27 Jan 2023

In order for a new crop to be harvested in areas where it is not requires three things: ground, seed, and farmers.

Ground can be found anywhere, although not every place has a large amount of good, rich soil. Seed can be imported in a variety of ways. But the skill of farming—that’s a challenge.

I can go into my backyard and plant a series of tomato seeds in a tub of dirt. I can water them and watch them grow up into a plant. I can watch for worms and weeds. I might even be able to harvest some tomatoes off of them. But, to my mind, that makes me a gardener, not a farmer—someone who can live off his crop, much less sell my excess to others or even adequately train a new generation of farmers.

How might I become a farmer? First, I’d have to have an interest in doing so. This interest could be primed by family: when I was young, my mom and dad had a large backyard garden. I was required to spend time working in it, which I disliked. But then one year my mom had the brilliant idea of telling me I could have my own garden and plant whatever I liked. She would help me. We planted sunflower seeds, peanuts, and cherry tomatoes. The peanuts were fascinating—growing underground. I learned by doing interesting things with guidance.

Interest can also be primed by books. My wife and I once curiously read a profusely illustrated book on household farms: what could be done with a back yard, a half acre, a full acre, and I think 10 acres. We delighted in imagining ourselves in such a role. Would we like it? We spent literally hours talking about it. Videos, too, can be instructional: they can walk us through all sorts of examples and time lapse. They can inspire and instruct. I’ve watched plenty of videos about constructing raised beds for tomato plants, for example.

But when someone wants to take the plunge they really need instruction, coaching, mentoring. And if you are in a place with no farms or farmers, this can be problematic. It’s harder still if farms, for whatever reason, happen to be controlled by the state, or worse yet banned in favor of food provided by government controlled stores.

Bringing farming knowledge to would be farmers requires innovative approaches. It becomes a form of matching problem: how can experienced farmers and would be farmers get in touch with each other? meet? Can farmer-trainers enter restricted areas on the sly? Will, for example, the passport of a US farmer be allowed entry? For how long? How does this farmer find the farmer-to-be? How to structure a course of training that can be implemented if the farmer-trainer isn’t there?

Alternatively, might a farmer be able to go to a place nearby, to which a farming candidate can go? Now it’s a question not only of the power is the US passport, but also of the candidates passport.

In the long run, other challenges arise. Not everyone may agree on the best methods of farming a particular kind of soil. Some may want industrial fertilizers. Others may argue for a wholly organic approach. Some recommend machinery. Others may want a more sustainable machine-free strategy. And, what happens when Big Agribusiness sees the profitability of these little farms and offers to incorporate them in a larger enterprise?

Those long term issues notwithstanding, recent travel reminded me of the need to really think through the question of the best use of knowledge attached to a passport.

A passport enables a person to travel and even to stay in places for certain periods of time. These are opportunities with constraints. But the rules about travel and passports shift all the time. These are threats. The knowledge born by a passport bearing person is a strength that can help out farming in a new place. The desire to insist, control, prescribe, require - these can be weaknesses of the same person, which limit their ability to help.

Global research in farming styles is often done by people with Western passports. It’s not that westerners alone are skilled to do this research—I’ve seen numerous local highly skilled researchers. No, it’s the ability to travel and cross pollinate information implicit in a westerner’s passport (and to another extent their budget). Rather than using the power of the passport to control how farming knowledge is spread and thereby shape how it is done, we might ask how that passport and its attached knowledge can best be used to serve local farmers. How do we pick up a basin and towel and serve them? Similar questions might be asked of any sort of knowledge-passport combination.

At the end of the day it’s these local farms—not the outsiders—that are best able to feed the people around them. Our world runs in a global chain of imports and exports, and I like foods from abroad - especially avocados, for example - as well as anyone. But tightened borders, supply chain issues, sudden wars and pandemics can suddenly make food imports very difficult. In such cases local sowers-of-seed are highly valued. As outside farmer-trainers help sowers, we need to help them stand in their own. Farmer fathers raise their sons and daughters to manage the family farm when they are gone. A similar idea is needed here - a sort of fathering, grandfathering, uncleing, not employing or bossing or managing.

I am consistently amazed to find farmers in the unlikeliest of places. People are hungry. Farmers bring food. Farmers are concerned for their neighbors. Farmers work quietly but spread life. The question never seems to be whether there are farmers in any particular place. The question is how we work within constraints to find them, serve them, and connect them with other farmers working in similar situations.