My apologies, but a confluence of events has taken my attention from blogging.

During the absence, I’ve done a good bit of thinking and research related to the societal impacts of creating a ‘family farm’ training operation.

Most of the research has revolved around thinking about family.

I’ve previously blogged about some of the social implications/problems with our ‘self’ orientation.

The more I look at law over the past 60 years, the more problems I see…and the more destructive I see law with respect to family and community.

The great irony is that the entire purpose of law is to maintain society. If our law begins to ‘prioritize’ the individual over the family and community, then the law and the judicial system becomes the antithesis of its sole purpose.

Certain parts of our legal system have specifically lost sight of core judicial meaning. Family Court in my region is now almost exclusively about individuals. As a result it has degraded to a petty, materialistic bickering forum.

When we began the Organic Farmer Training Facility and Ripen initiatives I did not realize that we were headed into the eye of an enormous and destructive social storm.

I understood the condition of the agricultural economy and rural communities. The relationship between those conditions and our national judicial system was not as obvious.

For a country that was formed specifically to structure a government to limit the power of any individual (and structured amazingly well to achieve that end) we have lost our way.

Some recent writers have put the dilemma in terms of our societal ‘soul.’

I think a great many in our society have the desire for a healthy soul.

My concern is more that a very, very small number of self-interested individuals have had some success at changing our legal system to alter the course of our national history…and the explicit intention of the founding citizens to, as they put it, structure a society around law and God.

Selfish actions with the law have pitted people against people in the most harmful way – the destruction of family and community.

Life is the Network, Not the Self

I reach up into a sugar maple tree’s low branches and pluck a leaf. My fingers hold a seemingly unremarkable leaf, grown on a tree next to a suburban driveway. This leaf is not what it seems.

I dip the leaf in alcohol, then in dilute bleach, long enough to kill fungi and bacteria on the surface. Then, with a sterile knife, I sliver the leaf and lay the cut segments onto Petri dishes filled with sugar-infused agar. I’m using this simplest of microbiological techniques to query what might be living inside the leaf. Maple cells will not grow in the Petri dishes, but fungi will. I’m luring them out of hiding and, by feeding them, bringing them to a scale that my human senses can apprehend.

Days later, fungal growth spills out of the sliced leaf: toffee-colored lava flows, bright orange flecks, rippled cream, tangled puffs of white filaments, sulfurous shags, and purple velvet. The dishes were the nonpareils of moldy fridges, vibrant ecstasies of fungal growth. The “control” dishes, those I had opened and knifed but not touched with maple, were bare or sparsely spotted with gray blobs. Here, then, were some of the leaf’s inhabitants coaxed into view.


The colorful growths revealed that my high school and college textbooks had told a half-truth. Elegant diagrams of leaf cross-sections depicted only plant cells. But a leaf is a community of fungus, bacteria, protist, alga, nematode, and plant. Just as diagrams of human skin or gut usually omit the microbes that are essential components of human bodies, our images of plants, seemingly so objective, missed the essential nature of a leaf. A “maple” is not an individual made of plant cells, but a community of cells from many domains and kingdoms of life. Microbe-free plants likely do not exist in nature and, if they could be constructed, would quickly die for want of the vital connections that sustain life.

Most of the cells that comprise a maple leaf are smaller than plant cells and hard to see under low-powered microscopes. The incomplete diagrams of early botanists are therefore understandable. But we now know that leaves also comprise millions of non-plant cells. My backyard experiment revealed just the small a portion of the fungal community. Studies of the diversity of DNA in leaves reveal hundreds of species in every leaf. Worldwide, there may be a million species of leaf-dwelling fungus. Global diversity of bacteria in leaves is unknown, but DNA sequencing can reveal hundreds per plant species.

By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. In some species, the network changes through the seasons, starting in spring with bacteria that resemble those of the soil, then shifting through the growing season to bacteria that can process the complex mix of nutrients inside a leaf. Fungi inside the leaf protect against herbivorous animals, encourage growth, and confer drought resistance to the plant. Bacteria also promote growth by processing nutrients, cleaning wastes, signaling to plant cells, producing growth hormones, and combatting pathogens.

