Learning

We were at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference this weekend.  I took pages of notes, and now have a long list of ideas and new things to try.  We’re still learning, and probably will be as long as we keep doing this.

The speaker in Friday’s plenary session was from the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the USDA.  He acknowledged up front that a group like ours might naturally regard him as one of the bad guys, but went on to talk about how he’d seen the light and was now going around the country speaking to ag groups and urging conservation and biomimicry.  I may blog more about his talk and his recommendations some other time.

At one point he asked for a show of hands.  “How many in the room have Ag degrees?” he asked.

He was trying to make the point that Ag Schools aren’t teaching the principles he was advocating, and his follow-up question was whether any of those with their hands raised had ever been taught that in Ag School.  This device probably worked well with his typical audience.   They’d all raise their hands then he’d go on to say keep your hand raised if you were taught xyz while there (and all the hands would go back down).

But when he asked for everyone with an Ag degree to raise their hands (expecting a sea of raised hands), only a handful of the people in a room of over 500 raised their hands.  My guess is that those few were extension agents or other government employees.

In our movement, we don’t have agriculture degrees.  We didn’t go to Ag School.  We don’t have to unlearn anything taught to us by Ag School faculty in bed with Chemical Agriculture, because we were never taught by those people in the first place.

In fact, one of the coolest things about the producers in the food movement is that the vast majority of us are self-taught disciples of agricultural heretics.  We learn from each other, from conferences, books, magazines, and the internet–not from Ag Schools or the USDA.

I like learning new things and I especially like learning things that help empower us as we take on the Industrial Ag Complex. But for me the learning curve can be pretty steep sometimes. I screw up a lot and often end up feeling like some kind of blockhead. Some of the stuff we’re doing comes easily to me, but some of it is extremely difficult.

Had I gone to Ag School I’d probably would have been a bad student.  Or maybe I’d be out extolling the virtues of herbicides and genetically modified seed.  Either way I’m sure I’d still be struggling to figure out things like how to fix a broken chainsaw.

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6 comments on “Learning

  1. Pam says:

    We should never stop learning, especially about protecting our environment. Nice post, Bill.

    Like

  2. Bill, biomimicry? Now that’s a word I just had to see what Webster had to say about it The mimicking of life using imitation biological systems is totally awesome.

    Nebraska is in the heart of Big Ag country. I am not an expert by any means but from time to time visit with farmers and have very interesting conversations. It leaves me with the impression that the nitty gritty dirt level farming knowledge gets passed down from generation to generation and the college degree is mainly in business. We do have colleges that teach animal husbandry and I expect the basics of farming but I suspect what’s being taught is plugged into the benefits of GMO seed and chemical growing.

    It’s an interesting time in which we live. The government subsidizes every thing to keep prices artificially cheap especially with food. Billions of government money it poured into farm bills to keep the food system propped up for the benefit of not only the growers but the end buyers as well. It’s all based on a house of cards that will some day fail. When it does we better have our local network in place because we as a culture have lost the ability to be self sufficient and maybe we weren’t supposed to be totally self sufficient.

    Have a great biomimicry day.

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    • Bill says:

      Man, I go write for hours on that subject. Our government-subsidized food system is now producing the cheapest, most abundant food supply the world has ever know. These days Americans spend less than 10% of our incomes on food, down nearly 30% in 1950 and 17% just 30 years ago. But it’s an illusion. Much of the price of the food has been prepaid by taxpayers and even more will come due as the health crisis intensifies.

      It is entirely built on cheap credit, cheap fuel and government handouts. It is not sustainable.

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  3. shoreacres says:

    Your comment about not having to unlearn things reminded me of Flannery O’Connor’s great quotation: “Total non-retention has kept my education from being a burden to me.”

    It seems to me that one of the great strengths of the multi-generational family farm must have been that it functioned as an apprenticeship system. From the time a child began gathering eggs, carrying buckets of feed, handing tools or snapping beans, the wisdom of the elders was being passed on.

    I found the same thing when I started varnishing. There’s a famous book that often was recommended. It had one serious flaw. To do things “by the book” often created more problems and overhead than was acceptable. For example: the author advised wiping down sanded wood with a certain solvent before applying the vanish. Fine – but you’d spend hundreds of dollars a year on that solvent. Better to wash everything down with water, and vanish after it dries. It’s cheaper, more effective, and safer for the vanisher.

    My six months’ of working with an experienced varnisher taught me more tricks than the book contained, and most of them required no dollar investment at all.

    I always wondered if the book author was getting a kickback from the solvent manufacturers. 😉

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    • Bill says:

      One of the speakers talked about having gone to NC State and being taught all the “correct” ways to farm. After a decade of losing money and destroying his soil he came to realize that he’d been taught by the salesmen.

      Like

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