The little media firestorm in my brain began with a nice little post from Ben Hewitt, about how to keep your chin up in the hard and heavy seasonal work of the homestead. His first advice was to just smile, which really does work, but demands some elaboration. He did a nice job of it and it set something vibrating in my head, which is just as well right now, when the harvest is bubbling over, and fall planting still isn’t finished, the rain we prayed for never seems to end, and the galinsoga weeds are growing in like a wall to wall shag carpet with yellow flowers on all that open ground that is waiting for kale. I wish kale grew as well as galinsoga, but that’s just my personal prejudice.
Anyhow, I was stringing together thoughts about keeping a good attitude when it feels like my back might break and my head explode when another article came to my attention. This one is a UN report concluding that indeed, small farms can feed the world. In fact, considering the larger economic picture, wealth and resource distribution, transportation costs, energy efficiency, and a slew of other factors, small farms are our best shot at feeding the world. So, the UN is advising all nations to re-direct their agricultural policies toward the support of small producers, like us.
I love that. It’s great to finally hear what I’ve always suspected was true being backed up by a team of over 60 international agricultural specialists. For some reason, it almost makes me nervous. It definitely makes the music in my head play a little louder.
It may have just been the next day that the New York Times printed a lovely Op-Ed piece, Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers. It’s about how nearly impossible it is to make a profitable living farming. It’s a great read, and certainly rings true to what we’ve seen and experienced our our little agricultural community. The high price of land plus the cost of doing business hardly adds up to even the most outrageous income you can imagine from peddling lettuce, or radishes.
Granted, most of us come into this line of work for the sake of making a LIFE, not making a living. But we do still have to pay the bills. And sometimes, even when the bills are very very small, it can feel like an uphill battle to pay them with cherry tomatoes, no matter how beautiful they are.
So, as I sorted another load of tomatoes, and sent the cantaloupes that didn’t make it over the chicken net, there was a three part harmony, in a somewhat minor key, playing in my head and I was thinking about sustainability.
Yes, I want our government, our WORLD, to support the work of small farmers. Heck – we’ve all to eat, and the better everyone gets to eat, the better we all get along!
But, do I want an artificially infused small farm economy? Not really. Do I want a hyper-competitive market place where the really authentic high-quality small grower can only afford to sell to the mega-rich consumer? Absolutely not. As the NYT article points out, there’s already plenty of operations that rake in donations or make their money in other ways, and then practically give their food away. I don’t blame them. Personally, we have shifted our income-focus away from the farm, too. But we are careful, in the little bit of food marketing that we still do, not to undermine the local market. The economic playing field is a pretty steep slope.
I guess the NYT piece went viral. There was one last voice that chimed in to the growing chorus in my head – a high note. The Huffington Post picked this one up, as a mild mannered rebuttal to the previous piece. Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers doesn’t refute anything about the other piece, it just sheds light on the brighter side. Yes, let your children be farmers, because we are strong and healthy and know how to work with our bodies and minds. Because we breathe fresh air all day long and generally aren’t glued to an electronic umbilical cord. We can solve problems, with our hands or our heads. We tend to be smart, creative, well-rounded people, if still a bit quirky.
It’s a full four-part harmony now. The song in my head is all about things that work, and for things to keep working, they have to keep changing. Not un-impeded capitalist-economy-style growth, but organic change, like the strengthening of a muscle or the lengthening of hair.
For a healthy 26-year old, with little or no debt-load, working 80 plus hours each week more or less year round for $20,000 per year or so might be sustainable. If all goes well, it might even be sustainable for 10, 15, even 20 years. But then what? Human life, individually, is not in itself sustainable. That’s part of why we love to have children, because we hope, we believe, that human life in general is sustainable.
Like most of us, I’m just looking for the balance.
I’m looking for a time when the good earth will no longer be a commodity, bought by the highest bidder and considered only for the purpose of extracting every penny of its inherent worth in fertility and timber, leaving the next buyer a striped down wasteland barely suitable for anything more than development (by that, I mean buildings).
I’d like to see smart, hardworking people be able to sustain their lives, their families, their land, without the undue stress load of debt. They should be able to save for the family’s future, share their talents with the larger community, flourish and thrive throughout the whole course of their lives, as farmers.
And, I’d like to see a public that appreciates where its food comes from, and understands the value of the food coming from local farms – understands the value of farms in and of themselves. That same public would value their own lives, their own time, and use their time to care for themselves, taking time to prepare food, savoring the culinary changes of the season.
I am such a dreamer. This is what I get for maintaining an internet connection!
The hard facts are – I can’t make all the changes I can imagine to create a sustainable food culture in this world. I can only start making my own life more sustainable.
The health, the resilience, the sustainability of our homestead is directly dependent on the health of its members. All of them. Shareholders, minors, seniors, four-legged, two-legged, no-legged, mammalian, reptile, avian, amphibian, bacterial, and fungal. The closed loop composting, solar panels, mulching, cover cropping and rotational systems are all very important, but ultimately, it is our mental, emotional, and physical well-being that make a full sustaining harmony.
This is why I remember to smile as I cinch down the last lid on the last batch of tomato sauce. Sustainable aspirations make for a long, constantly evolving to-do list, starting, and ending, right here at home, in our own bodies, hearts, and minds. We won’t ever get it all done. But we won’t ever stop trying.