A Kernel of Truth:
Ecological Farming and
JP Gural | a Farmer at Samsara Field Organics
A cold wind blows across the frozen fields of Southern Ontario as another January day in the Canadian winter comes to a close. The light is bright but short during the dark period of hibernation embracing the yellowed stalks of corn still standing in the snowfield. We should have picked this already, I think again and again, as we slowly tear at the cobs and rip off their husks. Six acres done but we aren’t finished and the seven remaining acres of corn will not leave the field quickly. It is slow and steady work, work that has taken us weeks with no end in sight.
“We will get a corn picking machine for next year’s crop,” I say, trying to create hope in dreams of a mechanically assisted future.
My wife and co-farmer, So Young Lee tosses another cob of corn into her basket. She grabs at the next ear, pulls the yellow husks and reveals a spear of kernels, replete in colour as fine as jewels. This organic maize is an heirloom strain named after the Mandan Native people of North Dakota and has been cultivated by many generations. Relying on traditional methods, we keep the corn on the cob and air-dry it in a ventilated building, called a corn crib. Unlike the large farms that combine the kernels off the cob at time of harvest, a result that requires subsequent heated drying and energy inputs, we allow the wind to dry the maize in the same ways that humans have since time immemorial, saving costs both financial and in resources.
That said, I hope to get my hands on an old-school corn picker, a pull-behind machine that would save much time and labour. Small scale mechanization is an example of our philosophy of the Middle Way, achieving a balance between the excesses of factory farming while staying financially viable within the context of our social paradigm.
Our farm is Samsara Fields Organics and it is part of our response to the precarious state of food and the environment that poses enormous risks and challenges to people. Preserving and cultivating heirloom strains of open-pollinated seeds is an integral part of the farm’s mission. Its name, Samsara points to the cycle of dukkha, or suffering, the endless turn of birth, life, death, rebirth and so on that is existence. This concept is also important in understanding land management and the human food system. And as karma both good and bad accumulates, so too does the harm we do to our ecology, legacies for our future Earth.
The colours of the corn inspire my mind’s eye and I visualize how these uniquely patterned natural gems arranged in rows that shape each other’s formsare like the karma of Indra’s Net that connects and reflects the whole universe in every jewel. From the Avatamsaka Sutra I hold the image of a single glittering jewel at the Net’s every node, and since the Net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. This helps brace me against the winter wind. I pull open a husk and this one reveals the withered worm-form of a corn borer. Now blackened and hard, brittle like an old twig, these larvae inhabit the silks of corn and eat their way along the kernels. Against this destructive pest that damages crops and lowers yield, commercial farming has two responses.
As organic farmers, we can apply a naturally occurring fungus called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which when consumed by the borer causes fatal intestinal damage. When inflicting harm upon another species, one must look at the dukkha that is created, especially the unintended far-reaching consequences that may not be so apparent. While the corn borer suffers, it would not be possible to generate income from corn if the pest is allowed to feed unchecked. These are the demands of the consumer world in which we function. So we take the Middle Way and choose to reduce the borer’s numbers. But Bt is limited in its impact; it does no harm to adult insects which include important pollinators like bees and butterflies, causes no ill effects to amphibians, birds or mammals which include humans. In balance, we get our corn, clearly some borers survive so there is no threat of extinction, and other beneficial species are not affected.
The agribusiness industry has a high-tech solution that involves the manipulation of corn’s fundamental genetic make-up. The Bt protein is injected into maize and becomes systemic in the entire plant. Therefore stalks, leaves and cobs are themselves Bt generators; the entire field is a Bt factory, toxic to a wide range of life.
Nature is a far greater web of connectivity than humans can ever hope to comprehend. The capacity to respond and evolve should always be kept in mind when playing god with creation. Excessive exposure engenders tolerance and Bt resistance is now being reported in several crops including corn and cotton. What had been effective and sustainable as a topical spray is now threatened by insect adaptation. And this is a war of constant innovation with no end, a treadmill of defeat.
