Peak Local

Doing the sexy work of farming

We were sexy once, back in the heady days of 2009. Courted by all, admired, imitated, and flattered. Yes, we were your local small farmers. Tho­se were the days of Food, Inc.; Omnivore’s Dilemma; Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, all released in a three-year span, exploding the world’s interest in all things small-farmy. We were, for a brief moment, in the zeitgeist.

That was the moment when the American consumers got it, realized that their health and their economy could be shaped for the better, and that they could make it happen. That was the moment when a friend in Nashville could sell all the $7-a-dozen eggs his hens could produce. Farmer’s markets were the place to be on Saturday mornings. The great recession provided a steady stream of new customers and people learning to do for themselves. In a fragile world economy, local was the anchor. Local had become hip.

But, Mr. Zeitgeist is both a capricious master and himself a servant to larger forces. If anyone thinks farming is hard work, try being an American consumer. A la Bakunin-turned-beer brand, capitalism was quick to pick up on a good thing: small farms became the darling for ad campaigns, commodified, eye candy for the machine. And social media played their role. The iphone, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram were all loosed on the land between 2004 and 2010, and all began carving a chunk out of our mental landscape. Instead of “eyes to acres,” we lost the battle to “eyes to screens.”

Sure, there were an expanding number of farmer markets, where friends could sit all day on a Saturday to sell $25 worth of peppers. But, the real question, behind the hype of buying local and keeping your dollar in the community, was: how much of that average dollar spent on food was truly spent on locally grown meat and produce? Precious little (at most, maybe 5 percent, according to the little research out there). It is just not culturally relevant, expedient, or, most important, convenient in our global economy for most Americans to think outside the grocery box-store.

Already, the voices of protest rise up against this message that local has lost the battle for the consumer. “Why, just last week, Huffington Post had a series on a local farm,” you say. “My mother and I went to a farmer’s market on vacation.” “Here is an article on restaurants supporting local farms.” “I like my favorite farms on Facebook.” “My ‘Where is a farmer’s market?’ app works great when I visit New York City.”

It is that very clutter of modern life that works against our efforts. We are irrelevant, not because of what we do but because we are a small, tinny voice, lost in the great Babel of the running of a great machine. Yes, we small farms still have our loyal customers who go out of their way to support us, and we thank them for their unwavering support. And yes, the press, social media, and even advertisers have made the education of the customer easy, allowing we small farmers to partially pay our way in this life we have chosen.

But that good press allows us collectively to think inside a bubble. We see the Tweet, the post, the like, the ad, the book, the movie, and we assume that there is a major change underway. Yet, the average grocery bill has an ever-diminishing content of locally produced food. The decline has been going on for a very long time: Even a short 40 years ago, many grocery stores still routinely bought the bulk of their produce from area and regional farms. Farm stands and farmers selling from their cars and trucks along the roadside were commonplace. The resurgence of local today is merely an upward blip on a declining trend line that mirrors another rising line, one of global supply chains.

So, it should not surprise my readers that I am not sanguine about the success of the local food movement. Yes, I support it, work in it, and encourage everyone to do the same. Because by doing so we preserve a functioning framework of what was and could be again. Yet, I have come to believe that a truly successful local food movement will come at the expense of the collapse of the global.

Local is the obverse of global. It’s not just a good soundbite to say that we cannot have both a dominant global economy and a thriving local economy. For one is the master and the other the servant. And this master doesn’t give a shit about the local. It is a destroyer of worlds, and it won’t stop until the fuel, both metaphorically and literally, runs out.

When that happens, if we are all very, very lucky, we will get the local economy we need to survive. And, we will all be sexy again.

It’s Not the Grapes

In the John Sayles play “At the Anarchist Convention,” one of the old anarchists makes it a point to say that he refuses to eat grapes at the annual dinner. In a beautiful bit of back and forth with his comrades, he conflates the grapes on the plate with the famous 1970s grape boycott in support of striking farmworkers.

As a small-farm farmer, I often think of this play and how we, as a society, are prone to confusing the thing (the grape) with the process (the strike). For example, we disparage any grain feeding of livestock, when what we’re really protesting are the practices of the industrial feedlots and the monocultural production of millions of acres of commodity corn. Now this is not to say, Mr. Pollan, that raising livestock exclusively on grain hasn’t got its own set of problems, whether on an industrial or a small farm. But addressing appropriate process, scale, and humane treatment can help us frame a better question that yields a better answer than simply blaming the thing.

Yesterday, we butchered a couple of dozen Cornish X White Rock chickens. The day-old chicks we purchased a mere 8.5 weeks ago had grown out to produce an astounding 4.5-pound carcass. (Think of a Rottweiler and a Chihuahua side by side, and you’ll have an idea of how fast the cross grows compared to the traditional farm variety.) As a super-fast-growing bird, the Cornish-Rock has several issues of concern from the small-producer standpoint — weak limbs and lack of hardiness, to name two. But the bird, in and of itself, is not the crux of the problem.

