A Rumination on Agricultural Widsom

In mediaeval Europe, most of the land was held by manor houses but in practice run by groups of serfs or commoners who tended it, managed crop rotation and multi-use, preserving the fertility of the soil as much as possible. The rights of the commoner to the use of common land was gradually eroded most famously in the English Enclosure Acts. Many landowners became rich through the enclosure of the commons, while many ordinary folk lost a centuries-old right.

An anonymous protest poem from the 17th century summed up the anti-enclosure feeling:

‘The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common,
But lets the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.’ (Wikipedia source)

However, this article is not about land rights (a story in itself), it is about the processes of farming and in particular about the wisdom farmers need to preserve the fertility of the soil. The Catholic Church and The Church of England preserved many European farming rituals which may well have predated both religious institutions. What about non-Christian societies?  For example, the book, Priests and Programmers: the technologies of power in the engineered landscapes of Bali by J. Stephen Lansing describes the Sacred Water religion of Bali.

Lansing, associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Southern California describes how, for the Balinese, the whole of nature is a perpetually renewable, engineered landscape shaped by centuries of  carefully directed labour. This process has been managed by an intricate system of water temples through which individuals and social groups of farmers make decisions on development, pest control and optimal water use for the good of the whole. “Today the ancient system of water temples is threatened by development plans that assume agriculture to be a purely technical phenomenon.” (Cover quote) This is not an idle speculation. In the early 20th century, the Green Revolution promoted the use of synthetic nitrogen, along with mined rock phosphate, pesticides and mechanization and later the use of high-yield varieties of common staple grains such as rice. The Green Revolution exported these technologies from the developed world to the developing world

There were immediate increases in production, but there was a downside. During the Green Revolution pressure from the Asian Development Bank, resulted in near failure of the age old rice production farming in Bali and the near loss of traditional wisdom that kept the island kingdom from poverty. Wikipedia points out that “Although the Green Revolution significantly increased rice yields in Asia, yield increases have not occurred in the past 15–20 years. It takes only a decade or two for herbicide-resistant weeds to emerge, and insects become resistant to insecticides within about a decade.”

Priests and Programmers is fascinating reading for one who is a solitary gardener, divorced both from the past wisdom of my farming grandparents and a knowledgeable community of fellow gardeners. In the past farmers were encouraged to make decisions for the good of all by virtue of a governing system whether run by temples, churches or medieval manors. Farming in North America was exported from Europe mostly after the enclosures of medieval farm lands. In this system, the individual farmer is responsible for his and her land, its development, its management, its harvesting. Occasionally there have been attempts to counter this private enterprise version of farming: the wheat pool on the prairies comes to mind or various egg milk and cheese marketing boards. And some groups emigrating from Europe brought their communal farming practices to North America. (Hutterites, Doukhabors etc.) In our area the system of water rights and the agricultural land reserve regulations are two examples of resource management for the agricultural common good.

But a vacuum exists. Now when I turn in hope to Google, I still do not understand the difference between diseases of Tomatoes (is that a deficiency I am seeing, a problem with over- irrigation or is it a virus that means I will have to stop growing tomatoes? I can make compost, but how do I ensure the healthy composition of the manure I am collecting from the farmer down the road? How can I decide on the relative authority of this pro-GMO  research or that anti-GMO research?  Knowledge is not wisdom. Reading about the sacred Water Temples I envy the Balinese their priestly supervision. For these reasons I am delighted by the rise in farmer’s markets, CSA’s, Food Co-ops and the organic food movement. A sense of a farming/gardening community is emerging. It will never have the authority of the Water Temples of Bali, but, in time, community pressure may result in farming practices that are for the good of all.