Reckoning with the natural, sustainable self
Through years of change and many miles on more highways than I can number, I’ve finally found my way back home to a farm in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.

By Seth Palmer

editor's NOTE:

The Rodale Institute interns take turns tracking their observations and sharing what they are learning as they help out the various departments here at The Rodale Institute.

This next generation of farmers offers insights into what motivates them to go against the tide when so many farm families struggle to keep up-and-coming generations interested in farming.

--NF Editors

July 13, 2007: I grew up deep in the heart of central Pennsylvania, in rural Penns Valley, and to my child’s mind it was the portrait of idyllic harmony. After graduating from high school I traveled to Ithaca, in the Finger Lakes of New York, to attend Cornell University. I majored in English, but you could hardly say I spent most of my time between two covers of any book other than the one I’ve been busily writing to this day. It was in the chapter on Ithaca that I had my first experience living in a town, as well as my first true experience of how “country” I really was, but despite all that I felt quite at home. I found the people of Ithaca were very environmentally conscious and this made perfect sense to me, since I had grown up learning to be a participant in the balance of nature.

My father (a very country guy who married a city gal) was in every way the conservationist, who after seven minutes of my morning shower would come pound on the bathroom door and shout “You’re wasting water!” So I grew up turning off the lights when I left a room, shutting off the water while I brushed my teeth and turning the shower off while I got soaped up and shampooed my hair.

When I was 12, I learned to hunt and began harvesting the meat we ate from the woods: free-range and grass-fed (with a bit of the farmer’s corn, as well). We bought our milk at a local dairy where they didn’t use BST, and in season we bought our produce at the nearest farmers’ market, 20 miles away. Suffice it to say that, for me, the conservation of natural resources toward the goal of living a sustainable lifestyle has always been a matter of personal philosophy, engrained in me from a very young age. So it should come as no surprise that my exposure in Ithaca to peoples’ activism for organic and sustainable practices was very positive; I’d just never really experienced it, myself, as a social movement.

Coming from a rather small place where each person tended to his or her own business, I’ve always been a little wary of social movements. The momentum of such things surely is reassuring to their champions, and the attention these movements bring to their causes is sorely needed, but I’ve always been one to put my stock in the individual. As a wordsmith it strikes me that while movements can become split and their participants turned against—or apart from—one another, an individual is precisely that, unable to be divided. This is not to say that an individual may not embody conflicting ideals, but rather that his role is the work of assimilating those disparate things, by which is produced a single multiplex result unique to each individual—the fruits of his labor. In this way he is never divided and always himself, working toward what he believes.

But with regard to movements and institutions and the like, any system that grows too large is in danger of collapsing under its own weight, be it a political system or an agricultural one—even organic. I’m reassured by the (fairly) recent show of enthusiasm for investing in small local systems, such as CSAs. I think we’ve begun to realize, en masse, the degree to which our global sustainability is a personal commitment for each individual.

As people come to understand their own health and vitality in terms of the health and vitality of their ecosystem, they are searching for small ways to incorporate that understanding into their present lifestyles. Maybe I can grow my own produce right here in my little backyard, and if I can’t, maybe I can pay a neighbor and a friend to do it for me in his or her big backyard. Either way, the goal is small enough that we can each experience it immediately, in our own little sphere.

It’s hard sometimes to bring things back down to a scale we can identify with, but I believe it’s necessary for anything we truly wish to understand. And understanding is paramount if our goal is to participate responsibly in a system—like sustainable organic agriculture—where our example is everything. In the end our words really mean nothing to anyone but ourselves; they’re merely a road sign showing us where we’ve been and where we’d like to go, a token of what we believe in.

Now, in this chapter of my life, I find myself working for at The Rodale Institute, where our motto is "Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, Healthy People." The evidence is here to see even in these words that the earth comes first and its people follow, and between us there exists this beautiful cycle of care and nourishment.

If we care for the earth it will nourish us, and if we keep it strong and healthy then our own strength and good health will follow.