When my parents moved to Richmond in 1956, people didn't talk about farming, they just farmed. Time passed, farmers died or quit the land, and the number of farms steadily diminished. Eventually people became aware of what they'd lost and started talking passionately about farming. Now their voices are louder than ever, as they debate the need to prevent fertile farmland from being buried under shopping malls and high density housing, the need to stop the trend of farm closures.
The most eloquent and persuasive spokesman for these matters is Arzeena Hamir. Recently Hamir wrote compellingly about a group of young people willing to invest hard work and money in the land in order to farm it. That news, together with the success of the Richmond Farm School, is like a ray of hope breaking through what had become a thick cloud of despair.
Hamir's article inspired me to reflect on the key role agriculture has always played in the history of man, to the extent that it not only supplies us with food but also enriches our language. And to impress on you just how interlocked man and agriculture are, let's start with a word that most of us use without having a clue about its origins: husband, which comes from Old Norse and initially denoted a farmer. Only the term husbandry has made it into current usage, referring to the farming of crops and animals.
The English language has appropriated a host of verbs from agriculture, which are often used metaphorically. For instance, just as the seeds of plants are sown in the ground by the farmer, we also speak of the seeds of ideas being sown or taking root in our minds. Eventually the farmer reaps his crops, just as we reap what we have sown, referring to the consequences of our actions. And at the end of the horticultural cycle, some of the farmer's crops go to seed, an expression we've adopted to describe something or someone in a decrepit state.
When a farmer prepares to plant, we say he cultivates his land. The same verb serves for human relationships because we say that we cultivate friendships. Part of the farmer's preparation involves ploughing the land, which cuts a furrow into the ground. The same word, furrow, used as a noun, adjective or verb, can describe a person's deeply wrinkled brow. And we rake things up, ditch stuff, thrash about, mill around—the list of words borrowed from agriculture goes on and on.
Traditionally the farmer has always supported man by providing nourishment. But he cannot do so unless man supports the farmer in turn. We all know that the prices at a farmer's market are higher than those at a supermarket, because something genuine and unique costs more than something mass-produced. For those of us on a budget, the difference in price is a serious matter. What can we do? Well, if we don't have more to spend, we could distribute our grocery money in a different way. We could eliminate snacks and junk food and reroute those dollars towards the purchase of locally grown, freshly harvested fruits and vegetables. It would be a win-win situation.
Whatever we do, let's not wait until this new generation of farmers gives up all hope of survival. We must act. As someone once said on BBC radio, "You don't till a field by turning it over in your mind."
This page last updated: November 19, 2011.