An “ist” Label Worth Claiming

I am a lifelong and third generation Methodist. Although the name Methodist has an intriguing and compelling history, that is not the topic of this blog.  Suffice it to say that although all Methodists have much in common, no two Methodists are exactly alike.  I want to address instead a word denoting a sacred trust that becomes a hot button political issue once “ist” is added to it. Add “ist” to the word environment and it becomes political fodder for partisan talk show hosts whose influence over the opinion of your neighbor makes him or her a critic and skeptic toward all things environmental.  Advocate and care for the environment and an outspoken neigbor will likely assume you agree with every word of Al Gore’s book on global warming even though neither you nor your neighbor has read a word of the book.  You’ve been pigeonholed.

Being raised on a small-scale farm in the 1950s and 60s did not automatically make me a friend of the environment.  We had practices as damaging to the earth, atmosphere, and streams as our large-scale farm neighbors.  We merely abused a smaller land mass.  We stored tractor fuel in an underground tank and frequently spilled it on the ground filling the tractors. We treated fence posts with (now) toxic creosote that we stored in 55 gallon drums. We used pecticides on our crops at a time when a main ingredient was the carsinogen DDT.  We burned off fields and forestland regularly.  We allowed our cattle free access to streams that ran through our pasture.   Methane emissions from the stockpiled cow manure at the dairy barn contributed more than a little carbon to the atmosphere.  Some of the envirnomental damage we did resulted from common and accepted practices of the times.  Some resulted from our using older euipment that was not as environmentally friendly as the newer models.  Complying with new environmental standards cost money.

I did not compose the list of environmentally unfriendly practices we engaged in to make this point, but with a couple exceptions the entire list resulted from industrial farming metods that we had incorporated on our small-scale farm.  Burning off cropland and forests rather than allowing organic matter to form mulch for future growth was never a good practice in spite of assumed benefits of ridding the area of unwanted insects and stimulating the growth of pine trees.  Even stockpiling cow manure outside the dairy barn changed with the introduction of chemical fertilizers. Until we started buying the then cheap chemical fertilizers (cost set by pertroleum prices), the  manure was spread on our pastures and fields.  More carbon went back into the ground and less in the air.

What this tells me, in my grandmother’s words, is that there is more than one way to skin a cat.  Instead of having to buy the ever more expensive equiment and chemicals to comply with the ever increasing environmental standards,  farming on a small-scale allows me to incorporate tools and practices used prior to the industrialization of farming and care for the environment at the same time.  Are they old-fashioned, slow, and do they limit the scale of my farming opration and the output of the farm?  Of course they are and do.  They also do not profit me at the expense of the health of the present generation or damage and exhaust the non-renewable natural resources of the earth and its atmosphere for generations to come.

horse drawn planter
Here’s a planter my dad owned and loaned to a farmer who still plowed with a mule. It’s been in my shed since we picked it up from the farmer’s widow in 2002.

Many of the farm praticies I refer to, like plowing with a  horse, require skills I never acquired and may never learn to do efficiently enough to farm solely with them.  In the meantime, a commitment to farm on a small-scale with the modest equipment I have rather than expand my farming operation to the capacity that larger, more modern equipment allows is a commitment to do less harm to the environment rather than more without allowing stricter environmental standards to drive me out of farming altogether because of equiment and chemical costs.

If this commitment to small-scale farming makes me an environmentalist, then I say the same thing about that label as I do about the Methodist name.  All envionmentalists have some things in common, but no two environmentalists are alike.  My form of environmentalism recognizes that God is the creator and creation is a sacred trust of which I am a steward.  Returning the piece of earth and its surroundings over which I have charge to its Maker and mine in an improved rather than a depleted state when my time here is over will be a final measure of my faithfulness.

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