In an age of seed patents, processed foods and factory farms, for the first time in recorded history, the world’s population depends on refined forms of ancient sunlight (fossil fuels) buried deep within the Earth rather than on photosynthesis and human labor alone to grow our food. To see what a highly mineralized society looks like, turn to the people of the Hunza Valley, high in the Himalayas. “The key factor,” according to John D. Hamaker in “The Survival of Civilization,” “is that [the Hunza] irrigate the valley’s soils with a milky-colored stream from the meltwater of the Ultar glacier. The people are virtually never sick. They do not develop cancer. Many are active workers at 90; some live to be 120.”
As the Earth nears 7 billion people, I can’t help but wonder: When will the food bubble break? Moreso, what are farmers doing to prepare for an age of post-modern agriculture?
I journeyed to Rutherfordton, NC, to Edwards Farm, in search of answers. Autumn colors bloomed among the few remaining patches of green kudzu. The invasive Japanese import prolifically blankets the South, and blocks the sun onto lesser plants, shacks and telephone poles, much like the whisky breath of an obnoxious, close-talking relative. Exiting the interstate a final time, a welcome sign read “Small Town Friendly”—a description earned after my GPS led me to a modern ranch home. I asked a woman, who was in the middle of a land-line call, if I was close.
“Just down the hill,” she said, eying me curiously. “Past another farm, and you’ll take a right.” Following her advice, I turned on a dirt driveway. Spotting a “KUDZU” license plate,, I knew I found the right porch.
Granted in 1774 by royal decree, the Edwards’ farm was once the hunting ground of the Cherokee and Catawba tribes. Octogenarian Henry Edwards remembers his grandfather showing him Indian burial mounds, and talks about how how his great-great grandmother was the last in the region to be scalped. When Henry started farming, there was nothing inorganic about food. The soil was rich and alive; rains were reliable and plants thrived. Back when the climate cooperated—most of the two-and-a-quarter centuries—the 400 acres of rolling hills and stream-cut pastures met the family’s needs.
After serving in WWII, Henry married and moved back to the family farm, where an uncle had grown kudzu for livestock feed. At the time, rainfall averaged 55 inches a year, plenty for his prized corn crop to flourish. But for the last eight years, drought put his harvests so far in the red, he no longer bothered to plant.
Where maize failed, kudzu flourished. Today, roughly 50 acres of the farm are designated to the sprawling plant. Over the years, Henry and Edith have become expert cultivators of kudzu. Not only is the “foot-a-day menace” high in protein, it doesn’t take irrigation, fertilizer or herbicide to grow, and it has myriad uses. Dubbed the “Kudzu Queen of NC,” Edith sells kudzu blossom jelly (tastes like grape), weaves baskets from the vines, and cooks the leaves in countless recipes.
Having given up on corn, Henry delights in kudzu’s prolificacy. “Chickens, goats, cows—they all prefer it to other feed,” Henry claims, “You can’t keep a fence between cattle and kudzu. I’ve seen them tear ‘em down.”
At one point, Edith handed me a spoonful of white powder. “This is made from kudzu roots,” she says. “Cures everything from cancer to hair loss.” I find myself licking the spoon of every last tasteless granule. Even for all his success with kudzu, Henry still misses his corn.
When Tim Wills of Foothill Connect, an organization linking local farmers with Charlotte restaurants, heard of Henry’s troubles, his mind flashed to Wilmingtonian Jock Brandis. Brandis’ nonprofit group, Full Belly Project, is recognized for improving the lives of impoverished African farmers. Wills wondered if the Full Belly could help Henry Edwards reclaim his corn.
“When asked, ‘Well, you go to Africa, would you go to Appalachia?’ initially, I thought, ‘Forget it. There’s not a single thing we use there that would be useful here,’” Brandis admits. “That was true to a certain extent, but what did work was our whole approach to solving problems. With so-called ‘modern farming,’ the only function of the soil is to hold the plant upright while you pour petroleum products on it. Edwards got into that and when he needed help, there was nothing John Deere or Monsanto could do. He was too small a farmer, so they cut him loose.”
Edwards Farm soon served as the test grounds of Full Belly’s innovations like the gravity-powered water pump, a contraption made of common plumbing materials resembling a teeter-totter. Placed in a stream, water flow causes a continuous pumping of pistons which creates enough water pressure to irrigate a large vegetable garden. For those without the benefit of moving water, Jock perfected a solar-powered pump fixed on the back of a trailer for easy use to follow cattle between fenced-off pastures.
“For the last 200 years, when cattle got thirsty they’d go down to the stream, stand in it, drink, shit, piss, and the water would be contaminated the whole way,” Brandis explains. “Cattle knock down the stream banks. It’s an environmental nightmare. So wisely farmers are fencing off the streams, but now they have thirsty cattle 25 feet away from the water source. In response, farmers spend thousands for poles and an electric fence. Anyone who knows cattle knows they don’t stay in one pasture; they move between four or five in order for the grasses to return. What better way to protect the streams and still quench the massive thirst? A portable water supply powered by gravity or the sun.”
As the price of electricity and fuel continue to rise, the cost of sunlight and gravity are fixed. As Henry works to replenish his soil quality by using the combined model of innovation and experience. He intends to leave a stronger legacy for his children and grandchildren, free of dependence on petroleum and, perhaps, appease any Indian spirits still roaming his fields. It may be a romantic notion, yet according to Brandis, it’s also a practical one.
“If a solar-powered, water-pumping trailer is used 100 days a year for 25 years, it’s going to pump 62 million gallons of water,” he examines. “Take a rough guess at the fuel or the electric bills for pumping 62 million gallons of water through a regular sprinkler. That’s the price of the farm.”
For information on how your farm might benefit from The Full Belly Project’s innovations, visit www.thefullbellyproject.org.
Joel Finsel is the author of “Cocktails and Conversations from the Astral Plane,” and writes creative short stories, essays and musings every other week in encore throughout 2014.