Feed Thy Farmer
This Memorial Day weekend has prompted me to reflect. The passion that has filled all my waking hours these fifteen years, the “other woman” in my life, has been the local food movement. Yes, the local food movement is like the proverbial “high-maintenance woman”, never enough time, money, volunteers, activists, donations to make her happy.
I came to the local food movement to help my family’s small farm survive, and found instead, fifteen years later, that I was helping the local food movement survive--at great cost to my family, myself and our farm. I started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) venture with ten shareholders in Northern Wisconsin in 1995. Something nagged at me then; but until now, I couldn’t find the words to clarify that discontent.
My job - feeding people - was in essence, an extractive process, one that would never be sustainable. What’s an extractive process? Consider logging, the main source of employment in Northern Wisconsin. If there was ever an extractive process, logging is it. Trees removed, land scraped, and a miniscule amount of benefit is returned to the land--in the form of small seedlings, if at all. Strip mining also comes to mind.
What is extracted is huge, what is returned is puny, or nothing. We might be surprised to view small family farms in the same light. We compost and return fertility to the land, don’t we? We’re sustainable then, right? Wrong. The local food movement, in net, is like a logging extraction on small farm FAMILIES. Extraction is how our country’s wealth was built and we’re still building economic national wealth on the backs of our small farm FAMILIES.
I now live in Western, Ohio, one of the most productive farming counties in the world. And yet in this county, 92% of the farming couples BOTH work full-time off-farm jobs while farming an amazing 3,000 acres every year. Without these off-farm jobs, the families would not have access to sustaining income nor the benefits of health insurance. These off-farm jobs act as a significant subsidy small farm families give to the local food movement. In the traditional farm families I’ve seen, it usually has fallen to the farm wife to work a full-time job, in addition to her other varied farm chores. But, more and more, I’ve seen both couples needing to work off-farm to make ends meet. Why is that?
Extraction…taking more than what is returned. It’s clear to all of us that fair-trade coffee ensures that coffee workers in South America are fairly compensated for their labors; what about small farm families here in the U.S.? Here are signs of extraction:
Unevenness – Do your farmers drive the latest SUV? Send their children to private school? Take two-week vacations in Cancun? Enough said.
Unreliability – Some consumers practice ‘farmer-de-jour’ based on pricing, convenience or cool factor, while farm families have the same expenses month-after-month and can’t choose which bills to pay.
Unfairness – Farmers hear complaints about the price of farm fresh products, while working extra jobs to keep the prices of those products “competitive”.
Nearly every produce farmer, CSA or organic dairy producer I know needs to have at least one person employed off-farm in a full-time job.
The same goes for local food organizations.
Nearly every organization that deals with local food/social issues doesn’t charge fair value for its services, and becomes dependent on “outside income” through volunteers offering free valuable labor or major donors who make money from activities on which higher values (and returns) are placed than the very things that keeps us alive, foods of the earth.
We need foods, not just any foods, but healthy nutrient-dense foods to live.
I say, small farm families need ‘wealthy return-dense’ food systems to stay solvent. Small farms and small farm organizations need for their pricing to reflect the actual costs of services/products provided.
I have always held the belief that if you believed in something and held it to be true then sacrifice would be required. That belief caused me to put everything on the line, my family, my wealth, my earnings, my life energy. Sadly, I find I have little to nothing left to offer in helping to change local food policy. It seems my time has come to move on. Extraction complete.
A recent life event, the dissolution of my marriage taught me a lot. It turns out that my wife had subsidized my volunteerism in the local food movement and allowed me to charge “competitive” pricing for the farm’s food. Without her steady, reliable, substantial income, volunteering and farming have now become an expensive hobby. She and other farm spouses like her are the unsung heroes of the local food movement. I was working a full-time job at the same time. I’ll count myself as an unsung hero, too.
Extraction without insertion is not sustainable.
Personally, I feel it is time for me to replenish myself, and heal the damages of this fifteen-year leaching process. I intend to use this low time to springboard into a new perspective of how we are truly going to change this extractive process we call Consumerism, The American Way, Manifest Density or “I got mine”.
As we watch our once favorite organic/local food companies fall or join the commonly accepted path to profitability (bigger is better) and the increasing pressure from the food industry under the guise of food safety, we need to ask ourselves these questions:
- How long do we think we can take without giving back?
- Who says that cheapest is best?
- Do we really know what food costs?
- Are we brave enough to ask?
- Do we care enough to know?
Are our grandchildren going to curse our luxuries, when they cannot even pursue the necessities?
Sadly, I am now surrounded by small farm families who cannot even pursue the necessities. Every cheaper, more convenient purchase a consumer makes that is not local, puts these necessities farther and farther from their grasp.
The farmers who feed us and those who work beside them are the ones who have gone without.
Feed thy farmer.
-- Tim Wightman
Tim Wightman is President, Farm-to-Consumer Foundation and a founding board member of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund and has been in agriculture all of his life. He has pioneered CSAs, organic cooperatives, farmers' markets, the Cow-share program, Farm-share program, Milk Direct raw milk testing program while living in Northern Wisconsin. Tim consults worldwide with dairy farmers on raw milk safety and direct marketing. He also is a consultant for Midwestern Bio-Ag on enhancing the soil system to increase soil fertility issues and herd health management and nutrient density in food and feed. He is the author of the Raw Milk Production Handbook, creator of Chore Time DVD and instructor in Cow-Share College & Goat Share University.