New Life At the Roots

Farmers and consumers team up to reimagine American agriculture - but this time they're thinking small and personal

“Industrial agriculture is dead,” my friend Dan Nagengast tells me. “But it's like a chicken with its head cut off, running around the barnyard. It doesn't know it's dead yet.”

Dan is a farmer, director of the Kansas Rural Center, and a shrewd observer of the farming scene. So I'm inclined to believe him.

But it's tough news to swallow. Big agriculture has been feeding us for decades. Many of us grew up believing that with a few more miracle chemicals, American-style agriculture would make deserts bloom all over the world. It's hard to part with that notion.

But, as Dan points out, it's high time we do. Big agriculture was unsustainable from the outset, and the symptoms of its deterioration have become all too familiar: polluted, depleted ground water; lifeless, eroded soils; pesticide-resistant superbugs; endangered small farms and rural ghost towns. If big agriculture isn't dead yet, its days are numbered.

But what now? How will we feed our 6-billion-member human family without big agriculture?

The answer is unsettling: we don't exactly know yet. Genetic engineering? Irradiated food? Some of the solutions are as frightening as the problem.

But evidence is beginning to point toward a safer, simpler path: getting small farmers back on the land and more people directly involved in producing their food. Small and personal, it turns out, is not only more beautiful than big, it's more efficient, equally productive, more adaptable, more secure, and it contributes much more to our communities, our economies, our health, and our lives.

The only trouble with small, in a country focused on big, is that it's often invisible. We see only the long shadow of big agriculture and miss the generativity, inventiveness, adaptability of the agricultural revolution going on at the local level, in farms, town halls, living rooms, farmers' markets, city gardens.

Keeping “Farmer John” on the farm
John Petersen's story is a fable for our times. He was born on the Illinois farm his parents took over during the Dust Bowl. At age nine, he was milking and caring for the dairy herd twice a day. But by the mid-60s, the scene was changing. Many of the farms that had dotted the countryside around the Peterse place were either expanding or being sold off. Given limited options, the Petersens chose to expand.

But like many small farmers, they hit a financial wall during the ‘80s, when land values dropped and loans dried up. Like 315,000 other farmers that decade, John Petersen lost the farm – all but a few acres surrounding the house.

In the years that followed, he wrote short stories and plays, and grieved the loss of his farm. He also had plenty of time to look critically at conventional farming methods, and he didn't like what he saw. “The biggest drug party in the world is taking place on today's conventional farms,” he says. “I hate drug parties, because people (and vegetables) aren't themselves.”

But he couldn't stay away from farming. In 1990 Petersen founded Angelic Organics, a biointensive, community-supported farm. The members help cover the farm's expenses and manage the cash flow by purchasing shares of the harvest in advance. Then Petersen supplies packages of fresh vegetables each week of the growing season.

Today the farm is a thriving, bustling place, with interns and volunteers to coordinate, a newsletter to publish, and email to answer – not to mention farming and writing the “Farmer John” essays Petersen has become famous for.

There's more.

Last year 20 members of Angelic Organics invested $180,000 to buy 38 acres of land adjacent to the farm. They're leasing it back to Angelic Organics for 15 years and will receive a little bit of interest (about 2 percent). When the lease is up, Petersen hopes that Angelic Organics will be in a position to buy the land. In the meantime, the extra acreage will allow him to rest some of the land, to raise salaries, to roof buildings, to cut the debt.

Petersen was encouraged by this unusual offer of help from off the farm. “I liked being reminded that other people besides myself will put their money into investments where the return is puny, just because it seems like the right thing to do. It's easy for me to think that the world is not such a supportive place, and here was evidence to the contrary.”

The moral of the story: Farming is a three-way partnership. Now Petersen no longer stands alone against the uncertainties of market, economy, technology, bank policy, Illinois weather. The members of Angelic Organics are eating better, investing their time and money closer to home, and reconnecting to the land. And the land, the silent partner in every human venture, is off its chemical life support and in vibrant health.

This is the new American agriculture.

An alliance is born
The idea that consumers and farmers could operate as partners, sharing risks and benefits, was born in Japan, the brainchild of a Tokyo woman who describes herself simply as a housewife. In 1965 she organized 200 housewives to buy milk in order to reduce the price. That action gave rise to others and eventually to the new, personal relationship between farmer and consumer known as teikei, food with the farmer's face on it.

These new partners soon realized that their alliance had the power to humanize the market and drastically change the food system. It gave rise to the Seikatsu Club, a consumer alliance that today serves over 230,000 households and exercises its economic clout on the side of sustainability by refusing to handle products that are detrimental to the health of its members or the environment. And if members don't see the product they want on the market, they contract with a farmer to produce it. The Club's political clout is impressive. It has managed to get more than 100 members elected to various municipal offices.

Next the farmer-consumer partnership migrated to Europe, where it was transformed into new configurations. But it took nearly 20 years for the idea to reach the United States.

Partnering up, American-style
In 1983, when Robyn Van En bought the Indian Line Farm in South Egremont, Massachusetts, she was looking for a way to create an economically viable organic farm. She consulted neighbors and friends and learned of a new arrangement between farmer and consumer operating in Switzerland. Van En decided to experiment with the idea. That spring she sold shares in her apple harvest to cover her expenses. In the fall she delivered bushels of apples to shareholders.

