Our Economy

“For one final moment in our evolution as a nation we still have a community memory of the family farm.  Many still carry the personal baggage from our rural past, a history of family members who sustained the land, and the legacy of a community that worked the earth for generations.

But this is the final generation holding an affinity with the American family farm.  This is the generation that will control the destiny not only of my Sun Crest peaches but also of my way of life.”

David Mas Masumoto—Epitaph for a Peach (page 160)

For the past few years I have been attending the Virginia Farm to Table conference, and this year I also attended the conference of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming.  At each event, much is made of the problems that farmers face in maintaining profitability and a reasonable work schedule; experts in farm and food economics and marketing give brilliant talks about complex political dynamics, aggregation strategies, niche markets and products, value-added processing, etc.  It is all very interesting, but I often end up feeling like we’re not really getting it.  What about the love, I keep wanting to say.

I will spend my February writing opportunity exploring some issues around this question, and if you don’t mind I’d like to take David Mas Masumoto, author of the 1995 classic Epitaph for a Peach along on our ramble, since I just finished reading it and his meditative work fits in perfectly to the themes I wrestle here.

Here is the thing:  Why do farmers continue to try to produce…um…‘produce’ for an ungrateful market?  Let’s bring Masumoto in (from page xi in the prologue):

“I’ve been keeping those old peaches for years, rationalizing that it’s worth hanging on to something that has meaning beyond mere monetary reward.  But I’m scared.  Scared because I can’t sell my peaches; thousands of boxes sit in storage, blacklisted with a bad reputation.  Boxes that have been paid for, fruit that cost me and my family, a year’s labor wasted, unproductive and impotent.

Many family farmers with fruit varieties like Sun Crest peaches no longer calculate how much they earn but how much they owe.  Can you imagine working an entire year and having your boss inform you that you owe him money?  No matter what you believe, you can’t farm for very long and only be rewarded with good-tasting peaches.

This year will witness not only the possible death of this peach but also the continuing slow extinction of the family farmer.  A fruit variety is no longer valued and a way of life is in peril.  My work remains unrewarded.

When I first started, I realized I would never make a fortune in farming, but I hoped I could be rich in other ways—and maybe, just maybe, my work would create some other kind of wealth in the process.”

And from page 229, “A neighbor in his forties insists that only the bottom line counts.  He says he’s not here to raise pretty fields and he won’t farm for very long if he can’t make a profit.  I know that pretty fields are very much part of my annual profits.  Farming provides me with meaningful work, a way of life that integrates family, community, and tradition.”

Since this book (partly because of this book?) there has been a noticeable rise in the local food movement.  It has done some good!  There are more farmers now than there were a few years ago, and that’s probably why.  The ingredient quality issue I touched on in January’s essay has been championed for quite a while now by some well-respected chefs and the message is getting some traction.  Some people even want their food to mean something, and that is wonderful!  As yet, however, the few examples of farmers, especially new farmers, who are able to make a good living on a manageable time schedule without also bringing in off-farm income are held up as tantalizing models for the rest.  The bulk of the work is being done by people who are not really being compensated adequately for their time or effort, if I understand it rightly.  Most of the people you see standing on the other side of the stall at that Saturday market charging you prices you might think exorbitant for their offerings are probably working harder than you would believe and banking pretty paltry sums at the end of the year.  There are exceptions, of course, and we should all pay attention to them.

But I’ve been puzzled by this whole dynamic.  Why the continual bleaching out of the vitality of our small farm base?  What is driving this Sisyphean race to the bottom?  Why are the farmers putting up with it?  If society is not rewarding this role, why try to fill it?  I did not grow up in a farming family, and my childhood interaction with farming was more adventure, interest, maybe self-provisioning…only marginally economic.  Maybe I’ll never understand the identity issues at play here, the ones Masumoto can’t avoid.  Certainly I have heard farmers talk about the affirmation that it is to receive cash for their produce.  As a culturally symbolic ritual, that makes sense to me:  our culture uses money to confer honor and value; the act of exchanging money carries a weight of esteem.  It could be that’s the driver from the farmers’ end: wanting affirmation from their peers that what they are doing is recognized as valuable.

