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    Detail from Winslow Homer, Man with Plow Horse, 1879

    How Shall We Farm?

    Philip Britts

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    In this far-sighted essay from the 1940s, a Devonshire-bred farmer sketches out a sustainable way of agriculture – and of life.

    Within the last half century we have seen a revolution in agriculture, typified especially in the rising use of chemical fertilizers and powered machinery. The change has brought consequences both good and bad. The tractor and the fertilizer bag are really means of speeding up farming – the first of speeding up man’s powers of cultivation, the second of speeding up nature’s supply of nutrients to the crops. They were called into being through the increased pressure of machine-age life upon the land, to supply the ever-increasing demand for more food, more oils, more fibers, with dwindling manpower. This demand has been largely met, and could have been more nearly met but for the ruinous periods of destruction in two world wars. But a price is to pay. Where this speeding-up has been done rashly, as it has on millions of acres of land, retribution has followed swiftly, and good farming land that nature took millions of years to form has been worn out and lost in a generation.

    Winslow Homer, Man with Plow Horse, 1879

    Winslow Homer, Man with Plow Horse, 1879. Image from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

    All farming, even in its most primitive form, is necessarily an interference by man with the process of nature. As agriculture has developed, this disturbance of nature, this effort at control over nature, has increased. Adam was charged with the double task to “subdue and replenish” the earth. If a graph could be plotted of the subjection of nature by man, it would show a line, rising slowly at first, through several thousand years, then abruptly and very steeply in the last few years. A graph of the replenishment of the earth by man would probably show a slow rise throughout the centuries, but instead of following the sharp rise of the line of subjection in modern times, would perhaps curve downwards. This in spite of the extensive use of fertilizers, because chemicals without humus do not give lasting or balanced replenishment.

    A tragedy of the modern world is the divorce of city dwellers from the land.

    Where will the lines go from now on? Obviously if the measure of subjection continues to rise, and the measure of replenishment falls, if the lines get farther apart, nature will rebel, and bring down the measure of subjection by such hard steps as erosion, sterility, and disease.

    Here and there are signs that some people are awake to the trend of things, and alarmed at the possibilities. Notable are such men as Howard with his “Indore process” of composting, Pfeiffer with his “biodynamics,” Faulkner with his Plowman’s Folly.footnote A drive for sounder farming practice is represented by a section of the British landowner class, who have been vocal in the House of Lords, and from time to time evidence is submitted by scientists and technicians from Experiment Stations.

    The cause of good farming is soundly served by such careful studies as Humus by Waksman, and Soil and the Microbe by Waksman and Starkey. But these books, thorough and sound as they are, are highly technical. They leave a gap to be bridged between the scientist and the farmer.

    A still greater gap exists between what the farmer knows to be right, and what a competitive economy forces him to do.

    Detail from Winslow Homer, Man with Plow Horse, 1879

    Experiment Stations supply the farmer with valuable fractions of knowledge, which he has to fit into his scheme of farming. The results of experiments, and the elaborate methods for determining the “statistical significance” of the results, are not above question. However carefully they are planned and executed, however often repeated, they cannot give an infallible verdict on the effect of a practice in the long run, or even an infallible prophecy of the effect of a practice in the next repetition of it under slightly different conditions. At best they can only give evidence that certain effects do recur within a finite margin of variation.

    But if one makes claims for, or passes judgment on, technical matters without the restraint of these “cut and dried statistics,” several human tendencies must be guarded against. One is the tendency to overgeneralize, leading either to a one-sided championing of one direction or the other, or, equally false, to the compromise of taking a “middle way,” whereas the technical truth for each specific case may follow a line swinging from side to side within a channel formed by a series of correlations. In farming, as in life, isolated factors lose their significance – it is the correlation of things that matters. Another expression of overgeneralizing is to “give a dog a bad name and hang him” – for example, to attribute the use of fertilizers to an “NPK mentality” and dismiss the subject.footnote …

    One must beware of attributing to any one factor effects caused by a number of factors. Thus soil fertility is not the basis of public health. It is one of many factors and, I think, a major one. But food by itself, however good, will not produce health. We have to cope with other factors such as climate, hygiene, and moral and social habits. Even if all the factors we can discover were made to contribute towards health, it would be fallacious to suppose a disease-free mankind. There are deeper causes of disease and death.

    In the same way, organic farming by itself, as an isolated factor, can never reach its full significance. It stands for the great truth that agriculture can never be stable and permanent until man learns and obeys the laws of fertility, the cycle that includes the decay of the old and the release of the new, or, to put it biblically, to “subdue and replenish.”