The leaf network is also a place of tension, its members caught in the evolutionary struggle between cooperation and conflict. Pathogenic bacteria and fungi continually threaten to overwhelm and destroy the leaf, a tendency held in check by a combination of plant defensive chemicals and competition from other microbes. The leaf community contains the seeds (or fungal hyphae) of its own mortality: When leaves weaken, fungi engulf the leaf and start the process of decomposition. This rot isn’t always a disadvantage for the rest of the plant. Death can prune shaded leaves, stopping them from draining the plant community’s energy.

Fifty years ago, Lynn Margulis showed that plant cells are miniature networks, made of the union of three different evolutionary lineages: light-gathering chloroplasts, sugar-eating mitochondria, and enveloping plant cells. We now know that the same is true of the leaf and indeed the whole plant. Biologists talk not of the ecology and evolution individual plants, but of “holobionts,” entities made of many species, all inseparably linked.

Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself. Models and lab experiments on the chemical origin of life show that interacting networks of molecules beat self-replicating molecules in a Darwinian struggle. Many of the first fossilized cells of life on Earth lived in integrated bacterial stacks called stromatolites. Today, all major ecosystems — forests, coral reefs, grasslands, ocean plankton — are built on conversations between interdependent partners. Cut these conversations and the ecosystems fall apart. The first artificial cells also have a networked character. When scientists organize chemical reactions into arrays of tiny, interconnected compartments, life-like properties emerge: cycles of protein production, gradients of signaling chemicals, and the ability to maintain a steady internal state. Without the network, the homogeneous chemical soup lacks any tang of life.

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the “self,” but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.

This view of life has practical consequences. If plants are made from relationships, then agricultural science can manage these relationships to increase yield and sustainability. In conservation biology, restoring ecological interactions will help species and ecosystems. In genetic engineering, the effects of manipulations emerge not from the essential quality of any stretch of DNA but from networked interactions among genes and their environments. The living communities within plants can be put to work remediating polluted soils, reducing the toxicity of agricultural chemicals applied to crops, and processing biofuels.

The colorful fungal growths swarming my Petri dishes have a lesson beyond the immediate practical benefits of managing and studying living networks. Every textbook diagram and every written metaphor shape how we imagine the world. Microbiology and genetics are calling us to expand that imaginative space. When we gaze at a maple leaf, we now see not an individual made of plant cells, but a thrumming conversation, an embodied network. The “self” is a society.

David George Haskell’s latest book, The Songs of Trees, explores biological networks through the sounds and stories of a dozen trees around the world. He is a professor of biology at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. His first book, The Forest Unseen, was the winner of the National Academies’ Best Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, among other honors. You can connect with him on twitter: @DGHaskell

Short Creek Farm in New Hampshire


Short Creek Farm was founded in Northwood, New Hampshire in 2015 by friends Jeff Backer and Dave Viola. Situated on 200 acres of field and forest, we produce pastured pork, grassfed beef, and heirloom vegetables in an ecologically conscientious manner. From our home-grown meats and vegetables, we create delicious, distinctive products that reflect season and are instilled with a sense of place. We look to traditional techniques for inspiration in the field and kitchen while also embracing innovative practices that move agriculture and food culture forward. We aim to be good stewards of the land, to add vitality to the community, and to make good, real food more readily available.

Jeff Backer, Farmer
Before coming to Northwood, Jeff started Potter Hill Farm, in Grafton, Massachusetts, where he grew a wide variety of heirloom vegetables and flint corn and raised pork and beef on pasture. Over five seasons, both he and Potter Hill became a fixture in the lives of many families in the community. Jeff brings the same ecologically-rooted agricultural management he practiced at Potter Hill to Short Creek with the goal of improving the quality of the land while at the same time producing nourishing foods from it.


Dave Viola, Chief Sausage Maker
Dave has had a hand in progressive food companies throughout New England; notably, he developed well-respected charcuterie programs at Farmstead in Providence, Rhode Island and at Moody’s Delicatessen and New England Charcuterie in Waltham, Massachusetts. In conversations with Jeff over many years, Dave recognized the need for farmers to be able to turn their goods into higher quality finished products. This is his role at Short Creek and it basically entails taking the incredible meats and vegetables that Jeff grows and making them last longer, making them easier for you to turn into a delicious meal at home, but most of all, trying not to screw them up.

