Oct 25 2011

Nostalgic Farming

Everyone uses twitter differently.  In my effort to subdue the “refresh! refresh! refresh!” part of my brain, I scan twitter two or three times in a day, usually in the morning and mid-afternoon.  I’ll look through all of the missed tweets and click on articles that look interesting.  Each day is different, but on average I pull up about 5-7 articles that I want to read.

One recent article was tweeted with the accompanying blurb “a good reminder for the food movement”.  I clicked on it with no preconceptions and began reading.  The article starts with a vignette about Betty Jo Patton, who worked as a farmer in the 1930s.  Now, Betty Jo’s thirty-two year old granddaughter wants to return to the farm.  Betty Jo doesn’t know why her grandchild would ever want to return to the agrarian life she led, saying:  “Leave it.  There’s nothing romantic about it”.

The article, titled Pastoral Romance, was written by Brent Cunningham. Cunningham, along with his wife Jane Black, spent many months living in Huntington, West Virginia, a town famous for its high percentage of obesity and illness rates.  These unhealthy numbers earned the town the dubious honor of being featured in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.  I’m interested to read their observations and conclusions on their time spent in Huntington “after the revolution”.  In the interim, Cunningham and Black have shared articles and thoughts related to their time in and observations of Huntington, including this article on the food “culture” wars, this article calling for food reformers to “step down from their pedestals”, and finally the Pastoral Romance article published in Laphams Quarterly in June and republished online.

Consider these two quotes, taken from separate articles written by Cunningham:

“For the good-food revolution to have a chance, people have to make finding and preparing fresh food a priority at a time when everything about our modern food system urges us not to bother.  And that won’t happen if people think healthy food is an elitist plot to take away their McRib.”

“The standardization of the American diet, so bemoaned by people like me, is what many--maybe even most--people want at mealtime.  It is reassuring to have what everyone else has.”

The first quote is taken from a Washington Post article from a year ago; the second quote comes directly from Pastoral Romance.   What changed in a year?  The first statement acknowledges the vast differences in our food culture and the need to bridge the gap between people able to afford healthy food, and those who either can’t afford it or are resistant to even consider buying it.  The second quote says that Americans want standardization and fast food, implying that the local food efforts sweeping the country should--and will--be left to perpetuate in elitism.

In 2010, Mr. Cunningham recognized that the cost of “elite” food wasn’t beyond the budget of many, perhaps most Americans. “Our [healthy] meals cost less than the ‘Shrimpzilla’ deal at the fast-food joint Captain D’s--$4.99 for fried shrimp and two sides--or the $2.59 McDonald’s McRib (plus tax),” he wrote.  In the same article, he shared that “local food as economic development is a more persuasive argument in places where good jobs are scarce.”

I have no qualms with what Mr. Cunningham wrote a year ago.  There is a class divide between those who champion smaller agricultural systems and improving our nation’s health, and the supposed recipients of this help.  People with money do have more opportunity to think about food issues, while fighting the much bigger forces of industry, big agriculture, lobbyists, vertical integration, distribution networks, and policies that cater toward large scale farms. Because of the economic disparity between those who write and speak about food, and those who most feel the effects of this writing and thinking, food issues have frequently been labeled as elitist.

In Pastoral Romance, Cunningham addresses the elitism, and subsequent “anti-elitist” resistance, that many people feel is prevalent in the discussion of healthy and sustainable food.  Mr. Cunningham asserts that to shift our food culture away from this resistance, we have to abandon nostalgia.  In his early vignette about Betty Jo, his article had a chance to go one of two ways:

  1. Cunningham could have explored the grandmother’s deep-rooted feelings about growing up poor as a farmer and the thankless work it was compared to her own granddaughter's need to return to the land.  Can the granddaughter's farming experience be different from her grandmother’s?
  2. Cunningham could render the granddaughter’s perspective and vision meaningless and use her enthusiastic pursuit of a new life as a farmer as an analogy for everything that irks him about the entire movement.

