Saturday, August 14, 2010

Framing farming for the future

Giant SunflowerImage by moonpie dig it via FlickrIt's funny -- Americans, Oregonians not least among them, are constantly seeking (and spending billions on) new, tech ways to accomplish one thing: gathering a little of the solar energy that falls upon us, gratis, every day and converting it to a form that's useful for our needs.

At the same time, Americans are constantly told that the only way for kids to have a secure future is for them to do time in classrooms where they are inculcated with the values and skills of the "knowledge workers," not least of which is the belief that work that involves getting dirty is something best done elsewhere while we give orders, do the selling, and reap most of the rewards.

Meanwhile, right under our figurative noses, world-class, self-replicating, exquisitely complex biological solar engineering systems go right on about their business of gathering solar energy and converting it to myriad forms that are perfectly useful for our needs.

The kid at any Salem-area high school who says she wants to go study to be an engineer and work on improving the yield from thin-film solar arrays or high-efficiency concentrated solar power systems will be given accolades and encouragement, loans, grants, internships, scholarships, and fellowships. Yet if that same young woman or one of her friends says they would like to grow clean and healthy food for her friends and family here -- to learn how to improve the yield from those exquisite biological solar engineering systems we call plants -- our collective response would be to shrug and scratch our heads, wondering why a young gal with so much potential would waste it on farming.

If she's willing to undergo an apprenticeship at the school of High-Input, Fossil-Fueled Agribusiness, she might be able to get a seat in a program at an Ag school such as at Corvallis. Scholarships will be virtually nonexistent, discouragement abundant, and her school loans will leave her unable to afford any land to practice her trade, Salem having decided that pavement and condo towers are a better bet than its young people.

About a year ago, for a pittance, the Salem City Council sold away the rights to farm 200 acres of precious fertile land right here in Salem in Minto-Brown park, because nobody in City Hall had the foresight or wisdom to recognize that farmers need places to farm just as much as cars need places to park. . . . and that we need farmers a lot more than we need more condos.

I wonder if the prosaic name "farming" isn't a huge part of the problem --- kids learn about farms with their "Old MacDonald" song, and there's no glamor in it.

What if we recognized farming for what it is: solar engineering using biological systems, systems that not only harvest the sun's energy and convert it to forms we can use, but that also come with complex chemical engineering subroutines so that the energy is not just made available but also delivered in ways that further the health of energy customer.

What if we recognized that, when all is said and done, most of the energy technologies we use are only "more efficient" than plants on paper and that, when you do a total life-cycle analysis, most engineered systems still fall well below the efficiency, utility, beauty, and value of a bean plant?

Do we have the wisdom to recognize that we don't need more accountants, marketing executives, lawyers, MBAs, and computer scientists nearly as much as we need biological solar engineers? And, given that fact, shouldn't there be well-funded biological solar engineering programs in every high school, community college, and university? Shouldn't smart young people have the chance to learn these crucial skills and enter the biological solar engineering world in the same way that ROTC students get scholarships to enter the military world? Or are we just going to continue acting as if food comes from grocery stores?
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