Evaluating Ideas and Methods in Agriculture

One of the partners and I have been engaged in a discussion that starts to take our farming methods work and determines a protocol to evaluate the integration of a ‘new idea’.

The exchange began because of a concern about genetic manipulation… but could easily extend to any agricultural innovation.

My anxiety arises based upon the broad question of ‘How do we know?’ the impact (both short and long term) of any new method.

As a general statement, I would hypothesize that agricultural science has been severely underfunded in comparison to medical science. I also think it is fair to hypothesize that agricultural science research has been severely anthropocentric.

From a bit of Internet research:

U.S. healthcare research spending in 2016 appears to be approximately $50B (Federal government portion). The only statistic I found on industry investment was from 2010 for $76.5 B.

U.S. agricultural research spending in 2016 appears to be approximately $3B (Federal government portion).

Given our society and the Earth are suffering from 20th Century anthropocentric ideas and methods, I’d also hypothesize there would be enormous social, environmental, and cultural benefit to broadening the ‘human centered’ perspective that drives research spending in America.

Now comes the BIG question…how to develop a research protocol for agriculture 1) intelligently linked to other disciplines, 2) free of species biases, 3) sustainably funded, and 4) capable of answering sophisticated scientific and cultural question.


Lucille and the Domestication of Animals

Lucille the Dog is a bit of a free spirit.

I’ve always been resistant to the kind of training done by many dog people.

My thought has always been she (Irish Setter and Poodle mix) has a given character that I need to respect.

She loves people, she loves to run, she loves to chase in the woods or the yard.

Around people she is enthusiastic, yet understanding. If you are comfortable with her, she is comfortable with you. If you are hesitant, she is respectful.

Part of her is wild, part of her is a domestic homemaker.


Mitch Seavey’s Dogs Won the Iditarod

What Mitch Seavey had to say about winning the Iditarod…

” ‘They love speed,’ Seavey said of his sled dogs. ‘I think it frustrated them to go too slow, so I just let ’em roll. It was scary because I’ve never gone that far that fast ever, but that’s what they wanted to do and maybe it’s a new chapter.’

“Seavey’s team recorded 10 and 11 mph runs and the separation he built over other racers gave him the flexibility to bank generous rest for his dogs, and himself, as they moved up the Norton Sound coast in the race’s final days.

” ‘They only know one thing and that’s 9.5 to 10 mph and they hit their feet, and they hit their speed and that’s what they do. And they trusted me to stop them when they needed to be stopped, and feed them, and I did that, and they gave me all they could. But I guarantee they’re tired now,’ said the new champion.”

The Economic Arts

A few years ago Wendell Berry made a speech with the following paragraph:

But I would insist that the economic arts are just as honorably and authentically refinable as the fine arts. And so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.

The making of a household has for almost 40 years been a central part of my health (or lack of health). Over the past two years my ability to make a household has been interrupted – both in the practical sense and in the psychological sense.

My home literally ‘fell apart’.

During those two years, I have allowed the practical part of homemaking to become disjointed, uncertain, uncomfortable, and unhealthy.

It has pointed out how important and sustaining is the work of the homemaker.


Who Owns America?

“When democracy goes down before monopoly capitalism,” Agar writes, “the result has been a greedy tyranny, preserving all the vices of capitalism and extinguishing its virtues.”

Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, and Robert Weissman, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor in 2000 wrote the following about the 1936 published book Who Owns America?

