Multiculturalism of the Land (part 4/4)

A medium-scale version of polycultured vegetables and flowers
A medium-scale version of polycultured vegetables and flowers

Although culture is certainly not limited to varying farming practices, the idea that it has something to do not only with the preparation and consumption of food but also with its production tells us that we must contemplate agriculture when we speak of multiculturalism. And if by multi we mean to regard a diversity, we would do well to regard the diversity of local cultures, diverse approaches to agriculture, and even diversity within agriculture and agricultural crops.

Not to romanticize farming practices of the past and suggest that they were in all ways better – which they weren't, since farming often consisted of breaking new ground and then moving on anew once the fertility was depleted – but prior to the fossil fuel era of industrialization, traditional methodologies of growing food would have simply been called farming. That being said, we are fortunate enough to be without the need of a trendy new label for diversity-based practices since they are already referred to as being mixed farming, and in contrast to monocrops and monocultures we have polycrops and polycultures.

The great agricultural scientist Sir Albert Howard made no qualms about this methodology of farming and began by succinctly summing it up on page one of his book An Agricultural Testament with a description of nature's workings:

Mixed farming is the rule: plants are always found with animals: many species of plants and of animals all live together. In the forest every form of animal life, from mammals to the simplest invertebrates, occurs. The vegetable kingdom exhibits a similar range: there is never any attempt at monoculture: mixed crops and mixed farming are the rule.

His reasons for so adamantly making these distinctions were in order to describe "the main principles underlying nature's agriculture." As nature's regenerative practices have stood the test of time, Howard believed that nature is "the supreme farmer" and that our methods of cultivation must thus be based upon her ways.

The chickens scratch through the cow pats, spreading the manure as well as eating up any grubs, reducing fly populations and disease
The chickens scratch through the cow pats, spreading the manure as well as eating up any grubs, reducing fly populations and disease

If a portion of the land to be farmed had, say, previously been forest, then it is the systems of the forest that must be looked upon for instruction, that the farmer in essence must be a student of the forest. In this sense, mulches could imitate leaf litter on the forest floor that protects bare soil, and compost piles could mimic the decomposition process that goes on beneath those leaves creating humus. Howard elaborates:

The main characteristic of Nature's farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.

The first lesson to be observed is that mixed farming includes a wide variety of both plants and animals. Unlike monocropping, this system provides itself with a complimentary mixture of both plant and animal wastes that are able to decay into humus (the words human and humility are derived from the word humus, Latin for living soil). One benefit of the resultant rich organic matter is that its porous structure allows for better water retention as well as better drainage, giving the soil resiliency to withstand extreme weather conditions of both drought and flooding (a good characteristic to have in a time of climate change).

Alley cropping perennials between rows of fruit trees
Alley cropping perennials between rows of fruit trees

Secondly, the cycle of growth and decay – which in his next book The Soil and Health was emphasized by Howard in more detail as "birth, growth, maturity, death and decay" – allows for organic forms of nutrients to be supplied to plant roots via decomposition, as well as for an array of symbiotic relationships that plants share with soil microorganisms (which in a more complex manner allow for the trading of nutrients between one another).

Thirdly, not only does such a system fertilize itself but, through stored reserves and symbiotic interactions, it can refrain from living a life dependent on off-farm inputs. Microorganisms gradually make nutrients available to plants over time (and in some cases on demand), markedly different from the effects of petrochemical fertilizers applied to monoculture fields sometimes only once a year – of which can lead to such problems as toxic build-ups of nutrients in the soil as well as nutrient leaching and run offs into waterways (hence all those algal blooms and "dead zones").

Because every place is different and has a wide array of varying conditions, both a mindful people and a proper approach are necessary to respond in kind to the local nature of the place and to the local needs of its inhabitants. Here arises many requirements, one of these being the requirement for multiple methods of cultivation, inherently providing the premise and foundation of how an authentic multiculturalism would be understood. This is figuratively, and even literally, the roots of multiculturalism: a plurality of local land-based cultures that have practices specifically tailored and adapted to the places in which they reside.

A young woman cultivates with a team of horses
A young woman cultivates with a team of horses

As a people – a culture – act in care to shape their place, so too would the response of the place shape those people and their culture(s). This would then be the creation and continual evolution of culture, of local land-based cultures tied to place. As environmental activist and anti-globalization author Vandana Shiva put it, "Nature has created different ecozones which have been the basis of diverse cultures and economies."

Multiculturalism then would not simply entail a collection of different looking people from around the world congregated into crowded urban areas (sporting various flags on their vehicles every four years during the World Cup), who, while disaffected from their ancestral lands as well as their new lands, choose to steadfastly maintain eating habits and other practices from far off places thanks to copious and continuous imports. It would instead imply a multitude of local land-based cultures, regardless (yet respective) of the physical features of the people and various other differences amongst them.

As described by author and farmer Wendell Berry in the book Conversations with Wendell Berry,

This is what American [and Canadian and Australian and any other] multiculturalism is finally going to have to face. The question that is finally going to have to be asked and answered is not, what is your economic relationship to your place of origin, or what is your relationship to your ancestors, or what is your relationship to your old-world culture. The most important question, and ultimately the undodgeable question, is what is your economic relationship to this place where you are now? That would give us authentic cultural diversity... because of the great diversity of places. Cultures and communities that were authentically adapted to their places would be authentically different.

As too few of us realize, changes are on the way courtesy not only of climate change, but also due to peak oil and the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel and industrial eras. As a result, whether it be on the abrupt or the gradual side; out of reactive desperation or through pro-active pre-planning; ugly or pretty; one way or another, Canada, Australia, the United States, and everywhere else for that matter, are going to become – authentically – multicultural.

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Comments (2)

Oct 2015
First Poster
Really like the series. Diversity is the basis of life thriving. We gotta have it in ag, and we gotta have it in culture. Which, to my mind, means protection for local and regional cultures that have for a long time cultivated their own cultural & agricultural practices, language (or dialect), their ways of doing things.

That is why I have become opposed to the EU project. While it started with admirable ideals, it is now devoted to steamrolling over local interests. Simply heaping people from all over the world into one city does not make for cultural diversity, except in the most shallow sense (great new Indian restaurants, and cheap!). It's the American melting pot template. It melts (dissolves) authentic diversity. Self-organization and self-determination makes for real diversity, in nature and among humans. I would love to see more agriculture that emulates nature! Great quotes, btw.
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Aug 2014
Top Poster
Vera: I definitely agree with your opposition to the EU project. It's big business all the way, and yes, any notion it has of diversity is circumspect to say the least.

But we're all immigrants so to speak, and we've going to have to make do with where we are. Since even those who have a long lineage in a particular place have generally lost the connection to the land and the agricultural roots that their ancestors had, and since the newcomers inherently don't have it to begin with, we're all going to have to re-establish cultures adapted to our places. To a large extent those new cultures will be irrespective of those from places where immigrants (recently) came from, and they'll even supersede those whose lineages go way back, since those people have significantly lost their cultures anyway to that of consumerism.

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