Cultivating a Place in the Cosmos
By Stephen Grace
John-Paul Maxfield comes from a long line of agricultural pioneers. In the first decades of the twentieth century, his great-grandfather ran one of the largest sheep operations in the nation. The Great Depression nearly wiped him out, but this self-reliant Westerner didn’t give up. He scrambled to keep raising livestock, and he met the challenge of his day by managing to feed hungry masses of Americans in a time of economic calamity. John-Paul’s grandfather pushed agricultural innovation even further and helped move the nation into a new age of abundance—for his efforts he was nominated one of Wyoming’s Agricultural Citizens of the Century. Some of John-Paul’s uncles carried the family legacy forward and achieved striking success churning out cheap and plentiful food. John-Paul has always been proud of his family’s role in helping to usher in a period of storied productivity, driving down food prices so that all people, however modest their incomes, could afford to eat. But he worries about the costs that well-intentioned agricultural innovators of the twentieth century incurred.
Once we start down the path of increased efficiency and greater scale, we must ask more of the exhausted land, and we must hurry ever faster to find more chemicals and more water and more machinery to force the tapped-out topsoil to grow more food to fatten our profits—and the increased profits allow us to buy more machinery and more chemicals to grow more food. Until, one day, like the racehorses in the Seinfeld joke, we begin to wonder why we must run swiftly in a circle only to return to the place where we began.
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One of John-Paul’s experiences that put him on the path to sustainability was a trip to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In that city perched at the edge of the sea, John-Paul sensed a startling level of hubris. The 9th Ward had been under water before; surely it would be under water again. A storm would someday bury it beneath salty waves and smother it in muck. People had constructed a city where no city should be, and the levies they had built to hold back nature’s fury were frail constructions. All the money and all the engineering in the world couldn’t prevent the levies from falling apart. And the city’s social infrastructure was just as fragile. The company that had sent John-Paul to New Orleans had tasked him with rebuilding the school system, but the sorry state of the schools was merely a symptom of a much larger problem. People’s connections to each other and to the natural world had collapsed. John-Paul left New Orleans unsettled by society’s refusal to work with nature and its stubborn insistence on working against it. He returned to Colorado determined to grow a business that would help people embrace natural cycles and become vital parts of communities committed to achieving sustainable solutions.
Changing the world has to begin with the self, John-Paul mused while sorting through his memories of the 9th Ward, and while recalling experiences from a formative trip to the Dominican Republic in high school. He had gone to a developing country hoping to help people in poverty; he left the Dominican Republic having learned far more than he’d taught. What became clear to him on that trip was that imposing industrial values and ways of doing things on communities in other countries is often counterproductive. There are things we can teach people in developing nations to help them lift themselves out of poverty—certain tools and techniques that can yield productive harvests and higher material standards of living—but insisting that they do everything our way is an act of inexcusable hubris. Instead, what we should be doing is nurturing our own humility and learning how to repair our severed relationships with the Earth and with our communities. Real change isn’t something that can be imposed from above, John-Paul concluded. It has to start with each person waking up and working in his or her own backyard. It must begin with each of us becoming aware of the world around us and then cultivating our small place on the planet.
In the months after John-Paul left New Orleans and went back home to Colorado, his ideas were still nebulous, but they soon began to coalesce around his family’s legacy as agricultural innovators. The single largest impact that humans have on the planet is agriculture—so that was where he should focus his effort, thought John-Paul. He would build a sustainable agriculture company and continue the work his relatives pioneered, carrying it forward into the twenty-first century. He would create a company that helps the world feed itself while decreasing agriculture’s environmental footprint. And the place to start was right in our own backyards, he decided. It was time to get back to basics. It was time for people to get their hands dirty and connect with the earth beneath their feet, to plunge their fingers into the soil that sustains them. To immerse themselves in dirt. To celebrate the life seeded in this thin and precious layer, where plants thread their roots through dark loam and then lift their leaves upward toward the sun.
The idea of Waste Farmers took root in John-Paul’s imagination, and soon he had devoted himself to growing the company into something that would change the way people think about themselves and the world in which they live. But like a poorly watered plant that can’t quite uncurl from a seed and reach the light, John-Paul’s dream nearly withered and died.