Thursday, April 28, 2011

Going Fungal for Functionality

It generally seems that incorporating multifunctionality into agricultural and rural policies provides agriculturalists with the opportunity to legitimize their off-farm income-generating activities in the eyes of those who create policy.  Ironically, although not to diminish the importance of “multifunctionality” as a policy movement, multifunctionality has existed in agriculture nearly as far back as we can trace agriculture in history.  It wasn’t until the industrialization of agriculture a few decades past that policy was shaped to support those farmers involved in high-yield production schemes, subsequently ignoring those agriculturists who still relied on economic support livelihoods  from outside the farm.  But the fact remains that agriculturists have been involved in multifunctional schemes long before multifunctionality became a recognized term in the political sphere.  Furthermore, most discussions of multifunctionality involve the concept as is applies to agriculture in western countries—very few attempts have been made to apply multifunctionality to the global South.  I find this particularly interesting, as I would argue multifunctionality perhaps is more prevalent among agriculturists in the developing world than it is among those in the developed. 

I came across this article yesterday on the National Geographic website and at once recognized it as a unique example of multifunctionality.  
At first I was reminded of the truffles market so eloquently described by de La Pradelle in Market Day in Provence.  The fungi harvested on the Tibetan Plateau appear to be in high demand much like the truffles sold by the harvesters in southern France.  I was amazed by the change in the lifestyles of the rural harvesters—the ability to purchase motorbikes, pay for their children’s education, buy additional real estate in the city, etc.  With this rise in living standards comes an element of danger, as explained through the shooting deaths that occurred over the rights to prime harvesting grounds.  It appears as if this multifunctional element in rural agriculturalists lives has been introducing components of human life generally associated with urban lifestyles, especially where the element of danger is concerned.  (And I suppose this could be contradicted by citing stories such as the “gunfight at the OK Corral,” but turf wars typically seem to occur between gangs in urban areas not rural.)  Interestingly, the article claims that future livelihood support is not endangered should the fungi harvest ebb or market prices fall over the next few years.  Apparently it is assumed that the decline will be gradual enough that rural harvesters will have time to adapt new livelihood strategies, but I feel that perhaps this is a little naïve.  The article suggests that the increase in household income rose dramatically in recent years due to the sudden increase in demand for the fungi in the market.  While this demand has arguably led to an overall positive change in rural livelihoods, the change was nevertheless abrupt and sudden.  I cannot help but feel that a reversal of this change would be difficult for rural agriculturalists to adjust to, no matter if it was rapid or gradual.  The difference between this fungi harvest as a multifunctional activity and other multifunctional activities is that it has arguably become the primary source of income for most of the harvesters.  In this case, it appears as if a multifunctional activity might actually dominate over traditional agricultural activity, and this leads me to wonder to what extent does multifunctional framework allow for the redefinition of primary livelihoods?  And beyond multifunctionality…how does and will this new economic activity continue to alter rural livelihoods in the Tibetan Plateau, and will it ultimately prove beneficial or detrimental to the rural economy and culture?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Which Way to the Farm?

Today’s trip to the Lansing City Market was not exactly what I expected it to be.  I guess assumed the market was more of a farmers’ market atmosphere.  And while others assured me that the atmosphere certainly was different on a Saturday during the summer, I was still somewhat surprised by the extent of the specialty goods that were sold there.  It makes sense when I step back and think about it: there are many other farmers’ markets in the area and Lansing City Market needs some way of distinguishing itself from these competitors, especially if it is to stay open year-round.  If the market only offered the typical farmers’ markets produce with a few knick-knacks one might find at any farmers’ market, the gimmick could probably not be sustained day after day, week after week.  The goal of the Lansing City Market then is to become more than just a once-a-week phenomenon, and to accomplish this goal the market is required to take on a different character than the traditional farmers’ market.   

