guest editorial by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe D. Finnerty.
The hills are girded with joy
The meadows covered with flocks
The valleys are decked with wheat
They shout for joy, they sing
And so it comes to this: two issues in a row without that eagerly anticipated Lynn Miller editorial. You read Paul Hunter’s fine piece last issue and now (sigh) yet another Miller-less issue, this time with my own humble offering. As Lynn alluded to in the spring issue, there has been a strong reaction among a small portion of the readership to both his Winter 2010 editorial and his piece regarding small-scale slaughter facilities. As a consequence he asked Paul and I to serve up a piece of our own editorial pie and see if the readership find it bitter or sweet.
The Journal as Community
I think it is time to reconsider. I mean really reconsider; reconsider who we are, where we are going, and what we need to do to get there. By we I mean we as a community of small farmers. Though we are not a community of geographic proximity we are a community connected by the printed word. The warp of our commonality is bound together by the weft of the Small Farmer’s Journal. This big, brown, awkward, oversized wonder of a magazine that we love and cherish is what we share in common. We are a diverse bunch: plain folk, cowboys and cowgirls, hippies, small farmers farming big dreams, big dreamers dreaming of farming small, and every kind of armchair gardener and hopeful tiller of the soil in between. What binds us is a love of what is right and good in the world. We recognize that Small is indeed Beautiful. The Journal feels like family because of our common recognition that we are swimming up an industrial stream that wants to drown us at every turn. Because we so often feel alone in our fight against the tide, we naturally feel a kinship with other readers. Because of the Journal we realize that we are not alone. How many times have you found yourself browsing an old back issue feeling immediately reassured, fears eased and hopes and dreams put back into motion. Any right-minded endeavor, particularly one in which we toil in isolation, must have the support of a community of like-minded souls or we risk asphyxiation in the toxicity of modern industrial consumerism. Our community’s oxygen for 35 years has been this fine journal.
In any community, be it a school, a monastery, a neighborhood or a group of subscribers with a common interest there is bound to be discontent, disagreement and occasionally – downright hostility. Human beings are naturally opinionated creatures. We tend to think we are right all the time and we generally want other people to know about our correct world-view. Anyone who has read the Journal over the years has no doubt noted the occasional curmudgeonly letter of complaint often accompanied by a note of subscription cancellation. That goes with the territory. So what is different about this latest round of criticism? Why would Lynn Miller, who has never made any secrets about accepting differing points of view, consider stepping down as editor-in-chief of this, his beloved Journal based on a couple of very squeaky wheels?
A Turning Point
To find an answer we need to step back and realize that we are at a turning point in our own small farming history. I don’t believe it is an accident that this unrest among the Journal faithful is occurring at this point in time. The small farming community is just now beginning to experience the inevitable pains of maturation, a coming of age of sorts.
We are enjoying as prosperous a time for small farms as we have seen since the end of World War II. Consider these USDA numbers for farmer’s markets. In the year 2000 there were 2,800 markets across the land. By 2010 that number had increased to 6,132 – a 219% increase. From 2009 to 2010 alone there was a 16% increase in the number of farmer’s markets – this at the official tail end of the worst economy since the Great Depression. Remarkably, there are some 900 markets that operate through the winter (thank you Eliot Coleman). I know of no other economic sector that has experienced this kind of growth in the last ten years in good economic times or bad. The abundant and increasing numbers of community supported agriculture (CSA) programs is equally promising. By any measure small farms are prospering.
What about public perception? After all, the success of small farms entirely depends on the eating public supporting the notion that small farms have something good to offer. The public is indeed getting on board, educating themselves and generally taking a greater interest in where their food comes from. We have recently witnessed books about food and good farming climb to the top of bestseller lists. Books by Michael Pollen and Barbara Kingsolver come to mind. Walmart is selling organic food and is working to source more food locally (this is far from an endorsement of Walmart; I merely mention them as another example of a general shift in food awareness). The President and First Lady have planted a sizable kitchen garden at the White House and have made no secret about the value they find in real food. In some states raw milk is available in grocery stores for the first time in decades. Words like artisanal and local, once unheard of, have become commonplace – too common (so as to cheapen their meaning by way of advertising) – some would say.
These examples all illustrate my assertion that our society has achieved a new level of food consciousness. We daren’t be overly self-congratulatory, but we certainly are in a more stable, secure and respectable place than we were ten years ago.
Not There Yet
While we have achieved tremendous success for which small farmers everywhere should be proud, we can’t quit now. Despite the exponential growth that we have experienced in the last decade, our food system is still dominated by the industrial model. Enormous amounts of food are still shipped obscene distances using ridiculous amounts of fuel. Vast monocultures are still the norm. Consider the corn and soybean universe that dominates the Midwest, endless potatoes and alfalfa in Idaho, enormous feed lots in Colorado, dairies the size of small cities in California. I was in a Trader Joe’s grocery store recently and while standing amongst the grapes from Chile and strawberries from Mexico, I realized not one thing in the produce section came from the state in which I stood. Same story over in the meat counter: the lamb was from New Zealand – half a world away in an era when domestic sheep numbers have plummeted as a direct result of imports from Down Under. We still have a long way to go if we are to fundamentally change the dominant model of food as industrial commodity.
