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Photo: Jake Miller

Back to the Land

Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing by Daphne Miller ’93 (William Morrow, 2013)

Soil and the human body have the same nitrogen-to-carbon ratio and pH range. The soil feeds us. We are the soil. A doctor could do worse than learn from a farmer. It’s kismet.

Both farming and medicine, Daphne Miller ’93 writes in her book Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, intervene “oh so judiciously—in the cycle of birth, growth, death, and decay.” While Miller the farmer was interning her way through a variety of family farms, Miller the family practitioner was treating patients whose medical dilemmas seemed oddly similar to agricultural ones. The book is her plea for the creative integration of these two tending professions.

She first noticed similarities on a biodynamic farm in Washington State. Its owner had dutifully studied soil analyses and followed chemical recommendations. But land is not formulaic. When the owner of Jubilee Farm threw the lab printouts away, along with the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers guaranteed to boost the soil’s health, a self-contained but vibrant eco-cycle developed. Cows roamed fields, fertilizing them through microbiota-rich manure; manure decomposed into topsoil; topsoil nourished crops; and crops fed cows and people, turning the wheel once more.

It becomes personal: you are what you eat when you eat where you are. Jubilee Farm’s healthy results—and research into the evolving, almost magical, field of “gut ecology”—caused Miller to wonder whether, back in her clinic, a patient with “wilt” and “bloat” needed a microbial overhaul. She discontinued the restrictive diet and endless supplements, and prescribed entrance into an eco-cycle: local volunteer farm work, a community-supported agriculture share, and counterintuitive eating: heavy on the outer parts of produce that had been “pest-nibbled, sun-exposed.” Not one H2 blocker was in the treatment plan.

Miller roamed farther and met a cheerful, politically conservative rancher in Missouri who employed “the only free labor I had at my disposal, those billions of bacteria and other microbes in the soil.” She met foraging, pasture-based chickens in Arkansas that caused her to investigate allostasis and stress reduction research in humans. She met a Sonoma vintner whose pest management system promoted beneficial insects. That meeting led her to look into a form of innovative cancer treatment called adaptive therapy—“seeing cancer more as a chronic pest and less as an invader.” It’s alternative living in a big way, whether you’re the field, the cow, the cultivated insect, or the patient of a type of physician she calls “medical ecologists.”

Miller had fun, writes exuberantly, and wants to infect us in the best way possible with the spirit of these places. I myself bought a slew of essential oils after she described the lovely skin of an aromatic herb farmer in Washington State who cured Miller’s facial dermatitis. It’s not their fault if they’re still corked.

Integrative theories like these lie to the left and right of traditional medicine. But Miller argues that the time for medical reductionism is over; we have entered an era when the “focus of solving health … problems by subdividing them into smaller and smaller parts has reached a point of diminishing returns.” The ecological metaphor may be slow to seed and—forgive the ease of these images—quick to uproot, but it is one that Miller is planting, planting, planting.

Elissa Ely ’87 is a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.

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