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The First of a Thousand

Updated: Jan 20, 2019

We went to McCorkle’s to talk about seed the other day. Seed. We drove down a series of frozen dirt roads, brown fields and bare trees lining our way, and finally made a left into a collection of warehouses. McCorkle’s is an old school farm store run by the McCorkle family, open since 1919, where you can buy everything for your farm, from gloves and coveralls to small buildings, fertilizer, and yes, seed.

Kent McCorkle and John look at the results of our soil sample tests.

We first bought a single bolt in the hardware shop (my dad would have loved this place), then made our way over to meet with Kent McCorkle. We needed to learn how to properly seed the once corn-and-soy fields with a mix of oats, alfalfa, and grasses on which we can cut hay and graze cows.

Almost immediately, the questions started coming:

  • What kind of hay do we want to grow? Are you going to bail for horses? Dairy? Beef cows?

  • Big hay bales or small?

  • Are you going to broadcast or drill the seed?

  • Did you get your soil tested?

  • How are your P + K levels? pH?

  • What kind of soil? Clay? Sand?

  • What are you going to do on the fields in a year? Three years?

And so on.

To give ourselves credit, we had answers. We thought about much of this before. We soil tested the ground and know the pH of our soils. And Kent patiently explained what we did not know: horses need more protein than cows (so you mix in more alfalfa), a score of 20 is the minimum threshold he looks for when deciding whether to add phosphorus, there are maps made in the 1930s and 40s where you can look up the soil types on your farm.

Yet we were talking simply about seeds, only one (albeit essential) component to farming. This is just the beginning, the first of a thouand decisions to be made, all of which are complicated, decisions with more variables than one can actually plan for.

While humbling to step into this world of decisions for our own farm (turns out it is a completely different thing when you are writing about someone else’s farm!), it also occurred to me how, as a society, we are completely unaware how much knowledge is needed to farm, whether you decide to farm organically, conventionally or somewhere in between.

Sunset near the farm in Marion County, Iowa.

It is not just that farmers know intimately a slice of the natural world that less and less of us understand. It is also that the job description comes with a fascinating skill set, a lassoing of different types of complicated knowledge, from financial and business planning and engineering, to chemistry, biology, geology, and even climatology.

Just like there are people who naturally excel at biology or Spanish literature, there are of course people who are at the top of their class in farming. Yet we have made farming a profession available to fewer and fewer people, compensated as if done by unskilled labor, viewed by society as a task done by the uneducated and the anti-intellectual.

But the average age of farmers around the world is on the rise (it is now 58+ in the US) and as people gravitate toward the cities, less and less young people go into farming. Which is more than just a problem of limited career choices. If as a society we valued the intense ecological, biological, and economic knowledge required to grow nutritious, healthy food for the masses as much as we valued tall people who could put a ball in a hoop, or those who figure out financial "products" no one needs - perhaps we would all be better off.

We are nearing a global crisis in which we will not have enough people to farm the land. And that will also severely limit our ability to deal with many of the world's issues that are tied to agriculture, from obesity and hunger to a changing climate and water pollution. If we don't court all those who would excel at farming into farming, we will never be able to really innovate in agriculture.

So we are planting seeds. Seeds for new pasture, and seeds for our future.

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