For each of the next two summers I worked for progressive farmers who were highly successful and wealthy proteges of the university system. These men were investing in their operations using modern genetics, feeds, crop production, and engineered confinement housing. They used feed additives and injectable growth hormones to increase feed efficiency and rate of gain of their livestock…hogs and feedlot cattle the first summer, and a cow-calf ranch the second. Again I gained all sorts of skills, driving the largest tractors available at the time and roping and working cattle. These men held high interest stakes in their communities and in particular the larger agricultural sector of the region, even owning feed mills and grain elevators. I had been hand selected to apprentice with them, which was something at the time that I did not question or fully understand. The first summer – between my first and second years of university – proceeded without a hitch. I had not yet questioned the underlying principles of fully raising hogs in confinement. I did find it incredibly sad that the piglets born in a farrowing crate would never ever see the light today and live their lives in a situation that so stressed them that they exhibited aberrant behaviours. But at the time I was naive and young and I felt it to be a privilege to work for someone so successful and admired. But my second year in university started to change that opinion.
By the end of the mid-1970’s more efficient farming practises allowed more farms to make a better living. This had two primary effects. The first was that greater production drove the carcass price down on livestock. And the second was that agricultural supply companies began to notice the increased revenues on the farm. In response to these farmers began being forced into becoming more efficient, which most were happy to do given the speculative prospects of increased income. And then supply costs began to increase as agricultural corporations wanted a share of farmer’s increased wealth: feed stuffs, antibiotics, crop seed, fertilizers, specialized machinery, and artificial insemination of brood stock. For those who did not or could not change these were death knells. I knew many farmers who gave up farming by 1980.
My university classes those two years reflected these changes and only promoted these technologies. And I began to see the negative effects of the zealous application of modern technological possibilities in regard to both people and the environment in addition to the animals. Workers were sometimes sick after they spent long days working with animals in confinement and I sometimes felt sick. Manure lagoons and feedlot runoff went unchecked and its application to the land was inadequate. But at the root of my observations lay the increased disregard of and destruction to the environment. I had gone into agriculture because of the harmony I had experienced growing up around traditional farming. But by the time I was part way through my university degree I came to realize that modern agriculture aimed to intentionally destroy traditional practises. This it did primarily through controlling the development of animals and plants that it would exclusively provide, and through production methods that would drive less efficient forms out of the market and which it would promote.
In the late 70’s I was the only agricultural student I knew who took coursework in ecology in addition to my agricultural studies. At first I was looking to complete a double major, agriculture and wildlife biology, until I realized just how strenuous this would be. Nevertheless, I sought to supplement my agricultural degree with an understanding and respect for the symbiotic nature of farming within the larger context of the natural world, which at the time I assumed that others also saw. I could not have been more mistaken.
In my second year, in a course on forages, in a lecture hall packed with students, in a building that was a brand new monument to the successful marriage of corporate agriculture and the training of future agriculturalists, I raised my hand and asked a question about an institute of which I had read. These PhD’s were working to understand, breed, and grow native grasses and their consequent potential for animal fodder rather than to introduce non-native species of forages. That innocently asked enquiry brought the entire lecture to a halt. For the next fifteen minutes this professor ranted about every aspect of what was in his mind the foolishness of such a pursuit from every aspect: economic, production capability, nutritional values, and land use. I can still hear his words. But worst of all he ended with the conclusion that doing this was irresponsible both to the ethical needs of the global community which needed food and lots of it, as well as to the corporations that were making all of this happen through their investments. And in the end he turned and shamed me for even entertaining such a foolish question, but said that he could forgive me for my naïveté. He had his facts and figures all on the board; I was just an innocent kid.
I was stunned. And I left that lecture hall with a lot to chew over at age nineteen. But in the end the value of contextualizing farming within that of the natural world won out for me in contrast to taming the natural world and putting it into the unexamined service of human egos.
A line had been drawn for me in the sand that day. It was a line that would shape my life forever.
But looking back neither did I struggle over this decision. Superficially I was nothing…weak…a farm labourer. I knew that. But I knew that what I had, my understanding and experience of the world itself, was infinitely more precious to me than anything that I could acquire if I gave my true self up. Life itself for me without my love of nature and working to preserve it would be worthless. It would become a mere existence, lower than that of the animals that these others manipulated. And in all of this I came to realize that my aim for being true to being human required the insight of wisdom and even divine assistance.