Why farmpunk?

A farmpunk could be described as a neo-agrarian who approaches [agri]culture, community development and/or design with an anarchistic hacker ethos. "Cyber-agrarian" could supplant neo-agrarian, indicating a back-to-the-land perspective that stands apart from past movements because it is heavily informed by conceptual integration in a post-industrial information society (thus "forward to the land" perhaps?) The art and science of modern ecological design—and ultimately, adapting to post-collapse contexts—will be best achieved through the combined arts of cybermancy and geomancy; an embrace of myth and ritual as eco-technologies. In other words: the old ways of bushcraft and woodlore can be combined with modern technoscience (merely another form of lore) in open and decentralized ways that go beyond pure anarcho-primitivism. This blog is an example of just that. Throughout, natural ecologies must be seen as the original cybernetic systems.

**What we call for at the farmpunk headquarters**
°Freedom of information
°Ground-up action + top-down perspectives
°Local agricultural systems (adhering to permaculture/biodynamic principles) as the nuclei of economies
°Bioregional autonomy
°Computers are optional but can be used for good—see peer to peer tech, social media for direct popular management of natural or political disasters (e.g. Arab Spring), or the mission of the hacker collective Anonymous

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Small scale grain farming

Preface: This is based on a blog entry that I recently published on my facebook profile. I know. It is probably such bad blog karma to do this. But you have to forgive me. I'm trying to ameliorate some of my intarwebs-stage-fright, here.

So, we've all heard the praise for cheeses and wines with terroir... but what about something a little more intimate? That off-whitish powder in your pantry? Yes, flour has rights too.

So much of grain production since that whole "green revolution" riddle has been shaped in one part by the so-called "high yield" I-can-grow-anywhere-if-you-pump-me-full-of-drugs stuff, which kind of eliminates that whole thing that nature likes to do... you know, recombining thingies so she can best adapt to herself (a brilliant idea, we should all take a page...)... and grain production has also been guided along, in another part by the animal feed industry (you can use your imagination for that tirade). ;)

Wheat was one of the first plants domesticated by humans; Einkorn and Emmer wheat were two of the three cereals known to have been cultivated as far back as 10,000 years in the Fertile Crescent. The other cereal crop was barley, which is also a grass, but of a different genus. Einkorn is the oldest cultivated species, and has 14 chromosomes like nearly all wild grasses do. Emmer wheat has 28 chromosomes, deriving from wild emmer; which is the only 28-chromosome wheat to occur by natural selection. Then modern bread wheat is a 42 chromosome variety that has only occurred through artificial selection; a hybrid of 14 and 28 chromosome wheats.

So the wheat that is grown in vast monocultures in the American midwest is inevitably some modern variety of Triticum aestivum, variably referred to as "common wheat" or "bread wheat". The modern wheat industry classifies the stuff into six groups: hard red winter, hard red spring, soft red winter, durum, hard white and soft white. The flour obtained from milling hard wheats is favored for making bread, pasta, pizza dough, and the like; Soft wheat flour often finds itself in the Little Debbie section of the supermarket - coveted for the fact that it doesn't have as much annoying protein as the hard wheat varieties. Who loves cake?

All today's industrially-grown wheat varieties are actually dwarfs. I apologize. The less wheat-offending term is "reduced-height". This is the result of a man named Norman Borlaug, who I think is called "the boss of the Green Revolution". That was a joke just now. Anyway, Borlaug worked for the International Wheat and Maize Center in Mexico from 1940's onward as part of a project funded by the Rockefeller Foundation that sought to help farmers in Mexico increase their wheat yields in the face of unfavorable social conditions (poverty) and ecological conditions like plant disease and drought. There, he lead research that culminated with the development of dwarf, "high-yield" and disease resistant wheat varieties. The need to create a dwarf variety arose during the course of the project, as the use of chemical fertilizer (a lovely little byproduct of WWII-era weapons research!) caused growth that traditional varieties of the wheat plant could not support. Stems would bow and bend under the weight of the grain-laden ears and the stress of fertilizer-induced growth spurts. Thus a variety with a shorter, fatter stem was sought after. "High yield" is somewhat of a misnomer; so-called "high yield" crops only do so with unnatural inputs of nitrogen. As one of my professors says, it's more correct to call these super-crops "highly responsive", because they are designed to utilize certain artificial inputs for maximum growth and without any apparent injury to the plant.