But there is more to the story. To visualize the levels of complexity requires a journey to the universe of gut flora that allows our bodies to absorb nutrition and sustain our balanced health. Straight Bt passes through mammalian intestinal tracts with no adverse effects to the animal. But what happens when that protein is intrinsically linked to the corn molecules that our bodies bind with as recognized food? Many studies have connected the rise in ileitis, colitis, Crohn’s disease and such neurological issues as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and food-related anaphylaxis coinciding with the rise of Bt in the blood of humans.
And as we shuffle along the endless rows of corn, I look beyond our field to the land around us, land that is ‘conventionally’ farmed with the use of chemical sprays and GMO seeds. My mind turns to the case of neo-Neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that has become industry standard in the last 20 years. Neo-Nics can be applied to seeds as a coating in the form of a dust that ‘lubricates’ the seeds as they pass through a mechanical seeder. Or they may be applied as a foliar spray. They are systemic and are effective in all parts of the plant, the insecticide toxin remaining active in the plant for many weeks, protecting the crop season-long.
The unintended consequence of this type of chemical warfare is bee colony collapse, a situation that is bringing several of the most important pollinators to the brink of disaster. In trace amounts in the range of parts per billion, neo-Nicatinoids are wiping out native bees, like the bumblebee, and introduced bees, like the honeybee. This situation pits the soybean and corn industries which advocate the use of neo-Nics on the one side, and on the other side the honey industry as well as all farmers who depend on pollination for their crop survival, against each other. Clearly the dukkha is rising, both in terms of the impact on the human and natural realms.
The colours and forms of the corn are like the karma of Indra’s Net that connects and reflects the whole universe in every jewel.
The list goes on.
Samsara Fields Organics was So Young’s and my response to a journey of discovery we undertook that began in Australia and ended on the land of Southern Ontario. We witnessed first hand the effects of globalization, human trafficking and slum communities, we learned the stories of the dispossessed and the displaced, the victims of the human drive for profit and power. Speaking with Burmese refugee workers union leaders in Thailand of human rights violations by Canadian businesses there drove home the point of the connectivity of the whole human experience. Cheap goods for North America created from the plight of the dispossessed a world away from affluence.
Understanding the role our food choices make in how humans manage the physical environment became a path of discovery for our farm. Produce now travels more than most people. Picked green, foods are transported long distances, gassed, irradiated, and handled by many, many hands before finally ending up on a plate. taste is not the only thing that is sacrificed. So in face of this, we decided to farm in harmony with the environment around us. Life is an engaged process that demands creative solutions to challenges. Blind consumption and slavery to the cheapest commodity are ingredients for disaster. know our world, one must realise the great intricacies that link all life together. A farm is a microcosm of a great cycle of life, death and rebirth. It should be nurtured, not exploited. We have embarked on the path of farming as an act of defiance, a decision fuelled by the simple fact that we wanted to be the change we wanted to see in the world.
When we think of our being in this life, the choices we make extend in many directions, the image of Indra’s Net returns to me again. ‘There are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection is infinite’. The whole world, a struggle of life and death, is there represented in the kernels of corn, an Indra’s Cob unique in colour and wedged shoulder to shoulder with the next.
With the sun now tucking behind the distant forest horizon, we decide to stop picking and prepare to collect the day’s harvest. Another load of corn will leave the field so we can be satisfied with that. The task ahead remains daunting though. Wind blows the next rows, the stalks still standing with colourful cobs wrapped in dry husks. The alternative to industrial food is a lot of work, I conclude. But no path of knowledge, be it under a Bodhi tree or in a corn field, is ever a free ride.
John Paul Gural He has had a diverse work and educational career which includes 2 years studying SuMok Hwa (traditional Korean ink painting) and extensive Seon practice in Korea. He subsequently undertook research on Buddhism in Australia, completing a photographic project Empty Lens, Empty Mind. He spent a year investigating poverty, human displacement, post-conflict, environmental degradation and food insecurity through 16 developing countries, visiting slums and working for select NGOs. Along with his wife, So Young Lee, he co-owns Samsara Fields Organics, a farm in Canada