Cunningham goes with choice two.  And what irks him?  Is it how difficult it will be for the granddaughter to get a foothold into a market and gain customers?  Is it how unfair it is that the granddaughter doesn’t have a network of other small farmers to whom she can apprentice and learn?  Is it because that granddaughter will have to drive hours to the closest market to sell her products?  Is it that the granddaughter’s input costs are high and small farmers aren’t as supported as they should be by the USDA?

Nope.  What irks him is nostalgia.

“Nostalgia glistens on [the food conversation] like dew on an heirloom tomato”.

Definitionally speaking, if you’re nostalgic about the past, then you don’t see everything that was wrong about the past--you only see the good aspects and the idealized way.  If I’m to understand Cunningham literally, one of the main reasons people crave a return to pre-industrialized food system is because they’re nostalgic.  It’s not because more and more people are unhealthy; it’s not because our food system is becoming less and less diverse and more and more dangerous; it’s not because we have a huge disparity in the amount of food grown and the number of people still starving.  It’s not because only a few corporations control the majority of our food and food distribution.  According to Cunningham, it’s nostalgia.

Nostalgia?  How about excitement and hope?  Farmers, whether they’re young or switching careers, see a way of doing things that can be sustainable, supportive, and fulfilling.    They want to take control of their own future and their region’s.  I’m okay with people feeling excited about self-sufficiency.   Enthusiasm doesn’t automatically equal ignorance of hard work; on the contrary, enthusiasm can inspire people to work harder than they ever thought possible (for more specific examples, pick up a copy of The Dirty Life and Righteous Porkchop).

And if there’s a little nostalgia mixed in with the enthusiasm, so be it.  Nostalgia operates in direct contrast to cynicism.  Nostalgia for a slower, more aware, fairer food world doesn’t mean that:

  1. We’ll just return to a 1940s agricultural model or;
  2. We’ll be blissfully unaware that that that time period (and every time period!) had its own issues or;
  3. We’ll expect everyone to start cooking from scratch and growing their own vegetables.

Pastoral Romance implies that if you want to become a farmer today, it’s because your nostalgia makes farming look like this ad from McDonald’s:  red fences, dew dropped fields of greens, happy children, trendy yet functional overalls. Cunningham makes references to two Oregon farmers recently featured in the New York Times.  He implies that the farmers are farming because it’s trendy and that “those microbrew swilling kids in Corvallis” won’t make a career of farming.  Twenty years from now, he says, most of these young “farmers” (his quotes around the word) will have rejoined the professional ranks.

With Cunningham’s claim that farming is a temporary nostalgic fad, we’ve quickly stumbled into the heart of the problem with our current food system.  As an elite “foodie”, it’s time for Cunningham to recognize farming as a profession and shed his discomfort with being able to afford local, seasonal food.  The people who’ve returned to farming or are seeking farming as a profession are doing it for more than just digging around in the dirt for a few years.

I disagree with this defeatist attitude because of its judgmental passivity:  how are we to know the intrinsic and deep seated motivation behind the Oregon Jones’ choice to farm?    Why does Cunningham expect that they’ll have to take “real” corporate jobs eventually?  If that happens--and I hope it doesn’t--that’s not a failure in their dream, it’s a failure in the system.

Cunningham argues that “we’re so removed from agricultural life that this nostalgic lens is the only one we know”.  And yet, he has no hope for the people who are living the actual agricultural life--claiming that actual farmers are also nostalgic and will know better eventually.  He’s set up a lose-lose situation.  You’re either removed and don’t know better.  Or you’re a farmer or a person interested in self-sufficiency and you don’t know better.

When the country was at a crossroads after World War II, with women demanding rightful equality, an excess of corn and soy, and a a cultural shift towards suburbia and convenience, America did need to adapt.  We turned to a more efficient way of producing food rather than promoting a culture that makes food a priority, less of burden and more of pleasure.  We chose efficiency.  And it’s true:  women no longer have to spend their entire days planning and cooking a meal.  A weekend doesn’t have to revolve around grocery shopping.   Many Americans view food as a chore that we were glad to pass off to someone else.  For some people,  cooking and eating is akin to scrubbing the toilet or cleaning the grout off of a shower tile.  Instead of making food easier AND healthier (and heaven forbid, pleasurable), our country’s food culture became easier, unhealthier, and resigned--except to, yes--the elite.  And now some of the “elite” (and many who wouldn’t classify themselves under this label) are returning to self-sufficiency, pleasure, and passion.  Unfortunately, Cunningham sees this movement as fickle and unaware; not about the “real person”.

