I had the good fortune to be able to attend a talk by Wes Jackson on Monday, sponsored by the University of Vermont Department of Plant & Soil Sciences. The room was packed with eager agriculture students as well as local agricultural luminaries such as Fred Magdoff. Among them were John and Nancy Todd, founders of New Alchemy Institute, both of whom have been major inspirations in my journey on this path. It was moving indeed to hear Wes pay homage to them as well, and to be able to bask in their glow.
The holistic and interrelated problems of the dysfunctional food system will require equally holistic and system wide strategies to address, and the key message I took from this talk was that there is no one thing to be done that is more important than anything else. We all should “follow our passion” and work on some way to protect soil and heal the wounds inflicted by modern industrial agriculture on this living planet. Of course I am most proud of the work I did as a grad student at UVM in the early ‘80s, when I produced the first version of The Soul of Soil. Almost thirty years later, with help from my compadre Joe Smillie, it’s still in print—and allows me to claim a place in Chelsea Green’s authors’ blog.
Even policy work, which is about all I do these days, is helpful – “kicking the giant sponge” in Washington, as Wes put it. I was greatly impressed with the forward thinking plan being proposed by Wes and Wendell Berry, among others, for a 50 year Farm Bill. Just thinking again about soil organic matter and the enormous beauty of soil biology, that “slab of space-time” of the ecosystem, and other such delights that were laid out for us that evening gave me the morale boost I was looking for.
So I take a moment to reflect on how far this movement has come, and to thank those like Wes who have continued to work—literally—on the root causes of agricultural malaise. We may still have a long way to go, but when the Secretary of Agriculture comes to speak at a winter NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) Conference, as he is scheduled to do this Saturday, it has to mean something. If nothing else, my personal slogan is affirmed: “There’s no hope – but maybe I’m wrong.”