Harborview FarmsA Story from the Land
Agriculture: The Art, the Renaissance, and the Experience
Adapted from the February 11, 2021 presentation at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security’s 47th plenary session official side event.
“My name is Trey Hill.
So I think we’re in a––I’ll use the term from Solutions from the Land––in a digital and environmental renaissance of farming. And that made me ponder the question: what does the Renaissance farmer look like? What does the future farmer look like? I think they’re sustainable, resilient, ecologically minded, climate smart, regenerative, a smart businessperson… but also, just as importantly, they’re an artist.
I like to think of what I do as not just producing food, but also as an art.
Artwork is created by the artist, but all we do is plant the seed and allow the piece to create itself. It’s constantly evolving and showing its beauty, but we never save it. We simply harvest it, and it will never be seen again.
We only get so many chances to do this in our lives.
So as we look at the future of farming, we look at folks who will have to glide in and out of ecological landscapes, in order to grow food and maintain ecology. Not necessarily in the straight, delineated lines that we’ve always had, but with more of a flow.
As a child, when I first wanted to farm, I remember going into fields that looked like this with my father.
You could feel the soft soil under your feet.
It was malleable. It was clean. The lines were clearly drawn between the borders of the field and where the field started. It was the sound of the tractors, the smell of soil freshly turned. You could taste it in the air.
If you describe this to any farmer who’s experienced it, they can pull themselves right back to that point in their life, and remember that exact experience with all of their senses.
And this just shows that farming is an experience.
It’s a whole different profession than what I think most people do.
Now, when I walk in my fields, this is what us planting corn looks like.
This is a tractor that’s changing its seeding rate as it goes across the field, and steers itself, and regulates its own fertilizer.
When I step into the field, instead of feeling the soft, malleable soil, I feel the crops. I feel flowers, I see the bugs and the bees and the birds chirping. I hear that.
It tastes fresh. It smells fresh and sometimes even smells like a florist.
It’s a completely different experience than what I had when I was a kid, that had made me want to be a farmer.
So I’ve had to change everything about the way I think about farming and the way I do farming, from these linear, delineated systems, to this more abstract thought process––while still doing the same thing and growing food and doing it well.
But we’re doing it sustainably. So that canvas that we’re painting on, the medium that we’re using, is no longer this this monolithic sterile environment, but an environment that’s very much alive. We’re embracing the ecology and trying to complement it as opposed to control it.
When I look at sustainability, I think about one’s level of desire to make the world better. I think that as society moves towards that, farmers are moving towards that as well.
But as a farmer, there are so many factors. It’s so easy to say farmers need to be more sustainable, but sustainability is financial, environmental, climate-related, social, economic…
It’s very difficult to articulate to folks outside of agriculture exactly what that means.
So I made this really nice flow chart in my office last week.
I was trying to explain it so that would be very simplified. This is it. I got about halfway through and realized that it’s really, really complicated in farming to think about sustainability. I’m sure no one can read it, and I gave up.
It was just pointless to try to articulate what sustainability means to a farmer––that’s why I went with more of an experiential approach.
As farmers, we find our purpose in this way of life, and I think that’s why we all began farming.
But how do we change? How should we use technology? How can we do things that have never been done in the history of mankind?
What we need to do is figure out where can we inject data, imagery, chemicals, seeds, GMOs––where all these things come into play, so we can get closer to mimicking the benefits of the natural world, but do it using human ideas.
That’s what I think is sometimes surprising to folks: that blend of the old school, and bringing in the new.
Use cover crops, use legumes producing nitrogen to make us more efficient, but also use precision agriculture and machine learning! Let’s embrace all the things that the world has been able to create so that we can grow food.
By now you are probably asking why. Why would I do this? Of course, it’s why we all do it… it’s for our kids.
Here’s a picture of me and my kids walking out in the fields now. Instead of going into the freshly plowed field with the tractor, we go out and scout cover crops. We go out looking for flowers. We look at the birds, we look at the bees, and…
This is kind of my mantra. This is what I have in my office, this is what I tell my kids. “Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.”
That sums up farming for me.
Every farmer and every person that produces food can have their own little spot, their own little place in the world. But as long as all of us change just a little bit, the face of the world will change.
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An Agricultural Renaissance, led by innovative and entrepreneurial farmers, ranchers and foresters constructing sustainable, profitable and resilient systems that lay the foundation for a world of abundance on many scales capable of producing nutritious food, feed, fiber, clean energy, healthy ecosystems, quality livelihoods, and strong rural economies.