Technology, Aesthetics, Nature, and Spirituality
Letter from a Farmer
By Jean-Paul Courtens
From the Roxbury Farm CSA newsletter
On my mind these past few weeks has been my love for beautiful landscapes and tools. Recently we attended a lecture at the Nature Institute by Jean-Michel Florin on the interrelationship of the natural world and the cultivated world of agriculture. The question asked was how we can play a constructive role in the health of both. With the help of slides of painted landscapes, he helped us see a landscape through the eyes of van Gogh, Pissarro, Monet, and others. The altered landscape of the 19th century is aesthetically pleasing, especially through the eyes of the artists. Before the introduction of industrial agriculture, landscapes were stunningly beautiful. Industrialization has had a terribly negative impact on architecture, on the landscape, and on the social fabric. I have experienced that a strong community often represents a beautiful environment. One does not have to travel far to either Camphill Village in Copake, New York, or the Amish communities (the ones not tainted by “English” entrepreneurs trying to cash in) to understand.
The photographer Ed Burtynsky traveled extensively to China and Bangladesh and photographed landscapes that have been altered by large-scale human activity. His inspiration to do this came when he took a detour in Pennsylvania and landed by accident in the middle of a coal mine. While his pictures are beautiful in their own way, they strongly reveal the price we pay for our need to consume and to burn fossil fuel. Jennifer Baichwal made a film called Manufactured Landscapes compiled from Ed’s trips to the East. It opens with a shot of a factory that produces most of the world’s supply of cloth irons, which is one kilometer in length and employs 23,000 workers.
I am preaching to the choir when I state that industrialization and industrial agriculture destroy community and nature. And yes, it has made agriculture unpleasant to look at, to smell, to work in; it applies machines that are noisy; and it produces food without flavor that might not even be safe to eat.
We have good access to appropriate equipment. We make many colleague farmers drool at our equipment lot. Does owning and operating this equipment make us a co-combatant of the technological revolution? Do we just greenwash our image by recognizing that a well-maintained and aesthetically pleasing landscape is an important feature of our farm? The question that has been on my mind has been: “Is our extensive use of equipment contradicting playing a constructive role in the health of the natural world and the cultivated world of agriculture?” Even if we could return to 19th-century farming, when peasants still had a spiritual connection to the land, we would not be able to do so, nor do we want to be using their tools. There simply aren’t enough of us, and many of their tools were not very sophisticated. So a healthy tension needs to exist between aesthetics/spirituality and materialism/technology, and I think it is just too simple to just choose one over the other.
I am actually not really attached to any of the steel on the lot, and while we will keep the paint on them, this is not for vanity but respect for proper maintenance and future re-sale value. When it is no longer used, it has to find a new home. We take good care of our tools and have a real reverence for them. That might sound a bit materialistic. But realize, a throwaway society is actually not materialistic; it is narcissistic, as we have the illusion that the only world we live in is ours. Jennifer Baichwal’s film will wake you up to that reality. In contrast to other farmers, I am also not really attached to any color tractor; we have blue, red, orange, and green ones. The initiates amongst you can name the four brands based on their signature color (although our blue ones are not made by New Holland, but by Landini). We love Italian-made equipment. It fits our farm, as the scale of our farm is very similar to many Italian vegetable farms. Yes, form always follows function. So, sometimes we need a really big tractor — where you have to be careful not to drive over innocent research plants and an iPhone. (Yes, that embarrassing incident actually happened to me this week, and due to a protective OtterBox, it survived. Plants, not so much).
What I really love about equipment is not just the increased efficiency, although it is an important feature. If a job is done better by hand or a horse, I would never replace it with a piece of equipment. Equipment offers the opportunity to humanize our work. Weeds are often eliminated equally well by a person with a hoe and by a mechanical cultivator, but we can do it a lot faster with the latter, sparing many poor backs. We certainly hand-weed our carrots and salad mix, as a mechanical cultivator would damage such tender seedlings, but we need to keep the number of hours sitting in one position in check. Plants actually get planted better by a mechanical transplanter than by hand. I was taught by one of my teachers to stomp on the plants after transplanting. I was horrified, thinking I would harm the plant. This was a wise teacher, and he allowed me to set a few plants my way. Mine dried up and his survived, as the tiny roots of my plants had not made any contact with the soil. We use Peter, our draft horse, to cultivate in places where a tractor no longer has access. The point is that every activity on the farm needs an appropriate response, and one tool does not fit all.
