Stacks Image 222
…for Josh those potatoes were not simply a crop, but in some way players in a bigger, more complicated drama that I was at that point still struggling to get my head around.
George G. Packard
The Farmer is a Hacker

My friend Josh Trought is an ecosystem hacker. It took me a couple of years to figure that out, because when I met him I thought he was a farmer. Josh and a handful of other staffand volunteers are growing a lot of food --enough to feed a dozen or so people year-round plus some extra for visitors and guests--on three or four scrappy acres of northern New Hampshire woodlands. They call the place D Acres Permaculture Farm and Educational Center. You grow food on a farm, you're a farmer, right?

On first take, D Acres seems to be a large, disorderly and overgrown vegetable, herb and flower garden sprinkled with clusters of young fruit and nut trees, but despite the fact that there are no big fields with long row crops in sight, it certainly looks, sounds and smells like a farm. There are greenhouses and potting sheds, ponds, pigs, chickens, ducks, oxen, wood and metal fabrication shops, bales of straw, manure and compost piles, storage barns, tool sheds, irrigation systems, pickup trucks, solar panels, a black cat and a ferocious yellow wood chipper that runs on vegetable oil when it's not broke down.

When I began filming at D Acres in the autumn of 2010, friends asked me what the hell I thought I was doing. I told them what I'd told myself, that I was expecting to document a year in the life of a 21st century subsistence farm. Really more of a research farm, I'd add. I felt that explained most of what was going on there. The D Acres farmers are trying to figure out how to grow as much dinner as possible on this implausibly poor land, from eggs and pork to apples and cabbages. They sell surplus when they have it, and are developing some products like packaged spices, but the greater part of their farming mojo is devoted to producing most of their food for the year. And after 15 years of trial and error, from what I could tell, they are getting pretty good at it.

What I particularly like about the people working the farm is that they are pragmatists, driven by what works, rather than some ideologically pure concept of what they think is supposed to work. And that means that when things change, they have to stay light on their feet to find different ways of keeping the system running. For example, they collect huge quantities of cardboard from the nearby town of Plymouth, NH, for sheet mulching. I asked Josh what's going to happen when the price for recycled cardboard reaches the point where nobody is willing to give it away anymore. "We'll figure something else out," he said. "But if we are lucky we will see that coming, so I hope we'll have time to adapt."

He gave me a look that suggested of all the obvious things in the world, that should pretty much be at the top of the list.

Farmers...or just about anybody... who don't adapt don't make it. I will never forget the story a sad old guy told me at a small farmer's market in a little town in Indiana. He had taken over his father's dairy farm in the 1950s, and worked it fairly profitably for a decade. Then in the early 1960s the dairy business began to tank. Lots of dairy farmers were going giving it up, including my friend. So he decided to get into another line of work, anything but dairy farming when the industry was collapsing statewide. He began selling dairy farm machinery and supplies. He didn't seem to be a stupid guy, but you can see where this story is going. At the time, he couldn't.

My friend the failed dairy farmer was the victim of an all too human foible: remaining attached and loyal to a process or recipe that had always worked, and failing to realize that said process had been orphaned from the larger system that always had supported it.

Mind you, I am not without a lot of sympathy for my dairy farmer. It would take almost two years of filming and another year or so of puzzling over where the story was in the footage before I began to realize that calling D Acres a farm and Josh a farmer missed the big picture of what was really going on there.

Like the dairy farmer, I was stuck in that old perspective trap of not being able to see the forest for the trees. Where I saw a few pigs rooting up an acre of raw open land recently carved out of the forest, Josh saw the first stages major ecosystem change. Where I saw scattered fruit and nut tree saplings planted along brand new beds of compost and straw snaking across the contours of the slope, Josh saw the radical shift from a wild, unmanaged natural system towards a tended ecology. An ecology designed not only to grow food for humans, but also to "grow food for the bees and food for the soil," a phrase I began to hear so often around the place it seemed to be a mantra.

Wherever I looked at D Acres that first summer I thought I was seeing a complex, labor intensive, capital-starved, almost haphazard method of growing produce on its way to becoming a streamlined and efficient farm.

If you are an astute and skeptical reader, as I was an astute and skeptical filmmaker, you are now muttering "OK, sure, so how can they make enough income to support this fantasy." Give it up. Assume they have a mostly positive cash flow and that much of that comes from workshops and other non-farm sources. Assume there were some lucky breaks along the way. Remember I said this was a research farm. If you are looking for models of extraordinary economic success for small farms producing local food, drop me a line and I will give you a few links. A few.

In any case, I admit that first summer I was looking for the emerging farm at D Acres because for me, farming had always meant clearing the land, tilling the soil in the spring to a smooth black carpet of dirt, and planting seed in carefully ordered rows. Farming, whether it was organic or conventional, meant stripping away as much of the uncertainty as possible. It meant figuring out a nice, straight- line process with a beginning and an end which could be repeated year in and year out. A process or recipe which required a measurable number of inputs, and produced in return, a predictable volume of produce. Even organic farming meant soil testing, buying and adding soil supplements and fertilizer, putting in place prescriptions for pest and disease control, carefully managing the compost system, and following recipes to produce the quantity, quality and types of products that could be sold at the highest possible price to picky consumers.

