September 5, 2008

The Farm and the City

Category: Farm and Garden :: Permalink

The relationship between the farm and the city, the rural and the urban, is more complex than I had supposed.  Contrary farmer Gene Logdson points out one aspect of that relationship that often goes overlooked:

… the proving ground for real change in farming has almost always been the garden.  Commercial farmers are good at improving their existing technologies, but rarely do they initiate pivotal new practices because they are financially strapped to the mass market and can’t afford to risk the possible profit loss of changing horses in mid-field.  New agricultural ideas come from gardens where financial profit is not a necessary goal; generally these gardens are city gardens.  Fresh new ideas in any institutionalized activity (and nothing is more institutionalized than agriculture except religion and education) almost always come from the outside.  Writes Jane Jacobs in her provocative 1969 book, The Economy of Citites: “Modern productive agriculture has been reinvented by grace of hundreds of innovations that were exported from the cities to the countryside, transplanted to the countryside, or imitated in the countryside.” 

For example, alfalfa was a medicinal plant in Paris a century before it became a farm crop throughout Europe.  Edward Faulkner wrote his revolutionary best-seller, Plowman’s Folly, based on experimentation he did in a garden near Elyria, Ohio, not on a farm.  It was city gardeners, not farmers, who, with ample supplies of manure from livery stables and street sweepings, brought real sophistication and efficiency to the use of animal manures for food production, as is amply clear from books like Benjamin Albaugh’s The Gardenette or City Back Yard Gardening, published in 1915.  It was urban influences, following the work of chemist Justus von Leibig in nineteenth-century Germany, that introduced to resisting farmers an agronomy based on chemicals.  Today it is city gardeners, following scientists like Sir Albert Howard and Dr. Selman Waksman, who have introduced, again to resisting farmers, the notion of an agriculture based intentionally on biology.  Leibig disproved the prevalent nineteenth-century notion that plants got all their food from humus.  But in proving that plants “eat” minerals, not humus, Leibig went to the opposite extreme and demeaned the practical necessity of humus, and humus-derived nutrients, for a sustainable and efficient agriculture.

The whole organic farming movement, which now extends even to cotton, a crop once thought impossible to grow without toxic chemicals, was of course inspired by city gardeners. — Gene Logsdon, The Contrary Farmer, pp. 40-41.

Logsdon goes on, giving more examples.  You will have noticed, of course, that his list of examples includes some things that haven’t been great developments.  But good or bad, Logsdon says, many of the important developments in farming have been developed in and tested on gardens, urban gardens. 

Posted by John Barach @ 1:57 pm | Discuss (0)

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