From the average consumer’s point of view, even, it is obvious that society can’t do without farmers.  Even if technology has amplified each farmer’s capabilities enough to transfer the vast majority of us to other sectors, still it all depends on food rising out of the soil someplace or other, and somebody needs to keep an eye on it and get it when it’s ready.  Those of us who would want to identify as farmers (me) have a hard time reconciling this contradiction:  We are as desperately needed as ever, but we are treated by the system as if expendable.

I have come to believe that a major contributor is connectivity.  How can any farming community get a head of steam for its products when somewhere somebody is bound to have circumstances that can produce any one of those products just a little bit more cheaply?  Bulk shipping costs being more or less negligible and distribution systems having now had enough decades in operation at this level to have hit on some pretty slick solutions, production for any given product swings dramatically from place to place around the continent or even the planet, pulling the rug (or perhaps more aptly, the soil) out from under the feet of community after community.  The more efficiently this system works, the worse it gets, not just because better places can be found or developed, but just as much because better places become worse places since often what looks on paper like the more economical option is in fact a place more favorable to exploitation: a place with rich resources that can perform despite being ravaged for long enough to put the last best place out of business.  Soon enough that place will be the next domino.  And the hardworking, financially squeezed end consumer is put in the unwitting position of gunning the engine, because every time they run by the store to grab some “groceries” on the way home, they are presented with lots of apparently simple choices that look like this: two or more products side by side on the shelf, the only obvious difference between which is about seven cents.  And who doesn’t want to save seven cents?  Multiply that by 350 million, not to mention 7 billion, and you can wipe whole towns off the economic map in a heartbeat.

For the community farmer hoping to make a decent living supplying their neighbors with food, the exasperating dynamic is the certain knowledge that for most farmer’s market and farm stand shoppers there is the perfectly understandable niggling voice in the back of their minds: ‘I could get this cheaper at the store.’  For the producer, it’s like having a big fish (that you are starving for) hooked on a very fine line.  If you never pull, you’ll never get it in, but pull too hard and it’s gone.  Set your price where your customers want it and you’ll barely break even.  Set it a smidge higher and you’ll go home with half of it and lose a whole bunch of money.  That is a very stressful way to make a living.  Do we ask this of any other essential occupation?  And is there any occupation more essential?

It’s a maddening conundrum for everyone:  many folks spending money on food know the value of this kind of production and of keeping farmers in business, but they feel unable or unwilling to fully fund the system.  Farmers know this is valuable work and deeply love what they are doing, but burnout, financial failure, and family breakdown rates are high, and few can pull off the ecological/financial/marketing/logistical feat and still come out on top in a way that compares to their peers in other occupations.  Producers and consumers both know that economies of scale—just out of reach—are working against the relationship.

At the same time, in areas near the urban centers that drive local perishable food production, it has become standard fashion for those who can afford it to buy up parcels of land for use as home and yard only.  Again, fossil fuel assumptions make this a reasonable and appealing choice, since the easy urban consumption habits can be accomplished with little penalty at quite some remove, and the same goes for accessing urban employment.  This influx of competition in the real estate market (more connectivity trouble) has driven prices way beyond what farmers making their living farming can hope to afford.

The net effect of these forces is rural communities that are not what we seem to think they are.  Largely they are composed of country people living urban lifestyles, urban people colonizing the country, and country people (and former urbanites) trying to live farm-based lives in whatever time they can afford not to work at some kind of supporting-income off-farm job.  Not universally true, but to my view mostly true.

Here we have another angle on the above contradiction, where on the one hand we have completely acclimated to a life where fossil fuel-based energy is available and affordable for use in all sectors at will, and on the other hand we seem to be failing to accept or acknowledge the effects that dynamic has wreaked on our patterns of living.  Masumoto again (page 163)

Obsolete.  The word carries feelings of failure, rejection, loss.  I can’t help but take it personally, since my peaches embody my labor and commitment.  Yet how can a food become obsolete?  My businessman’s muse answers, ‘Simple, when fewer and fewer buyers will pay for it.’

I explain my dilemma to a friend and she does not understand.  After an animated conversation I realize she is unable to think of the value of food beyond qualitative parameters.  ‘Food is sacred and valued,’ she says.  ‘You cannot put a price on your work.  You need to keep those peaches for us all.’

