Healthy Steps Toward A Friendly, More Permanent Agriculture

Essays
August 5, 2021

Healthy Steps Toward A Friendly, More Permanent Agriculture

By Harold Skip Connett

Long before there was Friends of the Earth, there was Friends of the Land. A national organization of farmers, conservationists, soil scientists and writers, Friends was forerunner to the environmental movement as we know it today. At its peak in the late 1940s, its soil conservation campaign spanned the countryside through rallies, conferences, and a quarterly magazine that featured essays by Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson long before they were household names.

If the land ever needed Friends, the time is now. A resurrected and repurposed Friends of the Land could do for climate crisis mitigation what it did for soil erosion three generations ago. If nothing else, we need to remember and honor the “permanent agriculture” movement it started. Friends of the Land prepared the field, so to speak, for the milestone victory last week when Bayer-Monsanto pledged to stop selling Round-Up for lawn and garden use by 2023.

These Post-Round-Up plots of land — millions of acres if pieced together — present a huge opportunity to reimagine and restore our most valuable resource.

The primary mission of Friends was reversing a national crisis that culminated with the Dust Bowl. Permanent agriculture offered a more holistic and regenerate approach to farming than the monolithic industrial agriculture that was also eroding the fabric of family farms and rural communities. Its prescription — more cover crops, less tillage and overgrazing, long-term organic practices rather than short-term chemical ones — was the right medicine at the wrong time. Friends was founded just as the United States entered World War Two. The massive, industrialized upscaling of food production needed for the war became the scientific and business blue print for the green revolution that has dominated agriculture ever since. Friends faded away but it prepared the ground for the organic farming movement and the permaculture principles now regaining the attention they deserve as the climate crisis upends business as usual.

If famed author and farmer Louis Bromfield, the most outspoken of Friends founders, were starting over today, where would he focus its mission on the American landscape? Reclaiming fields for forests? Reducing nitrogen runoff? Returning more organic matter to the soil? In the rush to increase carbon sequestration, these strategies are high priorities, yet one that stands to cover most ground is the quest for perennial grain crops. With that holy grail comes a true no-till agriculture, not the much-touted one today that relies on the ever-increasing use of herbicides, Round Up being the most dominate.

Today’s most visionary sustainable agriculture pioneer is Wes Jackson, the plant breeder and sustainability activists who founded the Land Institute in Salina, KS, nearly 40 years ago. The Institute’s long and painstaking work on perennial grains and Natural Systems Agriculture has gained national attention recently as its perennial Kernza wheat inches closer to commercial viability. Two months before the pandemic hit, the Institute came to Austin for a three-day workshop at Houston-Tillotson University. The Institute’s ties to Austin have grown stronger since then. Rachel Stroer, its new president, resides here with her family. Retired University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen just completed a short yet insightful book on Jackson’s legacy, which includes creating one of the first university sustainability studies programs in the country.

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Wes Jackson

Long before I met Jackson, I was introduced to Bromfield when I wrote for Rodale Institute’s New Farm Magazine. New Farm editor George DeVault had published a revised collection of Bromfield’s writings on his restoration of Malabar Farm. Bromfield’s Ohio farm became and remains a mecca for permanent agriculture advocates. Malabar was inspiration for David Bamberger in restoring depleted Hill Country ranch land. Such a radical transformation required not only time and money but a lifelong commitment. Today, Bamberger Ranch Preserve is the Malabar Farm of Texas.

It was on a ranch in Wimberley, however, where I reconnected with Friends of the Land. On the fireplace mantel of its restored cabin was a family history of the ranch’s owner, Dorothy Malone Gumbert. Her father, Clarence Malone, grew up on a farm outside San Marcos. Returning years later, an influential Houston banker, he was devastated to see his family land “gullied to the red and bleeding to death.” His farming days were long behind him but not his love for the land. Singlehandedly, Malone created an agriculture department at Second National Bank and instituted a statewide soil conservation campaign. Malone joined forces with Bromfield in 1948 and invited leading captains of industry to a dinner at Columbia University. Among those present was another farm boy, Dwight Eisenhower.

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Louis Bromfield (left), Clarence Malone (second from left)

Bromfield and Malone eventually parted ways over the Friends organizations structure. True to form, Texas had the largest membership among state chapters and Malone wanted a proportional share of dues returning here. When Bromfield demurred, Malone created the Texas Friends for Conservation.

Malone was as adept in PR as he was in finance. Farmers didn’t want to hear bankers tell them how to farm. And bankers were slow recognize that loaning farmers money to restore soil was a good investment. Malone lure farmers off the farm by providing free barbecue dinners at speaking events. One event in Cuero drew more than 2,000 farmers. Friends did stop at the farm gate. Its message infiltrated Texas public high schools by sponsoring essay contests; to avoid the potentially dull subject of soil conservation, the contest was presented in the patriotic and capitalistic framework of “good soil, good farming and good government make freedom and opportunity possible.”

In his introduction to Texas Friend’s first publication — The Good Earth: Our Richest Heritage — Malone noted that this private partnership of agricultural, industrial and financial donors resulted in a $6-per-student-investment. It’s tempting to imagine how a similar investment could introduce sustainability activities to our high schools today. Unmistakably, Malone was promoting not only soil conservation but the rapid growth of Texas energy and chemical industries. Texas farmers were increasingly dependent on its fossil fuels to run their tractors and fertilize their fields. Texans’ greatest source of wealth no longer came from soil but the oil and gas far beneath it. The miracles of the green revolution exploited one resource at the expense of the other. A different, yet equally devastating, form of erosion — what Jackson calls “chemotherapy of the soil” — is the heavy price we are paying for producing cheap, refined, nutrient-deficient food.

As we imagine a more friendly farming future less dependent on fossil fuels, the vision and passion of the Bromfields and Malones of yesterday and the Bambergers and Jacksons of today are an inspiration, pointing to a healthier, more sustainable path forward. That path has never been more green. Literally. The post-Round-Up lawns and gardens of tomorrow pose new challenges yet great opportunities to reconnect and deepen our relationship with nature. Now is the time to think and act like a perennial. Now is the time for landowners big and small to support and follow today’s leaders of permanent agriculture.

In his forward to Jensen’s book, The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson, environmentalist David Orr ends on an optimistic note. Our richest heritage has been squandered by short-term thinking and profits but it can be regenerated by new definitions of greatness and success, ones that no longer rely on dominating natural systems.

“We live in the ruins of those ambitions, not necessarily the ones that failed but those that succeeded too well,” Orr writes. “One hopes that their descendants will learn how to be ecologically competent “homecomers,” in Jackson’s word: rooted in place, adept at neighborliness, repair, frugality, and humility; and practitioners of democracy worthy of the name.”

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Wild perennial rye and Inland Sea oats at Green Gate Farms.

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