Resilience in Life and Agriculture Requires Hard Work


Stage IV colon cancer has a way of focusing the mind.

I should know: I’ve got it, and trying literally to stay alive long enough to sort out my farm and my family’s future here in the UK. Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy are known to help, but it is hard work and also weakens me. I’m used to hard farm work but now I need to practice resilience on a scale that I’ve not known before.

By chance, I watched “The Martian,” the 2015 movie starring Matt Damon and based on a novel by Andy Weir.

I’m thinking in particular about an off-color line that Damon’s character, Mark Watney, speaks as he records into a video log: “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this.”

One way to confront cancer is with humor—and when it’s colon cancer, it might as well be scatological humor. I really am counting on the doctors who are working on my case to science the, well… you know….out of it.

The science of manure is in fact a key to Watney’s survival. He’s an American astronaut in the year 2035, on a mission to Mars that goes horribly wrong. During a dust storm on the red planet, his telemetry fails, and his crewmates believe he’s dead. They evacuate, leaving him behind—but very much alive.

The elevator pitch for the movie must have been simple: Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

What a great idea. Watney faces an enormous range of seemingly impossible problems. One of the most important is the production of food, as his supplies are running out. Abandoned on an inhospitable world, how can he grow enough to eat?

I’ve seen agriculture depicted in science-fiction movies before. In “Star Wars,” Luke Skywalker lives on a “moisture farm”, David Bautista in Blade Runner 2049 is a protein farmer, and “Interstellar” actor Matthew McConaughey’s character is a NASA pilot who was a corn farmer.

What separates “The Martian” is that it puts agriculture at the center of its plot.

Then comes another great line from Watney’s video log: “Mars will come to fear my botany powers!”

popcorns on clear glass bowlWhen I heard that remark as a movie watcher, I loved it because it spoke to me as a farmer. That’s what I do on the job: exercise my botany powers to raise new crops, season after season.

I won’t spoil the movie by revealing what happens next, except to say that it involves a series of ingenious solutions to an incredible predicament.

It’s also a metaphor for our earthly challenges: climate change, population growth, and more. Will we front up fast and acknowledge them honestly? Will we rise with the challenges and not to them?  Will we use the power of science to step in and step up?

That’s what I’ve tried to do on my farm. We use the best evidence-based science, staying up to date on physics, chemistry, and biology to raise our crops, protect them from weeds and pests, and keep our soil healthy.

Like our friend on Mars, we rely on all the manure we can find, including human digestate. The urban population-far removed from land, food, and farming-tends not to think a lot about farming. And when they visit the bathroom, the “flush-and-forget” mentality is overwhelming. With smart policies and the necessary investments, we and others are trying to source and use scientifically this excellent fertilizer.

It’s science, not science fiction—and it illustrates the kind of thinking we’ll increasingly depend on if we’re to feed a booming global population. Resilience requires farmers to do more with less. We need access to the world’s best technologies, like gene editing, and access to the world’s markets through free trade.

Science fiction to me is tomorrow that just hasn’t happened yet. The world is moving now at such a pace that you either keep up or fall behind much faster than ever before.

Right now, science is keeping me alive. I’m trying to treat each day as a gift, including the hard ones. My diagnosis gives me every excuse for pessimism, but I’m determined to stay present and alive.

As farmers we know, when you’re gone, you’re gone—so we have to use the time we have to make a positive difference. There’s no time to waste.

Please excuse the pun. As I said, I’m trying to keep my sense of humor.

Meanwhile, I have a deadly serious message for everyone else: Let’s science the s**t out of this. This is really important to me and I believe to all of us.

Andrew Osmond

Andrew Osmond

Andrew specializes in herbage ley seed and malting barley. He farms more than 700 hectares of grass for seed and a large area of specialist spring malting barley. His farm is a mixture of owned, tenanted and contracted farming arrangements, driven by servicing market demand.

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2 thoughts on “Resilience in Life and Agriculture Requires Hard Work

  1. · February 3, 2023 at 10:41 am

    Long live Andrea Osmond!!!

  2. Thanks for your message of encouragement to persevere . I wish you the best of luck in your struggle.