I once heard a novelist describe his religious affiliation as Jack-Taoist. He studied all the world’s major religions to find the one most easily adhered to—Taoism, in his mind—and then he practiced it badly (you may not know the term “jack”, a prefix used in predominantly Mormon areas to label those who are followers in name only—Jack-Mormons, who swear, smoke, drink coffee and alcohol, but perhaps still attend church).
Well, in farming terms, we’re Jack-Sustainables, Jack-Organicists, Jack-No-Tills, because we believe in sustainable farming, consider organic farming to be the most ideal practice, and agree that no-till beats getting on the tractor for recreation at every chance, but in practice we not only think of sustainable as including our financial health, but also use chemicals when alternative means don’t exist (though we’ve abandoned plenty of crops over the years rather than use chemicals). We also think of tilling more as having a drink or two socially rather than something to be banned by the Tilling Temperance Union.
Earlier in “jack”’s history, it was used as a prefix sort of as “not” is now—as in “that’s so cute (not)”. So a jack-gentleman was a person of low birth pretending to be a gentleman, a jack-sauce was a poor substitute for the real thing (think Velveeta, instead of cheese). In any case, with the kinder, newer version of the term or the older, more contemptuous variation, at our farm we’re essentially pretenders. .We started out with good intentions, but as need arose, we drifted away from the church. We’ve gone so far as once hiring a crop duster on a year aphids plagued the entirety of Southeast Idaho, rather than facing a complete loss of our livelihood.
That’s why we admire dyed-in-the-wool adherents—we know we’re “sinners”, having opted for survival over beliefs. It’s true the faithful may never face the same difficulties we do—the aphid population explosions that occur in high temperatures that don’t in mild climates, for instance, or soils that hover at one percent organic matter, limiting the use of no-till—but it’s also true we probably haven’t tried as hard as we could have. Though we used every organic method and substance we ever came across (and found them to be failures) in our early years, more efficacious products have no doubt since developed, but because the overtouted claims surrounding the organic movement became so numerous we gave up, unable to summon the energy to sort through fiction to find fact. No one garners more of our respect than those who held steadfast amidst the chaos of misinformation, particularly researchers who did real studies to sort our what truly works from fantasy. Integrated Pest Management is an art form, in our minds, and we’re just scrawlers barely able to scratch out stick figures—scouting for pests and diseases should be the first item on any farmer’s list, and admittedly it was always the last on ours.
As deserving of respect and admiration those at the forefront of farming may be, not every farmer should join the nunnery or priesthood—they just don’t know what they’re getting into, and those spreading the gospel tend not to display the backsides of their offerings. Those methods—both the new and the repurposed ones—that hit the farming circuit really should be rated and rewarded like Olympic diving or figure skating. I can see it now: In Lane One, Big Bloom Farms, using no fungicides in a wet climate, a 7.1 difficulty; In Lane Two, Half “S” Acres will try no-till on intermountain soil of 1 percent organic matter in an arid climate, using no miticide, a 7.3 difficulty; In Lane Three, Bag O’Blossoms Place, growing organically and sustainably on six acres amidst hundreds of thousands of acres of commercially grown tomatoes, a 7.9 difficulty. The ideal reward would be prices that raised along with the difficulty of the grower’s methods, but sorry, it doesn’t work that way. While some clients might pay slightly more for flowers grown using specialty methods, mostly the rewards are intrinsic, the sense of having done things right.
But it would be nice if the methods being bandied about had a rating so growers could calculate whether they wanted to adopt them, a way to see if the necessary skill sets to use them matched one’s own, what the success rate of a method was as you moved through climate zones, latitude, rainfall amounts, soil types, production amounts, profit return. Because growing in a commercial farming area entails different problems than growing in an isolated area where pests and diseases have yet to invade. Growing in a wet climate has pros and cons much different than growing in an arid one. Growing in acid soils requires different methods than doing so in alkaline ones. Growing in loamy soils of high organic matter allows leeway not present in sandy or clayish ones of low matter. Cold climates versus warm ones, long season versus short, shallow soils and deep, small square footages versus large acreages—the list of differences extends almost infinitely, and the central core ideals of the proposed methods can’t match up with all of them. Reading about “new” or “long-forgotten and secret” methods is like looking at a pointillist painting: from a distance the representation seems clear, elegant and beautiful, but up close only dots of color appear, making no “sense” at all. Ideals often appear to be very clean in one’s mind as we read or think, but when they hit reality they dirty very fast.
It would be equally beneficial if the success stories of innovations included financial statements so we knew just how “success” was being defined, so we could make our own judgments by comparing their use of the word to our own before we began our religious pilgrimages. Marketers of methods often never made what you might call a living from actual farming: perhaps they had off-farm income, perhaps they only became successful after gathering a “following” who began buying their products, perhaps they inherited land (which you didn’t) or had a boost from outside investors. There’s no way to know, and trust should never be the default mode (nor should distrust, by the way)—it’s something to be earned, one act at a time.
