Restoring our Relationship with Agriculture

41coverBy Ronni Sands
Issue: Fall 2005, Restoring Our Relationship with Food; Issue #41, Vol. 10

Ronni Sands is the Garden Teacher at Summerfiled Waldorf School. We can all learn from teacher Ronni Sands as she prepares her Santa Rosa, California high school students for a sustainable future.

The present environmental situation calls us to be conscious participants in healing rather than depleting the earth’s resources. Our ninth grade main lesson is an opportunity to teach the broad concepts behind the present need to grow food in a healthy, sustainable way. If we are ignorant of the relationships that exist in a healthy ecosystem, how will we recognize the sources of its destruction or know what needs changing in order for it to thrive once again?

We need to become ecologically literate, to understand the principles of ecology and the language of nature. Ecosystems are sustainable communities of plants, animals and microorganisms. Sustainability is the giving back after taking so that a system can thrive. Do we live in a sustainable ecosystem? What is a watershed? What watershed did I grow up in and how does it influence me? These are all important questions, a place to begin in our goal of eco-literacy. The watershed, which is a large basin or reservoir that fills with water and becomes a source for small creeks and streams, has an influence on all the organisms in our environment. This water source affects weather, drinking water, wildlife, and even our personal relationship to nature. When we include the watershed, our environment is much bigger than our house, and our ecosystem much bigger than our family. Looking at those influences we can start to see the inter-connectedness and how one action affects a part of the whole.

As we move from the concept of ecosystem to the practice of farming we are working with the question, “how can we work with the earth in a sustainable way, while taking resources from the soil to grow our food?” Our class takes a hard look at the industrial model of agriculture, which has had a tremendous impact on the earth, both environmentally and socially. Industrial agriculture has hidden itself in many myths and these must be unraveled so that one can see its environmental impact and make clear choices as a consumer as well as a farmer.

Our textbook is Fatal Harvest, The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. This is a compilation of essays covering the different influences that the industrial model has had on farming and how this affects us. In the beginning of the book, there are seven myths regarding industrial agriculture. The students each take one myth and through research and further reading make a presentation back to the class. These myths say industrial agriculture “will save the world,” “is cheaper,” “is healthier,” and so on. By sharing their findings with one another through oral presentations, class members become informed of all seven myths.

The next section of the book looks at these questions: What are artificial fertilizers and what are some of the hidden affects of pesticides? What is genetic engineering; food irradiation? Can agriculture and biodiversity coexist? What is the present condition of our topsoil, our water, our wildlife habitats? Have we forgotten our pollinators?

This is now the place to introduce the concepts of sustainable farming practices. Compost is essential to the building of topsoil. When one replaces organic matter after a growing season, the soil is able to sustain another crop. We now go from the conceptual to the practical by building a compost pile. Students use scythes to cut high grass which is a good nitrogen layer for the pile. Old wet straw is a good carbon layer. Chopped kale plants and thistles from the field add more nitrogen. The chicken and rabbit manure add nitrogen as well. Straw from their houses add carbon. We shape and form the pile, like a pan of lasagna. When we are finished, I introduce the concepts of biodynamics. We discuss all the different preparations, from horn manure to silica, to the compost preps. Two students stir the valerian, while others make the necessary holes in the pile. Each student takes a turn putting a teaspoon of stinging nettle, oak bark, chamomile, dandelion, or yarrow properly into the holes in the pile. Valerian is sprayed on as a protective sheath. Compost is our first and most important sustainable farming practice. Other farming practices included the making of the soil mix for starting seeds in the greenhouse. Compost, peat, perlite, lava rock and other soil amendments all get sifted through a sifting screen. The result is a fertile medium with drainage and nutrients. We learn propagation methods which include: division of roots of already established plants, cuttings from hardy and semi-hardy wood perennials, and layering at the node. Greenhouse work is essential to supply ongoing crop rotation. Some seeds are sown directly in the ground.

Farming is a life skill that all can learn and apply. When you work with the cycles of nature, you respect its fragility and understand the need for sustainability.

Are small farms a better model for growing food safely and efficiently? What are alternatives to pesticides? Our students are eager to know the complexities of farming so that they can be participants in the solutions. At Summerfield Waldorf School we are fortunate to have a biodynamic farm where we are practicing these solutions. The high school students, guided by a teacher, become full participants in the real work of the farm. They are also guided by their new understanding of the great need for a form of agriculture that is healing to both the human and the earth.

More and more students are interested in agriculture as a career. Many students have learned to make and use the biodynamic preparations. One student did her senior thesis on “Biodynamics.” We send our students to other biodynamic farms in the area so that they get a broad picture of the economic and social aspects of farming. These experiences all awaken the intuitive sense that we are all responsible keepers of the land.

We live in a time where the well-being of the earth and all of humanity are at risk. Every choice we make, from the food we eat, to the lifestyle we live, and the resources that we take, all affect the ecosystem. Once informed, students can make responsible choices. Although the industrial model may seem quite dark, the biodynamic and organic practices bring hope for the future. The students are our hope for the future.

Ronni Sands is the Garden Teacher at Summerfiled Waldorf School.