I often see people's eyes light up when I'm talking about how we farm: "My grandpa used to milk cows," or "we had a coop full of laying hens when I was growing up."
These conversations make me think about two things. First, that farming, the desire to fiddle with nature and need put our backs to the plow, is in all our blood. And second I think about how our farming is like and unlike the farms of our forefathers.
On the whole we have lost a lot of skills and knowledge that our forefarmers had, particularly the tacit knowledge and instincts which do not commit well to paper. The ability to make intuitive and experiential predictions about nature's behavior, or assess instantly the health of plant or animals. Perhaps more importantly, they could make anything they needed for farm or life from what lay around them, kept their wants to their options.
But it would be a mistake to say we farm just as the farmers of even 80 years ago. So many, many changes have come to the world, our knowledge or at least access to it has exploded. Consider these novelties:
- General Ecology, the carbon and nitrogen cycles
- Soil Science and Agronomy
- Electric Fence (allows us controlled pasture rotations)
- Compost Piles
- The Internet (exchange of ideas)
- Farm Equipment
- Funded research
Consider the incredible effort that pioneers put into clearing land. Dutch settlers in the 1840's spent years clearing 3-5' diameter trees, cutting them down with axes, burning and pulling stumps, all to find soil to cultivate. How they must sweat and hungered to recreate their farming heritage in the New World.
Now I find myself planting trees in my pastures, knowing that pastures grow better in 30% tree cover. And although nomadic herdsman practiced rotational grazing when not overstocked, the basic tenets were not well published till Andre Voison and Allan Savory; nature's fundamental cycle of disruption and rest.
Its not to say that we do so much better now. But remember, we stand on the shoulders of those who've gone before us, and we have the opportunity and responsibility to see farther, to not farm as our forefarmers did, but to do better.