For a moment I bask in her flattery.  I envision working my orchards to feed the world, my social responsibility, my contribution to the public.  Quickly my muse responds, ‘There are easier ways to support causes.’”

Well, I guess he and I have both seen enough.  I won’t do it.  I won’t put my family through it.  Not that I will never dabble in income-generating farm enterprises:  we make eggs available to friends and family and we just sold our first homegrown and homebred vegetable seed.  I am tempted by the notion of co-packing some salsa and hot sauce at a facility in Farmville to sell at our leisure.  But I will not expose our treasured home and life in this beautiful place to the vagaries of the farm products market, despite my lifelong love of agriculture and working in the soil.  We can’t live the way we want to and know we should while being held over a barrel.

What does that mean in practical terms?  A few things.  For one, we need to look askance at money.  We figure out how much we need, and we decide on the most life-giving, most values-consistent, most efficient compromise we can find to supply that amount.  Maybe some of the solutions will be farm-related, given our values, passions, and experience.  Fine.  Currently that need is being met by Janelle’s administrative job at EMU.  Fine.  A critical priority is that we need to guard our center.  That means we don’t expose our physical homestead and its functioning to high risk, nor do we unduly stress or compromise our family relationships.  Another thing is that we put thought and effort not so much into supplying our needs within the standard economy, but rather into reducing our need for the standard economy.  It has proven untrustworthy for so many.  Our system isn’t perfect.  We are too busy, especially here in the development phase (how long will this go on?).  But by our measures it is working, and we are glad to be able to live this way.  Masumoto’s voice again, from page 12:  “…if the land wasn’t going to make money, I might as well try to enjoy not making money.”

This may come across as antisocial and cynical.  I will deny both attributes, but I will admit readily to a sense of bitterness and consternation.  It is a common theme in our rural communities to see a hardworking, diligent, responsible, efficient, quality-driven, passionate farm entrepreneur work his or her body and mind nearly to the brink and yet never break into an economic opening that truly rewards that person with an acceptable living.  Each time one such productive soul settles for a “regular job” with predictable income, I totally sympathize with that choice and simultaneously grieve the loss of vitality for our communities.  I have read enough economic theory in college and a bit beyond that to know how inexorable market forces can be, and I know full well that that is what we are up against.  Nearly any agricultural entrepreneur that enters the market on its own terms will soon be buffeted by those same winds.  As a society we are failing to master our own economic systems:  they have so far by and large still got our number.

In the Christian scripture one can read that Jesus admonished his followers to be “…crafty as serpents and innocent as doves.”  I opine that the sustainable agriculture sector has got some strong moral weight behind it.  We have a pretty good handle on the innocence half of that maxim, if you will bear my adapting it here.  But as a group we are not a crafty lot.  And we haven’t the financial clout to hire crafty people to work the chambers of power on our behalf.

If I am casting doubt on the long-term economic strength of many of the current endeavors, but I still seem to care about sustainable, community-based agriculture (both are true), then what do I think of as a reasonable model for making progress in these areas?  How to preserve, or better said restore, a sense of our connectedness to the land through our systems of nourishment if the standard money economy so reliably refuses to promote—even sabotages—this progress?

Disappointingly, perhaps, I must now admit to not having a single, triumphant, twenty-second-sound-bite solution in mind.  Had I one, I could probably run for political office!  I have come to an awareness of ecology as the finest example of how things actually get done in the world.  That is to say that I believe the solution will look more like a resurgent forest than anything: each participant filling a niche as life triumphs in the burgeoning of a million complex relationships.  More process than product, it nevertheless yields countless products in a cacophony of give and take.  And when up and running, this kind of system can even be made to yield a measure of more uniform, bulkier product without being degraded.  Careful selective timber harvest comes to mind as the analog (no pun intended) here.

