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.

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.

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