In late summer I was filming half a dozen people digging potatoes out of the beds of straw, compost and manure which curved against the contours of a gentle northern slope which had been forest two years back. Josh slid his spading fork under a potato plant and hoisted a couple pounds of potatoes into the sunlight. "These are the pioneers, the garden pioneers, the first wave of food on this land."

"ii-eewww-whheee!" he crowed. "Look at that new dirt and these big fat worms, and here's a big chunk of manure still decomposing." He lifted that chunk to his nose and for a second I was certain he was going to take a bite.

So, for Josh those potatoes were not simply a crop, but in some way players in a bigger, more complicated drama that I was at that point still struggling to get my head around.

Before the potatoes had come Josh and the crew had cut down the trees and chipped them, and then came the half- dozen pigs who rooted up the forest floor, and then the beds of straw and compost and manure and the people who planted the potatoes, and then the next wave of players would be hundreds of garlic cloves planted where the potatoes had been dug. Then vegetables and berry bushes and fruit and nut trees. Humans pushing the ecosystem one way while the forest at the edges pushed back.

Hacking an ecosystem to nudge it towards producing dinner for people is not exactly a new-tech skill set. As near as I can figure it, in fact, us humans were ecosystem hackers long before we became farmers. If the farming and agriculture that we would recognize as such started 12-15000 years ago, then I'm going to hazard a guess that we began fooling around with the ecosystems in which we were hunting and gathering a good 50,000 years before that.

In her 2005 book Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson makes the case that as late as the early 1800s, much of California was a patchwork of ecosystems which, during the course of several thousand years, had been managed by dozens of indian tribes in their own locales to produce all the food, animal habitat, fuel and materials they needed. And apparently this type of gradual ecosystem hacking, maintenance and tending was the rule rather than the exception throughout North America.

So imagine a landscape 30,000...or even just 300...years ago where year after year people are tending, shaping, nudging their local ecosystem to provide for them. And then fast forward to 2014 and walk with me into a 500 acre corn field here in Indiana. Almost the entire ecosystem on these five hundred acres has been crashed. There's not much life in the soil, nothing on the land except what's planted or sprouted as weeds, and aside from a few scattered copses of trees between the fields, nothing but similar fields on all sides. All of what a livelier and more diverse ecosystem used to provide has been farmed out (wrong word?) to the farmer who becomes the single source of most of what his corn crop needs to grow. If his connections and financing with his suppliers fails, so will his crop. The ecosystem has been disassembled and turned into a recipe...a linear process which though predictable, is nevertheless quite fragile and susceptible to a host of threats.

I have been throwing the word ecosystem around as if I am sure that both you and I know what it means. And you probably do, but I didn't. An ecosystem for me was that diagram of circles and arrows showing how foxes ate rabbits and rabbits ate grass and if the grass dried up there were fewer rabbits and after a while there would be fewer foxes. And et cetera et cetera for a big complex system where all the players were in a relatively steady but dynamic web of relationships with each other.

Us humans, of course, we're outside the ecosystems, because we have the power to completely screw them up, and also the hubris to think that once we screw them up we can also make them better again.

And all of that is true enough, except for one small detail. We are not outside the system. We are players just as certainly as are the foxes and the rabbits and the grass.

The only reason we think we are not part of the ecosystem is that we can think. Think that we are outside of the ecosystem. To paraphrase the words of Pogo, Walt Kelley's cartoon 'possum, "We have seen the ecosystem, and it is us." Or more accurately, and we are both in it and of it.

So when we think about Indians tweaking wild ecosystems to produce more of the food and materials they needed, and then tending or managing those ecosystems, it is a major failure of understanding if we place the humans outside the ecosystem, like farmers outside the fences of their fields. The indians were players in the system just as surely as were the tubers they dug and replanted or the elk who came to browse and flourish in the new growth sprouting in the wake of fires set by humans. And just as surely as are the millions of Californians surrounded by asphalt, concrete and lawns living where the Indians lived three hundred years before.

Now I am not saying we can't draw a conceptual frame around any subsystem in the ecosystem and name, isolate and study it. For example, the ecosystems in soils or estuaries. In fact it is our ability to do that which gives us such enormous power as players in the system. It's what allows us to hack the system, to change the flows of energy and signals and information and material in a system so that we get more of the good stuff and the rest of the system gets less. It's what gave us the ability to crash local ecosystems by deforestation and large scale agriculture so badly that entire human civilizations have been swept away ultimately in those crashes.

We can't pretend that we are not ecosystem hackers. But having admitted to that, we can at least begin to learn how to hack the system without crashing it, and learn to manage the system we've hacked so that it serves both us and all the other players. All the other players who need their share of good stuff from the system, and when they get what they need, give us much of what we need as well.