Having an Ethic as a Farmer

Growing up on an apple orchard in rural Washington State and then going to a university such as Gonzaga can be quite the culture shock. Going from a small, public high school to a private, Jesuit university in the middle of Spokane feels like two drastically different worlds and finding my place in the middle of them has been a challenge. Being an Environmental Studies major, I learned in many different classes the problems that agriculture cause in our environment. The very word “mono-culture” was the embodiment of evil and I’m sure we have all sat around and talked about how we need to diversify our farms and break up the large scale farms that pump pollutants into our ecosystems. Now that is all well and good but I never really placed those lessons back on my own family farm. In my mind, we were too small of a farm, too insignificant to contribute that much to the global ecological disaster. How wrong I was.

As many of you future students have experienced, there is a project that involves a “carbon footprint calculator” that determines through various questions what your family’s own carbon footprint is based on their lifestyle choices. My total carbon output was quite high, actually very high. Like 147 tons of carbon dioxide every single year. That’s a lot, and the actual number is probably much higher. The footprint calculator that we used for the purpose of our project did not measure many carbon-producing factors that we contribute to on the farm. For example: our use of petroleum-based fertilizer every single spring. The pesticides that we use on our apples multiples times a year and the amount of water that goes into the orchard in a single growing season. Suddenly I realized that my family used the same carbon-intense methods that we had been learning about at Gonzaga. This giant, evil corporation polluting and destroying the land with enthusiasm that I had pictured in my mind suddenly changed its form. No more did Monsanto hover above us, the evil became my house, my family and the tractors and other equipment we use on a daily basis.

This all came at a unique time in my career at Gonzaga. In Professor Henning’s class, we were talking about what our own environmental ethic was and how we can expand our direct duties to the various organisms in our world. I was in a dilemma. How am I am able to accurately and sufficiently say that sentient beings deserve direct duties if I am directly contributing to the destruction of the local ecosystem through pesticide and fertilizer runoff? Before DDT was banned for agricultural use in the US, every farmer in

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Apples ready to harvest. Foil in the row to reflect sunlight for better color.

my valley used the pesticide because it was cheap and effective. DDT not only killed the pest insects, it also killed off the birds and amphibians in the area as their eggs’ shells became weak and prone to damage. I could not defend the use of these chemicals because I thought that sentient beings deserved direct duties. These animals were killed because we wanted a couple pests gone from the apples, and the other egg-laying creatures were just caught in the crossfire. Anthropocentrism at its finest. I had dreams of taking over the family farm one day, but how could I knowing what our farm did to the natural world around us?

The farm kid within me fought back, however. My father is a second generation farmer, on a small plot of land doing what he knows how to do in order to provide for his family. The farming methods and use of pesticides is how Dad make the best product for market. Being a small farm with a relatively small amount of land, we have to use the quality over quantity method. That means doing some things, like spaying pesticides, that are harmful to the environment but are necessary for our farm. Another thought rang through my head that said, “why should we change what do on the farm for an ecosystem that is full of other farms in the first place?” All around our valley is orchards. All use the same practices and are just trying to put food on the table same as everybody else, same as the animals that live around and in the orchard. What ecosystem is there to destroy? It is all just orchard anyway and I would rather have that over urban sprawl any day.

Here’s the kicker, I still don’t know what to do with my dilemma. I struggle with keeping the ethic that I found in Environmental Ethics (eco-centrist) and accepting the fact that my family contributes to hurting that ecosystem. How can I say that my family should change their whole life just for the sake of the ecosystem around them when it has been so drastically changed already? On the other hand, the degradation of the environment could have been avoided in the first place had other farming practices been implemented long ago, and if I won’t implement or advocate for change, who will?

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Bloom in April. The most gorgeous time of year.
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12 comments

  1. I really enjoyed reading, and reflecting upon this blog post. The balance of using environmentally friendly practices, and doing what us humans need to thrive is a challenge. How can we give moral consideration to the environment while still maintaining our current lifestyle? I understand that our current lifestyle is clearly not the best for our planet, but where is that ideal balance? It is something I struggle with in my everyday lifestyle. A small example would be deciding to support companies that inhumanly treat their animals before butchering them because they are less expensive. As a college student I want to spend less money, but it comes at cost for those animals. My example is not huge as being a farmer deciding how to farm in order to grow enough produce in order to support their family. This story is very relatable, and makes me consider the relationship between the environment and poverty. It seems as though the affordable and accessible practices are not the most environmentally friendly. The blog post has given me multiple issues to consider related to environmental ethics.

