Self-sustaining capacity


by Emily Palmer


Elizabeth Whelan

Life on an island makes you acutely aware of imports. When everything from your breakfast cereal to your bathmat comes across the Sound in a boat, it makes you wonder what you could do without, and what you would do if the boat wasn’t there.

This is particularly true for farmers. These days, they use lots of things that come from off-Island: feed for animals, fertilizer for plants, plastic bags for produce. Freight isn’t free, and when I wrote checks for seeds and soil in the dead of winter I used to think that of course, it couldn’t have always been this way. Before the boat ran on a daily basis, this Island was covered in farms, and somehow people got by. Could you have a farm like that today, one that could survive without that boat?

The modern word for the study of such self-sustaining farms is agroecology. In recent years, interest in the field has exploded, largely driven by concern about commercial agriculture’s reliance on synthetic pesticides, fossil fuels, and generally extractive methods. The ultimate goal of agroecological design is to integrate a farm’s components in such a way that overall biological efficiency is optimized, biodiversity is protected, and the farm’s self-sustaining capacity is maintained. Skillful use of agroecological principles results in a patchwork quilt of distinct yet related agroecosystems within the farm landscape, each mimicking the structure and function of natural ecosystems. By minimizing outside inputs and harnessing the natural cycles of microbes, plants, and animals, agroecologists believe that farmers can keep their land safe, stable, and self-sustaining for generations to come.

As a student of biology, the closed-loop visions of agroecologists appear eloquent, efficient, and obviously right. But as a former commercial grower, and a current and future eater of food, it is hard to reconcile theory with reality. For example, does the money you invest in nematodes and other soil microbes really come back to you in sales? How much more should a bunch of carrots cost, to cover that? How do we, as a society, find ways to invest in the things we know are right?

A few weeks ago, I stood outside Alley’s General Store with two friends, Jason, a farmer, and Drew, a painter. We all spoke of how our seasons were shaping up. I admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that having left farming I was working half as many hours and making just as much money as a gardener. It was easier to see, as a gardener, how the economics of a life, my life, might work. But it was harder to get out of bed in the morning, harder to care.

There’s a lot of money in landscaping, Drew told me, as Jason and I nodded in agreement. We watched the work trucks go by on State Road on their way up-Island, beds full of fertilizer and mulch. They are as much a part of this place as the tourists in town and the waves on the shore, the way life has always been.

Imagine if some of that land went into growing food instead of lawns. Imagine if all that money was spent on that, imagine what this Island might be.