    But it can only realize its full meaning in the context of an organic life. Man’s relationship to the land must be true and just, but this is only possible when his relationship to his fellow man is true and just and organic. This includes the relationship of all the activities of man, the relationship of industry with agriculture, of science with art, the relationship between the sexes, and above all the relationship between man’s spiritual life and his material life.

    One of the great tragedies of the modern world is the complete divorce of the city dwellers from nature and the land. Civilization has become like the “fat white woman” who “walked through the fields in gloves.”footnote

    The decisive factor in the success of the farmer will be, ultimately, the love of farming. This love comes when we find, not in nature, but through and behind nature, that something which impels worship and service. Part of the glory of farming is that indescribable sensation that comes, perhaps rarely, when one walks through a field of alfalfa in the morning sun, when one smells earth after rain, or when one watches the ripples on a field of wheat. …

    We do try to farm organically, but we see this as only a part of an organic life.

    This love is fed by understanding, by knowledge. Without going the whole way with Leonardo da Vinci and his “perfect knowledge is perfect love,” the more one knows of the mysteries of the earth the better one can love farming in the sense of giving one’s service to it.

    One of the best contributions of the school of organic farming to agriculture is this call for a genuine love of the land.

    Our communities in England and Paraguay represent an effort to extend this love of the land, of organic farming, to all the other aspects of life: to industry, craftwork, education, and the daily relationship of man with man.

    Sociologically, the position of our community in Paraguay is an interesting one. We find ourselves a group of modern people transported to a land that is still only at the initial stage of the machine age (i.e., before the sharp rise in our supposed graph of the subjection of nature). We find ourselves setting out to farm with a modern scientific outlook, but without modern scientific appliances. What implements we have are of the pre-machine-age type, pushed by hand or drawn by horses.

    Detail from Winslow Homer, Man with Plow Horse, 1879

    We are faced with the necessity of feeding ten people from every eight acres that we are able to cultivate or stock, including maize, beans, mandioca (the potato of Paraguay), peanuts, fruit, vegetables, milk, and eggs. We are unable to imitate the Chinese with their unlimited expenditure of labor to maintain fertility, because we are always short of manpower. For this reason meat plays an important part in the diet, being cheaply produced on the native range.

    To maintain the fertility of our land we use green-manures, for which we have plenty of scope in our nine-month growing season, and two-year leys grazed by the dairy herd, combined in a five-field rotation. During the short winter, those fields that are empty are protected by leaving the summer cover crop on the surface as a mulch, or by disking in rye, to be lightly grazed and plowed under for green-manure.

    We do not use fertilizers because they are too expensive, but believe we could advantageously use bone meal and cottonseed meal if they were economically obtainable. In the same way we would welcome the chance to use tractors if we had the money to buy them, which we have not. We do not, with Faulkner, reject the use of the plow. Although we believe there is such a thing as over-plowing, we still believe in “the useful plow,” providing one never plows without turning under organic matter, and never leaves the plowed land naked to the weather in this climate of heavy rain.

    We have only been tilling the land here for five years, but with the number of people supported per acre, and two crops per year, the demands on it have been heavy and are increasing. We are therefore vitally interested in the maintenance of fertility.

    But just as we do not believe that organic farming can find its full meaning outside the context of the whole of life, neither do we believe that an organic society can exist for itself, or have its only significance for the small group of people who are living it.

    One of two things must happen. Either man will decline, through war, famine, disease, and the falling birth rate – and the recent progress of science leads one to believe that this decline may be imminent and rapid, and accompanied by obvious horrors – or we must learn to live peaceably together, in a society where the demand for wealth or position, ease or comfort, is supplanted by the just sharing of everything, and a free giving of strength and brains in service, not of self, but of the whole.

    We do try to farm organically, but we see this as only a part of an organic life, and existing in the context of a search for truth along the whole line. This gives rise to social justice as brotherhood, to economic justice as community of goods. We see these conditions as the necessary basis for a true attitude towards the land and towards work. Therefore our door is always open to all people who wish to seek a new way with us.

    To the question, “How shall we farm?” must be added the question, “How shall we live?”


    This undated essay is excerpted from Plough’s book featuring Philip Britts’ essays and poetry, Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of a Visionary Farmer (2018).

    Footnotes

    1. Albert Howard (1873–1947), Ehrenfried Pfeiffer (1899–1961), and Edward H. Faulkner (1886–1964) were pioneers in organic farming methods.
    2. Howard’s work is the story of “a Fall” in which the “serpent” is Baron Justus von Liebig, who showed that plants need only nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium to grow. Howard called this the “NPK mentality” after the chemical symbols for those three elements.
    3. The reference is to a poem by Frances Cornford: “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train.”
    Contributed By Philip Britts Philip Britts

    Farmer-poet Philip Britts was born in 1917 in Devon, England. Britts became a pacifist, joined the Bruderhof, and moved to South America during World War II.

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