Farmer John: We need to stop treating sustainable agriculture practices as edgy ideas


SIGMA — I read a book, Children of the Mind, by the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card, which used the terms “edge nations” and “center nations” to discuss cultures on the fringe compared to dominant ones. 

I then considered the idea of edge cultures and center cultures, people and concepts. 

You can easily imagine the meaning. The center nations are those who wield the most power. Edge nations are those around the periphery with less influence and power. 

This made me think about how the things I write about and advocate for, which we describe here under the umbrella of sustainable agriculture practices, are clearly on the edge for many people. 

Namely, I’m talking about organic farming, composting and sustainability issues. 

Now, they are on the rise. Organic agriculture has grown within the wider industry for many years. However, it is still a small percentage of overall agriculture economic output. The idea that collectively we would commit to paying for, participating in and advocating for a full on composting system in every town seems out of reach. 

Or is transferring our subsidies and government support to organic farming practices going to happen? Let’s wait and see, but it seems farfetched – clearly on the edge. 

Those are the kinds of thing I am advocating for. I guess I am an edge dweller, the holder of an idea that has less power in some eyes than do dominant practices. And I guess I have been on the edge a long time. We are moving closer to the center all the time, but it’s going slowly.

I have gotten comfortable on the edge. What I can’t get comfy with is the idea that we will all stay complacent and watch as we pollute ourselves to death. 

We build higher and higher mountains of trash. Our monuments to waste and cheap stuff available on every corner with a very short, very planned obsolescence. We denude the land and make new deserts. It is especially hard to watch when we know how to do it differently and better. 

And these changes are life affirming, health giving and even beautiful to behold. 

They are a field of healthy crops with a swath of flowers and herbs on the border to attract beneficial insects and birds who then eat the pests in the field. 

It works, and it is being done successfully in more and more places where the whole ecosystem is engaged.

Who doesn’t love a big tree in the summer to sit under, even if you can’t see the carbon being sequestered?

What’s missing is the collective will to change, to push the sort of ideas I champion away from the edge. 

We have not gotten uncomfortable enough yet. 

How do we move all those practices to the center? How do we change our mind to embrace these changes that are so obviously good for us and the planet? We will have to be troubled a bit. 

New habits and new ways of thinking require us to go through some unsettled moments. We will need to bring in some edge-dwellers to the center. And we will need to stop allowing the political influencers to control the dialogue. The solutions we need will require everyone at the table helping. 

These ideas can’t be relegated to the right or the left, politically speaking. Let’s evaluate these edge concepts on their own merits, instead of on the mind-numbing barrage of verbiage from factions with agendas. 

You may hear one of the refrains I have heard for so long, that new ideas will ruin the economy. I say think again. It will simply be a different economy with different jobs. 

There would be lots of room for our biological innovators to create even more solutions. There would be new jobs for farmers growing the necessary cover crop seed to keep the ground covered — and also new jobs for compost makers. 

Our country has a rich tradition of problem-solving grit and genius, when called upon. 

We also have a history of stubborn refusal to accept change sometimes. 

It’s time to bring the edge to the center. 

Reach Wilson, a farmer and consultant, via

© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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