We were blessed to receive a reply from Mary Cuff, author of an article in Modern Age entitled ‘Is it time for the Robert Penn Warren Option?’, of which we made mention in the March 31, 2019 post ‘chicken economics in round numbers’. As part of our conversation, we found ourselves articulating our principles in new words:
I’m not sure what would qualify as a ‘fully self-sustaining lifestyle’ by anyone’s definition, especially in the here and now. Cavemen with stone tools and skins for clothing were pretty self-sufficient folks; in the 21st century we would be hard put to it to find anything comparable. But I don’t suppose either of us visualizes that sort of self-sufficiency as being necessary or even, perhaps, desirable, today.
The real question begging urgently to be explored, we think, has less to do with an integrity characterized by a complete, or, more likely, imaginary, geographical unity of source, but much to do with another integrity, which I think I would like to call Respect; the Church, I think, calls it Purity, that is, the right use of things. Please don’t think I’m redirecting your practical question to something simply philosophical or theoretical, because what I am trying to describe is exercised by every one of us, concretely, many times a day.
At its most basic, life is sustained by food, by eating. Agriculture, therefore — in which we all participate very directly, even if we cultivate by proxy — involves us in the most primary of vital moral issues. Right use — of our food and of the sources of our food: plant, animal, fungus, soil — is the question. If our food originates in processes that honor the sources of that food — soil, plant, animal, human agent, and so on — then our eating can be consistent with Respect, with Purity. Thus knowing what processes do, in fact, honor those sources, becomes necessary if we are not going to reject the moral responsibility inherent in living.
I think over the past twenty years or so my family has come to know something about those processes and those sources that does, in fact, allow us to grow and eat food with a certain integrity. Let me tell you some of the most basic points.
Stuff, as we have stated somewhere in this blog, matters. All the created world counts, that is, has worth, inherently and completely. Dishonor to the least bit of it is dishonor to the whole, and to the Creator. This can be restated in innumerable ways, and formulated into endless tenets. ‘There is no such thing as waste’ (Farm Rule Sixth and Last). ‘All things should be used according to their natures’ (summary of the Principles of Permaculture) — another way of saying what Sir Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold, Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and a host of others have urged upon us, that is, the necessity of modeling our agriculture on nature’s own ecosystems. ‘Do unto others’, in fact, even when those others are soil biota.
The application of this rule is directed by location. Here in Appalachia, our weeping hills maintain their integrity best under grass and grazing ruminants, in a cycle of grazing-and-recovery that replenishes soil and perennial groundcovers. Through these processes the greatest possible proportion of contemporary sunlight is harvested over the greatest possible extent of the year, in the most materially productive manner, and converted into leaves. These are then harvested and converted again, this time into manure — thus giving back what the soil has given, with additions from the atmosphere and precipitation — as well as into flesh, both as living animal and as food. Good and proper use has been observed.
But — when that sunlight is also converted into milk, suddenly it is made available, repeatedly, in real time, in the most nutritious possible forms, not only to the ruminant’s offspring, but, by the generosity of its quantities, to all of the other farm animals, to the humans, and to the soil.
This is at once overwhelming and merely commonplace. Milk was for millennia the mainstay of the human food system (we were, you remember, pastoral before we were agricultural). The provision of ruminant milk in quantities beyond what are needed for reproduction allows human beings to take sustenance from nature and yet leave it more abundant than it was before. Two minus one equals three. The origin of those lovely, beguiling fairy tales wherein widow’s sons receive cloths that, whenever spread, produce a banquet, must surely have been the joy, wonder, and gratitude of the shepherd who understood how his flock’s grazing restored the pastures they grazed while twice daily filling his buckets with sweet, rich milk.
So, on our farm, sunlight-capturing grass is the source of all our calorie. Passing through the cows, it is converted into milk, meat, and manure. Also, more ruminants. Meat certainly plays a role, and not a small one, in our diets, but milk is King — or, I should say, Queen. After all, what other food, in its creation, leaves its source not only undiminished, but enriched? And who but a ruminant, properly managed, can, in the act of eating, renew and expand the source of her food? Our meat, of course, also starts out as milk. Calves are raised by their mothers on milk, the pigs grow on milk, the chickens fill our their foraging with clabber. Our gardens receive their fertility from manure from ruminants, or that of milk-fed pigs and chickens, as well as from drenches and foliar feeds made from milk or whey.
Yes, we do raise most of what we eat — and we could, if we decided it should be so, eliminate those things we buy in. I suppose that might be called ‘self-sustaining’, if the term ‘self’ is expanded to include all the life on the farm. But on that note, it is at least as significant to our sufficiency that the plants and animals from which we take our food, also eat from the farm, not from bags of solar energy harvested somewhere else. They eat from here, and they take part in the regeneration of here, as do we. Our life comes from the sunlight that falls on these few acres, and from the grass that absorbs the sunlight, and from the soil that nourishes and the rain that hydrates the grass, and from the cows that eat the grass and give us their milk and their meat and the fertility that keeps it all going forward with no calculable necessary cessation.
All of our farm efforts flow from our attempts rightly to direct those energies, so that they stay on the farm as life and living things.