Resiliency in a time of pandemic

An essay written by Tony

We’re not in control. What we are in control of is our relationship to the earth.

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer

If you haven’t read this book yet, please do yourself a favor and do so. It is so rich, so wise, so powerful. Written by an indigenous elder, it reaffirms our place in this world. Especially for those of us struggling to strengthen our relationship with the earth in this human-dominated society. The book is so timely, given the current Coronavirus pandemic that has us all gripped. Concurrent with the pandemic are the constant reminders all around us that we live in a time of great human-caused climate change.

The pandemic has us locked down here at Indian Ridge Farm, in southwestern Colorado. We’re sheltering in place. It’s been this way since mid-March. Our county health officials are worried about a surge in cases. Their concern is that if there’s a big local outbreak it could overwhelm our minimal health care resources. We don’t have an ICU anywhere close to care for patients, with the nearest one 65 miles away.

But pandemic or not, the farm is a grand place to be in the springtime. Essentially, it means we’re continuing to grow food. Amazing food. Nutrient-dense food. And we’re trying to do good things for the earth: composting, building soil, tending to the garden, practicing regenerative agriculture, raising livestock humanely and using renewable energy. Most importantly, we’re taking care of ourselves and each other. We feel secure. We have food stored, we have a 15,000-gallon rain catchment cistern and rely on the sun for our energy. The farm work hasn’t really changed, in spite of all our challenges. We’re excited about the growing season ahead, but we’d be lying if we didn’t tell you we also have our anxieties.

This pandemic has us thinking, and drawing an analogy to, of all things, plants. Plants and trees are very susceptible to droughts, insect infestations and invasive weeds. This susceptibility is exposed when there’s an imbalance in the entire system, or farm organism. It may be that the imbalance is created by a stressor: too many chemicals, not enough organic fertility, over-crowdedness, or no natural defenders to control or out-compete these invaders. These invasive insects and weeds, in particular, are very opportunistic. They will exploit whatever weakness they might encounter and try to throw the system off-balance. Usually quite successfully! Eventually, after a painful process in which forests may be wiped out, or crops ruined, the system is restored and equilibrium maintained. At least that’s what nature has taught us. But that equilibrium may look differently and feel new, challenging us to adapt and evolve.

Is this what’s going on with this particular virus and its deadly global impact? Is it nature’s way of telling us something’s wrong? That our way of life on this planet is not sustainable and that a virus, against which we have no built-in immune system, is opportunistically changing the order of things? That’s something worth pondering.

With barely five months since the outbreak, and with many of the world’s nations in a “lockdown” mode because of a strained health care system, the evidence already abounds that, if left alone, nature will reflect back to us its beautiful resiliency. Our extractive global economy is mostly idle, resulting in air that is cleared up in the large cities, wildlife that are “re-wilding” areas formerly trampled by humans, and waters that are being purified along the coasts and in the rivers. A quiet tranquility exists in places where before the pandemic there was noise and chaos. The natural world appears vibrant, almost as if it’s found a renewed balance by not having to constantly compensate for our interference. In return, humans, save for a few selfish nit-wits who can’t seem to understand the bigger picture, are patiently awaiting the outcome of this pandemic before venturing forth. This economic lockdown is giving the earth a chance to breathe, to rest. As a result, a profound lesson is being taught to those wise enough to absorb it: nature is not separate from humans. We are nature, nature is us.

Once this pandemic passes, a new normal awaits us all. What might that new normal look like? Right now, it’s hard to say. There are forces trying to pull us right back, hurriedly, to the way things were. But the larger question remains: have we truly learned that we must change our way of relating to nature and to each other? Time will tell.

What does all this mean for the resiliency of farms in the context of this pandemic?

Holistic Resource Management teaches us that sustainable food systems are built on three-legged stools made up of the environment, the community and the economy. For true long-lasting resiliency to take hold, each leg of that stool must be strengthened. That’s been our focus here at the farm the past few years, and that continues to be our focus now.

I’ll only briefly describe one or two tenets of each of these legs.

For the environment, the focus for farms must be on conservation and restoration. The best practices toward this end are through Regenerative Agriculture, a blending of humanely raised livestock integrated into produce production. But it’s much more than that. A good definition for regenerative agriculture is, “[a] system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services.” This requires a “whole-farm” approach to our practices, whereby the farm is viewed as a living organism benefited by adhering to these principles.

The community leg of the three-legged stool includes the actual farmers doing the work. In this regard, we’re focused on health care. Currently, visitors are not allowed onto the farm, except to pick-up food. We require them to practice physical distancing measures and wear a face mask. We take good care when we’re out in the community to protect ourselves from the virus. Our Quivira apprentices quarantined themselves here on the farm for 14 days before starting their work.

To be resilient — with or without a pandemic — we must eat nourishing foods, sleep well, live stress-free (right!), balance vocational and avocational pursuits and exercise regularly. But we must also concern ourselves with the health of our customers, who are drawn to our food as medicine in hopes of keeping their immune systems strong. During these uncertain times, our customers are also increasingly seeking out local food sources to maximize their overall food security.

Of course, our extended communities must remain strong to provide us with the supporting services we need to thrive — feed stores, hardware stores, groceries, banks, post offices, laundromats, accountants, lawyers, government agencies, car repair, etc. This point ties right into the economic leg of the three-legged stool. Moreover, for a farm to be resilient, it must also be profitable. Diverse farm enterprises are smart and of course, seductive, but they won’t be resilient unless they more than pay the bills.

There is no question that more challenges lie ahead. Drought, floods, severe storms, climate change, loss of bio-diversity and exploding populations. We can treat the pandemic as a global test-run of our preparedness in addressing these challenges. It’s inherent on us to chronicle this unprecedented pandemic episode, by documenting our pertinent observations, our unique challenges and the powerful lessons we are all learning from this pandemic so that future generations can mitigate our pitfalls and not repeat our same mistakes. That will be the true test of resiliency. Are we ready?

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