Friday, March 4, 2011

On farming, healing and quality of life

At the recent Governor's Forum on Colorado Agriculture, keynoter and New Mexico State University agricultural economist Lowell Catlett (shown at right) sought to broaden the definition of agriculture beyond the production of commodities like corn and wheat by pointing to its vast potential contributions to human health and well-being. One of the pioneering programs he mentioned involves putting returning soldiers afflicted with PTSD to work on NMSU's extension research farms. Having a regimented schedule of what his father's generation simply called "chores," plus working around plants and animals, is proving to be one of the most successful treatments available for suffering soldiers, he said.

It reminded me of a recent program I'd heard on American Public Media's The Story, called "Warrior to Farmer." New Mexico native Matthew McCue served in Iraq, but while there he was struck by the important  role of farmers' market in that culture and eventually came to the conclusion that he could do "more good with a shovel" than a gun. He's now engaged in sustainable agriculture. He wants to return to Iraq someday, this time as a farmer rather than a soldier.

And this week's New York Times Wednesday food section chronicles a program in New Jersey that trains people with disabilities for jobs in the hydroponic greenhouse business, supplying stores and restaurants with fresh greens and herbs. The program was inspired by the fact that even someone born with Down syndrome can get blearily bored doing repetitive tasks all day. Through the Arthur & Friends program, which hopes to replicate around the country, trainees nurture life, working with their hands and engaging a wide range of skills, as they go about their day in the midst of a "green oasis."

Not so many generations ago, most kids grew up in a rural setting and many of them had the option of returning home to a family farm or a small town for their livelihood. In the years since, a huge out-migration has occurred, leading to concentrated cities like Denver where long commutes are the norm. Many farm kids who would like to stay and work in agriculture no longer consider it an option if they want to eventually put kids of their own through college or live without the financial cloud of huge operating debts constantly over their heads. Few are willing to live the austere life my own parents did. And as a new generation struggles to get a toehold in today's tough economy, having steady means, savings and assets is becoming more important than ever within families who hope to provide meaningful opportunities for each other.

That said, it seems ironic that we've removed so many people from the farm, only to bring them back again for healing when modern life proves overwhelming and unsatisfying. Or that we wait until someone is suffering from a psychological condition of some kind before giving them the option to experience a way of life that is inherently healthy and rewarding. Our society has been denigrating and devaluing food and fiber production for decades, to where it is hardly viable as a way of life without some additional financial support brought in from an outside funding source.

Catlett believes his generation, the Baby Boomers, will force our world to change. They have the wealth and the numbers to do it. He predicts they will want to return to the old model of being born and dying within the comfort of home (rather than in a hospital.) They will want their pets with them when they go into a care facility, and horses grazing on a green slope outside their window. They will want artisan cheeses and bio-dynamic wines served with their dinner. And as a consequence of these desires, the importance of agriculture will experience a renewal, creating unforeseen opportunities to work in the field. He's considered a "futurist" and that's his vision of where things are headed. He calls it (for lack of a better term) a "plants-animals-and-people thing." They all just seem to go together and form a whole that's more than the sum of their parts. It's old wisdom, of course, being rediscovered in our time.