The real problem is its role in the agri-industrial system. This commercial cross was bred specifically and exclusively for industrial exploitation: The Cornish-Rock cross is an ideal partner for the vertical factory model — a model in which bird, agribusinessman, and illegal immigrant plant worker are tightly bound in the same machine that spits out soylent green parts for consumption by the masses. The model that provides cheap protein, provides cheap veggies, provides cheap clothing, provides a cheapened life….

The grapes ain’t the problem, folks. It’s the process by which the grapes got to your table.

Reading This Weekend

Our little farm is humming along as we enter spring. From the green grass and ample rains, to the large flock of sheep and expanding poultry yard, the farm looks more prosperous this year than last; when the onset of what was an extreme drought began to color the land brown. That the orchards and all of the new plantings survived and are now thriving, we remark on daily as a miracle (thank you, Mr. Dionysus, for keeping the new wine grape plantings alive).  

Between tending the animals and the gardens, I still try to find time to maintain an active reading life, a balance that is important to my mental health. And Mr. Cobbett is always a good tonic to put things in perspective. Reading (again) portions of his Rural Rides, volumes 1 &2. This work is now close to its bicentennial and still full of timely information. Example: beware of visiting clergy, particularly the Methodist variety, they keep a keen ear for hog butchering days and consequently time their visits for the dinner hour.

Also, reading the new work by Jeffrey Roberts, Salted & Cured: savoring the culture, heritage, and flavor of America’s preserved meats. It is equal parts travelogue and history, and an interesting account of cured meats as they exist today in our land. A bit awkwardly written with a confusing narrative but it still has me interested in continuing our own curing experiments.

The 2015 title, Collards: A Southern tradition from seed to table, published by the University of Alabama, and written by Davis and Morgan, is well worth seeking out by any lover of greens. Personally, I’m more of a turnip or mustard greens man, having grown up outside of the core collard-belt. But this book is a well-written and enthusiastic account of the cultural importance of greens, a food group I always will celebrate.

What are you reading?

A Farm Breviary: Compline

The final office, and I’m seated in the doorway of the hoop-house. Behind me the compline bell rings with each shake of the ram’s head. The flock is bedded in the barn for the night, but still restless. Through the far door of the greenhouse, in the dimming light, the pigs gather as hungry penitents, hoping to be favored by an overgrown turnip or some other toothsome gift. Mere feet away, a rabbit munches a cabbage leaf, unconcerned by my presence.

The hour of compline begins with the restless, the hungry, and the insolent, which seems to be a certain commentary on something, if I could but grasp it. Meanwhile, in the blue-black sky above, a late jet catches up to the sun’s light at 40,000 feet and reflects the granted glory of a temporary membership among the celestial.

That too seems to me a lesson: mistaking reflected light as a sign of glory or evidence of mastery. Our literature as a species, outside of this current epoch of assumed progressive godhead, is replete with warnings of a fall and our inevitable irrelevance. We forget the lesson of the Roman triumph, where the servant stood at the conquering general’s ear and whispered the message of mortality, or the caution of the young Shelley, that the Ozymandian stature of our achievements was petty compared to the cosmos, or even to a tree, a bee, or a rock.

Perhaps we seek too high for that reflected illumination. Once, I had resolved to be as the moon, steadfast in her journey. Now I’m thinking I should be a cabbage. It seems not to care whether rabbit or human eats its leaves; it thrives in that short arc before becoming fodder for whatever destiny.

I laugh out loud at my absurd ruminations, startling the ram out of his own observance. He nervously rings the bell on his collar to close off the hour. Still no closer to an understanding, with this final office now observed, I pick up my chair and turn to leave. The rabbit casts a wary eye, then resumes its predations on my garden.

A final gaze at the night sky before I enter the house finds the familiar winking semaphore still sending its eternal dispatch — which I suspect, if I could just hear, would be whispering in my ear: remember, you are only a man, nothing more.

 

A Farm Breviary: Vespers

Evensong, I pull up my chair into the bee-loud glade and sit down in the shade of a young oak. It is a mere child of 15 years, with near two centuries of growth ahead. Yet, already sturdy and full, it provides a cooling shelter for myself and our small bee yard.

Storms build in the west, as the sun, already hidden, prepares for departure, his work done. This is the office for the ending of the day, sung as a work chantey by humming bees finishing up their own day’s labor. Laden like the stevedores of old, they return to their community one last time, legs loaded with pollen. Soon the daybridge will be pulled up in readiness for the night and her watchmen.

In the poultry yard nearby, the chickens join in chorus with the bees and begin the return to roost. They flutter up into the coop, where their elder aunts have already gone to bed. The roosters, giving a last challenge to the fading light, crow once more, then declare victory and retire from battle. In the lower fields the sheep still graze. Soon though, the dominant ewe will signal an end to the day. She will lead the flock in a doxology of contented bleats back to the barn, all readiness for rest and security.

