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Recently I was asked to give a talk at my old school. Think private. Think all girls. Think wooden banisters from the war years and dark, thick oil portraits of former female principals, and uniform hems worn at the ‘appropriate length’. Before I arrived, I was a bit like a snorty, nervous horse, not really wanting to go back into a stable after running so free (and feral) in the wild for so many years. But I made myself go because I wanted to ask the girls this question: “Who is aiming for a career in agriculture?”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Only two girls out of a crowd of 150 senior secondary students tentatively put up their hands. My next question was a more hopeful one: “Who here eats food?”
There was a collective chuckle amongst them. Food! Of course every person in the room put up their hand.
“Food,” I repeated, “It’s kind of important. And that’s why I’m here.”
Most of the young women sitting inside the red brick walls of the auditorium were being steered towards university pathways such as science, nursing, law, medicine, accounting, computing – areas that are all worthy, but studies framed in a masculine world that is skewed towards economics and science. And, they are all areas that don’t produce food.
In our education system there is no formal pathway to teach holistic farming to women. To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I’ll take you back to 1970 when Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize. Borlaug, the man touted as the ‘father of the green revolution’ said during his Nobel acceptance speech, “With the help of our Gods and our science, we must not only increase our food supplies, but also insure them against biological and physical catastrophes.”
When I first read this quote in Daphne Miller’s book, Farmacology, I felt a pulse of frustration. And, due to the mess we now face in today’s science and corporate led agriculture, a pulse of sorrow. Dr Borlaug effectively saved millions of lives in the developing world by breeding more productive and disease-resistant wheat varieties, among other things. Today such reliance on science, often funded by chemical companies and food corporations, has put us on a slippery slope towards self-destruction.
Borlaug’s words further jolted me when he said that science was “insuring against biological and physical catastrophes”. For me, biology is life, and physical catastrophes are weather. How can we insure against weather and life? These are the realms of Mother Nature and are not ours to dominate. But that’s where modern masculine systems of agriculture have led us. Human arrogance is oft-times more dangerous than ignorance.
To draw once more from the rich pages of Miller’s Farmacology, she says that after World War II, “tanks became tractors, nerve gas became chemotherapies and pesticides, explosives became fertilisers, and powerful antibiotics and antiseptics made an easy transition from war to peacetime use.” While Miller is not saying the post-war scientific breakthroughs in medicine and farming are bad, she is saying food and medicine for good health are inextricably linked, and despite her efforts, her patients were remaining ill. That was until she went in search of holistic family-run farms that offered up pure food as medicine.
Stacked upon the failing modern systems, like a double burger, are genetically-modified (GM) plants and animals. We are headed for serious trouble that the next generation will not be able to ‘fix’. Rampant GM super weeds are on the loose across America and have to be hand plucked from crops because chemicals cannot kill them. Also in the United States, the chemical nasty called glyphosate – which the World Health Organisation says is “probably carcinogenic” – is being found in the breast milk of every woman tested. It’s the same chemical Australian councils spray along roadsides, when simple steam systems could be used to hinder unwanted plants.
And ironically, the chemical used to blitz land so as to establish all our ‘environmentally conscious’ superannuation fund tree plantations, atrazine, is now in our water and has been linked to limiting vitamin D uptake in humans.
One family in Virginia, USA, the Salatins, have inspired a grassroots global revolution based on their systems on Polyface Farms. We can only hope that the Salatin’s style of farming using Mother Nature’s biological principles, rather than big machinery and petroleum, will become the new normal. In their system, men, women, and children farm as one and sell produce directly to some 5,000 health-hungry families. Joel Salatin’s business model shows how a farming community can thrive, even on land that has in the past, as Joel said, been pillaged for 200 years by poor farming methods.
Rangeland scientist Dr Fred Provenza from Utah State University says women need to be encouraged back to understanding nutrition intuitively. His studies reveal a mother’s nutritional wisdom is innate in many species – including humans – but that we are losing touch with it. From a cow teaching her calf what plants to eat, to a mother in the suburbs giving her child an actual apple rather than a packaged juice, it’s all the same.
Eating plants grown in rich soil and animals raised on pastures grown in healthy soil are key to human health, yet modern medicine teaches us to pop a pill and treat the ailment in isolation to the whole. Marketers teach us to shop in supermarkets where produce is devoid of nutrients due to the intense systems in which they are grown. Even the super juices we are zipping up in our blitzers are most likely leafy greens sprayed with chemicals or grown in tired soils – unless we have set out to find purer produce.
We not only have a social belief that agriculture is a male domain, but we are also taught to be scared and unloving of our female bodies. We are bombarded by advertising campaigns of how scary and dangerous it is to have breasts. We are disempowered further in raising our own children, thanks to media and societal pressures. If we begin to listen to our inner wisdom and tune in to the cycles of the Moon as she governs our bodies and our energy fluxes, then we will be the ones to steer humans back onto a more balanced path.
One woman leading such a movement is Dr Christiane Northrup, an American obstetrician. She says that, “as women heal, through feeling our grief and our joy, the Earth heals. For all of history, the Earth and the natural world have been viewed as feminine, with ‘virgin resources’ to be ‘exploited.’ What happens to an individual woman and what happens to our planet are linked.” But as Dr Northrup goes on to say, “our personal and collective degradation of nature, women, and the feminine is drawing to a close, one person at a time.”
That one person is you. Open your ears and your eyes to new forms of regenerative agriculture that are claiming back our balance. Rise up to inspire change in yourself even if it is growing a window box of parsley in your city apartment, or shopping with wisdom. Encourage your daughters and their children to reclaim agriculture as their life’s work with their feet firmly planted in Mother Earth, because, as I said to the girls at my old school: “It’s time to put the feminine back into farming.”
Postscript: On the day I delivered my lecture, I received an invitation for the last Agricultural College student hurrah at Sydney University’s Orange, NSW campus. Apparently the university has decided to phase out all agricultural studies offered there. Perhaps it’s a tragedy and a travesty, or perhaps it’s time to scrap the old model and establish a Polyface Farms style of university in our own paddocks, our own kitchens, our own backyards, and within our own hearts.
From the ‘Egypt’ edition of Womankind – you can buy a copy from our online store.