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  2. I completely understand the moral and ethical struggle brought up in this post. I think that this is one of the biggest hurdles that people encounter when attempting to combat or address climate change. I want to believe that when offered the opportunity, people will make the decision to shift to practices that are better for the environment and, therefore, for future generations. However, I think the hurdle that we all encounter is that we think that our contributions or the decisions we make to combat climate change aren’t that effective in the grand scheme of things, so we simply stop trying. Especially when what we are doing is somewhat beyond our means financially, for example, or goes against the grain of what our family has practiced for generations, like most farmers. This is a really tough dilemma, but I don’t think that it is an uncommon one. We all struggle to make changes in our lifestyle, small or large, but we are in a time when changes must be made. I think that if we simply do what we can and do what feels right, we can do some good, and I think that sometimes comes at the cost of abandoning tradition.

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  3. I can relate to your dilemma that you wrote about. While I myself am not a farmer, I have a similar experience whenever I drive my car, for example. Cars and vehicles release a lot of harmful pollutants and CO2. An alternative that is available to me is to bike everywhere. However, I live a 15-minute drive away from the nearest grocery store, which makes biking impractical. I face this same type of issue when it comes to lifestyle and economic choices every day. Something that I learned in my Environmental Politics and Policy class was that not everyone will want to make huge sacrifices in their lifestyles, even if it lessens their ecological footprint. I personally would not enjoy biking everywhere I go even if it would mean less CO2 would be released into the atmosphere. However, I also feel guilty about using my car when I could bike or walk. As mentioned in a previous comment, finding the right balance between what you are willing to do and what is best for the environment is hard to find and I do not think there is a single right answer.

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  4. Hi Drew-
    I studied agriculture in New York this summer, so this post was particularly relevant to my recent experiences. Sometimes sustainability falls to the wayside in agriculture because putting food on the table is a highly important and formidable task, which demands efficiency. Feeding hungry people is a task that can seem more grave than other environmental issues. Eating is obviously essential to human life, while other things such as conservation of natural land and endangered animals are generally considered more extrinsic. As you grapple with this problem, I’m sure others in the farming industry are doing the same. Few environmental problems can affect human survival (rather than enjoyment/enrichment of life) as seriously as farming and food production.

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  5. Great read. There are two sides to every story, and I’m glad you were able to share your experience growing up on a farm and comparing it to your experience as an Environmental Studies major at Gonzaga. I also fin myself thinking like a consequentialist: I’m just one person, how much damage or help can i really do? My mind changed after the carbon footprint assignment. I figured small changes to my living habits mean a lot. I do realize, however, that there are bigger things at steak when owning and operating a farm. It sounds like being stuck between a rock and a hard place when you have to weigh the interests of the farm against the interests of other animals. It’s the classic battle between environmental ethic and reality. My personal view is that an environmental ethic is an unattainable goal. This may sound discouraging but it simply means I’m accepting the fact that my personal ethic can’t be fully realized, but I can always point my actions in the direction of that ethic. Thanks again for weighing in, it helped me the chance to reflect on my own personal ethic.

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  6. What you identify in your life is truly an environmental ethical issue. It shows how no one is outside of the environmental ethic debate simply because our individual impact is so much larger than any carbon-footprint calculator can quantify. However, the scale of change should not deter motivation behind the change. It is good that you identify the issue and can recognize the specific agriculture methods that are harmful. And I would implore some sort of action be made into spreading more agriculturally eco-centrist methods. While this may be wishful thinking, and while some may argue this point, I firmly an eco-centrist perspective into agriculture is necessary. In the same way you see the many indirect contact pesticides have on the environment, our understanding of our impact can only be seen after the fact. And identifying this for every ethical individual is necessary. I hope the issue, in terms of technology and methods, can be improved for more feasibility with farmers and eco-centrist impacts in mind.

