The Scoop

Landship Foods is inspired by the conviction that growing and eating healthy food is one of the most important things we can do for both ourselves and the broader communities of which we are a part. The name comes from the language of pre-industrial Europe. Before the enclosure movement and the associated rise in notions of private property swept England, the suffix “-ship” (as in "relationship," or "friendship") referred to an object or an abstraction with collective duties and mutual rights. Thus, the term “landship” suggests that land was an entity through which humans were joined to each other by a set of rights and responsibilities. I advocate for a revival of this awareness.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Paradox of Small-Scale Agriculture

I am obviously a supporter of efforts to improve modern agriculture, under whatever label: organic, local, traditional,... I think it important to qualify these distinctions at times, but sometimes I get tired of those conversations and just boil it down to scale: I think agriculture must before all else be responsible, and this is easiest when done at a reasonable scale. All this said, I think most responsible agriculture also faces its own paradox of scale.

Small scale agriculture, although loudly opposed to the globalization of food, is in many ways itself a global system. Even in extremely "local" situations, where food is grown right outside of town and you pick it up yourself, there is often a significant "industrial" and "global" component. How can this be so? Most "small-scale" vegetable production in America today is a 21st century variant of mixed husbandry. Mixed husbandry as it was practiced in, say, 18th century New England, was the practice of setting aside different parcels of land for fodder production, vegetable production, grazing, and wood harvesting. As Brian Donahue shows in his masterful book The Great Meadow, when implemented wisely, this could be a very sustainable practice. Essentially, the animal manure provides the fertility for vegetable production. Of course, small-scale and "local" vegetable growers of today must also amend their soils to maintain its fertility, and most of them use organic methods. Just as in 18th century New England, animals are often the best sources of organic fertilizers. Most farmers (and backyard organic gardeners) today, however, order bags of bone meal and blood meal or bottles of fish emulsion. These amendments are exactly what they sound like: the by-products of industrial animal processing. Thus, most local, small-scale vegetable farming is indeed a global system of mixed husbandry.

I know this because the farms I have worked on and visited in Georgia do so, and the same goes for New Mexico. When I started planting here this summer, I thought I was faced with the choice of using synthetic fertilizers, blood meal and fish emulsion, or just not planting. I have never been a purist, so I chose the organic fertilizers. They were affordable, but using them made me uneasy. When one realizes that these by-products are inexpensive for the same reason that the products are (mainly industrial "efficiencies"), they might seem less attractive. No doubt they are a better choice than synthetic fertilizers, but how much better? I am still unsure.

I insist that I am not being impractical or overly-rigid, however. I just think it important to ponder this matter. Really, this question reminds me of the history of recycling in America. As Susan Strasser shows in her book on the subject, Waste and Want, recycling did not begin as a reaction to the waste of modern consumption, but actually provided the raw materials central to the birth of many industries. In the same way, it is not entirely accurate to see local and small-scale agriculture as a form of production outside of, or entirely counter to, the larger industrial and global system. It is just as embedded in the global, industrial era as it is a reaction to these trends. Local agriculture cannot escape its historical moment, and we must come to terms with this.

Does all of this thinking get us anywhere? I think so. I think it highlights the importance of using all of our near-by resources, even if it is "organic" and affordable to do otherwise. It is ridiculously easy to buy a gallon of fish emulsion and spray it on your plants, just as easy as getting a bag of 10-10-10. But just as the price on the bag of 10-10-10 does not represent the true costs of the fertilizer, the affordability of the fish emulsion does not represent its true cost either. For an agricultural system dependent on cheap industrial animal wastes is only slightly more stable than one dependent on cheap fossil fuels. Perhaps the best answer is to work hard to source local manure, and then work even harder to compost it well. If your plants still aren't growing fast enough or big enough for the "local" market demand, raise the price instead of lowering the standards.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Business of Farming

