Monday, May 22, 2017

Big Ag Normal

While doing chores today at the DoD satellite ag campus, we were struck by the idea that Normal has become like Big Ag.  It tends in various ways to operate the way Big Ag does, most especially by its pronounced preference for monocropping.  Monocropping can have certain advantages from a profit maximization standpoint.  We here at the DoD satellite ag campus have lots of field fescue and it is, to be sure, reliable and steady stuff for making saleable hay.  But you wouldn’t want to monocrop farm fescue.

Different crops do different work on the soil so the spectrum of nutrients a single crop represents will be narrow and you risk wearing out your soil or needing chemical supplementation.  Monocropping will also have all sorts of unintended consequences.  Out here at DoD-Ag, for example, the quail population radically declined with the influx of field fescue in the region – fescue grows in tight clumps the quail can’t navigate to establish coveys.  And perhaps most of all, Nature doesn’t much like monocropping so if you want to keep out all her extras, you’re going to need lots of pesticides to keep your fields free from deviant incursions. 

That cluster of tall white-blooming growth is hemlock,
 the historical enemy of deviants.  We here at DoD-Ag love
variety, but all the same we’re not taking any chances and are
about to bushhog that pestilence down.
On our worst days, we think Normal acts a lot like Big Ag.  Many of its formal structures and informal norms appear to favor monocropping:  Its conferences, journals, and curricula favor, sometimes insistently, uniformity, whether that be uniformity of methodological approach, source materials, or demographic identities.  Put more plainly, it excels at growing upper class white heterosexual people, mostly men, who work with Normal sources using “mainstream” methods.  It also seems to cyclically re-seed with more of the same, hiring most from a small clutch of institutions, thereby performing something like a single-sourcing of each new year’s crop.  At its most aggressive, its efforts at preserving the purported integrity of its monocrop can register like aerial dusting of pesticide, a kind of indiscriminant removal of all that isn’t fescue.  At least it can sometimes feel that way if you’re not part of the monocrop.

None of this is new.  Small family farm types have been remarking on it for years, objecting to the intellectual and demographic homogeneity of Normal.  But perhaps identifying Normal with Big Ag is useful in illuminating the costs it incurs not to the individual stray deviant plants but to the ecosystem.  Ag polycultures work best over the long haul precisely because variety and, dare we say, deviation, infuse vitality into growing processes.  They prevent exhaustion of nutrients or, to translate the analogy, a kind of boredom, stagnation, and endless stale repetition of topics, approaches, and perspectives.  What one sacrifices in reliability and familiarity, one gains in variation and natural supplementation of nutrients that can make the whole show better. 

To be sure, polyculture farming is more work.  You have learn about more than one crop to pull it off.  And you have to tolerate some complexity rather than immediately reach for the straightforward and easy.   We here at DoD-Ag are trying real hard to use manual control techniques rather than chemical as we fight off a variety of plainly bad invasive species.  That means lots of labor, but we’d rather not kill off those walnut saplings when we take out the buckbrush.  In similar fashion, we’re studying up on the myriad possibilities for land use.  So too, if Normal could become less Big Ag, it would have to ensure its much vaunted “standards” and “quality,” not by aerial dusting of the “non-mainstream,” the “non-western,” and the “unpedigreed,” much less the “non-white” or “non-male.” (So many “nons,” so little time!)  It would also have to cultivate curiosity about more than fescue and summon up some courage for novelty.

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