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

Looking Back; Surging Ahead

It should readily be apparent that we arrived at PASA’s 25th annual conference thinking more about the next 25 years than the past. We could easily have built this year’s conference around a celebration of all that has come before, and indeed there was some of that to be found in the conference center and on the program.  But the predominant motivation for all of us – staff and board members alike – in planning the event was to make manifest the urgency of taking action to change agricultural systems in the immediate future, and our plans for doing so.

I also want to add here a few additional thoughts about the nature of this organization, our work together and the success we anticipate for the new programs PASA is now developing. To do this I want to return to a favorite topic of mine, one that I talked about just over fifteen years ago as I first interviewed for the job of executive director. Instead of looking back just 25 years, though, I’d like to go back in our consideration to a little over 500 years ago. Continue reading

Dancing with Nature: The Sustainable Challenge

I am not much of a professional sports fan these days.  But every year at this time I remember myself as a kid, pulling out my old Maury Wills baseball mitt and Carl Yastrzemski bat from the basement to play outside with my friends, following what seemed like endless winters while growing up in the Midwest.

Throwing a baseball back and forth for hours felt like absolute freedom. And every once in a while you could reach an exalted state with a best friend whereby the two of you would feel at one with each other, the gloves and the ball – nothing would miss the mark, until you fell out of that groove due to fatigue, or maybe the dinner bell ringing.

The same kind of thing happens with other sports, including an outdoor sport like fishing, another harbinger of spring. As any good fisherman will tell you, it is at those times when you feel unified with the fish, and the stream in which you both do your dance, that the true nature of the sport and the freedom it has to offer is realized. For me, there is no greater sense of liberation, and belonging at the same time, than to commune in this way with nature, often in the company of a dear friend. Continue reading