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  7. The impacts your familys farm makes on the environment is truly an ethical dilemma. The issue is the lack of ecological consideration in the technological and agricultural methods of farming. This is a result of capitalist efficient principles effecting the quantity of production and not quality. While you say your farm is reliant on quality over quantity methods, I am sure some methods are still quality based. It is good to identify where the improvements can be made which you clearly do, the struggle is with the feasibility in the improved methods of eco-centric agricultural methods. I hope the future in agriculture will improve the quality of product despite juxtaposition to the quantity over quality debate.

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  8. This is a really interesting dilemma. The fact that you’re dealing with two sides of the equation that both really matter to you especially resinates with me. I think that you have a point in saying that a lot of the damage has already been done, and it would be really hard to make any major changes when it comes to your family’s livelihood. However, no major changes happen overnight, and when it comes to something like an apple orchard that is a part of a bigger industry, someone has to set the standards. Over time, more environmentally-friendly farming methods could be incorporated into your farm, like eventually switching to electric tractors or using healthier and less detrimental forms of pesticide. The way I see it, apple orchards aren’t going away any time soon, and many farms are older and have “habits” such as yours. By initiating changes in baby steps, your farm will become more sustainable, and others will follow suit.

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  9. Drew-
    I understand the conflict you are going through and debating which side to take or believe. I understand the farm aspect of life, growing up in a farm based family myself in rural Illinois, I feel the added stress of figuring out what action to take and how to view my family business. I understand the staple a farm is in a family and how you want nothing but the best for your family. My family relies heavily, financially, on hog farms. With having a hog farm we have crop land that is primarily used for mono crops which is used as feed for the hogs. Taking Environmental Ethics with Professor Henning I am trying to figure out where I stand with my own values in land use. I’m still in a stand still about what I believe is the best good, yet I am more aware of the consequences my family’s actions have on the earth as a whole. I may never be able to change the attitudes of my family toward their actions taken on the farm, but I can improve my own actions by buying locally grown produce and eliminating meat at least once a week.

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  10. After reading through your blog post, I completely empathize with you. I can see why a strong tension between your personal eco-centric ethic and your family legacy is very present and potentially creating some confusion for you. That said, I would like to say that it is essentially okay that this is the case. In Professor Henning’s class, Ethics of Global Climate Change, we discussed the many ways that we as students can be less harmful to our environment and those whom we share it with. The answer we all came to agree on was that we cannot beat ourselves up about things if the impact is out of our control, essentially all we can do is what is within our means. Maybe in the years to come, if you were to take up the family farm yourself, then you could do something about unsustainable practices but this should not be something that should weigh heavily on you. The biggest thing is that you have recognized it as an issue, and can see what the future could hold if methods were to change. I truly enjoyed reading this blog post. Thank you for sharing!

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  11. Great post. This has a great perspective that connects my education to the problems of the real world. I too have a passion for farming and cultivating and find myself facing this dilemma as well. I think there is something to be said about the character of a person who combats anthropocentrism in this way. I personally feel an obligation in my professional life to be apart of the change you talk about in your blog post. I don’t think there is a straight forward answer but I think it should stem from large scale commercial agriculture and not weigh as much on small farmers.

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  12. Thank you for the post. Though I did not grow up on a farm, I grew up in an agricultural community in the Midwest. It’s interesting to see the perspective of someone whose livelihood of their family depends on small farm agriculture. I always found that agriculture was something I did not think about as much growing up because it stared me in the face. As I became more educated about the harms that certain farm practices have on the environment, it makes me sad that there isn’t widespread practice of reasonable ways farmers can and should better their practices for the environment. With big agriculture’s terrible practices environmentally and socially, it must be difficult for smaller farms, such as your families, to find the strength and will to make changes for the environment while many of these big companies continue their detrimental practices anyway. While I hope you can continue to encourage small changes to your family’s farm, I appreciate your concern to make one small change, especially for a farm that produces food for people, as opposed to the vast corn fields by Big Ag that harm the environment only to produce feed for livestock.

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