The Divides that Bind: How Farmers are Indelibly Linked to the Cause of Civil Rights

This fall will mark 10 years since I began maintaining this blog. The year 2010 was a poignant one for farmers anticipating the potentially negative effects of new federal food safety legislation, and I began blogging with an assertion that it was no longer sufficient for farmers to merely work hard and continue pumping out the good food we all need to stay nourished and healthy. I supposed that farmers must also be productive in another sense, that they should be ready to tell their stories, making the case in written form and other creative ways for a return to agricultural values across the full spectrum of our society, including the stubborn divides that helped to drive food safety and security debates at the time.

I feel the same a decade later, but now understand there is much more at stake than I had previously imagined. In 2010 we were still anticipating that many aspects of life would improve by the year 2020, which turns out to have been wishful thinking at best (see my previous blog post). Today our society is beset by a host of afflictions that may seem coincidental but are actually reflections of each other. Whether talking about the current pandemic, climate change, economic disparities, rampant chronic disease or the political strife now filling our airwaves and social media, these are really all different aspects of the same dysfunctional human condition, and the sooner farmers recognize and understand their critical role in this drama, the better.

Public speaking is one of my favorite things to do, though I fret and suffer physically in preparation for such opportunities. For several years now I’ve made the case to various audiences that our food system is disadvantaged by its colonial roots and an assumption of the essentially free land and free labor that had been taken from other peoples along the way. I am not the first speaker to make this case, nor hardly the best or most qualified to do so. As time goes by I notice that audiences are more receptive to this message, but confess my own avoidance of the topic in front of audiences that include conventional farmers.  My fear has been that many farmers would fail to get beyond a misinterpretation that I am accusing them of somehow stealing land and labor for their own benefit. But that was never the point, and the time for such reticence on my part has passed.

The key is to understand the systemic nature of the problems we face in procuring food for a growing world population, and to remember how abusive systems often perpetuate more abuse through several generations, which I believe is exactly what’s at work in our food system today. I’m a big fan of such writers as Jack Weatherford (Native Roots, Indian Givers) and Charles C. Mann (1491, 1493) who have detailed how indigenous food systems in the Americas not only flourished before colonization, but helped to “feed the world” afterward. The latter achievement came despite the utter brutality and genocide wrought by the march of European colonists across both continents, matched in its tragic severity by the flow of slave labor across the Atlantic Ocean to accommodate our hunger for both food and profit in the New World. Simply put, no claim to greatness for our modern food system can be made without referencing the violent circumstances from whence it came.

This brings me to the point of this essay, which is that the unfortunate foundations of our current food system persist today in ways that all farmers – at least the vast majority of them – should recognize and abhor. Any farmer who has ever failed to account for his/her own labor in figuring cost of production or resulting profits, or experienced the extreme expense of maintaining land properly, especially with environmental regeneration in mind, should know exactly what I’m saying. Any municipality or school system that has depended on property taxes from farms without a corresponding effort to support those farmers, at very least by purchasing food from local farms for cafeterias whenever possible, should sit up and take notice of the implications of those systemic policy failures. Indeed, any citizen with an overt intention to support food that is both produced and consumed within one’s local community or broader region should fully understand that a devaluation of the land and labor involved is at the heart of their flagging hopes for success in the face of an increasingly globalized food system.

I often wonder how many commercial developers have looked out at productive farmland with the nagging thought that “there’s nothing there” and wondered how they could take advantage. Maybe we all do that to some extent, even farmers who hope to sprout a new crop of suburban housing on their land as a retirement plan. We are similarly apt to take for granted the labor involved in producing our food, which helps to explain the abuses that sometimes occur on large industrial farms or other food system facilities, especially those heavily dependent on migrant labor. I often talk about how the current system of procuring labor must look to some captains of industry as an improvement on slavery, since most workers are eventually sent away and likely will never gain the benefits of citizenship in our country. What are the true costs to our society of devaluing both land and labor in such insidious ways?

Farmers of all sizes and stripes need to understand their place in an abusive system that both victimizes them and sometimes propels them to more abusive behavior, whether involving the land, their workers, or the communities in which they are situated. Consumers, communities, schools, and other institutions need to learn this lesson as well. When people take to the streets to support the cause of Black Lives Matter, indigenous land claims or immigration reform, they are in part fighting for rights to a better food system and healthier life for us all.

