Agricultural Humility: Sammy from New Town Farms

Recently I had the pleasure of attending the Slow Food USA conference on school gardens in Charlotte, NC. During one of many memorable dinners, a local farmer named Sammy Koenigsberg delivered a powerful speech in his low monotone cadence that had everyone in the room silent and reflective. Sammy co-owns New Town Farms along with his wife Melinda.

Another conference attendee, Lauren Zappone Maples, Executive Director of PEAS in Austin, had this to say about Sammy’s words:

The time we spend with and in the soil is often a time when our heads can be free from the chitter-chatter of daily life and we can really reflect on bigger things.  His speech made me think that the had a lot of time for reflecting… To know the soil of a place is to root ourselves to the land.  In a fast paced, transient world, having some roots is a comfort & and we can all use some comfort these days.

Sammy’s speech (excerpt)

America spent the last 75 years trying to disconnect ourselves from the land – during which agriculture was industrialized, centralized, and taken our of our lives.

We now reap the cornucopia of industrial food: degraded land. Polluted water. Contaminated, nutritionally deficient food. Flavorless food. Diminishing diversity in seeds and breeds. Loss of regional cuisines to the homogeneity of industrial food. The degradation of the health of our land and the health of our bodies (which are one subject).

We started our farm in 1990 as a response to these ills, in a very food-disconnected city.  Over the next two decades the beginning of a revolution or a “great reconnection” occurred, of which we all have had the joy to be a part. The fact that we are now even thinking about having gardens in schools shows that we value these connections that were once so devalued. We desire our children to have them.

With 98% of our population now uninvolved with agriculture, we are a population separated from our food production, allowing an agriculture without oversight from those it is feeding.  Over the last twenty years we have witnessed a parting of this veil of separation between us and our food. Those who peered behind the veil learned some unappetizing truths about our food. Exposed were the illusions of pastoral farms and other false images served up by the advertisers to satisfy our inherent need to know the origins of our food. No longer eating in ignorance, those who could began demanding wholesome food and thus a wholesome agriculture.

We have witnessed the rise of the real local farmer’s market as a food buying option. We have seen “organic” grow from a fringe movement to a federally regulated standard and the fastest growing segment of the food economy. This has allowed the return of many to farms and kindled the desire in many more to return. We have seen a revival and rediscovery of regional food cultures and a movement to revive and preserve the seeds and breeds associated with the diverse regions of our country that were being lost to the homogeneity of industrial food. Out of this has grown a chef-driven restaurant movement that has had agricultural implications, and a cooking revival that has turned “drudgery” back to joy and health again.

Many great challenges remain as Big Ag has gotten us into places that are difficult to back out of. The Goliath of industrial food continues to rage, and the obstacles to making a sustainable family farm a viable business are many. We are still predominately fed by corporations and there are more people watching cooking shows than are actually cooking. The majority of agriculture continues to poison, mine, and erode the soil, pollute the water, and treat creatures as abstract protein. The number of farms continues to shrink, the average age of farmers continues to rise, the farms that remain continue to get bigger, and we continue to build tract housing on the fertile farmland around our cities while shipping our food from distant fields.

When 98% of the population are disconnected and aren’t involved in any way with pulling their food from the earth, it enables us to abstract ourselves from the whole of creation and view ourselves as separate even in the hubristic sense of over and above the environment, but when we are connected we know we are deeply woven into it through the daily needs of our bodies, and what we do to the environment we do to ourselves.

Disconnection has allowed us to easily abdicate our fundamental responsibility to care for the land (our future body) to the corporations whose mandate has nothing to do with the health of our land and body. Disconnection in the form of centralization has hidden from us the unsavory things of agriculture: toxic sprays, toxic working conditions and abusive animal husbandry that are happening on the farm. It has hidden from us the erosive farming practices that are depleting the reservoir of life in the soil without which we cannot sustain our life. It has robbed us of the the wonders of partaking in the mysteries of seeds, soil, sun, water, and sweat.

We are certainly not all called as farmers but I believe we should all have some connection with the mysteries that make our lives possible. Even a bean seed in a Dixie cup: a miracle beyond measure. And you all are going way beyond that.

The great botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey once quoted a correspondent of his who said “A farmer is the dispenser of the mysteries of God”. When we partake somehow in growing the food we eat, we are hooking into something fundamental that is much bigger than ourselves. Something that we need and I believe were meant to do. We are learning things tangible and intangible, that cannot be learned in any other way.

You cannot write code for this (although some are trying). The code has been written and it goes on forever and it is a treasure of wisdom and wonder.

An agricultural humility contains an awe; it acknowledges the depth of the created order, and our inability to fully comprehend it.

(from the essay “Husbandry” by Sammy Koenigsberg)

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