If there are two things that have my heart, it’s quality food and sustainability. Industrial agriculture is riddled with such a vast array of environmental and social justice problems I could combust simply typing about it. Issues include, but are not limited to, inexcusably low labor wages, storms of pesticides and herbicides on the loose, monocultured land that diminishes any chance of biodiversity, monstrous overuse of fossil fuels, and desertification of already arid land. Though America is dominated by these nemesis farms, I have found salvation in unsuspecting corners of the desert. My agricultural heroes of the Colorado Plateau include a 66 year-old organic farmer with the vibrant energy of a small child and a 76 year-old Hopi woman with a garden rooted in ancestral spirituality. These two have taught me that a spiritual approach to farming inevitably leads to sustainable farming.
If you ever find yourself on the outskirts of Hanksville, Utah, do yourself a favor and stop by the Mesa Farm Market. Within the market dwells owner Randy Ramsley, sporting a gray ponytail as he creates culinary masterpieces. “Food is important to spiritual development,” he explains as I feast on the salad he picked a few minutes prior. Randy’s philosophy on farming goes as such: by putting his love and energy into the crops, the crops will grow full of high-quality energy, which gives the consumer high-quality energy, who can then return that love and high-quality energy into the “collective consciousness” of the universe. Randy is asked if he thinks his farm adds to the resiliency of the land, to which he responds yes, because when birds fly by the farm, they say “Look! Randy doesn’t spray crap! We can hang out here!”Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Randy’s farm is about so much more than making money. I ask about his financial situation, and he answers “I barely make enough to stay afloat, and I’ve never been happier.” For Randy, the satisfaction of growing and cooking food that nourishes the land, the body, and the spirit is all the reward he could ask for. I walk away from Mesa Farm Market feeling physically and spiritually full from the fresh-baked bread, salad still flecked with soil, and yoghurt made from the goats I see happily munching on invasive cheatgrass in the backyard.
After our visit with Randy, we travel to the Hopi reservation to meet with Dorothy Denet of the Butterfly Clan. “We Hopi are two things. We are peaceful, and we are farmers,” she tells us. I scan the plateau and see no sign of farms or land that could have enough water to sustain a crop. Dorothy disproves my assumptions at her desert oasis of a garden, tucked back in the juniper scrub hills away from the village. “It’s simple, and it’s complicated. It’s complicated, and it’s simple,” is her answer to nearly everything, particularly on how she can sustain a garden full of life amidst a drought-stricken desert. The simple answer is that there is a spring which provides irrigation for the garden, a rare luxury in this country. This spring has provided water for Hopi farmers ever since the 1400’s, leaving Dorothy’s crops to grow in culturally significant soil. Terraces of ancient gardens crumble down the side of the hill, allowing the imagination to run through what it might have looked like when it wasn’t just Dorothy’s garden, but the gardens of a whole village. For Dorothy, gardening is about keeping cultural traditions alive. “You must care for the seed as you would care for your child.” It is about love, and it is about faith. In the valley below where springs are absent, Hopi farmers rely on nothing but faith in rain to irrigate corn and bean crops. Singing and dancing to encourage storms replace the task of hauling in water.
I don’t run an organic farm. I am not Hopi. I do not have access to land that has been cultivated by my ancestors for centuries. I do, however, deeply resonate with Randy and Dorothy’s spiritual approach to farming. I am not religious, but have found spirituality in connecting to land. For me, spirituality is acknowledging my place in the world. It is seeing the inseparable connection between myself and the Earth. Growing food is a powerful tool in finding that spirituality, a tool I discovered from working on an organic farm in Montana. Eating the food I grow with love nourishes my body and spirit – a feeling that is impossible to achieve from eating an apple off the shelf in the grocery store.
The connection between spirituality and sustainability is clear when looking at Randy and Dorothy. “We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from role of omniscient conqueror,” writes Donella Meadows in her essay Dancing with Systems. Randy and Dorothy embody Meadows’ point. The low price of industrial produce has blinded many of us from the reality of the system we are a part of. Land, food, and people are within the same system – you cannot separate one from another. To diminish the quality of one is to diminish the quality of all. My heart is warm knowing that people like Randy and Dorothy are honoring these relationships with gardens and farms that protect our land, and in turn, our bodies.