Food citizens and the culture of agriculture

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by Brian Devore | March 3, 2009 • There’s an exploding interest in sustainable agriculture, local foods and stewardship farming.

A few random thoughts from the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota’s 18th annual conference, which was held at St. Olaf in Northfield last Saturday:

Loon Commons is a blog of the Land Stewardship Project. Contact Loon Commons at bdevore@landstewardshipproject.org

The Wisdom of Crowds
Registration was closed a few days before the conference when the sign-up list hit 450. There was literally no more room. In 2008, some 200 people showed up to the conference. When I attended my first SFA conference in 1995, roughly 100 showed up, and that was considered a smashing success.

Despite some nasty weather the night before and the morning of the conference last week, most of those 450 registrants made the trip to Northfield. Why the huge turnout? The keynote, Joel Salatin, can account for some of that. He’s a popular speaker and always a big draw. Michael Pollan’s description of Salatin’s Polyface Farm in the book Omnivore’s Dilemma has only boosted the farmer/writer’s national prominence even more. And judging by the youth of the crowd that attended his keynote, Salatin’s “You can farm” message is reaching a whole new demographic.

But a doubling of attendance in a year’s time? Salatin can’t take credit for all of that. Something’s going on here. The same something that’s sent thousands of people to La Crosse this weekend for the MOSES Organic Conference. The same something that’s filling LSP’s Farm Beginnings program to capacity each year. There’s an exploding interest in sustainable agriculture, local foods and stewardship farming.

And that interest comes from both sides of the food equation: here at LSP, we’ve never seen so many people show so much interest in buying a share in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm. As I made the last edits on the 2009 Twin Cities CSA Directory yesterday, the phone was ringing off the hook. I thought at one point I was going to have to start reading farm descriptions over the phone to desperate consumers.

As SFA Executive Director Mary Jo Forbord said in her opening remarks last Saturday: “For years I heard this term ‘consumers’ and I just hated it, because it made them sound like vacuum cleaners. I like food citizens better.”

And those citizens are eager to participate in some serious food democracy.

The Culture of Agriculture
SFA conferences, quite appropriately, have always been known for their practical, down-and-dirty workshops. This year’s conference was no exception. There were sessions on the how-tos of marketing, raising pigs and handling natural disasters, for example.
But as Salatin makes clear repeatedly, we need to “romance” people into farming, and that means sharing with them the cultural aspects of this business. That’s why it was good to see sessions on such topics as the increasing ethnic and gender diversity in Minnesota agriculture. A session featuring farmers who had attended the most recent Terra Madre world food meeting in Italy added an international flavor.

Perhaps the most pleasantly surprising session was one entitled, “Writing the Story: Authors on Farming and Sustainability.” The idea of the session was that writers Dana Jackson (The Farm as Natural Habitat) and Steven Apfelbaum (Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm) would each gave the standard presentation on their respective books—how they came to write them, where the ideas came from, what impacts they’ve had, etc.

But it soon became clear that these two works share a very important theme: how farms can truly be homes for natural habitat. It turned into an impromptu discussion of the connections between stewardship, farming and our own personal passions.

“We live in an ecologically illiterate time,” Apfelbaum said.

Maybe a little less so, thanks to these two books.

Most Touching Moment
During the “Enterprising Diversity” session, Goodhue County farmer Rae Rusnak told the incredibly sad story of how her husband was killed in an accident a month after their son Leo’s first birthday. But she didn’t dwell on it. Instead, she went on to talk about how she and Leo, now 7, have slowly built up L & R Poultry, a 72-acre vegetable and poultry operation.

The farm is now not only steadily supplying an increasingly large part of her family’s livelihood, but toiling on the land has helped Rae work through the bereavement process. “Being a widow puts you in a whole different social class. The farm is really what saved me,” Rusnak conceded. “I really saw the farm as an opportunity to do that.”

When we talk about romancing people into farming, it means acknowledging the heartbreak that can be present as well.

Most On-Target Comment
I first met Joel Salatin a decade ago and was struck immediately at how he could be entertaining, informative, hilarious, maddening and controversial—all in the space of one sentence. He hasn’t changed a bit. His talks and books have inspired a whole generation of people to give farming a whirl and no wonder—his enthusiasm is infectious. I’ve met innumerable Farm Beginnings participants who credit Salatin for giving them the courage to step into the agrarian life.

Since he’s raising hogs, cattle and poultry every day on Polyface Farm in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley, Joel also has a lot of practical experience to share. Not all of it is applicable to the Upper Midwest. I was reminded of that during a mini-session he gave last Saturday on raising hogs on forested hillsides. I’m not sure how that would go down agronomically or environmentally in the hardwoods of southeast Minnesota.

But there’s little doubt Salatin has this uncanny ability to boil down an issue to its barest essentials, hammering a point square on the head. His standing-room-only keynote was titled “Everything I want to Do is Illegal.” How’s that for piquing the interest of an audience?

In it, Salatin described his ongoing battle with government regulators who are trying to put farmers like himself out of business. Let’s face it: the government would prefer that farmers like Salatin not process food right on their own place, no matter how clean and safe the product. They’d rather regulate a few giant slaughtering plants using cookie-cutter rules, than mess with thousands of small, on-farm plants.
Salatin has fought them all the way, and it’s an important fight. He may push things too far at times, but he’s publicizing an issue that must be dealt with eventually if the local foods movement is to survive and grow beyond a tiny niche.

On Saturday, the farmer from Virginia made the best argument yet for why this is a fight worth winning. He said that when a small farm business must adhere to regulations that were written for the Smithfield Porks of the world, it can be inordinately expensive. How many farms can afford the stainless steel and plumbing facilities outlined in a typical HAACP handbook? As a result, if you want to do something, you do it big. That not only means the Big Boys dominate everything—it also means that innovation is stifled. You see, says Salatin, anything truly innovative starts out small. An oak doesn’t start out as a 20-foot tree—it starts out as an acorn. Another way to look at innovation is as an embryo—one that starts small and gradually grows to a sustainable size.

“Our embryos have to be birthed so huge, that they don’t get birthed,” Salatin said.

Best Piece of Irony
If industrial ag has its version of Joel Salatin, it’s probably someone like Dennis Avery. He lacks Joel’s sense of humor, but he is as committed to the corporate model of food production as Salatin is to the family farm ideal. (Okay, Avery does have a tiny funny bone; he titled one of his books, Saving the World with Pesticides and Plastic.)

Guess, what? Dennis Avery lived five miles from Polyface Farm. As Joel joked on Saturday: “The great cosmic balance: Avery and Salatin both live in Swoope, Virginia.”

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