I see two new mindsets rapidly emerging in our Michiana area regarding sustainable farming. The one embraces very cutting-edge technology and methods in order to produce local food. High-tunnels, fish farming indoors, distilleries, hydroponics, etc. are popping up like morels in May. The other mindset has embraced a more low-tek, self-sufficient approach. They utilize a tool called a u-bar to deeply prep a raised bed or a chicken tractor to facilitate rotational grazing. I am not yet sure as to which is more appropriate to reach the goals of a truly sustainable, localized agriculture. I would like to weigh in on these two trajectories using my own past experience.
Over the years I have pursued both options: cutting-edge and low-tek. I would say that at this point I am somewhere in between, but leaning more and more towards low-tek. Now with that said, it would be hypocritical for me to suggest that I will ever fully commit to a total low-tek approach to farming or living for that matter. I do have a high house and a gas-heated greenhouse. Four years ago I purchased my very first tractor. Prior to that I had to rely on rototilling and hand tools for all my planting and cultivation. Given a choice, I would never go back to farming without a tractor. The very fact that I am writing this blog post on a new computer in my living room shows that I am no luddite, yet I am still inclined to believe there is a greater value and satisfaction in simplicity over complexity.
Today when considering whether or not to adopt a new technique or purchase a piece of equipment I ask myself three questions. First, is this method or equipment practical? In order for me to sell my own seed, I realized that a roadside stand would not work. For fresh heirloom tomatoes, yes, but not for packets of seed. The practical thing to do was purchase a computer and join the internet community.
Second, does this method or piece of equipment lend itself to the scale of my operation? My farm is 8 acres total with a little over 1/2 acre in production, even a small pull-behind grain harvester would be impractical for the area I grow in. A scythe is able to get the job done, and is a far more practical tool given the scale of my operation.
The third question would be, is this new method or piece of equipment simple in design and/or easy to use or implement. Years ago at my old farm, I decided to install drip irrigation (T-Tape) and adopt a plastic mulch system for about an acre of mixed vegetables and flowers. My pump was next to the house, about 500 feet away from the field, but it was a downward slope all the way and I figured this would work to my advantage. I used my dad’s tractor to pull a mulch/tape layer I had purchased. When the mulch and irrigation was in place, I proceeded to hook up the irrigation by way of a series of 2″ pipes running from the pump to the field. This new equipment and new method was going to save me countless hours of weeding and moving sprinklers. I turned on the spigot and then the nightmare began. The main line from the pump to the field started to blow apart at each connection between the sections of pipe. I quickly went and purchased heavy duty steel clamps to reinforce the pipe connections. More blowouts, more clamps. No sooner than I would fix one joint, another would blow apart. Finally, with six expensive clamps per connection, I got the pipes to stay together. I had not counted on the weight of all that water in 500 foot of 2″ pipe. The next problem was even worse. As each drip line was turned on, I quickly realized that only half of the field was receiving water. Whereas before I had too much pressure and water in the 2″ pipes, now the drip lines did not have enough pressure to irrigate the whole field.
Now I know that if I had just communicated with the company that had sold me the drip line, I could have made this system easily work. Remember I was in my early 20s and was too proud to ask for advice or help. I am aware that today there are better, more efficient drip systems available, but that is not my point. When I finally got the whole system to work, I realized that now I was spending all that time I had planned on saving, running around every few hours to turn off one zone and then turn on another. Leaks had to be constantly addressed and in the fall it took a few long days to remove all that plastic and drip line from the field. To this day there are still little pieces of plastic that appear in that field. The equipment was not very easy to use and the design at its best was complex. At the scale of what I was trying to accomplish, I would have been better off with a whole bunch of garden hoses and a couple of overhead sprinklers. I would still have to do a lot of moving things around, but It would be easy to install, easy to maintain, and easy to remove in the spring. I am aware of the water efficiency of drip irrigation over sprinklers, but this can be mitigated by the time of day you irrigate, mulching with straw, and utilizing drought-tolerant crops where possible.
In the past I have spent a lot of hours in frustration over my dependency on powered equipment and complex growing systems. I find myself at peace every time I adopt a simple, new low-tek tool or idea, and apprehension when I move in the other direction towards complex systems or technology. This summer I purchased a treadle-powered grain thresher, which has been a real help in processing all the different grains I raised, as well as a real joy to operate. A few months later I purchased my computer and I still feel very awkward when using it. It does serve its purpose but I still think it should have a treadle or hand crank.
I am not totally opposed to new technology, but I am weary. I can remember back in the mid 90s when hydroponic lettuce houses appeared in our area and then soon disappeared. My hope is that these two mindsets can learn from one another and grow side by side. I am not trying to interject an antagonism between the two philosophies, but I am apprehensive as to how they can work together in a sustainable way.