Her experiment, it turned out, was both successful and historic. Not only had she brought a new kind of farming to American soil, she had coined the name that would stick: community supported agriculture (CSA). Indian Line Farm became the first CSA farm in North America, where today there are more than 1,000.

As it approaches its 17th birthday, Indian Line Farm is going strong. But that hasn't always been the case.

When Van En died suddenly in 1997, her son couldn't afford to keep the farm. It was nearly sold, its probable fate a housing development. But again the farm pioneered new conceptual territory. Together the E.F. Schuhmacher Society, a community land trust, the local branch of The Nature Conservancy, and the young farmers who had worked the land for two seasons, drafted a unique arrangement. The farmers own the buildings and lease the land. The land is held in trust as farmland, conservation restrictions protect the wetland, and the fruits and vegetables keep coming.

In its most basic form, as Van En conceived it, CSA is an effective direct marketing mechanism. Farmers receive a guaranteed income up front and are freed from the chore of marketing during the growing season, when their talents are most needed in the fields. They earn a better price for their produce by selling direct to the consumer. And they get occasional help with the labor from members.

What about consumers – what do they get out of the deal? They get well fed, and they get heard.

Labels tell the sustainability story
“Now more than ever,” my friend Dan observes, “those who wield the fork can have control over what is on the plate.” He's right. Consumers who buy directly from farmers through CSAs or other direct-marketing arrangements do control how their food is produced.

But for the vast majority of consumers – those who shop through the supermarket middleman – the problem is more complicated. In order to control what's on their plates, they must first figure out where their food comes from and how it was produced. That task is much more difficult than it sounds.

Theoretically, the market is driven by consumer demand. We “vote” with our money, so the food we find on the grocery store shelves is, theoretically, exactly what we want. No wonder we are surprised and confused to find that in reality, the market is often deaf to consumers' desires. Dan points out the irony: “In a country that prides itself on consumer sovereignty, commercial agriculture has had a remarkable run focusing on the wishes and needs of input suppliers and agribusiness marketers while ignoring and even suppressing the desires of those who eat.”

How can consumers vote with their money when so little information is available on how the food was produced? Or when labeling laws actually prevent producers from including information that consumers want on product labels?

Solving that problem is one of the two main goals of The Food Alliance(TFA), a Portland, Oregon, nonprofit organization run by Deborah Kane. Its other goal is putting a face on faceless farmers.

To accomplish these goals, The Food Alliance established and promotes a label, TFA Approved. Farmers earn the right to put the TFA label on their produce by undergoing a certification inspection and committing to sustainable farming methods, fair labor practices, and ongoing improvement in both areas.

TFA-sponsored studies confirm what other eco-labeling projects across the US have observed: most consumers – 73 percent – will look for products that say they are environmentally friendly, and most farmers long to be recognized for their good practices.

Does our sustainable eating future lie in picking the proliferating eco-labels off our tomatoes? Kane laughs. “I say the more small, local labels the better!” But to address the proliferation problem, and the decrease in significance that accompanies it, TFA is partnering with local groups to share expenses and expertise.

The wave of the future in consumer information may be more high-tech than labels, though. The TFA is investigating a computer system that Kane saw on a visit to Denmark. Consumers scan a package of meat or produce in the store and see an on-screen portrait of the farm where it was produced, the farmer who grew it, and a description of the farming methods.

From CSA to ASC
If we thought of community supported agriculture as a nifty direct-marketing tool for small farms, we'd be correct. But we'd be missing a bigger picture: it's also a tool of democratic transformation. Community supported agriculture remakes towns into what Van En calls Agriculture-Supported Communities. These are places where consumers know what it means to care for soil, to plant and grow a fat, red tomato.

Places where everyone is invited to sit down at the dinner table, not just folks with plenty of money. Communities such as these, where people are firmly connected to each other and to the land, are fertile ground for growing new, locally designed solutions to the problems all communities face: crime, conflict, hunger, alienation, environmental degradation.


Perhaps. But evidence abounds of a transformation already in progress.

Nine out of ten US consumers are concerned about food safety. A third are worried enough to buy organic (to the tune of $6 billion per year), and another 54 percent would if they could afford it. As a result, there are now 6,600 certified organic farms in the US and 2,000 farmers' markets, each with its own local flavor and specialties. A vigorous urban gardening movement has taken root, getting droves of city people – old people, school kids, troubled kids, inmates, parents – outside, dirt under their nails, growing good food, swapping tips and recipes, making community. These are people who care, not only about their food and those who produce it, but about whether their neighbors have enough to eat. Countless groups, from CSAs themselves to nonprofit organizations such as New York City's Just Food, are working to make fresh, wholesome food accessible to everyone, through loans, food stamp programs, and work scholarships. From Virginia toWashington state, communities have reintroduced the Old-Testament tradition of gleaning, where people who need food are invited onto farms to gather the crop that remains in the field after harvest – up to 25 percent of the harvest – which would otherwise go to waste. There's lots more evidence where this came from, plenty of new life at the roots.

Even so, I'm thinking Dan may not have gotten that chicken thing quite right after all. It seems to me that agribusiness is more like a dinosaur at the end of the Jurassic period. Big, cocky, self-assured, oblivious to the smaller, more resilient life forms in the grass below – and to the asteroid hurtling toward it.

Carol Estes is the associate editor of YES!
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