The market manager spoke a bit of the different demographics that frequented the market.  There were people of the lower income bracket who used the market as a place to shop for their produce as compared to those of higher income brackets who used the market as an outlet to obtain unique, high-value goods such as gourmet imported cheeses and milk in glass bottles.      
With regard to the former population, the market serves a function much like a farmers’ market would.  I refrain from saying “much like a grocery store would” as the Lansing City Market in no way provided all of the products one would be likely to purchase while at the supermarket.  With regard to the latter population, the market serves a function much like a specialty boutique, but one surrounded by other specialty boutiques to create a specialty enclave.  It is this latter aspect that interests me most.  Although the LCM claims to be a proud charter member of the Michigan Farm Market Association, it felt like to me that in the transition to a year-round market schedule, the market has shaped itself beyond that of a traditional farmers’ market.  Perhaps during the summer months, yes, it behaves as such, but the farmers’ market season takes up less than half the year.  Can the LCM still be considered a “farm market” if only a small ratio of the vendors is made up of actual farm-based producers? 

I suppose this is a question many markets struggle with in defining who may or may not sell at the market, and there is not a right or wrong classification of acceptable vendors.  It depends on the atmosphere desired by the community (or desired to be cultivated by the market promoters) and of the products desired to be available.  I would argue, however, that the Lansing City Market was far too absorbed with “image” and its role as an entertainment center to be a vehicle for blurring the rural-urban divide we so fond of creating.  I recognize that this is not a required role for any market, but I’d argue that without some aspect of rurality in an urban market, the market fails as an example of civic agriculture.  This “rurality” does not necessarily have to be products produced in a rural setting, but could be represented by products grown on an urban farm of garden plot.  The idea is simply that the association of rurality and agriculture be redefined in urban constructs.  Perhaps this is an association made out of ignorance, but I will not go so far as to associate rurality and community.   Although I like DeLind’s argument that working together in a physical way, such as in a garden, develops a strong bond within a community and thus a stronger version of civic agriculture, to go a step further and link this bond with agriculture and therefore rurality is just deduction too many for me to support.  Even arguing the simplest here—the connection of rurality and agriculture—makes me a tad uncomfortable, but I cannot shake the deep-seated belief that the two are inextricably connected in some way.  Perhaps this will change as urban agriculture takes a life of its own, but as of today I still see an element of the rural being incorporated in the urban landscape when it comes to urban agriculture.  And for the Lansing City Market to claim that it is a farm market with no clear link to this rurality…well…it makes me skeptical.  I suppose I’ll have to check out the LCM during the summer months to see if perhaps my perception will change.          

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A barn is a barn, of course...

General definitions of the word “barn” identify it as a large building typically associated with farm-related storage or animal housing found on farm property or what used to be farm property.  I hear “barn” and I think of what I might find inside: large, aged beams prized for construction; old stone foundations and wooden planks for walls; large sliding doors to the hayloft; hay; horses or cows or some sort of farmstead animal; cats; mice; bats and their droppings; cobwebs (perhaps a spider, too); grain feed; tractors; dust…etc.  I grew up on a small farmette in Pennsylvania where my brother and sister and I spent hours shaping hay forts in the barn loft.  We came home each day from school and were instructed to immediately change into our “barn” clothes—those shirts and pants and shoes reserved for romping around the grounds.  Our “good” clothes didn’t stand a chance in the barn: they’d be sullied and ruined in the blink of an eye.  The barn was no place for those who didn’t want to get dirty.

Big old barns dating back a hundred years or so were peppered across the landscape of my childhood: red wooden barns with crumbling paint; brick barns with air vents in the shape of decorative stars; white barns with long sloping roofs and an outcrop of matching silos.  There were small barns, too, and the newer pole building barns made of sheet metal and limited ingenuity, but the latter never captured the imagination and the heart as the others did.  No one I knew ever stopped to gaze at the modern metal sheds the way they did in awe of the historical barns.  No group of people ever proposed to establish a foundation to protect these pole buildings the way people fought to preserve the old barns, and certainly no tours were ever conducted to survey the modern constructions like the tours  the old barns sponsored by historical societies as a way of showcasing Pennsylvania rurality.    