Indeed, Dr. Borlaug and his gang of "high-yield" crops have been credited with saving one billion people from starvation. (What does that even mean?) Between 1960 and 1990, due in part to the agricultural initiative that he had spearheaded, world food production increased by %1000. Statistics creep me out, by the way, because they can often oversimplify things and take them out of context. Actually, that's what statistics are sort of FOR... Ok, back on track: As "improved" as many claimed these crops to be, the situation in countries that had welcomed the Green Revolution has shown that the cost of production is unsustainable. These 'supercrops' NEED fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation to do their whole high-yielding thing - an infrastructure that doesn't just magically appear once a farm family starts planting a high-yield or GM crop. (And who, pray tell, sells these now-necessary commodities?) Borlaug's wheat, for example, needs three times the water input of most heirloom varieties. Needless to say, these crops are not adapted to any bioregion. They aren't native to any place. They are Borg. Borlaug, even.

Dr. Borlaug would like you to know that - and I quote - "the 'greenies' have nothing to do with the Green Revolution, which is all about alleviating world hunger." Ah, Señor, you are right, I am just a 'Western greenie' who doesn't know what it's like to feed the multitudes. Admittedly, my personal strategy involves learning how to feed myself first. And as to models for feeding the multitudes, I can't help but evoke the old "give a man a fish" chestnut... I believe the model adopted by the Green (un?)Revolutionaries would be filed under 'giving a fish' rather than 'teaching how to fish'. Too much exchange of technological artifacts and not enough teaching. In fact, not only is there NO teaching, but it's like there is un-teaching going on - the transfer of knowledge into technology, the commodification of that technology, and the inevitable loss of local knowledge located in human wetware. Jesus is really mad about this!

In our country today, various "wheat quality laboratories" work to develop wheat varieties that meet the needs of large food processors. Needless to say such laboratories are in fact funded by said food giants. These needs are undoubtedly not intended to meet nutritional requirements of human individuals, but rather to meet corporate goals like preservation, uniformity, texture and other scary benchmarks that I don't want to know about. One example is the exciting new waxy wheat, which apparently promises to not only help you forget what you're eating by improving mouthfeel, but to also "improve the rollability and flexibility of flat breads such as tortilla and pita bread". My favorite part is when the company's president talks about cake: "'This is quite a big area for exploitation, and could well present new opportunities in baked products, especially cake,' he added."


Indeed, mass-processed flour from monocultured wheat is another farmpunk frontier that is starting to become visible to our eyes, evidenced by these local grain growers and millers springing up here in New England!

And visible enough for the New York Times to weigh in, much to my delight! (This article is very worth reading and actually what inspired me to do a little more wheat-research, which then resulted in this blog post... so please do check it out!)

One of my favorite mentions is the Hungry Ghost bakery in Northampton, MA. For lack of local wheat farmers and gristmills, they have encouraged many of their customers to grow home-plots of wheat. Outsourcing that would do Mama Nature proud. Now THAT is the undictionary definition of synergy!

...Several months ago I realized there was local flour available at Burlington's City Market, from Gleason Grains. The wonderful and IMO best-in-show Red Hen Bakery in Duxbury uses Gleason grain to make one of their CSA-specific breads! :D

Salt Spring Seed's website gives some helpful tips on growing your own small plot of wheat, and they also sell heirloom seeds. Another great resource for seeds is Bountiful Gardens in Willits, California. Both places sell seeds for many other grain crops.

"Cast iron grist mill". Say that out loud. Doesn't it just feel good in your lexicon? More things should have hand-cranks. Even ornamental hand-cranks would make lots of things easier on the eyes.

(I know you want one, and you can buy it here.)

/the faun

1 comment:

Thirtyseven said...

Actually, multiple iterative versions of the same material is a great method of Doing Good Online. I do it all the time. Right now I'm having a blast re-building old Brainsturbator content.