Sometimes we small farmers in our isolation don’t see the forest for our own fruit trees. Behind the pastoral romance and bucolic nature of our small farms we must not forget the big picture: Farms feed people, and there can be no rest until we create a fundamentally different food system, one that honors diversity, fertility and craft, driven by the engine of the small family farm. If you do the math you will realize that we need many, many, many farms. We need the equivalent of a new homestead act, a New Land Movement, one in which large numbers of people exchange their urban material life for one of authenticity on the land.
Small farms are more numerous and valued now than they were a decade ago, but we cannot grow complacent. We cannot rest until those lamb chops in Trader Joe’s are from sheep grazing the hillsides around town, and regional seasonal fruits are the choice for the suburban mother. We cannot rest until the big dairies are dissolved and small herds spring up once again in every town and village. We cannot rest until the Midwest is repopulated and restored to its former agricultural glory with a diversity of crops, livestock and farming communities.
Don’t Close the Door Behind You
It is to be expected that as our community expands there will be growing pains. There will be cries of discontent; those who say we are going astray. It is a natural part of any maturing movement. Certain persons will grumble. There will always be the cynic, the one with the perpetual chip on the shoulder – there is one in every crowd.
There comes a time when the voices coming out of the din grow from the realm of curious oddity to one of serious concern, showing a real shift in consciousness as a rift opens where there once was solid common ground. We are starting to see farmers growing nervous and possessive about their own success; beginning to jealously guard their own small farm kingdom – questioning whether they should help their neighbor’s new farm venture and eyeing the new farmer at the market with suspicion. It may be human nature that when we get in on a good thing too many of us have a tendency to want to lock the door behind us, barring the way for others to follow and enjoy the same success we have had. This is folly, most especially in farming. The beautiful thing about farming as a business is that everyone has to eat. Not everyone has to buy widgets and thus the widget market is naturally limited. Conversely the market for food is enormous, as big as all the appetites in the world. I firmly believe that partnerships, cooperation, competition and more small farms will benefit us all both individually and collectively.
Room for Everyone
Until the recent past the majority of populations worldwide were engaged in agriculture. In this country we are sadly down to 1% of the population growing food for the other 99%. It is clear there is plenty of room for more farms of all colors and stripes: subsistence farms, urban farms, rooftop farms, backyard farms. Let us guard against limiting our vision. Maybe you live in town and have a little flock of chickens and you sell three-dozen eggs a week to your neighbors. Is that farming? Is this a valid agricultural pursuit? Should this person be discouraged so that a vendor at the farmer’s market can sell 83 dozen eggs a week rather than 80? I think not.
It is time to reconsider our vision – to think beyond the farmer’s market, beyond the CSA, beyond the roadside stand. We need to re-think growing grains on small farms for local markets, after all bread is the staff of life. As wonderful as vegetables are, and as necessary to good health and as profitable as they can be for small farmers, we must remember that it is grains that feed a hungry planet – and the market is wide open. Same story with meat. The market for ethically and locally raised livestock is virtually untapped. Consumers are desperate to eat good meat with a clean conscience and it’s up to small farms to provide them with non-industrial meat.
If we are to take our food supply network to the next level we will need the infrastructure to support the increased production from small farms: appropriately scaled and properly inspected slaughter facilities for meat, storage and processing facilities for grains, local creameries for dairies, equipment manufactures, harness makers, blacksmiths, millers, cheese-makers. Once small farms are in place they form the solid foundation upon which these supporting businesses then grow providing real, long-term economic and cultural stability.
Pie in the Sky?
“It can’t be done,” some will say. “It is unrealistic to feed a hungry planet without GE crops and modern machines and chemicals. It just can’t be done.” But I say a return to a nation of small farms has to be done. It will not be easy or swift, but it can be done. I believe that someday in the not-to-distant future small farms will become necessary to our very survival. Like that old rascal Wile E. Coyote out there over the cliff edge – he’s running like mad, but hasn’t realized he is running on nothing but air and a fall is inevitable. When the fall comes it will be small farms that save us and pick up the pieces of a fallen industrial world and begin to shape a new one: a new world that respects its limitations and whose aspirations are greater than chasing an endless spiral of money and possessions, a world in which people value biological capital over industrial capital, and a world whose interest comes in the form of humus and hay, life and loam.
In light of the challenges facing human kind in the coming decades it is clear that we must fundamentally change the way we do business on this planet. There is nothing more fundamental than food and it starts with farming. It should form the basis of our culture – hence agri-culture
As we move forward there will necessarily be differing voices offering a variety of opinions and ideas about where to go from here. Let us use this, our Small Farmer’s Journal, as a forum where we can express our hopes, dreams and visions without demonizing points of view that don’t fit exactly with our own. There is more than one way to lay out a field for plowing. So let us acknowledge that, and then go hitch our horses and turn every furrow as best we know how.