If one were to judge from the front page of the local newspaper, the Pennsylvania Farm Show consisted primarily of an expansive food court, tractor pulls, the butter sculpture, horse-drawn carriages, cosseted animals and wall-to-wall crowds.
It seems to me that behind the hoop-la there are at least four premises on which the Show is based. The first is to showcase the range and quality of agricultural products in the state; the second is to create a window through which the public can gain an
appreciation of the work done by an increasingly diminishing proportion of our population for the benefit of all; the third is to provide an experience by which many Pennsylvanians can renew contact with a rural life style which many yearn for and miss without
There is a fourth and it can be explained this way. I live in an area rich with milk weed, which is host to the monarch butterfly in its annual migration. For the last two years Mary and I can count
on the fingers of two hands the numbers of monarchs we have seen, nor have there been signs of eggs and larvae on the undersides of the milk weed leaves.
There was a brief segment on TV early this month about a
federal initiative to recognize the breeding grounds of the monarch butterfly as protected areas, the main implications of which would be restrictions on the use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides in these locals. It is the subject of a year-long study
and the main opposition is coming from the Department of Agriculture and various farming associations.
So there are ethical issues involved which might be posed thus : What responsibility does agriculture have over
and beyond the production of food? Does the end justify the means? Is anything ok that results in greater yields or lower food prices? Does agriculture have long term responsibilities in addition to the pressure to meet immediate needs?
For the large part, farming is about making money rather than about the quality of the soil, the water or the air. This is understandable as conglomerates incorporate small family farms which cannot compete with the scale of agri-business.
And these corporations, not being locally based, do not have the same investment in the immediate environment as does say a family operation being run by a fifth generation of farmers. I see this in my farming neighbors who are compelled into unhealthy land
practices (eg. no longer planting a winter cover crop, a two crop rotation using corn and soya beans because the price of winter wheat has fallen off,) in an attempt to keep costs low so they can make enough money to pay off the loans used to buy seed and
fertilizers. No wonder farmers use chemically-adapted strains of corn and beans so as not to have to find additional funds to suppress diseases and infestations of ‘weeds’ and insects.
A striking example
is Haiti where, according to a report by Marc Lacey in the New York Times of April 18, 2008, the small, age-old family farms cannot sustain themselves in the face of the competition of imported rice which sells for less than half the price of the more
labor-intensive, more nutritious native variety. The local suspicion is that the destruction of farming as a livelihood was a strategy to push women in particular to the city where they would be sufficiently desperate to work all day in hellish
sweatshops, sewing some of the four billion tee shirts made globally each year, for which they would be paid one half of one percent of the retail price of each garment they sewed. A 1996 documentary revealed that the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, for whom
most of the shirts were being made, was being paid $101 000 an hour.
Those who stayed on the land try to make a living growing organic mangoes for a small, western gourmet market.
bees, and thus beekeepers, stand at the nexus between these two worlds - the pressure to provide food for an increasing global population and the long term needs of environmental health and survival. Our bees expose both sides : effective pollination
is essential for most of the agricultural process yet the bees are threatened by the environment to which they are exposed as they go about their business.
Perhaps the State Fair is not the right venue to raise this
dilemma yet we more than many others have the responsibility to initiate the discussion. For me it’s important to rail against the darkness while also lighting a lamp of hope, however feeble the light might seem.
while we are at it, is anyone noticing the apparent absence of Canada geese this winter? Perhaps I’ve missed something, but the vee formations overhead and the loud honks of encouragement as the geese fly south was noticeably absent this fall,
at least in this neck of the woods.