Farmers are among those who stand to benefit the most by recognizing and accepting their direct and indelible relationship to fellow citizens fighting for the cause of fair and equal treatment. Perhaps they will soon fully understand that it is indeed time to jump in with both feet to support the well-being of all who demand enhanced access to healthy food as well as the economic and social justice that has always been the most important crop, and greatest calling, on any farm.

The Imperfect Vision of 2020

The urge to write again surged as our nation prepared for the dual milestones of Memorial Day and 100K deaths from COVID-19 simultaneously. I acknowledge the peril of commenting on a crisis while in the middle of it and wish to avoid the temptation of “predicting” outcomes just as they become assured. The latter does seem to be a common political practice these days, showing just how much courage we are lacking in terms of leadership at all levels of society. Lack of effective leadership may, in fact, be the most dangerous and pervasive pandemic of our times.

I am old enough to remember when, as the turn of the century approached, many nonprofit organizations began visioning exercises with the convenient assumption that the year 2020 would represent a chance to achieve a “perfect vision” for the world, or at least for their own domain of influence. We could not have imagined how distant from that ideal we would be at this point in history. Of course, there are good things happening too, but the number of crises we currently face, without clear and actionable solutions, is astounding. It is a common perception that we are adrift in ways we had not anticipated, though any meaningful attempt to correct that status remains elusive. Continue reading

Holy Saturday

I last wrote on this blog nearly four years ago. That time – early fall of 2016 – was poignant for a few reasons, but especially because of big changes to the American political landscape that were about to occur. Back then, I thought maybe I was beginning a new series of essays that would appear in the ensuing months and years. It did not happen, however, partly because of some very confusing things that occurred in my personal and professional life, as well as the public sphere. I’m hoping this will be the new beginning I was thinking about in that less complex and troubled time.

As the name of this piece implies, I began writing it on the day between Good Friday and Easter this year, which happened also to be my birthday. It is perhaps easy to take too seriously the convergence of such occasions, but please understand that, considering the way Easter bounces around each year, this kind of thing does not happen all that often for me. I can remember over the years my birthday falling on both Good Friday and Easter, as well as Palm Sunday, but this is the only time I can recall it falling on that mysterious day in the middle. Continue reading

When the Very Old is New Again

An Onondaga elder once explained to me that plants come to us when they are needed. If we show them respect by using them and appreciating their gifts they will grow stronger. They will stay with us as long as they are respected. But if we forget about them, they will leave.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

The summer of 2016 was when everything started to change for me. The most obvious change was in my professional life, as I moved from my long-held position of executive director with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) to the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) at The Ohio State University. My title remained the same, but almost everything else is completely different in my work life now. Other changes occurred or began over this period, and they will always be merged in my memory as a single complex transition that may take some years to play out completely.

The immediate point here is that I simply had no time to manage my nearly 4,000 square feet of garden space over this growing season, and my choices were to either put in a cover crop for the whole summer, or try something that would require the lowest maintenance possible. Since I have always been fascinated with ancient forms of agriculture, I decided to try a Native American style “three sisters” garden, utilizing heirloom varieties of corn with pole beans and winter squash, to see if this style of companion planting really could manage itself. Truth be told, I added a fourth sister in the form of several sunflower varieties interspersed with the other crops, and bordered the outside of the plot with other things I like, including summer squash and okra. Continue reading

The Future of Sustainable Agriculture

We have come a long way in the 15 years I have been privileged to serve as executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. When I first started, I remember being ridiculed or, even worse, ignored in a lot of public contexts where PASA now is a welcome voice for change. For this we can feel some pride, while also thanking myriad other national groups and personalities who have paved the way, often in the face of withering uphill battles.

As I prepare to transition to a new position in June, my main concern is that we don’t lose the momentum gained over the years. There are a number of critical factors that I believe need to be kept in mind, as follows:

  • Words matter. Though faced with abuse and even cooption of the word sustainable by corporate interests wanting to steal our thunder or undermine the power of our ideals, we must never give in to that. Other words like natural, local, and fresh are similarly threatened, even within our own ranks, but we must never relinquish or walk away from the words that got us here in the first place, even as we develop more descriptive terms, like regenerative, to convey the significance of our vision.

Continue reading