Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Big O, little o, what begins with O? (Part I)

On the front cover of the most recent issue of the Canadian Organic Grower is a photograph that fascinates me: two Milking Shorthorn oxen standing in yoke. Somehow, they are the picture of both humility and of tremendous power, all in one: Their heads lowered, their shoulders massive, their horns straight ahead, obediently bearing the burden their teamster has laid on them. They could gore him with a single flick of the head; instead, they quietly work his field.

This image, and the accompanying article, speak to me of a parallel tension in the organic food movement, a tension between the way of power and the way of humility. Oxen, as the article makes clear in the first sentence, represent a radically downscaling approach: "Cattle have always been, and continue to be, the most common source of traction power on small farms throughout the world." (Read: this is how the little guys do it everywhere other than the wealthy West.)

Organics is at a crossroads. Go big or go home. There are the Gary Hirshbergs of the world - CEO of Stonyfield Farms, which sells its line of organic dairy products on the shelves of Walmart - who warn us that for meaningful decreases in pesticides, growth hormones and carbon emissions, we have to convert the big food system to organic practices. To fret about the grassroots, small-scale, local, "small o" organic movement losing its soul is to "make the perfect the enemy of the good."

You can bet Tractors to Tonka Trucks Stonyfield Farms are not tilled by oxen.

In many ways, Canadian Organic Growers has championed the Big O approach in recent years. The push for a national organic standard, the legal protection of the "o" word only for those with official certification has caused many of my "little o" organic, locally oriented farmer friends to distance themselves from COG and its associated certifying agencies. We ourselves have decided to drop our certification this year. We may re-certify in future, but for now, the paperwork and the financial cost of certification is not justified by our small-scale enterprises, and means little to the friends and family who buy from us.

So, is COG really serious about promoting oxen-scaled farming? Or are the oxen on the cover of their magazine like the little red barn on the logo of Stonyfield: a notional image, a marketing fiction designed to create a romantic association, and obscure the very destruction of this way of life which industrial upscaling entails?

Which raises another question for me: How serious am I about reading up on oxen? Is this a romantic dream for me, a pleasant diversion from "real" farm planning, or is renewing this ancient tradition, as the article concludes, a way of "closing an energy loop on the farm?" Does the climate/energy crisis reveal tractor-farming as the actually soft-headed and rosy future vision?

We have friends who farmed with water buffalo oxen in Burma all their lives. Our Karen refugee friends tell a creation story about the this animal that reveal its centrality in their economy:

Once, God summoned the water buffalo to deliver a message to the people. "Tell them that this is how often they can eat: Adults twice a day and children three times a day."

The water buffalo went to the people, but when he reached them, he told them, "This is what God says: 'Adults can eat three times a day, and children can eat as often as they like.'"

Upon the water buffalo's return, God asked him. "What did you tell them?" When the water buffalo told God what he had told the people, God became angry with the water buffalo for changing the instructions: "If you want to make big promises like that, you will have to help deliver on them. Now you must spend your life helping the people with their crops, so they can eat that often."

And that is how the water buffalo became a beast of burden.

There are many-layered teachings in this agrarian wisdom-story:

  • There are sacred limits on how much one ought to eat.
  • Humans and the creation are bound together in divinely ordained interdependent relationships.
  • There is a tendency to tell people what they want to hear, rather than a harder truth.
  • The difference a water buffalo ox makes is the difference between a life where adults eat only twice a day and children three times, and a life where adults eat three square meals and children can eat as often as they like. As our friend Naw Kay Seng says, "a simple life, but a good life."

I am reminded here of an echoed wisdom, this time by way of Wendell Berry, another farmer-sage:

"Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more.” This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies....The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits." (from The Agrarian Standard)

How does a culture that honors limits: the limits of soil, of animals, of workers and watersheds, help turn around a culture founded on defying limits? By getting out in front and proving we can play ball with the big boys, that we can ramp up, mechanize and standardize organic food to penetrate the mass-market?

I suspect the limits will assert themselves. I am grateful to the Big O movers and shakers, for blunting some of the damage being done by the industrial food system. But when the real limits of cheap energy, of ecological carrying capacity, soil depletion, etc. do assert themselves, any peacable future one can hope for will count on humans who have learned to imagine, then live, "a simple life, but a good life."

I imagine the farmers among those humans will be working their fields with grass-, rather than oil-eaters.

My next post will look at some of the practical considerations I'm gleaning on ox-farming, mixed with some biblical tangents.

Until then....

Big O, little o, what begins with o? Oxen on organic outposts getting off of oil, that begins with o.

No comments:

Post a Comment