Industrialization may have helped us all be able to find a McDonald’s wherever we live or travel.  But with industrialization, we lost our sense of place.  We lost our health.  We lost our uniqueness.  We lost touch.

Cunningham says that “the desire to have the same Big Mac in Syracuse as in San Diego is a big part of why fast-food outlets became America’s default dining option”.  This statement implies that it was OUR choice and that the consolidation of both agriculture and industry, along with government policies, had nothing to do with it. This statement implies that we wanted countless independent restaurants to become a few franchised chains (see Fast Food Nation).  Humans are hardwired to love salt, sugar and fat (see The End of Overeating) but that doesn’t mean our health, environment, or culture has to revolve around quick hits for the brain’s pleasure center.  As David Kessler says, “Every time people eat those foods it strengthens their neuro-circuitry to eat that food again.”

In our current world, with so many unemployed people strapped with debt and seeing no way out, what’s so good about the time we’ve saved from farming?  What is so good about being separated from our food?  How is life in corporate America better than life on a farm?  Is working a menial job just so you can pay your rent more humane and fulfilling than pulling carrots out of the ground?  We now have more time to work office jobs--to be aware of the outside weather but never experience it; more time to suffer through a daily hour (or more) commute; to fill our days with clicking through the latest sports scores and Facebook; to be forced to stay at work until 7pm--not only taking away your chance to grow food but even to cook it!

Cunningham says industrial food “gave people time for things other than keeping the family fed”. It did, but many of us, through choice or through helplessness, fill up our time with work, tv, commuting, and the internet.

A revitalized food system is bound to be different from the food system of the 1930s and 1940s.  Our country is different.  A return to smaller farms, biodynamic and polycultural systems, and pastured animals isn’t done out of ignorance of the global world we live in.  It’s done as a response to it.  Yes, we can’t turn back time--but we also don’t need to accept that industrial production is the only way.  We don’t need to throw up our hands and just ‘deal’ with bacterial outbreaks, polluted rivers, antibiotic resistant superbugs, and growing rates of obesity and diabetes.  We don’t need to accept that our culture is just a culture that eats fast food in the car.

I’m proud and envious of farmers--young and old--who are working difficult days to grow healthy food in a way that is good for our environment, our health and communities.  When I originally read about Tyler and Alicia Jones, the farmers from Oregon, I had the same reaction as when I read it again, after Cunningham linked to it.  I’m inspired.    A revitalized food system doesn’t have to be a return to an old, isolated, difficult way of life.  It can take the good from those times--and there was much good, including smaller farms, a connection to the earth, food grown without chemicals, animal husbandry, and nightly dinners at a table--and adapt that to 2012 world.

How?  Through farming in groups, not in isolation; by farms clustered around communities, providing small grocery stores with affordable food; by creating more ethical slaughterhouses, closer to the farms.  By lessening our dependence on inputs like oil and instead using free inputs, like the sun.  A diversified farm can respond to blights and floods.  And even if much of the farm’s stock is wiped out, a caring community can rise up to support that farm and get their food from another local farm that wasn’t as badly affected (as has recently happened in response to Hurricane Irene in the Northeast).

Cunningham writes that America’s food system has always depended on the exploitation of  someone.  I can’t disagree with that (see Tomatoland). And those enmeshed in a new way of doing things wouldn’t disagree either.   People supportive of a new food system, like those Oregon farmers he refers to, recognize that we “have no history of a food system that doesn’t depend on oppression of some sort.”  Redesigning a food system means paying people a fair wage AND thinking of farming as profession, not a fringe movement.

Instead of calling it nostalgia, let’s call it hope.