The other day, at our local bookstore, we passed a book. And then doubled back.The book is titled Who Owns America?: A Declaration of Independence. Sounded like it was written by people we should know. But on further investigation, we recognized none of the names on the cover.Who Owns America? was written by 21 “conservative” decentralists. And it was first published in 1936.Re-released this year, with a new introduction by Seton Hall University History Professor Edward S. Shapiro, Who Owns America? (ISI Books, Wilmington, Delaware, 1999), is highly critical of large corporate institutions that controlled the political economy in 1930s America. Its publisher believes the book is as relevant today as the day it was published.Edited by Pulitizer Prize winning Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Herbert Agar and southern poet Allen Tate, Who Owns America? puts forth the type of scathing critique that you just can’t find in today’s political debates.Like today’s corporatist conservatives — George Will, James Glassman and Charles Krauthammer — the conservatives who wrote Who Owns America? believed that the specter of big government threatened individual freedom and the ideal America.But unlike the corporatists of today, Agar, Tate and their colleagues understood that public authority was the only antidote to the excesses of big corporate power.Agar, Tate and their colleagues argued that to attain the conservative goal of less government, you’d first have to limit the size and power of the large corporate institutions that were roaming the land. Typical of the 1930s conservatives writing in this volume is the pro-decentralist economist Richard Ransom.”The permanent lease on life which corporations possess tends more and more to concentrate within a few hands the ownership and control of general property,” wrote Ransom in a chapter titled Corporate and Individual Persons. “The disproportionate distribution of the national wealth is very evidently due in large part to the corporate tendency to mass larger and larger aggregates of ownership which are held together by corporate permanence and corporate inertia. …”Ransom’s solution to the problem of corporate control of the national wealth? Federal chartering of corporations doing interstate business.And what should the states do about excessive corporate power? The states should limit the “profitable business life of the corporations which they charter.”And how could the states accomplish this end?”This could perhaps be done by means of heavy selective inheritance taxation on the transfer of corporate shares or assets,” Ransom answers. And what would this achieve?”Such a shorter term of corporate life, either accomplished indirectly as suggested here or accomplished by more immediate means, will produce a more direct personal responsibility in corporate managements,” Ransom says. Once interstate corporations are federally chartered, Ransom proposes that the personal liability of stockholders should be extended to an amount at least equal to twice the proportionate investment of each stockholder (currently, you can only lose what you put in.)  Can you imagine Will or Krauthammer contemplating these thoughts? Lyle Lanier, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, wrote a chapter titled “Big Business in the Property State,” in which he observed that “the American people have long recognized the danger to democracy of economic power concentrated in the hands of big corporations.”Lawmakers passed the antitrust laws at the turn of the century, “but these laws have been impotent to stem the rising tide of big business organization,” Lanier wrote. Industrial capitalism, Lanier wrote, “has followed a course of development which is both self-destructive and dangerous to democratic institutions.”Lanier, like his co-authors, finds hope in a Jeffersonian ideal of small business and small farmers. The publication of this volume today makes George Will, James Glassman and their conservative contemporaries look like empty suits compared those who wrote Who Owns America?. Big corporations still roam the land and still threaten a fragile democracy. But there is no Agar on the right to challenge them. Needless to say, we cannot and do not agree with everything written by these 21 self-proclaimed “conservatives” of the 1930s. We do agree with the conservative sentiment put forth in the book, as summarized by Agar, that corporate concentration and democracy are at odds.”When democracy goes down before monopoly capitalism,” Agar writes, “the result has been a greedy tyranny, preserving all the vices of capitalism and extinguishing its virtues.”

This is remarkable, very relevant to our current economy/society.

I also find their notion of limiting the lifespan of corporations extremely insightful (and, by the way, a very Christ-like perspective on society).

More on Undocumented Farm Workers

I’ve read a couple articles on the issue of undocumented workers in agriculture. Both articles took the perspective of ‘look what will happen to your food prices’.

Yes, we have inexpensive food because of a farm labor system built on ‘workers without a voice’.

Is that culturally acceptable?

It is not for me. It is a form of slavery – a criminal system allowed by the government – to satisfy the labor needs of mostly big farms.

My cynical side keeps telling me this will not be solved because the interests of agri-business will bury the problem.

My religious side works toward finding solutions that rebuild the economies of local food production and family farms.

Feeding the World


‘Food production must double by 2050 to feed the world’s growing population.’

This truism has been repeated so often in recent years that it has become widely accepted among academics, policymakers and farmers, but now researchers are challenging this assertion and suggesting a new vision for the future of agriculture. New research suggests that production likely will need to increase between 25 percent and 70 percent to meet 2050 food demand.