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Posts Tagged ‘diversity’

Vermont Models

This past summer, farming in Pennsylvania, I finally met and worked with people whose lives I could imagine myself living.  My years in New York had been full.  I cooked often, ate well, and was always working for four or five people at once, and going to school.  I imagined I would start my own business – involving farmers and agriculture and getting food into the city – but I looked at cheese shops and butcher shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, specialty stores, taco trucks, you name it.  And I didn’t imagine myself running any one of them.  However much I loved the communities of Brooklyn, however many people I learned from in New York, I never met someone who both worked and lived in a way that I hoped I would.  And so I hadn’t formed any particular vision at all, of how I wanted to live.  I wanted to work with and support the producers of food, and I did, as much as I could.

The reason I was able to imagine myself farming was not because I am somehow built for it, or particularly talented at it, or because I have the means to enter into it easily.  Farming is at the heart of my interests (which, in the broadest terms, are to preserve farmland, to make real food available to more people, and to strengthen local economies and communities).  I loved that I didn’t have to debate whether or not the work was productive or valuable.    But it was in fact the details of the daily work that won me over.  Looking out over the fields in the morning, or seeing the lineup of beets to be washed.  Joining in the rhythm of the boys loading the truck, or quickly frying our best peppers for lunch, or lying in the grass in the evening with a beer.  I noticed moments every day that made me think that working there was beautiful work.  When people visited the farm from the city, I didn’t wish I were them.  I was proud, to be doing exactly what I was doing.

I also began to think more about myself last summer than I had in a long time.  I had spent three or four years thinking about (and acting upon) what was needed for the strength of the food system in my neighborhood, city, region, nation.  Suddenly, on the farm, every piece of work contributed to some very specific note for my own personal future.  If I had a farm this, and if I had a farm that.  If I had a farm, I would want to have goat’s milk, at least for the house. I would not use the turquoise berry baskets.  I would grow heirloom produce.  I would not waste time being indecisive in the field. I would sell locally.  I would grow lots of garlic and onions, and never run out.  I would only use a greenhouse for starting seeds.  I would not grow zucchini.  I would start with a good business plan, and not hire anyone until I could pay them a decent wage. I would wear gloves when picking okra.  My farm would be diverse, but I would be known for something I grew that was especially good.  I had begun to focus on a much smaller picture, and  I had begun to envision my own life, as easily and happily as a little girl.

Maybe that’s just what happens on your first farm.

In November, I moved to Northern Vermont.  The ridiculous climate and small population of this area are challenges for farmers (and people in general).  And Vermont has produced a rather forceful group of men in the Northeast Kingdom who have risen to the challenge of producing food in this state, and not only surviving, but feeding as many people as they possibly can.  Jasper Hill, Pete’s Greens, High Mowing Seeds, Vermont Soy.  Mateo, Andy, Pete, Tom, Andrew, Todd.  They are each intent upon growing their businesses, producing more, distributing farther, making their products ever more accessible to the people of the Northeast.  They think of themselves as catalysts of change in the food system of this region.  I get the impression they do not live for the beautiful moments of their day.  They work as hard as any farmer, all the time, and yet do not seem to gain their satisfaction from any lifestyle they have chosen, but rather gain their energy from the impact they have upon this place.

In a place like Northern Vermont, where selling to large quantities of people means traveling far, it would be hard to even be the (relatively small) size of Eckerton Hill.  You can’t grow that many tomatoes up here and sell them for a profit within five hours.  If you need to drive five hours with your produce, you’re probably losing whatever profit those sales might have brought.  If you only sell within an hour of your farm, you can’t sell much.  The larger but still family-owned, community-supported, responsible farms up here make sense, because they make a large volume of high quality products that they can also afford to distribute.  Jasper Hill sells their cheese locally, and all over the country.  Pete’s Greens delivers to restaurants and his CSA sites within a one-day 12-hour loop, and also has a distributor pick up produce for delivery to Boston and New York.  The community, in general, is overwhelmingly grateful for their efforts.  Look at how they’ve come together since the fire.  I spent hours yesterday stamping personal thank-you notes from Pete for donations from all over the region, which were given to help rebuild his barn.

Suddenly, in the company of these men of the Northeast Kingdom, it seems indulgent, even silly, to choose to farm on a small scale because of the lifestyle it implies.  The idea of farming for the sake of it being “beautiful work” seems ridiculous.  You run a high risk of losing a business that can’t afford (or doesn’t want) to distribute it’s own products outside of an hour’s radius, unless you can afford to lose money, or you have found some small niche group of people to whom you can ship your product for a high enough price (probably in New York City).  Even if you’re bringing back old traditions, preserving farmland, producing a beautiful product, and you are a person who loves their every day….your farm is not much of a model for a regional food system, since it’s not doing much for the local economy, nor is it feeding as many people as it potentially could.