Barns that were no longer in use became preserved historical sites or were converted into some cultural attraction point—a farm market or orchard stand, a family restaurant specializing in pancakes, an artisan’s pottery shop, or an antique warehouse.  These barns were of a different order than barns that still functioned as farm buildings, but they seemed to retain the sense of majesty and timelessness nevertheless.  Perhaps this is an example of me romanticizing my childhood, but I believe it lies more in the fact that these barns had once existed as true barns, or barns that fit the definition I spoke of earlier.  This past Tuesday, standing in the shimmering, freshly-hewn barn at Shawhaven built for use as a pavilion for events on the agri-tourism site,  I could not shake the feeling that the building didn’t really qualify as a barn.  Aside from a smattering of antique scythes and other various pieces of farming tools, there was no evidence of any farming activity taking place within the walls.  The “barn” had specifically been built as a place for people to congregate during public events hosted by the farm—NOT as a storage or animal housing facility. 

Arguably, both the Shawhaven barn and the barn on Rte. 194 to Hanover that houses the Buttercup Farm Market serve the same purpose of linking a modern economic practice to the rural livelihood of agriculture.  Both have obviously been constructed for use besides that of storing hay: the Shawhaven barn has custom-made restrooms while the Buttercup barn has obviously been remodeled inside to accommodate a bakery case and office for the market manager.  Both barns are also well-kept and clean to entice clientele.  So why, then, does the Shawhaven barn feel so alien to me while the Buttercup barn does not?  The Shawhaven feels too constructed, too shaped…too much like a performance.  It is part of the gimmick of “rural farm life” for sale at Shawhaven—a carefully constructed museum for consumption by those otherwise unfamiliar with real rural farm life.  On the other hand, I still remember the days when the Buttercup barn housed an old grey draft horse, two goats, and a few chickens before the owners relocated the animals to develop the barn into a roadside stand for their fresh produce and baked goods.  Several years later, the entire barn was refurbished into the market it is today.  The people who frequent the market are the area locals—perhaps not farmers themselves but certainly rural homesteaders in their own right.  I’m not sure how this justifies the Buttercup barn as a real barn, but there seems to be something in the history of the place that forms an identity beyond that of pure performance and museum.  I appear to be affected by the sense of legitimacy in the building’s construction and the history attached to its previous functions, and this leads me to wonder if this might not ring true other elements of agri-tourism.  We laud the magic of “centennial family farms and orchards” based on their historical significance and maple-syrup making enterprises as remnants of a “traditional way of life.”  Does agri-tourism lose its appeal when the “agri” part is not situated in a romanticized story of what once was?        

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

“Birds of a Feather…”

Several weeks ago, we examined the role of culture in shaping behavior and value systems, specifically a theory that maintains that culture is capable of influencing these components of our lives.  If we are to accept this theory, then we must assume this applies to the culture of educational institutions as well—that these institutions and the prevailing mindsets of the faculty (and students) associated with these institutions create a subculture of substantial influence.  Students typically choose where they want to pursue their undergraduate and graduate educations based on university and college programs that reflect their present ideologies while offering the opportunity to better shape and refine these ideologies.  Some institutions are obviously narrowly focused with little conflicting viewpoints among the influential actors who shape the institution’s culture, but some of us seek institutions where the influential actors are varied and well-grounded in research.  This was my intention in applying to the Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies department: I hoped that the cross-departmental collaboration might offer a more multidisciplinary world view and diverse (perhaps conflicting) perspectives concerning particular issues or topics.  As of yet, I am not disappointed, but the deeper I delve into my graduate studies the more I learn about just how much work I have to do before I may describe myself as a cross-disciplinary thinker. 

