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Flexibility and Sustainable Agriculture

Posted by Jesse Wimer | December 1, 2014

This year CSANR sponsored registration for several WSU students to attend Tilth Producers of WA annual conference.  We will be posting reflections written by the students over the next several weeks. Please feel free to comment and give these students your feedback.

Jesse Wimer, student guest blogger
Jesse Wimer, student guest blogger

My recent participation in the Tilth Producers of Washington annual conference helped me pin down an idea that, for some reason, has taken me awhile to articulate. The idea is a simple one, and may seem like a no brainer – in fact, is a no brainer – once I took some time to think about it.

As a grad student in the Department of Horticulture here at WSU, I sometimes think back and try to reconstruct the steps that led me to where I am. For 10 years now I have been chasing sustainable agriculture. My journey began as a history major, sifting through 19th century Russian literature, trying to make sense of historic struggles over land rights and ownership. I moved on to organic farming in Montana, taking refuge in a turn-of-the-century barn and a mouse-ridden trailer. After scraping in the soil for a few summers I went back to school as an undergrad, hoping that the institution would help me figure something out. Sometime later I moved on to grad school.

I guess in all of this exploring I just wanted to devise or discover a personal approach to sustainable farming. Since I already knew that I wanted to farm, it was more a matter of how to go about it. The logistics of buying property, developing markets, navigating taxes, figuring out insurance and hiring employees—all of this has bogged me down from the get-go. What I learned from my two and half days at the Tilth conference is that yes, these things are very important. However, if approached in the right way they should fall naturally into their proper places.

So, what approach am I speaking of?  In a word: flexibility.

Raj Patel Keynote Address. (Photo: Mark Musick)
Raj Patel Keynote Address. (Photo: Mark Musick)

On the morning of Saturday, November 8th, Raj Patel addressed the conference attendees with a compelling story of flexibility as it relates to sustainable agriculture. He spoke of the bending and breaking of traditional gender roles in Malawi that ultimately led to a more sustainable food system there. Some of the other talks that I attended over the course of that weekend echoed this theme, as did many of the folks that I had the pleasure to converse with. It seemed like once the idea was in my head it started popping up everywhere, as ideas will do.

I inevitability began thinking about climate change. And not just the weather getting hotter or colder, or drier or wetter or what have you, but also the political and economic climates here in the U.S. and elsewhere. As these climates fluctuate or morph sporadically in the future, those involved in agriculture will need to retain a certain degree of flexibility in order to adjust sustainably. Our current definition of ‘sustainable’ may need to be tweaked somewhat to accommodate unforeseen challenges. Flexibility (rather than rigidity) regarding how we think and how we do things should be fundamental in our approach to these changes.

In the time since the conference I’ve thought a great deal about flexibility as it relates to sustainable agriculture, and it keeps making sense. In other words, it seems to hold up no matter what scenario I’m dreaming about. For me and my farming aspirations, the idea of flexibility makes things seem less daunting and more doable. If I can flex when I need to, and relax into whatever comes as a result, things will inevitably work out—as they will for anyone or any system that can remain flexible enough to adapt to the challenges of the day.

2 thoughts on "Flexibility and Sustainable Agriculture"

  1. Jim Karnofski says:

    Jesse Wimer,

    Hi, Jim Karnofski here.
    I live outside of Ilwaco. Plenty of water and poor poor soil. If I was not mentally flexible I would have missed learning opportunities that are so powerful, they have given me hope and have cleared up life-long mysteries.\
    Continue to prepare yourself for great discoveries. Don’t get stuck on one method without improvement. Within the counter culture of the organic movement immovable calcified brains. If trained by J.I.Rodale, it is Conventional Organic Wisdom “just add more compost”.
    Since 2009, the rediscovery of biochar and the subsequent simplification of the Base-Cation Saturation Ratio of minerals has created life where there was none. The SLAN is a false science encouraging farmers to be miners of the soil and to produce tonnage in the cheapest manner possible or die.
    I prefer to grow for quality which I measure by Brix Refractometry. I sell to the elite buyers at twice the price because quality is taste and the vegetables are truly healthful.
    http://www.soilandhealth.org library, check it out.

  2. Lynne Carpenter-Boggs says:

    That’s a good insight, Jesse. I’ve long thought about soil quality and sustainability as giving capacity for ‘resilience.’ When an offending pressure is experienced, the soil or system can bounce back to its prior health and functioning if it is resilient. But really, maybe ‘back’ is not where it should bounce to! ‘Flexibility’ is subtly different. Using the concept of ‘flexibility’ instead of ‘resilience’ indicates that the future may not look like the past, but the system (and we) can still adapt.

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