Lessons on Scale and Humility

Dec 5, 2017 by

You meet them everywhere, these backyard suburban know-it-alls, these New Age gardeners utterly ignorant of the concept of scale. A silly American succeeds at not killing his tomato plant, and so he imagines he can farm 100,000 of them the same way, with no realization that whatever he fertilizes, sprays, waters, picks, or weeds must be repeated identically 100,000 times over if he is to be a real farmer. Kill one plant and all fall in identical fashion, setting off the chain reaction that hits everything from your wife’s car to your children’s lunch pail on the slow but fatal way to the bank.

Thus sayeth Victor Davis Hanson, not one to pull his punches. He writes this fairly angry passage in a fairly angry book. It’s a pretty good book, despite (or maybe in part because of) the anger, though it’s perhaps not one especially well-suited to the Catholic Land Movement. Hanson is talking about something much closer to standard American agri-business than to the kind of small-scale restorative agriculture the NCLM tends to emphasize. But I think this angry passage on scale is worth dwelling on.

I’m not a gardener from of old: I believe I probably started my first small suburban garden just over a decade ago. Until this year, I’ve always gardened on a very small scale—mostly just in raised beds built over the years with purchased soil and laid over the top of the North Carolina clay. I’ve had some successes and plenty of failures, but never gardened on a scale that would make a really significant impact on the family’s finances or nutrition.

This year, though, I used my little garden tractor to plow up a piece of our land, and I went to the farm store and bought myself 25 pounds of certified seed potatoes.

Yes, OK, that’s still not enough to make a really significant impact on our finances or nutrition. (That much seed could potentially produce in the neighborhood of 250 pounds of potatoes, though, so it’s not nothing.) But it’s a lot more than I’d done before, and it was intended as part of an experiment in expanding our production. We also planted a lot of peanuts and a fair bit of corn. The peanuts came in beautifully, and were eagerly harvested a few weeks ago by our pigs. The corn was mostly pulled up as seedlings and eaten by crows. There are some farming lessons there for another day. I’m interested in the potatoes right now.

Potatoes, if you’re new to this, are an easy crop to grow. As we’ve always grown them—in our 4×8 raised beds—we simply make four trenches down the length of the bed, and put the seed potatoes about a foot apart in the trench. Some people put compost down in the bottom of the trench before planting. You cover them over with a few inches of soil, and wait. Before too long, the plants pop up, and as they grow, you mound the soil around the tops. Do this a couple of times. After awhile, the plant tops die back, and you can dig your lovely harvest of potatoes. Simple.

I typically plant potatoes in March. There is still a danger that the tops will get zapped by frost, but while this may set the plants back a bit, it won’t really hurt them. This spring, I waited. I wasn’t planting in well-prepared, healthy garden soil. I was planting right in the clay. But I had the seed potatoes. And I kept looking at them. And then looking at the calendar. And thinking—“this is way past when I plant potatoes. I need to get these potatoes in the ground. I’ve got to get this done.” See my earlier post on feeling bullied into farm decisions. That’s what happened here. I was bullied into planting those potatoes.

Well, it was too early. The plants came up, all right, but without the kind of luxuriant growth I expect from my potato plants. When I went to hill them, the soil was like a rock. I had worked the clay soil too wet, and it had hardened into brick. I wound up harvesting less than I had planted.

Now, I knew not to work my clay soil when it was too wet…

(Although—and here’s a topic for a future discussion—one might well argue that I didn’t know it, properly speaking. I was aware of it, having read about planting in clay. But my awareness was too theoretical to really count as agricultural knowledge, which is such a richly embodied, practical kind of knowledge that it can really be had only through experience. But as I say, that’s a topic for a future discussion. So, back to where we were.)

… But I was bullied into working it anyway. And the reason I let myself be bullied, I’d have to say, is that I didn’t fully grasp the realities involved in the different scale this year. Working in the lovely little raised beds I’m used to is one thing. Working out there, in the wild, so to speak, in the largely un-amended clay soil of my field, is something else entirely.

Lesson learned.

But the bigger lesson, I think, is that stepping up in scale isn’t necessarily just a matter of doing what you’ve done before, only a little more. It can involve having to do things really entirely differently. For those of us making the move back to the land, this can mean our suburban gardening experience isn’t really all that helpful in preparing us for larger agricultural undertakings. This is all the more reason why in the long term the Church should be building the kind of agricultural training centers that Kevin Ford speaks of elsewhere on this site. Farming is a culture lived well more than a system managed well, and that doesn’t grow overnight.

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