Vespers on the farm is a coming home.

Next to me is a small hive worked earlier in the day, a captured swarm from a friend and neighbor’s apple orchard. Eleven days it has labored in building a new home with the old queen. We were prepared to find it weak, to merge it with a stronger hive. Yet, the queen still lived, busy laying eggs, building brood, surrounded by her attendants. Not yet a strong hive, but with luck, hard work, and the inevitable act of regicide — like the corn kings of folklore — the colony will end the summer and fall strong enough to survive the next winter.

I sit in idleness and rest as these last bees return from the field. I watch as they and their sisters gather, bearding the front boards in tight-knit community. With news exchanged, plans made for the following day, they begin to go indoors.

Rising, I put my ear to one of the hives and listen to the hum of their evening song. It’s a melody picked up throughout the farm. I pause and listen for the refrain, and then, as the poet says, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

A Farm Breviary: Nones

The ninth-hour office is the quiet hour. This is a time for either a short nap or a walk before returning to the task at hand. For this hour, on this day, the woods are my destination. I cross our pastures to travel a winding footpath through the woods. Often, my passage signals the start or the completion of a day of work. Today, I’ll stop, pause and reflect.

This small wood of twenty acres is crossed by a steep ravine. Three offshoots, broad church aisles of ridge land, converge on a private sanctuary in the heart of the forest, a natural presbytery for the unchurched. The time of day, the wind, the season, all influence where I stop and sit. I light a cigar and lean back against a tree and drift.

The light slants down, filtered, dropping in through high lancet windows of nature’s cathedral. It falls onto and illuminates my pew, where the smoke lifts up through the leaves in an offering to the peace found in quiet observance.

The dogs, after a bit of chasing around, like kids at a Sunday service, pick up on the mood and settle near me. This is not a formal ceremony where members of the elite sit in designated and privileged seats. It is a come as you are, find a convenient rock, fallen tree or flat ledge of land, where the ritual begins when you are ready.

An hour of simply sitting brings to me a satisfying mental quiet in which thoughts eddy and drift with the smoke along unexpected paths — a reverie softly interrupted by the distinctive devotional of a woodpecker, heard in its search for a communion grub, or the alarmed bucksnort, a cough by the old man of the woods as he catches a whiff of the dogs, his whitetailed flag flown, signaling if not surrender, then at least a quiet retreat up the central nave and out the back door.

When my cigar is near its end, I stub it out on a nearby rock. The dogs are off chasing squirrels and the scattering scent of the vanished buck. A cloud obscures the light from the upper windows, and I, the remaining congregant, arise and start the journey home along a familiar and welcome path.

Those of you still reading this breviary will note something familiar; that I have largely borrowed this post from an earlier one I wrote a few years back. It seemed (in my opinion) a good fit for the series.

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Reading this weekend: I scored a complete 8 volume set of the Farmer’s Cyclopedia, published 1912. Beautiful writing, “choose a ram that has a fiery eye”, by the folks at the US Department of Agriculture. And it is full of great information from before the days of big-ag.

A Farm Breviary: Sext

It’s the midday office and I’ve brought my chair to the bottom of a grass-covered bowl, my own private Greek amphitheater. The greening spring grass grows thick where the play-goers sit; the stage for the actors and chorus is set hard against a fenceline, its backstage leading out to a former wood.

Here, our play opens. The oracle enters, predicting that where the fenceline stitches its feeble wire suture on the land, in a hubristic claim of ownership of what can’t be owned, the future already knows what we have forgotten.

The backdrop to the play is the clear-cut forest where I used to harvest ramps each spring and chanterelles late summer, deep in its quiet center. Now it lies as an exposed landscape of splintered trees and muddy roads, marking a deafness of the present custodians and neighbors to the past and the future.

Stage left is land that until recently belonged to an aging farmer who is in the long process of retiring, step by slow-moving step. He stopped by to deliver some much needed hay the other day, and I had a chance to chat with him about his life. Had he ever worked with horses? Yes, he said, he used to love to drive a team out into the field to pick up shocks of corn, the rhythmic stooping and bending work he liked as a youth. How old, I asked, when you were allowed to drive that team by yourself? Oh, very young, he responded. Eight years old.

Can I name a child of acquaintance who has the intelligence and responsibility to handle a team of horses and spend the afternoon doing physical labor? The sadness and absurdity of thinking we have improved on the past by infantilizing our children, swaddled even into youth and young adulthood, their girth and limbs malformed, their intelligence maladapted to the work of being men and women.

With these unsettled thoughts, the midday hour closes and I pick up my chair and walk back down the lane to the heart of the farm. The sounds of the chorus fade.

Rounding the last bend, I ignore the muttering of the audience and pretend the oracle’s prophecy was wrong. Blinded, I reenter this modern life.

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Reading this weekend: Cottage Economy, by William Cobbett