Like most farmers and gardeners, this time of year I itch to work the soil. There seems something so fundamentally right about a field or garden plot of freshly turned earth and the new season’s growth it promises. What more archetypal activity is there than putting a spade into the ground? What more all-American image than a tractor pulling a plow?
Lately, though, I’ve become a little uneasy with this rite of spring. Even my family’s organic farm is far from sustainable, and annual plowing has a lot to do with it. Because of all our tillage, my tractor has burned far more energy in diesel fuel than the calories we get out as crop. Tilling depletes the organic matter in the soil and releases it to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas! Our freshly turned soil is also vulnerable to erosion from wind and rain. Tilling, it seems, has a shadow side. In the Book of Genesis, Cain was the first tiller of the soil, and we all know how that story ended.
The most elegant and sustainable ways of growing food mimic the natural ecosystems of their region while nudging them toward human uses. If I stopped working my Midwestern fields they would soon become woodland again; the forest should therefore be the model for my farming. Managed forests can produce a great and diverse yield—with no tilling, no fossil fuels, no fertilizer and no pesticides or herbicides. As a bonus, the forest builds soil and sequesters carbon in the process.
Ecologically sensitive farms and gardens of the future, then, will likely replace many annual grains and vegetables with permanent plantings. Imagine, for example, an intensively tended, heavily mulched “food forest” of nut, fruit and other trees, with a multilayered understory of berry-yielding shrubs, vining plants, perennial vegetables and grains—in which the main task is simply to harvest. Whether on farm scale or in a suburban yard or city park, it would look a lot like, well, Eden. And though they require more labor and hence more people on the land (both good things, in my opinion), such “forest gardens” are vastly more productive per acre than Iowa cornfields. We could feed the world handily and with healthier and more diverse foods. High fructose corn syrup does not grow on trees, after all.
As a farmer, I resonate with this novel approach called “permaculture.” As a Catholic, I can see clearly how it resonates with the church’s call for ecological stewardship: to preserve and enhance creation’s sacramental integrity, to protect the planetary common good and, most important, to safeguard the poor who suffer hardship because of environmental distress or food supply shortfalls.
Even so, I have moved our farm only in fits and starts toward this regenerative form of agriculture. Permaculture requires substantial upfront labor and capital, with a longer return on investment (even though, I should note, there are creative ways to ensure other useful yields in the transition period). And there is a steep learning curve to conduct such a diverse biological symphony.
I hesitate most, however, because I am still enamored of the idea of getting a fresh start every year. When growing annual crops, no matter how badly you botch a season, you can plow it clean and start over next spring. Perennial plantings, like life and history, have no reset button: they are a living (or dying) testament to good or poor weather and management over time.
My hesitation is quintessentially American. Is it any coincidence that a culture built on replacing this country’s permanent grasslands and forests with annual grain agriculture should have an ever-shorter historical memory? Is it any coincidence that so many of us idolize self-reinvention and constantly seek fulfillment in a new iGadget, new job, new city, new house, new spouse or new religion?
Embracing roots and continuity means bearing the blessings and burdens of the past along with hope and responsibility for the future. In Catholicism, you get Archbishop Oscar Romero and Catholic social teaching, but you also get the Inquisition and sexual abuse by members of the clergy. But with trees or tradition, deep perennial roots also bring great rewards: stability and resilience in the tough times and unsurpassed fruitfulness in the good.