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The Carletonian

Troubled by trendy “back to the land” tendencies

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I’ll be the first to admit I am prone to romanticize all things “green.” In an effort to reject what bothers me about my middle-class suburban upbringing, I’ve thought I could, and should, happily live off the grid. Grow my own food. Have a small zero-net energy house. Live simply, have less, make what I can myself, recycle everything possible. The more I became disappointed with excessive American consumption and poor environmental governance, the more I turned to my own future lifestyle as the answer, a refuge.

I see the same responses and trends reflected in much of the food movement today. With the rise of WWOOFing, urban gardening programs, and volunteering on farms, there is a growing interest in, well, growing. You’d be surprised at the number of liberal arts students I’ve met, from Carleton or otherwise, who flirt with the idea of starting their own farm. Even I talk about having a large garden one day. But of all the ways to romanticize sustainability, the “back to the land” and “start a farm” movement is perhaps one of the most foolish and frustrating.

Farming is hard. Really hard. There’s no such thing as week- ends or business hours. And despite its quaint portrayal as simple work in the great outdoors, true sustainable farming requires a lot of thought and expertise. It demands ecological, biological, and business knowledge, along with superb managerial skills, ingenuity and flexibility, not to mention physical strength. So when college students act like they could drop it all today and start planting seeds tomorrow, it belittles the demanding and risky undertaking that sustainable farming really is.

Take the example of the Main Street Project, a local initiative developing sustainable free-range poultry operations a few miles down Division. Their chicken operations are closed energy systems, in which chickens live in solar heated pens and prune and fertilize their own feed, perennials provide shade for chickens as well as revenue, processed chicken parts feed fish in aqua-ponics systems which also produce vegetables, leaving a small operation with six marketable outputs (meat, eggs, nuts, fish, vegetables, and fruits) and an endless combination of dynamic interdependent cycles and organisms to manage. And this chicken raising set up would only be one aspect of a full-fledged integrated farming system. This type of systems thinking is anything but easy, and in some ways the more agriculture replicates nature the more complicated it becomes. Farming commands an exceptional amount of intellectual and physical dedication.

Furthermore, the more “natural” an argoecological system, the more nerve wracking it becomes. We forget that most people moved towards industrial farming because they wanted stability. Turning back to sustainable farming means taking on more risk, stress, and dependency on nature. I would tend to believe that this is how farming should be, but that is easy for me to say when I am not (directly) depending on the climate for my livelihood. Clearly, this sort of demanding work is not as easy to pick up as many would like to think. It explains why most eager young adults who flock to sustainable farming typically grew up in urban areas, while those raised in agricultural households are more likely to move away from farming.

To be clear – we do need more passionate and innovative farmers, and I am sure that many people who are in fact well suited for farming would never have considered it before seeing the career through a bucolic lens. But it is also important not to downplay how hard the job really is. Furthermore, the bigger issue at stake is beyond whether or not one is capable of actually feeding themselves farming, or becoming truly self-sufficient “off-the- grid;” the real question is, should you? Is that really the way to save the planet?

While sometimes abstaining from society may seem like the only solution, I find it to be a simplistic and selfish one. In turning to yourself to change the world, you severely limit your actual impact. By abstaining from mainstream society, you lose the ability to influence it. Moreover, not everyone can afford to abstain from the status quo. While some aspects of sustainability revolve around extreme thrift, others require a fair amount of capital to start up. Local food, or your own farm, anyone? Extreme-green lifestyles can be exclusive socially and economically, and if you really want to help the world you need to think of solutions that large swaths of the country can swallow. So while I am glad sustainability and especially farming have an increasingly positive and romantic association, I encourage people to move beyond “looking back” or “checking out.” While personal change is needed, it will not save us. We need passionate people to think more about shaping public policy and business, rather than their own idyllic lifestyle. We need to shift the conceptualization of sustainable living from romantic to realistic.

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