I’ve always been blessed (or cursed, as it turns out, when cornered in a particularly heated debate) with the ability to see both (or multiple) sides of an argument.  I’m not quick to dismiss another’s idea as wrong simply because it doesn’t jive with my own but try my best to understand the rationale (or lack of rationale as the case may be) behind the opposing viewpoint.  This forces me to explore my own rationale, and more and more I am coming to understand just how much I have been defined as a product of my environment…specifically as it applies to culture.  My thinking has been shaped: shaped by my parents,  my childhood home, my friends and family, my high school teachers, my teammates, my fellow undergraduates, my professors, my bosses and colleagues, the places I worked and lived, the places I’ve traveled to in-country and out…and so on and so forth.  I’ve tended to surround myself by like-thinking individuals—both intentionally and unintentionally—and the detriment to this has been my assumption that most everyone else thinks the same way.  This assumption is constantly contradicted, and my reason for coming to graduate school revolves around the hope that I might do away with this “assuming” once and for all.  By exposing myself to perspectives and viewpoints and values belonging to a culture outside of my own, I thought I’d build a better base for which to formulate my own. 

There may still be hope.  I’ve certainly been exposed to more divergent modes of thinking these past four months than I did my entire three years in Senegal, and for this I’m grateful.  (I will always maintain that Peace Corps was (and is) an invaluable learning experience, but my service did much to frustrate me concerning how development agencies function and the type of mindsets of the people who work for these agencies.  Another story for another time, perhaps.)  But I am beginning to wonder just how “interdisciplinary” my graduate program truly is.  Or perhaps a better way of framing it would be to express my concern with my ability to absorb all of the fundamentals and background necessary to deeply understand the issues I’m care about in the short time frame I’ve given myself.  The truth is, I’ve been carefully molded over my past twenty-six and half years—molded by the current concerns of my immediate culture (as shaped through my social relations) that know draw very little on the history of these concerns.  I’ve taken many things for granted, as it turns out, and am slowly learning that the way I think it nothing but a product of this history of which I know very little.  This embarrasses me, and I aim to remedy this problem, but at the same time I question: for how much of this ignorance am I to blame?  Perhaps most of it, for is it not my responsibility to understand the formation of the ideologies I’ve adopted as my own?  Perhaps very little, as I am a product of the culture to which I was exposed during my formative years.  The bottom line is, however, that while my cultural compatriots—those who want to engage and understand the current agricultural and food system—condemn those who endorse “mainstream, conventional, industrial agriculture” as being narrow-minded and ignorant of larger pressing issues such as social, ecological, and sustainable concerns, we might not be so different.  If we don’t take the measures to amend our own ignorance, then we are just as guilty of being narrow-minded.  We’ve all been “trained” and “socialized” in our ways, and while we might be inclined to champion or own way as broad-minded, extensive and multi-faceted, can we ever truly be sure?  

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Terroir Act

On account of our regular professor being out of town, I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Jim Bingen speak about “Terroir, Quality, and Rural Development: Reflections from Farm Visits in Southern France” the other day in my International Agricultural Systems class.  At first I thought he would touch on many of the same things that Dr. Chiffoleau spoke about during her presentation several weeks ago, but as it turned out this was not the case. 

Dr. Chiffoleau had spoken of a food product labeling system in use at a local farmers’ market in southern France.  The system provides consumers with information regarding where the product came from: one label identifies the retailer as the producer as well; another identifies the retailer as a middleman for another producer (presumably a smallholder); while another label identifies the retailer as just that, signaling that the product may have easily been bought at a supermarket and then resold.  The idea is to illuminate which products are part of a short food supply chain—a concept similar to American ideas of stressing the producer-consumer direct relationships that ideally leads to the availability of high quality products from local producers.  Dr. Bingen’s labeling system, however, reflected less of the social relationship component.  His labels instead identified products according to quality and place of origin as a way of recognizing not only distinctive taste (quality) differences (and usually advantages) between food items produced a specific geographic area compared to those produced elsewhere but the distinctive production methods employed by the producers within a specific geographic region.  Some utilize terroir in the form of agritourism, especially producers who recognize that the income from production alone cannot financially sustain a household.   It seems, then, that even countries that recognize the importance of quality and origin in food products host agriculturalists who struggle to make ends meet.  Small-scale producers still struggle to make a living despite a burgeoning effort among the general population to laud and support their line or work and its important role in society.  What else can be done concerning this issue?  Is the industrial food system—one of convenience and low prices—and its effects irreversible?  Will the local smallholder continue to struggle in spite of our efforts to re-engage them in our food system?