As I mentioned in the last post, I have been selling the excess produce recently in an effort to recoup some of our initial start-up costs. Engaging in the "business" of farming has been a great, but unanticipated, buzz. Initially, I enjoyed farm work because I was working with living things out in the sunshine; I was doubtful that I would tolerate, much less enjoy, the economics of a small farm. I have never been into balancing check books, filing receipts, or haggling for the best deal; the minutia bores me stiff. I came close to enjoying this new kind of economics. So close, in fact, that I gave myself a scare, similar to the feeling I get when close to the edge of a cliff. Granted, it has been fairly easy. The markets virtually found me. But more than that, I think I enjoy it because it is so direct and tangible; it genuinely feels like a mutually agreed upon arrangement that represents the value of the work done (which, if I remember my freshmen economics, is the supposed situation for all exchanges in a free market). I am not part of the "national food system." I am dealing with someone face-to-face, and that someone then sells it to, or exchanges it with a member of the local community. At most, there is one person (who I meet weekly and know on a first-name basis) between the grower and consumer. How could any arrangement made up of more distant or convoluted relationships possibly approximate a reasonable value for the complexities of human knowledge, care, and labor?

So I am learning that perhaps I am not inherently averse to economics and marketing, but am only turned off by it when it seems distant and abstract, when it aims to quantify and evaluate in a way that is seemingly bereft of human values. Here, we would do well to remember Aldo Leopold's admonition that, "We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, or otherwise have faith in." (Leopold, A Sand County Almanac). I believe Leopold would agree that this sentiment applies just as much to human communities as it does to natural ones.

Reflecting on the business of farming brings me to an important point about the culture of American agriculture. One barrier to change in the American food system is the common association between today's efforts and those of the 1960s counterculture. Many Americans who were, or still are, turned off by the counterculture - whether for its antagonistic politics, youthful idealism, or some other cultural divide - remain hesitant to rethink the way we grow and eat food. Many Americans who stand to gain from it promote the idea that today's alternative agriculture is the same as that which started in the '60s. This claim could not be more deceptive. For one, the 1960s and '70s efforts to change the food industry were not uniformly naive and idealistic. Some who took up farming became excellent stewards and growers. There were, however, plenty of abandoned projects and outright failures, and the overwhelming tone was one of antagonistic reaction instead of inclusive progress (for more, see Belasco, Appetite for Change).

The local, organic movement of today hews much more closely to this latter ideal. And, as I have been trying to show, there is nothing inherently countercultural or anti-capitalist about it. At its most successful, it is not reactionary. Its goal is not to be radical, but - in direct contrast - to be commonplace. And, even though it envisions "alternative" economic arrangements (like CSAs, commonly-held land, co-ops, and buying clubs), it is not rooted in an anti-capitalist impulse. Small-scale agriculture is about decentralized entrepreneurship, which is a cornerstone of capitalism's appeal. In many ways, American agribusiness (sometimes called "conventional" agriculture, even though it is relatively new on the scene) is much less of a free enterprise than today's "alternative" agriculture. The barriers to entry are so high that only a handful of Americans can give it a shot. And government subsidies are so influential that our food markets are clearly not free markets.

American agriculture is changing. Its direction is not entirely clear, but it is obvious that there are plenty of new farmers on the scene. They are young, well-educated, and energetic. Often, the most successful ones are creative when it comes to acquiring rights to farmland, and to developing markets. Beyond general know-how, these may be two of the most important skills for the small-scale farmer of tomorrow. The new agriculturalists must be entrepreneurs. The good news is that you don't have to be an expert in the beginning, because land and market opportunities abound. You just have to keep your eyes and mind open.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Warning: Blatant Self-Promotion

Things have changed a lot around here as the season draws to a close. Most all of the staff have left; The corn is ripening; I am selling excess vegetables; I have torn out many of the crops and am starting to sow cover crops. Like most times of change, it is both exciting and slightly unnerving. Although I am moving back to a great place and community in Athens, I am leaving behind a group of peers and a landscape to which I have become enjoyably accustomed. In addition to closing things out here, I have been preparing for the return to Athens. Paying bills and arranging a start date for my "day job" spurred me to think about what else I can do to fill the days (and the bank account). I decided that I really want to get a side project going installing kitchen garden plots. It will be a great way to continue the work I have enjoyed so much out here, and fall is a great time to get a garden started. So, if you or anyone you know might be interested in having a plot designed and installed, just comment here or send me an e-mail ( There will be a non-promotional post soon; stay tuned.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Ronald McDonald is Whistlin' Dixie!