As I understand long-lasting agroecosystems of the past, and the societies that depended on them, there was a clear understanding that the strength of the society was built upon the strength of the agroecosystem (not in so many words, but you get the picture).  To the extent that urban overlords viewed their role as purely dominant and extractive, human-managed rural landscapes under their thumbs degraded over time.  The Roman Empire is a case in point.  I have read at least one analysis that blames the Roman policy of exacting tribute in the form of grains from the peasant cultures they dominated for the conversion of sustainable cropping systems to monoculture grain production, which precipitated the collapse of the soil resource, necessitating further expansions of power and so on until the empire was stretched thinly over an exhausted landscape and collapsed under its own weight.

Chinese society has lasted far longer, some think because of the differences between the cultivation patterns of wheat versus rice.  I am no expert on this, but supposedly rice requires more careful attention, and the dynamic that develops favors an elevation of status for peasant farmers; their relationship with political leaders was more mutual, and the rulers were compelled to some extent to carefully tend their relationships with those who provided their wealth.

Egypt was abusively hierarchical and lasted a long time, but they cheated…they had the annual flooding of the Nile—a natural fresh deposit of the nutrients literally streaming out of much of Africa—as a resource that could be degraded by agriculture yearly with no apparent consequence.  Unfortunately, much of Western agriculture seems based on the Egyptian model.  Instead of the flooding of the Nile, we cheat with manufactured fertilizers and other fossil fuel and technological inputs, and the ongoing, progressing devastation to our soil resource is obscured by these workarounds.  For now.

I’ll reiterate the ecology point:  We need a lot of people, all working in their niche.  Marketers, aggregators, educators, party organizers (the fun kind and the political kind), motivational speakers, farmers…and we need them working within the economy that currently dominates.  Partly.  But I contend that that economy is antithetical to sustainable community-based agriculture for the reasons mentioned above, such that until the engines and drivers of that economy change, its support for that agriculture will remain marginal and specialty-oriented.  Not that interesting things aren’t happening in some big companies…keep it coming and prove me wrong!  I just don’t see it shutting down too many smokestacks yet, or reducing traffic on the beltways.

Where have I taken us thus far?  I have contended that regional agriculture is an essential part of the meaning of life and love in rural communities, (indeed for all of society in the end), and I have made my views known as to why it is so blasted hard for efforts to maintain and restore that agriculture to gain a critical mass of traction, despite the devotion of its practitioners.  I have also said that it pains me and strikes me as futile in most cases for passionate farmers or farmers-to-be to enter the standard food market—even the organic version—on its own terms, when the usual results are burnout, bankruptcy, or pallid profits at best.  To be clear:  I am a homesteader and stay-at-home dad; I haven’t the time or training for the kind of scholarship the topic deserves.  This is my vantage point and my own thinking on the subject, and I make it public only because I notice two gaps in the conversations, public and private, that revolve around these topics:

Firstly, I assert that we fail to recognize love and attachment as major economic forces here.  Stemming from that is a failure to recognize how this plays out in terms of the oft-decried unbalanced power relationship between farmers and consumers.  In order to effectively strategize as individuals and as a group, I thump my fist on the table and beg us to take this seriously and face it squarely.

In this way I lump many farmers (including yours truly) in with artists, musicians, writers, and restauranteurs, in that in each of these pursuits there are far more wannabes than successful career professionals.  And there are more similarities:  There is far more skill and ambition than opportunity.  Love for the craft contributes to a viciously competitive market, and mass production and distribution undercut both the sustaining of a larger number of practitioners and the development of regionally specific styles and methods.

Secondly, and this one is harder to articulate, there is a need for recognition of the value of a vibrant core.  This economy has been demanding the same things of our rural communities and farm families that modern agriculture demands of soil: maximum production.  And the results are equally devastating:  loss of diversity, a reduction in resource mobility, degraded capacity, lowered resilience, sheer reduction in volume.  Without outside inputs, the recovery from that kind of devastation is long and slow, and Wendell Berry makes the point that any time in U.S. history that a community or region has managed to build a thriving economic system based on their locale, some enterprising individual or corporation has seen an opportunity in that and reaped the harvest they did not sow, destroying the resource they saw value in in the process.