So, what else do I really love about equipment? We have created a work of art out of the Shufelt Field. Creating art is the combination of a creative mindset with the help of good tools. What would the painter do without a brush, or the sculptor without a chisel? But not any brush or any chisel will suffice. An artist tames and shapes the medium he works with, by the help of tools. So when we sculpt the soil, we use just the right tool to throw just the right amount of soil. Sometimes we need to work the soil deep to insert air, and other times we just want to skim it a half inch deep to prepare a seedbed. And there are about 15 different tools in between, with each tool required for the job having often little resemblance to the others, as each throws the soil in a slightly different way. Our crops are carefully laid out, and again form follows function, but the aesthetics are carefully considered. Each section of the farm is divided by a harvest lane. Each growing section is 49 feet wide, and the grass strip is 11 feet wide (boy, that sounds very mechanical, but it looks a lot nicer than it sounds). These grass strips provide access to our crops, they form a contour when the land is slightly sloped, and they prevent erosion. We mow these grass strips regularly, creating a park-like atmosphere in our fields. They also provide habitat for ground beetles and many other insects that do not survive in cultivated land. We like to think of it as inserting a little bit of diversity every 49 feet. We own about 10 different mowers, not just for the grass strips but for all the things that get mowed on this farm, from fence lines to hayfields and cover crops. Some are only to cut grass as folks do in their yard, and others are specifically designed to clip a pasture or to cut hay. Some have conditioners on them to facilitate drying and others have special blades to increase the shredding. We even have a mower that slides underneath the fences and retracts when it hits a fence post. In other words, to really cultivate the landscape we need many tools.
When we bought this farm it was in corn and potatoes. The land was eroded and petered out. It gives me the greatest joy to see the return of a living landscape. And the landscape is the sum of all the smaller components that all need equal attention. I drive by a field and I don’t have to stop to see that the soil structure reveals uncounted numbers of communities that have
inhabited in and around these soil particles again. It sounds like I am beating an old drum, but you can’t underestimate the fact that a healthy soil produces healthy crops and healthy people. This is more than just about applying compost. We introduced domestic animals on this land that provide the landscape with a soul. Allowing our green manures to flower provides feed for pollinators, adding diversity to the local ecology. The return of a human community on the land is equally important. It gives me great joy to see a passion for an aesthetic landscape in our crew members. They don’t mind spending the extra hour not only to complete a job, but to do it in a way that makes the farm a more beautiful place to live and work in. It takes a lot of our time to beatify the landscape, and our crew is more than happy that they no longer need to be out with hand scythes cutting the grass.
I have concluded that a peaceful coexistence of technology, nature, and spirituality is a balancing act. On one side we have the pictures of Ed Burtynsky representing the dark side of technology and industrialization; on the other side we can observe the consequences of fundamentalists’ religions that take their spirituality to a completely different level. Each in their caricature form is ugly and dehumanizing, so — rather than thinking that we have to make a choice— there is more value in finding equilibrium between nature, technology, and spirituality.
What we do is a sort of taming the landscape we work in. We don’t alter it; we work with it, and we let it speak for itself, allowing for a wonderful balance between wetland, forest, meadow, and cropland. We might give it a little haircut here and there, add a little sculpting in another place, but we always allow the best to come out by letting it speak for itself.
Jean-Michel told us that everything we want to learn about a landscape is described in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. I wondered what he meant with that. On the last page, Saint-Exupéry draws a picture of the loveliest and saddest landscape in the world; two lines and a star. Not really much of a landscape, you might think. But to me, the picture is brilliant, as the interface of nature and agriculture in the context of a biodynamic farm cannot be better described than by two lines and a star. And then, it is up to us to fill it in.
Jean-Paul Courtens and his wife Jody Bolluyt own and operate Roxbury Farm, a 375-acre diversified operation in Kinderhook, New York, producing vegetables, hay, beef, lamb, chicken, and pork. Jean-Paul is the president of the Board of Directors of the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association and a leader in the CSA and organic movement. In 1994, he co-founded CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farm Training) to improve the experience of farm apprentices. In 2000, in association with Equity Trust, he and Jody helped develop a model ground lease that protects the Roxbury farmland through a combination of a conservation easement and a re-sale restriction to ensure that the farm will always be in the hands of small farmers.