Even out in New Mexico, McDonald’s has been ravenously promoting their line of “Southern-style” foods. If you are like me, your initial reaction to this was one of guttural disgust: “Who the hell do they think they are, claiming their fare is ‘Southern’?” A valid question, indeed.
It seems that the world’s largest peddler of corn and soy-derived “food” isn’t concerned about justifying their claim to Southern culinary traditions. The promotional website for their “southern-style” chicken sandwich doesn’t broach the subject. Instead, it hails their latest offering as “a fantastic relay team of perfectly seasoned, lightly breaded all white meat chicken, topped off with two pickles and served on a steamed bun.” So there is nothing particularly “Southern” about their sandwich. No surprise there. Why do they even bother calling it a southern-style chicken sandwich then? It seems to me that they are appropriating the image of “down-home Southern cooking” – food that is good for the soul – in an effort to assuage any apprehension that passing motorists might harbor about eating fast food. They are trying to give their placeless and faceless, mass-produced product a pedigree. McDonald's wants to, and needs to, “place” their food, and they have chosen the American South. A brilliant (and profitable) strategy, no doubt, but one that offends my sensibilities.
The irony of a placeless commodity being called “Southern” is not very useful, though. As my graduate school advisor always reminded us, irony has limited potential for productive thought. So, the more I thought about this recent addition to our fast food nation’s menu, the more I came to realize that McDonald’s was not so off-base in calling it Southern. The chicken in most of their sandwiches was likely grown in the American South; north Georgia and Arkansas produce the vast majority of industrially-grown chickens. (See Steve Striffler, Chicken and William Boyd, "Making Meat") And Southerners make up a large portion of McDonald’s customer base; the South as a region consumes more fast food per capita than any other. ( Although these are not the reasons Ronald chose to claim his new sandwich as “Southern,” they do suggest that McDonald's is largely representative of modern Southern cuisine. Perhaps, then, we should not resent McDonald’s appropriation of “southern-style” food, but instead work harder to make the Southern landscape one where industrial chicken farms and harried drive-by meals are not the norm.

A brief update (8/24): A cohort of mine from this summer has returned home to New Jersey and sent me this photo from an area White Castle. It seems they have chosen the American South as their newest place theme, too. Sin and salvation smothered with a corn-syrup sweetened barbecue sauce...yum.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Realism and Romanticism in Local Agriculture

The day we have all been waiting for: a guest posting! Venus Bivar, a good friend who I met at an environmental history conference, is working long hours at a community farm near Chicago this summer. She is a proud Canadian, hence the ridiculous spelling; Americans know that there is no “our” in labor. Here it is:

When I tell people that I'm volunteering at a farm this summer in order to supplement my PhD research, they understand completely. Many even compliment what they see as my dedication to the field of study - stretching my research into the realm of practical knowledge. When I tell them, however, that I'd like to give up life in Chicago in order to devote more time to farming, they assume that I am hopelessly naive about what farm labour entails and about what life in the country is "really like." They call me a romantic. Let's forget for a minute that I actually grew up in the middle of nowhere and that after a summer of volunteering as grunt labour, I do have a sense of what is demanded of both the mind and the body. Let’s forget all of that and start at zero.

I took a five year-old to the farm last week and she loved it. She ate peppers and green beans straight off the plant and when told that she could eat anything we were prepping for pick-up, her jaw dropped to the table, and she immediately shoved her face full of kohlrabi. For a kid who ordinarily veers away from the unknown when it comes to the vegetable kingdom, seeing her devour a whole host of items she had never even seen before made me realise that being involved in the labour process necessarily changes our attitude towards food and the work required to produce it. She was totally innocent of the romantic musings of adulthood. She simply ran through the fields, rode a tractor, learned how to identify a ripe cucumber, and took it all in with unadulterated joy. She made me realise that some people simply like to farm. They like the work - in the same way that some love to litigate or perform surgery. Why the former are charged with romanticism and the latter are not says more about how detached we have become from our food supply than it does about those doing the supplying.