September 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer
(See glossary below for the meaning of unusual words and acronyms in this story)
I’m out cold again, fast asleep and slumped against the wall during yet another lecture on I-didn’t-catch-what. The IFOAM conference is in full swing, and I’m more bleary-eyed than your average jet-lagged delegate, a victim of the Dark Forces of Chaos.
This lecture turns out to be on weeds and cover-crops in organic farming, and I stagger to my feet with the herd as the afternoon tea rush begins. But what is it about this particular lecturer that strikes a chord? Ah yes, hair greyer, body thicker (much like mine), but still discernibly the young German post-graduate scholar whose photo appeared only recently in the SASA 30th Birthday lecture series I’d put together. Back then he’d been a last-minute stand-in for Professor Hardy Vogtmann, who’d been booked in the mid-eighties to fly down-under as a guest of various Australian organic growers, but just couldn’t make it when the time came.
Hoping (the now Professor) Peter von Fragstein hadn’t spotted the fact that I’d slept through most of his charts and tables, I wander up to the front of the seminar room to welcome him back to Australia. He is delighted to be remembered, and when I wonder out loud if he’d care to skip one or two of the 360 lectures on offer to take a tour of an Aussie backyard veggie patch, he jumps at the chance.
Somewhere in the depths of my being and in the midst of this conference, I am trying to reach a decision. With advancing age and a failing short-term memory, I am doing what older humans have been best at over the course of millennia; piecing together the patterns of a lifetime and melding these into some sort of homespun wisdom. The hallmark of this process for me comes close to what Winston Churchill called ‘black dog’; a slumping of the spirit that sees one foot put before another only by a supreme effort of will.
Out in the corridors of the Adelaide Convention centre, I run into an old acquaintance from my engineering life, this time an Australian academic in the field of conventional agricultural. I am still at the totally confused stage about this conference, so I ask him what he thinks of it all, and a delighted grin lights up his face. “Ah”, he says, “it’s the last vestiges of the failed Trotskyite revolution; it’s wonderful!” That’s just what I need - a ray of humour to take a hair of the black dog that bit me, and the very thing for me to take my bearings by…
Something’s been niggling at me, and it keeps slipping into the corner of my eye and disappearing again when I try to get a good peek at it. Soon I start to see its shape – some of these largely Danish German and Dutch academics are putting up papers that seem to mimic conventional agriculture in just about every respect, except that they do not use chemical fertilisers. The contrast with papers from Venezuela, Sri Lanka and Ghana are stark; first and third world systems are just not interchangeable, and the problem is energy.
“Zum beispiel” - as my new mate the German professor would say - is the case of the missing tractors. In Denmark, they all seem to be painted a bright blue, according to the slides presented. Behind one that I recall vividly was a giant tank of fuel oil, which was being consumed at the rate of 300 litres per hectare to heat water to boiling point. This agricultural engineer then drove along ‘steaming’ a thin strip of soil to kill off soil-borne pathogens – a problem normally solved by organic farmers through crop rotations. This done, he planted a thin row of lettuces into what can only be described as ‘dirt’. My own concept of organic agriculture as ‘growing things in living soil’ is nowhere in evidence. This dirt has been thrashed to pieces by tillage to control weeds, then steamed to eradicate the remaining worms, fungi, bacteria and other micro-flora and -fauna found in a healthy soil. Haven’t these Europeans heard that we’re sliding down the back slope of cheaply-available energy, and that one of the central tenants of organic agriculture is energy conservation?
By contrast, straight after another lecture on soil bashing and steaming by a Dutchman stuffing up crop rotations under 65 hectares of glass-houses, comes a delightful lecture by a young bloke from deepest Africa, where such luxuries as tractors don’t exist. He’d been growing cowpeas in amongst sorghum. To keep the African weaver birds away, he’d strung the innards of some cassette tapes in glistening lines all over the field, and had a bunch of little boys leaping about and waving their arms whenever a flock would appear. The women had hand-planted and hand-hoed his experimental crop in a festive mood of cooperation at local village level.
Back in my own village of Adelaide, in the Soil Association of South Australia (SASA) where I’m editor, seed sales officer, stop-gap lecturer and membership secretary all rolled into one, I’m starting to feel like the odd man out within a bunch of folk who are contrarians anyway. Politics has intruded, and I’m all adrift, plodding along on feet of clay surrounded by folk abuzz with the giddy notion of our small group becoming something called a ‘peak body’ for organics in South Australia. I’ve got no argument with peak bodies, but politics and practical matters make strange bedfellows. Not for me the ‘top-down’ approach of lobbying Governments – my method of winning folk to organic agriculture always happens one packet of seeds at a time.
So sleep eludes me in the dark of the conference nights, and I’m to be found in the wee hours down my back shed packing seeds for the big Go Organic Festival, coming up on the weekend following the conference. Finally I am forced to admit to myself that a backyard veggie grower is by definition a ‘bottom-up’ exponent for change, and that this disparity with my fellows is the reason that my peace of mind has taken such a battering this past year. It will soon be time for others to push the organic barrow, and for me to return quietly to the garden and that doctoral thesis that I’ve almost completed.
With this decision made, I realise what has been patently missing from this international organic agricultural conference - backyard veggie patches. The German professor has probably picked up a whiff of this too, as has his mate the Hungarian professor, who has also invited himself along on my impromptu tour, along with another old geezer who’d tried organic farming in broad-acre crops many decades before.
Given all the turmoil of this past winter, my veggie patch is looking decidedly ragged this springtime. But there we all are two days later, having a grand old time stirring my nettle tea, looking over my wild-sown lettuce and smelling the scent of the citrus blossoms wafting off the orange, grapefruit, lemon and mandarin trees in the quiet afternoon sunshine. Afterwards we drink coffee and eat homemade cake up at the house. From my kitchen table we can survey the vegetable garden only metres away, from whence comes all the nutrition that my family needs, grown on good living organic soil. Even my hoe is in semi-retirement as the chooks (the Hungarian name for ‘hens’ apparently) do what digging needs to be done while I’m off at conferences. The yard is too small to capture our food energy needs through grain growing, but much of the rest of our food has almost no ‘food miles’ attached.
The conference ends, and I’m no wiser about how to solve the world’s food problems. But then the two-day organic fair begins, and Adelaidians crowd into the SASA tent hungry for knowledge and my organic seeds, herbs and potted heritage tomatoes. No time now for slumping and sleeping against walls, and no matter that I’m clueless on the grander vision of where organic agriculture should be going. The answers to everything are all inside my head and ready to hand; the product of hundreds of quiet and contented hours in a veggie patch down-under.
IFOAM: International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements
SASA: Soil Association of South Australia
Contrarian: Someone going in the opposite direction to the common herd
Zum beispiel: (German for) “For example”
Food miles: The number of miles food produce travels from ‘plough to plate’; that is, from the place of production to the point of consumption.