To succeed, we must plan for seven generations

By Jim Van Der Pol, Kerkhoven, Minnesota — This is the fifth and final column of a series on my thoughts on the impacts our farms and businesses may have upon our families, the communities in which they are located, and ultimately upon the world at large. I started with an illustration of a deflected arrow, went on to talk about our farms and our children, then about labor and technology, value-added farm product-based businesses, and learning to do business with our friends.

This piece is last because I put it off. It is the most intimidating of all, because in it I will try to convince you that all of these things are possible. It is necessarily then about attitude, about core belief, be it philosophy or religion; that is, about how we view ourselves and our place in the universe.

First, then, do we have an impact in the world? It seems evident to me that we do. The depression we are so plagued with in our culture cloaks from us this most important understanding. But we know it: We tell it to each other in our stories. Consider the old Christmas story “It’s a Wonderful Life” that is rebroadcast each year. Jimmy Stewart, in the lead role as a small town banker with a commitment to helping ordinary folks buy homes and start businesses, gets into trouble because his forgetful uncle loses a large deposit. He falls into depression and is about to throw himself off the bridge into the river, when an angel (who looks a lot like W.C. Fields) shows him a vision of what the town would look like if he hadn’t spent his life as he did. It is one long strip mall complete with stores, traffic, people climbing over top of each other, saloons, brothels, and more.

Stewart, his depression corrected by what he saw in the vision, goes home to pick up the pieces of his life. The movie gets too sappy for my taste here, but the point has been made. We do make a difference, and we know it. It is practical knowledge gained by seeing, if we pay attention, how a thought or a saying or an act, either helpful or harmful, reverberates in the behavior of the folks around us. That we often do not keep this knowledge of our human lives foremost in our minds, where it can maintain some control over our activities, is probably due as much as anything to the impact of the national/international economy, which wants us reduced to nothing but a bundle of desires with a credit card.

The argument I am making here is self evident to some and completely opaque to others. The difference has to do with where we see ourselves in the cosmic scheme. Do we get our satisfaction out of a day’s productive work, or the latest electronic trinket? Does developing a very partial understanding of our farm and its place in Creation seem like a useful life’s work, or does a career consist of a new pickup every other year? Can we ever, in any circumstance, see the use and the need of work from which we will never benefit? Can we imagine our own lives coming to us from the distant past, and extending from us into the far future? There are seventy-year olds who plant trees every season here on the prairie, but by and large they are not the same seventy-year olds who are shopping for a new car before the last one is worn out. It is a matter of the level of spirituality, of sensing ourselves as living in eternity as well as in time.

If we do see our place in the universal order, and thus have no need of the argument I just made, then we can start considering applications. How, for instance, do I use for good my life’s impact on the world? And we immediately come up against the question of “intentionality.” Is it enough that I have a good heart and mean well? Maybe this is a job best left to pastor or priest? How about the certified smart guy at the university, or the politician?

I would argue that this is far too important to be left to the experts. This is for us who are entrusted with land and businesses, as well as the dependence of children and grandchildren, to do. I think we need to plan. We have an obligation.

Anyone farming grassland soils in the Midwest ought to know that in the century since the breaking plows turned over these tough prairie sods, we have lost half of what we were given. (Or took from the Indians. Put your own interpretation on it.) Heavy black topsoils that measured 16 inches and two feet in depth in settlement times now show clay subsoil through on the high spots in far too many places. This is an incredible waste.

And it is especially tragic from the point of view of a grazier, since the farmers who did it had a vision and a view of the future in mind, but it was the wrong one, and it did not reach far enough in time. They saw the prairie as a potential Europe under complete cultivation in small, carefully rotated fields. They evidently never considered the impact of thunderstorm rains and constant wind on the exposed soil. I see no evidence that any of them, before they took up that plow, considered what the Indians and the bison had going here.

We must plan. We have an obligation, those of us entrusted with land. And as Holistic Management teaches, we must try to reach seven generations, 150 years, into the future with our planning. History’s mistakes show us that range is necessary. We know that if we do plan, much of that plan will be knocked awry by changing circumstances, by carelessness in government, greed in the economy, or by some other disaster our own carelessness might already have set loose upon the world. We know that we do not have the reach for this.

But the point is not that we can control the future, but that the distant vision will help govern our day-to-day management by serving as an early warning sign whenever we are headed in the wrong direction. If that prairie settler a century ago had held a dream and a vision for seven generations that included more perennial plants to ensure a healthy landscape, he may have had a second thought about destroying the sod he found here.

Similarly for us, if our vision for the seventh generation includes more people on the land and more local wealth, as ours does for our farm, then we will tend to make decisions in a way that helps bring that about.

Seventh generation planning seems beyond human capability. Perhaps it should be called seventh generation dreaming. But the numberless practical efforts that go into achieving the plan are not beyond us. Planning provides for us a measuring tool and an incentive that we need for the very human-scale task of living a decent life on earth.

Jim Van Der Pol grazes and direct-markets pork, chicken and beef from his farm near Kerkhoven, Minnesota.