Our Farms, Our Selves

Our Farms, Our Selves

    By John Mason
Hudson-Catskill Newspapers | Posted: Sunday, February 26, 2012 1:00 am       

CRARYVILLE — Steffen Schneider, keynote speaker at the Saturday forum Farming Our Future, urged farmers to establish a culture of “mentorship, coaching, learning pods,” in order to meet the challenges of the future.

The all-day event at Taconic Hills High School attracted 200 farmers and farming supporters from near and far. Schneider told them that agriculture needs to be seen as  “multifunctional,” combining the overlapping spheres of society, economy and environment.

“The multifunctionality of agriculture can only be managed by placing agriculture in a social and economic context,” Schneider said.

Focusing on society, he said that three times more individuals take their own lives each year than die in armed conflicts.

“This points to a tremendous chasm somewhere,” he said.

Farming might help heal this chasm, he suggested, as it is “one of the only ways that human beings are asked to interact with nature. We have to relearn we are not apart from nature.”

Creating collaborative settings can help us move toward collective awareness, he said.

He suggested using the right side of the brain to get to the inner life.

“Often, it starts with shifting down a gear, slow down, listen carefully and reflect,” Schneider said.

MIT economist Otto Scharmer has identified four layers of the inner field, the speaker said.  The most superficial: I and me: “You need that,” he said. “You go out in the world full of yourself; but it doesn’t allow you to see much of the other.”

• I and it. “You look at the facts, you start debating, you talk tough, you’re object focused.”

• I and you. Empathy. “You really try to crawl into the skin of the other.”

• I and thou. “You forget about yourself, focus on the moment. Generative listening. The point in any creative process where you have a blank canvas. Where something comes to you.”

“We have to begin cultivating in the soil with the same care we cultivate our inner fields,” Schneider said. In a Power Point slide, he contrasted social pathology, or “absencing,” being “stuck in oneself, one’s skin, one truth, with social emergence, “presencing,” having an open mind, heart and will.

“If we’re going to meet the future, we have to open ourselves out, mind, heart and will,” he said. “There are hurdles on all three levels.

“If you let judgment take hold, your mind will not open up,” Schneider said. “If you can suspend judgment, you can enter the empathic area.”

Cynicism or fear, he said, can close one’s emotional life to the future.

Next, he described three levels of agriculture.

Agriculture 1.0, Schneider said, is culturally embedded and labor-intensive, and characterized by the peasant farmer, traditional methods, and local adaptation, and has low external inputs.

“This is still the most prevalent on the planet,” he said.

Agriculture 2.0, he said, is capital-intensive and dependent on non-renewable inputs, and is characterized by a farm manager and his/her help, intensification, specialization and applied technology.

“These are strands (of a rope),” he said. “We have to find a way to balance them more consciously. We need to add a third strand to meet the challenges coming out of the future.”

This third strand is Agriculture 3.0, which Schneider said is characterized by the agriculturalist, multi-functionality, ecological adaptation, appropriate scale, a holistic approach, living technologies, conscious awareness-based collaboration and learning communities.

Following Schneider’s address, there was a panel discussion moderated by Ben Shute, owner and manager of Hearty Roots Community Farm in Clermont, with Schneider, farm-to-table advocate Amy Cotler, farmers Bruce Davenport and Ellen Poggi and THCSD ninth-grader Ian Perry serving on the panel.

Poggi, an experienced farmer at 24, owns and operates Hand Hollow Farm in New Lebanon. She said that while she wants to meet the challenges Schneider laid out, it’s hard to “look up from the soil.”

Cotler described the winter study groups that were developed from the group Berkshire Grown. “It starts with a core of people committed to what agriculture really means, and spreads out,” she said.

Asked if some of this was going on his grandfather’s day, Davenport, president of the Rondout Valley Growers Association, said the past generations had the grange, the cooperative extension and the farm bureau.

“But the idea of learning pods is relatively new,” he said. Pods grew out of the association, he said.

“I was 2.0,” he said. “Our object was to keep farmers profitable — what do they need to do that.”

Now they have farmer to farmer meetings, farm to community meetings, farm to school meetings.

Schneider said the something has to be done to encourage more young people to go into farming.

Asked if many of his classmates would consider farming as a career, Perry said, “I think a very small percentage. They think of it as a 16-hour day. We need to teach them at a young age. I thought all farmers did was plant corn until (Taconic Hills’ Harvest Club) came up. Now I’m studying the weather and its connections to agriculture, plants, what they need to grow” (and so on).

Cotler said that at one time it was critical to raise demand; now supply is more critical. This is hampered by the “astronomically high” price of land in the Northeast. She agreed that more has to be done to encourage young farmers, as well as to open up markets for farmers.

During the question period, Alex Freedman, a young farmer from the Berkshires, said, “Steffen, your talk wasn’t about farming at all. It was about self-reflexiveness. I came to farming through developing spiritual practice. I can be outside all day, jump in the river naked, eating the food I grow — it’s a spiritual experience. I really love to do it. Farming offers something to people no other profession offers — you can do something you love. People aren’t doing it for fame or fortune. How can we change the conversation — we’re still talking about the material parts, but not about how much we love it.”

His speech was greeted with applause, and all the panelists agreed they love what they’re doing.

“Isn’t it up to us to change the conversation?” Schneider asked. “The times are asking that we do it consciously, openly. I believe as much as we need to talk about how we cultivate soils, we also need to talk about cultivating the inner side. Our time is more left-brain driven. It’s time to switch the conversation to do both.”

To reach reporter John Mason, call 518-828-1616, ext. 2269, or e-mail jmason@registerstar.com.

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