Rural populations in particular seem to be attracted to exploiting this concept.  Regions appear to be reviving traditions of economic production that died out long ago in favor of other economies such as silk and chestnut production in southern France and a return to original grape rootstock in Languedoc to counter the prevalence of American grape rootstock that is said to have a different taste.  A major motivating factor is the economic opportunity and opening of the market for these commodities, but another is also the nostalgic component of returning to “what once was”—that way of life that defined how the people saw themselves and how they were seen by everyone else.  The government also tends to endorse policy in support of small-scale production in rural areas.  They argue it is less of a social interest as environmental since small-scale producers tend to engage in ecologically-friendly practices such as organic farming and running mixed-agricultural systems that incorporate livestock and pasturing that diversify the land as well as terracing practices that greatly reduce soil erosion in the hillsides.  These are notably archaic agricultural practices—ones that have held on in the face of monoculture cropping, mechanization, industrialization, etc. but ones for which society is now finding renewed respect.  But it appears this renaissance is only successful due to government intervention.  Are we to assume that the free market has played little to no role and will continue to play little to no role in the revitalization these practices?  If so, this suggests that the rural ways of life can only be preserved if society deems them important enough to do so.  Even then, will small-scale producers ever reclaim the role they once held in the food system or will they always be subject to elimination and require the protection of societal and governmental institutions?  If this is the case, will their roles forever be diminished in importance and forced to take on an element of performance (think agritourism) that belittles the profession?  

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Perfect Farmers' Market...according to whom?

The Perfect Farmers Market ...
A lively, entertaining event
scheduled at a reasonable hour
to allow farmers and their hired hands
plenty of time to pick, prepare and transport produce,
on a day that does not conflict with any other nearby markets
and at an easily accessible location
so farmers can keep their transportation costs low,
and customers will find plenty of free parking nearby,
along with colourful, inviting displays
hosted by a diversity of
friendly, compliant vendors
who have brought just the right mix and quantity
of fresh, home grown quality products
to sell for a reasonable profit
to a constant flow of savvy, loyal shoppers
eager to spend their money on local food and
willing to learn about the newest specialty products,
all organized by a passionate, paid market manager
who has an ample budget and
plenty of help to tend to every detail
to keep the vendors happy,
city officials supportive and
customers wanting to come back week after week
– topped off with picture perfect weather and
plenty of shade.
- by Marcia Hahn,
based on the results of a Farmers' Markets Today
survey of farmers markets managers and vendors.

This poem is not overly artistic, and I’ll make no assumption that it was intended to be.  It is clearly defined by the statements received during a survey of those intimately involved with the economic functions of farmers markets—market managers and vendors—and little attention appears to be given to shaping these statements into a truly poetic piece of literature.  I cannot help but suspect, however, that this fundamentalist nature of the poem is constructed because of the substance of the aforementioned statements: those making the statements (market managers and vendors) primarily focused on the economic functions they are involved in—market timeliness so as not to interfere with production tasks or concurrent markets; market proximity and accessibility to keep transportation costs down; free parking to encourage attendance; active consumers; “reasonable profit,” etc.  Qualitative characteristics describing a “perfect” farmers’ market are notably few: two quick mentions of a “lively, entertaining event” and “colourful, inviting displays with friendly, compliant vendors” are all we get concerning elements removed from the economic.  If we are to believe de La Pradelle’s assessment of the market place, we should expect a fair dose of hearty romanticism even from the vendors and market managers, but we see very few of these statements represented in the poem.  The poem’s prime purpose might be instructional—a tool for market managers and vendors to utilize in order to improve their market as an economic activity—but it appears that all other market elements (atmosphere, community, performance, etc.) are overlooked.  It could be that the author Hahn simply compiled a poem with a theme of ‘function,’ which explains why social aspects are minimal at best.  It could also be that the survey was worded in such a way that prompted the responses reflected in the poem.  But whatever the reason for the poem’s narrow focus, the poem reinforces the notion that economic function is indeed a strong component in the American farmers’ market.  In a way, “The Perfect Farmers Market…” reinforces de La Pradelle’s study of the market as a performance: vendors build a role for themselves because it caters to customers’ expectations and thereby improves the economic impact of their involvement in the market.     
I’m curious as to why the survey neglected the opinions of the market customers, and I wonder if perhaps the poem would not read a bit more idyllic had they been involved.  If such a poem was created from customers’ responses about what would constitute a “perfect” farmers’ market and subsequently revealed a social emphasis instead of a functionally economic one, would it suggest a divergence between those who run the market and those who visit the market?  Would this divergence serve to weaken de La Pradelle’s study of markets by asserting vendors and customers engage in performances for differing reasons or simply underpin her theory that the market cannot be defined as a simply economic or social activity?   