There are decisions to make as we farm, one at a time, and they can’t be made by assuming our sources’ “success” is either real or can be easily replicated. Before adopting new methods, we have to do thought experiments, imagine what would happen on our farm with our abilities, before undertaking them. We happen to be skeptical so doubt not just others but ourselves—are we (or they) too excited about undertaking a new method? Too resistant (or eager) to trying something new? We understand our own belief systems (and theirs), know that ideologies sometimes work against each other, are even contradictory, as in measuring the value of eating organic asparagus shipped from Argentina (organic=good, but a carbon load exceeding beef’s=bad). Is “organic” important for our own health or the world’s? Is a carbon footprint really important to us, or are we picking and choosing in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves—applying stringent rules to plastic use, for instance, but not so stringent ones toward our personal travel and entertainment, our phone and the hidden technological network needed to build it and make it work, our Amazon Prime purchases and the delivery system necessary to bring them to our home?
So, occultation is touted as weed control, but if I have just two acres infested with quackgrass I need roughly 86,000 square foot of tarp or plastic, a way to secure it, the manpower to put it down and take it up a few months for the method to work—or I can use two ounces of glyphosate, after which, with proper practices, I can farm away without herbicides for the rest of my life. Which method is more sustainable? Which the biggest carbon footprint? Which the most negative impact on the health of the planet? On mine? Can I really say one way is right, the other wrong, or can I just say that, given particular premises, one method has better results, a lower impact, while with different premises, the other reigns supreme?
I see no-till resurrected (a few local grain farmers tried it here in the 1970s) as a low-impact, nigh miraculous method, look at my farm, my soil, how slowly sunflower or sorghum stalks deteriorate in a cold, arid climate, and doubt its efficacy for me. I would have to cover my existing beds with composted medium—about three miles, three foot wide, six inches deep—revamp my subsurface irrigation, figure out how to keep new plants wet in a porous soil in a climate where ten percent humidity’s not unusual. I have to assume it’s not for us, while wondering just who it’s for and in what conditions. In our context, tilling seems more sustainable than collecting plant matter, consistently moistening (a necessity in our climate) and turning it repeatedly until it becomes usable as compost, and applying it. And, we’d never have enough material at the farm, we’d have to bring it in, and there’s no telling how far the medium would travel—a local landscape material producer often sends semi-loads to Florida, three thousand miles away, earning a carbon load that would defy any advantage it otherwise might have. The work involved, calculated honestly, has a cost that certainly exceeds simple tillage.
Applying cardboard or newspaper as a weed barrier? Four acres, a third of it walk rows, worth of material? In our wind? At what size of farm does such a technique work? We’ve seen gardeners use carpet remnants in such a way, but not to the extent necessary to make a living—unless you were the brother-in-law of a carpet business owner and got all the free material, delivered that you wanted.
Despite our skepticism, we’re not afraid of different and new. We plant marginal species and we’re occasionally successful. We use subsurface irrigation, a common practice in some areas of the world but one that hasn’t caught on in the American mainstream. We use biosolids, which would freak out organic purists—but where better, than a flower farming acreage, to distribute the inevitable and unwanted discards of human existence? In addition to those 70 ten wheeler loads of sludge we’ve applied, we’ve brought in two or three hundred loads of wood shavings with a bit of horse manure to use as mulch and soil amendments, but our soil is still a long way off from the organic matter present in areas where the weather is warmer and wetter and the ecosystem is more active.
“Sustainable” and “organic” have become religious words, the latter defined by law to give consumers a way to verify their purchases, the former having a meaning more in flux, depending on the organization verifying it and the grower touting it. Any term tends to deteriorate at its conceptual edges, and over many years slight misuse of a word can become continual mishandling, completely altering its original understanding until it might even turn into its opposite. Imagine the organic ideal of the 1960’s applied to an megafarm organic greens producer today, who moves an entire factory as the year progresses, from winter in Mexico, late winter in the southern US, early spring in California—what meant organic then, the back-to-nature, local and small entity, doesn’t mean organic now.
Say “I love you” too many times, in the wrong contexts, and it loses its value. Call enough things “cute” and make the word so trite a listener has no idea what you really mean. Sustainable? Organic? Who can argue against the good intentions behind them, the same light touch, low impact philosophy Lao-Tse expressed a couple millennia ago—but who can argue that adhering to the notions outside the contexts they’re suited to is little more than zealotry?
We define sustainable as staying in business, making a living, because an ideal that doesn’t include a continued livelihood isn’t workable—witness the Shakers, who didn’t believe in procreation and hence died out as a religion. Underlying this definition, of course, is “what is a living?” and this you have to decide on your own.
And we put organic on the end of a spectrum, right there with “Christ-like”, a way of being to aim at, knowing we’re bound to fail. And then somewhere along that spectrum, we put no-till, lasagna farming, French double-digging, occultation and innumerable other ways of farming until we reach the opposite end, where any nuclear option fits. Just as we respect those on the “good” end of the spectrum, we envy those on the “bad”, because nothing would make our life simpler than flying a plane over the farm once a year to solve all our insect and fungal issues. Why we refrain, I can’t say, other than we want to say we’re still members of the fold, if not in good standing.