By Grace Leuchtenberger
“The health of the environment is reflected in the health of our bodies”
Julie Ristau, the COO of the Main Street Project, offhandedly said this as we walked the freshly planted acres of the project’s farm. Around us were a hundred acres of cover crops and sapling hazelnut trees (the project’s farm), bordered by wooded land and fields of corn and soy. While their new acres looked rough and wild, thick with pea, radish, and clover, the adjacent fields of corn and soy (belonging to neighboring farms) looked neat, green, and well cared for.
If you had asked me before I started this program which field was healthier, I probably would have pointed to the ocean of commodity crops. They looked uniform but also strikingly beautiful, a masterful planting by the grower who would collect great yields this fall.
I now understand that those oceans were built till by till, with spray after spray of insecticide and herbicide, leaving behind depleted and weak soil which, being unable to hold anything, would all too easily usher those chemicals into the local water supply. Moreover, the fertilizer used would run off easily with a heavy rain, and the food web in the soil would continue to shrink as next year’s corn and soy continued to dip into the fertile Minnesota earth’s decaying reserves of nutrients. Yet, rather than expend extra cash to revitalize their land and ensure its long-term stability, the farmer will have to plow their eroding fields next spring, plant their genetically modified seeds, and spoon feed their plants the necessary nutrients in order to achieve a good yield and maintain financial stability for another year.
Manufacturing the appearance of health and beauty seems to permeate not only American agriculture, but American attitudes about physical appearance. A friend of mine from high school recently wrote an article comparing the routines of French and American women, arguing that French women focus on producing a good “canvas” by moderating their inner selves, i.e. cultivating good habits and a good lifestyle. Meanwhile, American women focus on enhancing and minimizing their outward appearance, rather than understanding that their most beautiful inner and outer self is a product of how they live their lives. She writes of American women, “amid the noise and the rush, the goal of feeling (and thus looking) beautiful is lost. Though not true on an individual level, as a society, we value speed, efficiency, and novelty. These traits then permeate our beauty standards, leading us to believe that acne can be cured overnight if we just buy this new serum, rather than examining our habits and lifestyles.”
American agriculture is arguably run on the same principles. In response to their markets, farmers value how fast and how efficiently their fields can be weeded, fed, and harvested, often turning to new products and seeds in order to maximize their crop’s abundance and marketability; conventional farmers have been taught to make the prettiest, most sellable products for the least amount of work and thought. It’s fast and easy, but in the process they’re not confronting the damage that those practices have wreaked upon their soil and their environment; they’re not making a good canvas for their crops.
This practice is not entirely their fault; land grant schools, popular wisdom, the U.S. government, you name it: they were all pushing farmers towards monoculture and money after the second World War. Now these farmers are prey to a system that’s monied, powerful, and entrenched. This is the groupthink that’s permeated conventional agriculture.
What Julie and what this program is trying to do is stop the enhancing and minimizing the food we put in our bodies via superficial means. Her goal is to teach that cultivating good agricultural habits, nourishing the soil, and being a steward of the land can create beautiful, rich food. The pea, radish, and clover on the Main Street Project’s land are part of a nutritional foundation for future crops; the group won’t even begin planting that land with food crops until a couple years from now. They are ditching the culture of appearances and profit for a systematic change in habits, thought, and rhetoric.
The health of the land is on the upswing, creating better food and better water. Perhaps our own health, whether it be personal or communal, will follow.