That’s the opinion I’m gaining in Vermont.

Yet.  If someone is inspired to farm, particularly a young person, whatever their reasons, should they not pursue it, no matter the model that suits their idea of a lifestyle?  If something about the reality of the small-scale farm is what makes them tick, than they should find a model that works, and farm where that makes sense.  If they want to grow and collaborate and have an impact on the region, than perhaps they should choose a community like that of the Northeast Kingdom.  Now is a time when many young people who have a choice – about where to live, and what work to do –  are deciding to farm.  And if we’re smart about it, we’ll each contribute to a stronger system, of diverse models, and distinct goals.  The personalities of old farmers and the intentions of the new will characterize the food system in the regions where we live.  As it has here.  We may not all agree on the value of what we are each doing, but we will be part of the same movement, regardless.  And maybe, we will have created the lives we envision now.

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I’ve struggled over the past few weeks to focus on a single topic about which to write here, but I expected Thursday night’s lecture at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service to provide some specific food for thought. I knew the event had to do with technology and rural development, and I’ve been interested recently in my classes’ discussions about how innovation and technology affect farming techniques and food production. The title of the event was: The Role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Rural Development.ncdc_ict_04_640.jpg I should have known what I was getting into. Yet I only registered the situation fully by the speaker’s third reference to an ambiguous “they.” “They” who are so beneficially impacted by cell phones and modern communication possibilities – a vague “they,” eventually identified as rural Indians and Africans (and Central Americans too, if we were being inclusive). The speaker was a professor from NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. And he led a lecture about affecting the “rural development” of developing countries, of course, and the clever, shocking technologies our avant-garde mathematicians are inventing to connect poor, rural populations with the rest of our “developed” world. In general, I fully support cell phones, particularly cell phones in Africa. And even perhaps $100 laptops. Yet the professor began his lecture by admitting to the failure of most technological efforts in the developing world, “because ‘we’ don’t know what is needed, because we make assumptions and act on them before we know what will really help.” The professor admitted this crucial fault in the ICT profession, and went on to outline his newest projects, in which he’ll make exactly the mentioned mistake. But of course he will. He is excited about technology! And about the potential he can and wants to demonstrate. And so the constituent population, not to mention others who are working on alleviating the same problems of poverty and isolation, fall forgotten by the wayside as he carries on with the excitement of academic discovery and innovation.

This semester, my agriculture professor has pinpointed me as the token idealistic, organic, dirt-loving hippy that clings hopelessly to the goal of a certain unreachable agrarian utopia. While, admittedly, such a utopia may very well reside in the back of my head, I initially stood up to my professor’s subtle bullying because I thought she was just jaded. I thought our differences were like those we see in generational politics, in the sense that even some of the most stubborn conservatives were radical when they were young. They grew up and gave up. They got tired of fighting.  Yet my professor has highlighted in me a naïve energy characteristic of more than youth. It is characteristic of the leaders and do-gooders of the Western world, as well as of many alternative (radical, liberal) movements. I believe so strongly in particular principles, concerning land and farming and food and consumption, that I (even with a perspective I believe is valid!) hugely oversimplify the sides of a complex reality. I limit myself, identifying only the industrial versus the sustainable (straightforward terms much like developed and developing), the mainstream versus the alternative, the corporate- versus the family-owned.seedsofhope2lo_new.jpg These simple sides do not reflect the agricultural community. There exists an endless variety of soils, perspectives, and cultures that lead to innumerable beliefs, ideals, and practices. There are many tenets that I do not profess, lived out in a practical manner that I very well might strive to mimic. There are many different types of farmers, not just “industrial” versus “sustainable.” And there are innumerable changes under consideration – in land ownership, policy approach, farmer collaboration, worker organization, technology use, and acceptance of GMOs. We cannot (and must not) confine this community of people and ideas to one side of a coin or another. We would miss the intricacies of ideas, the unique details of achievements. Our approach would be naïve and simple, as I have come to recognize, even in the classroom.People who value biological systems, health, and community are not all people cut of the same cloth. We have different political views, different cultural values, different income levels, and we are from places where very different things grow. We are of different religions. We work differently, and we eat differently. And so, acknowledging diversity and justice within the local food movement is not just about recognizing violated labor rights, underserved communities, and unjust trade laws. It is about peacecall.jpg opening a dialogue with people of various perspectives, who value nutritious food, land stewardship, and local community as much as we do. If we of these values want to talk about change in the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed, even just in the US, we’re gonna have to start recognizing each other’s accents. For me, this means growing up and out of the idealistic student phase, not into a cynical passive adulthood, but into an active and open-eared role of attention and dedication to realizing exactly what it is we all need. It’s seeing what fits this world, beyond what I want, beyond the change I’m excited about. It is actively not making assumptions based on my own limited perspective, but incorporating new and thoughtful ideas into the structure and future of that which I already believe.

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