfully of “mud puddle subsidies.” Big Government dances with Big Ag and Capital and the overwhelming drumbeat is efficiency. What we need is a clearly stated and implemented restoration policy.
An initiative called Bee Friendly Farming recommends 3 to 6% of a farm’s landscape be devoted to pollinator protective practices. There are government programs that will compensate the farmer for land being used to restore pollinators.
Intuitively and lovingly many Americans regret what has happened. Americans spend more money on bird food than baby food even though ornithologists believe backyard feeding does more harm than good.
We need personal concern to translate into big picture support for nature’s food chain. Rather than fighting over the snail darter, we need to push for action that restores nature’s balance.
Nature’s Reach, the farm my wife and I own is not a farm if farm translates into efficient production. But, nature has provided bountiful lessons. Every farmer should care as much about pollinators as they care about their corn crop. And the same can be said about the flora and fauna that is so crucial to the food chain and clean water. But, in the final analysis if the Big 3—Ag, Capital and Government—reject the crystal clear melody of nature, we are in for a rough future regardless of all the promises of technology.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books. Photography by Marty Sikes.