Fit Farmers for the Future

Reader Contribution by Scott Vlaun
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A few years ago, I had the privilege of presenting a slide show celebrating “Seed People” at the Organic Seed Growers Conference hosted by the Organic Seed Alliance. As the last presenter of the day, I spent the day listening to speakers reflecting on the importance of conserving genetic diversity in the seed world, and  of adapting seed varieties to low-input organic conditions and climate instability. In the face of seed industry consolidation and the GMO monocultures which dominate the agricultural landscape, this all seemed like critical work; the very work that the folks in my slide show (many of whom were in the audience that day) were doing with a passion. As the day moved on I was feeling confident that my presentation would be a fitting ending for the day and leave everyone inspired to continue the important work of breeding, adapting, and growing organic seed to forge a foundation for the burgeoning organic agriculture movement.

True Food System Sustainability

What I was unprepared for that day was the speaker who directly proceeded me. I had the great fortune that afternoon of hearing Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center reflect on the future of agriculture in this country. His talk was both inspiring for the vision he had for moving towards true food system sustainability, and terrifying for the extreme challenges he saw ahead. (Also terrifying for me to have to speak after him!) 

One of the many things I gained from Kirschenmann’s lecture was his reference to a paper by Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute entitled “50 Million Farmers,” which I have since read many times. In this seminal essay, Heinberg points out that in a post-fossil fuel era, which is of course inevitable, that it will take one in six of us with our hands in the soil to grow enough food for humanity, as opposed to the current ratio in the U.S. of about one farmer to one hundred eaters. The vision of living in a society where nearly twenty percent of us grow food has been an inspiration for me ever since that day. A lot will have to change to get us there, not least the health of our population.

We often equate the health, or lack thereof, in our food system with the health, or lack thereof in our communities. Our current food system has lead to an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease to name a few ills. Where does this leave us as we look to develop a robust and sustainable, post-carbon food future? Surely one in six of us are not ready for the challenge. While there is a fit and even ultra-fit percentage of our population running, swimming, biking and pumping iron in the gym, many of those folks have little knowledge, time or inclination when it comes to gardening or farming. Those that do have the knowledge base for producing food at scale are largely late middle age, or older and are not necessarily in robust health due to the nature of modern, fossil fuel-based farming and the American lifestyle.

Photo, above: The author and his son, Jasper, stretching in the garden

A Powerful Question

I recently found myself presenting to another group. This time I was asked to share the work of the Center for an Ecology Based Economy (CEBE) to a group of health and wellness professionals hosted by Healthy Oxford Hills, here in Western Maine. I was also asked to come up with a “powerful question” that the group might dig into to further our thinking and collaboration. All this was to happen in a half-hour. I’m not sure we succeeded completely, but we did begin to realize the interrelated work that we were doing; CEBE focusing on sustainable food, energy, shelter and transport, and the wellness collaborative on the physical health and wellbeing of the community. Of course getting people riding bikes to work, growing organic food and living in eco-villages of energy efficient, earth-friendly dwellings would support the work of the collaborative. What was not so obvious, but began to surface, is that if we are to build a resilient, and ultimately sustainable community, and society at large, we will need healthy able-bodied and inspired people, especially young, strong ones.

Meanwhile, we face a profound challenge: How do we support the work of building a new, dynamic, post-carbon society, based on human-scale agriculture and architecture? On one hand we need to conserve and increase the health and well-being of our current food growers and community builders. To this end, I have been working with a couple of yoga teachers over the last few years to develop a program for gardeners to use yoga practice to turn “back-breaking” labor, into a “back-building” labor of love. It goes something like this: You develop a modest yoga practice in the off-season to increase flexibility, build strength and increase awareness of body and breath. You enter the growing season fit and with a new understanding of body mechanics, breathing, counter-posing against repetitive motion, and you build and maintain fitness in the garden. Invite your friends and it’s almost as fun as going to the gym or yoga studio, or a lot more fun depending on your point of view. As a bonus you get to eat like a yogi. My friend Katey Branch of Halls Pond Healing Arts and I will be teaching a Yoga for Gardeners workshop at the Alan Day Community Garden in Norway, (Maine, not the country) on July 26. If you are in the neighborhood, please come join us. It’s free.

Photo, above: A Yoga For Gardeners Workshop at the Center for an Ecology Based Economy

I have a lot of friends in the community that belong to a gym and practice something called “True Strength.” They are undoubtedly the fittest bunch in town, maybe even more than the spandex-clad cycling group that rides the gorgeous and hilly back roads of the area every week, although many are the same folks. As a farmer, homesteader and timber framer, I and a few work buddies often speculate on how much work we could get done if we could only harvest that “true strength” and put it to the work of building those gardens and dwellings that we will so desperately need to feed and house a growing population in a future of dwindling resources. Somehow we need to make it as sexy and fun as a trip to the gym or hard ride on a fast bike.

There is much to be learned by the growers and builders from the yogis and athletes about how to use our bodies to the best effect and build strength and wellness in the process. There is equally as much for the fitness buffs to learn about the critical work of building healthy, resilient communities and restoring the earth for future generations, and achieving the same excitement of peak athletic experience in the process. Bring on the Homestead Olympics!

Grow strong!