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Postulating on Cultural Performance

In Market Day in Provence, de La Pradelle illustrates how the streets of Carpentras serve as an elaborate set for the market performance that takes place every Friday.  This performance is marked by the differentiated roles of vendors, buyers, and other actors—some of which are consistent routines repeated week after week while others are one-time occurrences (typically tourists or market newcomers).  The repeated weekly performances become rituals, and de La Pradelle illuminates the importance of these rituals for the performers by relating accounts of Carpentras market-goers—sellers and buyers alike—praising the market life: vendors acknowledge how selling at the market becomes a way of life while market patrons praise the experience as a once-a-week opportunity to really experience a slice of Provençal life.  This loyalty to the market performance is pronounced and somehow sustained despite the fact that all parties involved are seemingly aware of its fraudulent nature.  Vendors may call young and old women alike by the same pet names or inquire as to the general well-being of a customer’s hometown to cultivate the sense of a true friendship while really inquiring about nothing truly personal.  Customers respond willingly to vendors’ playful banter and excitingly rush about chatting with fellow consumptive market-goers they otherwise have no interaction with during the rest of the week.  A relationship otherwise marginalized Saturday through Thursday suddenly becomes intimate on Friday when both actors set foot on the market stage.  And it is not just the relationships which are shams: a few vendors admit to adopting a Provençal accent while selling in the Carpentras market in order to “prove” their authenticity, or in real terms cater to those customers who want to believe in the traditional Provençal producer and provider.  Others even dare to project a role as producer in spite of the fact they have little to do with the actual production and instead purchase their wares from a wholesaler or even from a supermarket chain.  The performance elides these inconsistencies, however, and the performers themselves seem perfectly content to keep it this way.  My question is…why?

Sure, we can argue that the market is steeped in rich Provençal tradition and serves as the one remaining link to the nostalgic time when market-goers were not so much actors playing pretend as they were legitimate producers and providers striving to satisfy their economic needs.  I’m not suggesting that in “days of yore” market-goers did not benefit from the social and cultural constructs of the market, but even the market-goers of today depicted in de La Pradelle’s book admit that the market served much more of a necessary and functional role than it does today.  Present day, the market behaves similarly as before but only in pretense.  The actors, however, cling to this pretense for nostalgia’s sake or to preserve a piece of the culture with which they continue to identify.   But by identifying with a piece of culture no longer relevant in present populations and recreating it under false as a charade, aren’t market-goers actually confusing their “true” culture?  At what point did the market turn from legitimate to sham?  Are current marketplace actors living a cultural lie in that their sense of what the market is and does is based on nothing more than the cultural creations of the previous generation of marketplace actors?  Or does it become legitimate simply because all of the actors believe in it (or choose to accept it) so whole-heartedly?  It makes me wonder how many cultural elements and rituals we study (and laud?) today are similar shells of the traditions they pay tribute to.  If culture is so rooted in performance, than any cultural element ever be believed to be anything more than just a constructed demonstration?  And if this is the case, does this weaken or cheapen culture or just simply redefine it as purely symbolic?