So I say that there needs to be a change of tack.  An underfilled niche in the sustainable agriculture ecosystem is the conscious inclusion and valuation of an aspect of economic refuge.  Since it is clear the standard economy is not going to give these values their proper due, then we must designate and create and maintain systems which operate somewhat separately from the standard economy, if the values are to be served.  Masumoto has a related musing (page 87): “I wonder if my peaches belong to a past generation, those who savor produce and value the taste of natural foods.  Sun Crests are not to be consumed like fast food.  I agree with my grandmothers when they call my peaches ‘family food.’”  Which gets me back to our family’s strategy.  We have chosen to refute by our daily choices the lie that monetary compensation represents the highest affirmation of value

I say “underfilled” above because there are some things happening in this vein: CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) marketing systems, nonprofit farming, alternative currencies and labor exchanges, homesteading.  Many of the strategies currently being tried share DNA with what I’ve been talking about here, and I have been personally involved with each of the ones I listed above; all of them have lots to commend them.  Pieces of the puzzle each, with dedicated people and moral gravity on their side.  In addition to a basic desire for vast increases in each of these strategies and more, I would argue in favor of two improvements to this sector.  One is that we must remember as we participate in these structures that we are knowingly doing something that the economy thinks is stupid.  We should be alert to the surety that each of us will face moments of judgment—internally and externally sourced—that engender embarrassment and doubt about the wisdom of our choices.  We will need reminders, maybe even rituals of awareness and memory, built in to the group and individual processes associated with these structures and lifestyles, if we are to resist the prevailing logic.

The other improvement is an increase in the square and unapologetic addressing of our undergirding justifications in public forums.  When talking about the benefits of CSA, for example, we must never neglect to mention that it has its roots in the notion that farmers aren’t being given a fair shake, and this is a way for a group of those concerned with the problem to support a diligent farmer or farm family at a fair rate.  I fear that neglecting this aspect in public has led to the transformation of CSA in many cases into yet another highly competitive, and in the end abusive, way of converting the devotion of the farmer to their craft into maximum production in favor of the consumer.

This is not a direct strategy for transforming our whole society.  I am arguing for the careful and conscious and joyful creation of a way of life within, or maybe better said to the side of, the larger society.  There are many of us in the margins and tucked into pockets here or there that are quietly pursuing this, reeducating ourselves as to what it means to participate in the natural life of our chosen places, to recognize and develop the “true wealth” potential of that participation (from which monetizable products may eventually come, but that’s a whole essay of its own…stay tuned!).  To me the biggest growth edge (among many…what an exciting place for an innovation magnet like myself!) to these initiatives is the joining of our efforts into interdependent, functioning regional communities and economies that know how to resist the more deleterious effects of connectivity with the larger economy, culture, and civilization.  It is my view that this is more than a way for those of us who share these values to have a meaningful opportunity to live them out; it is a critical piece of the functioning of the broader society itself.  Every society, to continue in anything approaching health, needs (to use a flurry of metaphors from my Christian upbringing) its salt and light, its city on a hill, its sacred remnant, its voice in the wilderness, its source of renewal.  It is no accident, I suppose, that the earnest pursuit of Christian spirituality of my youth has led me to this place.  While I no longer place value on the notion of drawing others into my spiritual beliefs, a perhaps not dissimilar impulse, tempered by the doubt and wisdom that age has hopefully granted me, prompts me to invite you to join me and my family in letting go of the value system the economy promotes, and living into what we know is right.  From page 229: “Over and over…my struggles were resolved only when I included my family and neighbors as part of the solution.  The greatest lesson I glean from my fields is that I cannot farm alone.”  Maybe we can do it better together!

I’ll sign off with one more Masumoto bit, from page 215:

“The hardest decisions come when an old limb is dying but not quite dead.  It may have borne a partial crop last summer and probably can carry a limited harvest next year.  But it’s dying and the question remains: When do I cut it out and make way for new growth?  As I grow more experienced, I find it easier and easier to make that decision.   There comes a time when you see the inevitable.  The limb gave ripe, juicy peaches for years, but this past season was its last.  Its time has come.

With each dead limb there’s hope for new growth.  That’s why I enjoy this part of pruning:  I’m always working with the future.  I’m like a bonsai gardener with my peach trees, shaping each tree for the long term.  When working with dying trees I feel one of the most important and strongest emotions a farmer has: a sense of hope.”

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