Don’t Wear a Straw Hat: A Q&A with Mike Madison
In the following Q&A, Mike Madison, author of Fruitful Labor, reflects on over three decades of organic farming, talks about what it means to be sustainable, and offers advice and optimism for young farmers.
Looking for even more insight? Check out our other posts on Fruitful Labor:
Q: After over three decades of organic farming, what inspired you to put your experience to prose in Fruitful Labor?
A: You think that your ideas are sound until you try to write them down; then you discover that your thoughts are plagued with contradictions and discontinuities. So writing out an account of my farm was an exercise in clarifying my ideas. There were some surprises. For example, my management of energy turned out to be not nearly as good as I thought it was.
Q: You express adherence to ‘Deep Ecology.’ What is that about?
A: My formal education was as a naturalist in the tropics, which fueled my innate interest in all sorts of organisms. When I took up farming, I understood that I was joining a community of plants, animals, and microbes, and I wanted to farm in a way that was beneficial for all of us. So I make decisions that favor farm ecology over farm economics, which garners me sideways looks from my neighbors, who suspect me of being slow-witted.
Q: Your final chapter concerns ‘sustainability,’ which has become a popular and ambiguous buzzword in the contemporary world. To you, what does it mean to be truly sustainable?
A: How you judge sustainability depends very much on the boundary conditions: geographic area, time frame, and what factors you choose to include. Looking at a rather narrow interpretation—crop ecology on my farm on a scale of decades—the practice is eminently sustainable. But on a larger scale of space and time, it is clear that my farm is embedded in an unsustainable culture on a beleaguered planet. This could be taken as a call to action. To live virtuously on your own few acres is insufficient. You must also try to persuade other farmers to attempt a more benign way of farming.
Q: What are the cumulative results on your farm after three decades of organic farming?
A: I started out on land that had been badly abused; for decades the previous owner had sprayed pesticides and injected anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, leaving a soil that was essentially dead. And yet, within just a few years of more favorable practices, the vitality of the soil has been restored to where it is permeated with active fungal mycelium and lively communities of invertebrates. What had once been a monoculture now has several hundred species of plants and a diverse fauna. Nature is extraordinarily resilient; all that is required to restore our arable lands is for us to cease from doing the harmful things that we do.
Q: How do you see the future of small-scale family farmers, given the corporatization of agriculture throughout the world?
A: There is a resurgence of interest in small-scale farming, and I am impressed by the intelligence and idealism of the young farmers. Many of them will succeed, despite daunting obstacles. Federal policy since WWII has favored cheap food/ cheap energy, and this plays out as an array of subsidies—some obvious, many hidden—for industrial agriculture. A higher price for fossil fuels, whether by policy or by market forces, would be advantageous for artisanal-scale farms, which typically are much more energy efficient than industrial farms. We can see this in Europe; where energy is expensive, small-scale farms do well.
Q: What advice would you give to a young farmer interested in working at an artisanal scale?
A: Two pieces of advice have struck me as valid. The first is from Peter Henderson, author of the best-selling book of 1876, Gardening for Profit. Henderson advises that every mile that you are closer to your market is a tangible advantage. The second is from my father, who said, “You’re better off with five acres of excellent soil than 200 acres of poor soil.”
Farmland is expensive. In my area, unimproved farmland is priced at $30,000 per acre and up. What a starting farmer can likely afford is poor soil in a remote location, which is contrary to both of those bits of good advice. If you’re 100 miles from your market, you become a half-time farmer, half-time truck driver. I advise the young farmers to seek a long-term lease (10-20 years) on excellent soil close to their market, and forget about trying to buy a farm. In the long run, who is the owner of record is less important than who has the use of the land. If you’re doubtful, read Thomas Jefferson, who farmed on leased land, and who wrote wisely on the subject of usufruct.
Oh, and one other bit of advice— something that I learned in the course of a dramatic personal experience: when you’re burning off a brush pile, don’t wear a straw hat.
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