From Soil to Health: Food for Thought from Fred Kirschenmann

We asked our Board President, Fred Kirschenmann to share some thoughts on our food system. Something for us all to mull over in these shorter days when things have slowed down a bit. See his short essay below, examining a notion from Wendell Berry.

In his essay “Solving for Pattern,” which appeared in chapter 9 of his 1981 book of essays, The Gift of Good Land, Wendell Berry described, with his usual clarity, one of the key problems we face in our modern culture.   We tend to treat problems as isolated entities rather than part of the complex set of relationships, which they usually are.  That way of thinking is now deeply embedded in our culture. The problem with this simplistic, reductionist world view, as Wendell points out, is that such ill-defined problems always  “involve a definition of the problem that is either false or so narrow as to be virtually false.”

Real solutions can only emerge from a way of solving problems that appreciate the complex relationships of the mutual dependence of all living systems.  Solving for pattern, in other words, “involves solutions to problems of fertility, soil husbandry, economics, sanitation ---the whole complex of problems whose proper solutions add up to health; the health of the soil, of plants, and animals, of farm and farmer, of farm family, and farm community, all involved in the same inter-nested, interlocking pattern—or pattern of patterns.”

Our failure to solve for pattern lies at the heart of almost everything that is wrong with our food system today. We tend to characterize almost all of the problems with our food system as either a “food safety” problem, or a “nutrition” problem, or an “affordability” problem.  We almost never attempt to solve for pattern.

At the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture we have a unique opportunity to design a food and farming system that solves for pattern.   We have the opportunity to demonstrate a pattern of solutions that link soil to cuisine to health. We are demonstrating that soil is not an isolated entity which simply needs to be managed with greater care.   Nor are animals a separate entity that simply needs to be treated more humanely.  And the great food that ends up in the restaurant at Blue Hill is not isolated from the way food is produced in the field.  Everything from soil to cuisine is part of a pattern that promotes the health and pleasure of the entire biotic community, of which we are an integral part.   And as Aldo Leopold reminded us, “health” is the capacity of the entire land community (everything from soil to society) for self-renewal.  Enhancing the capacity of self-renewal of our entire community is our goal and we are committed to continue solving for pattern to achieve it.