Monday, September 13, 2010

Blind to the potential bounty

J. Russell Smith, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, p 185 of the Island Press edition of the 1950 printing:

"Oak trees are not hard to graft. A farmer would soon have a valuable field if, in any one of five hundred counties in the eastern half of the United States, he would graft the young oaks and oak shoots on a tract of cut-over hardwood forest. He could do this by getting cions from the best trees in his own county. Now, however, having been to a school where he learned merely to repeat words out of a book, he is too blind to see such useful things near home, so he hunts a job in town. What proportion of the teachers of agriculture in American rural schools know how to graft a tree, or do teach it to their pupils? Why is it that young men and women are the chief export of rural America?"

The sheer breadth of issues the man could deal with in a few sentences is astounding!

Nowadays, of course, we don't even teach agriculture in rural schools. Certainly nothing about grafting trees, and without question nothing about the massive volume of high-value food which falls around us every autumn.

Geez, I was going to wrap up this post quickly when I saw this on the same page:

"If an acorn-meal industry were established and a person (man, woman, or child in early teens) could pick up five hundred pounds of acorns in a day, it seems a foregone conclusion that the Appalachians and Ozark Mountain regions of the United States could enter upon a new era of prosperity. Apparently present prices for cow feed would enable a good acorn crop to double the wages that thousands of American mountaineers now receive."

Remember, these words were first published in 1929, and were written before the stock market crash, and long before anyone had any inkling how deep or long the depression would become. However, I know from recently reading David M. Kennedy's Freedom From Fear that the farm economy had been depressed for decades leading up to the "Great Depression," and had thwarted every effort on the part of politicians to revive it. The problems then were much the same as they are now: Overproduction drives down bushel prices. The logical response by the individual farmer is to produce more but that, of course, only serves to further depress prices.

The difference between then and now is that today we pay farmers to crank out corn below cost, so that calories become cheaper and cheaper, but at a tremendous cost. In terms of soil degradation. In terms of our already tenuous connection with the land, and the shrinking percentage of people who make their living interacting with it, in terms of our health, in terms of the well-being of our rural communities.

Maybe someday it would be the same with acorns. Maybe someday some blogger will be griping about low acorn prices and how in response individual farmers are cranking out more acorns, further depressing acorn prices.

I hope so. Because if that happens the world will in the meantime have changed immeasurably for the better.

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