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?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Senegalese Louma

For the average volunteer living and working in Senegal, louma day was a mixed blessing.  On one hand it meant a break from the daily routine of village life, and on the other it meant one day less to get done the work one already felt there wasn’t enough time to do.

Louma is the French spelling of the word used to identify the weekly market of Senegalese culture.  These are daylong events that draw people—buyers and sellers alike— from all over within respectable distance of the louma town.  The men in charge of the ndiaga ndiayes (privatized public transportation in the form of large vans that fit anywhere between 15-35 people inside and more on top) rearrange their routes on louma days to accommodate the masses wanting to travel to and from the louma town.  Others hitch up their donkeys and horses to rickety carts and plod back and forth all day long, transporting louma-goers along the dusty roads in a slower fashion.  As with the vendors in de La Pradelle’s Market Day in Provence, the sellers at the louma vary: there are those who have designated spots to sell their produce and clothes, and those who wander the aisles selling frozen radi (bissap juice); there are those who sell only at their local louma, and those who travel throughout the week to hit all the major loumas in the region.  And as with the market described by de La Pradelle in her book, the louma serves as a weekly event, a change in the course of daily life that all Senegalese villagers embrace.  Not everyone can go to the louma but at least one family member attends each week, and part of their responsibility is to bring home a piece of the louma experience for the rest of the household: a bag of village beignets the kids, or a watermelon to go with the afternoon tea, or just a new tame (sifter used in the preparation of millet) for the women in the compound to share amongst themselves.  The significance of this weekly market meant that those us trying to schedule community meetings, seedling out-planting parties, gardening demonstrations, farmer field days, or other activities were required to block out louma days as having standing conflicts.  It was a tradition that trumped any benefit our extension work might bring to those with whom we worked, and while initially most volunteers ranted about the irritation of having to plan around louma days and the strain it put on project timelines, eventually we learned to embrace the louma as an opportunity to partake in this tradition of Senegalese culture and use it as an integration tool.  My friend Angelica struggled in her day to day interactions with the people in her village: her host dad was controlling and not particularly well-liked within the village society so it was difficult for Angelica to maintain autonomy in her work choices and cultivate relationships with those in the village who did not see eye to eye with her host father.  The nearest louma took place every Sunday in a road town about seven kilometers from Angelica’s host site, and nearly everyone from Angelica’s village traveled by horse cart to the louma at some point during the day.  Angelica was a city girl at heart, and once she discovered the crowded, bustling atmosphere of the louma, she knew she’d found a cure for her homesickness.  She took to going every Sunday, sometimes with her host father and sometimes without, and her repeated presence at the louma opened up opportunities for her she otherwise never would have had.  On the occasions I accompanied her to the louma, I noticed that Angelica was like a different person.  She moved assuredly through the maze of stalls selling baguette-like loaves of thick chewy village bread, plastic beaded necklaces, woven baskets of kola nuts, squashes the size of a large man’s head, re-used plastic bottles filled with vegetable and palm oils, and second-hand clothing.  She spoke Wolof with a confidence she lacked in the village, and she sassed back freely with merchants who teased her about her pale skin and Asian characteristics when otherwise she would have leaped down their throats at having ignorantly labeled her Japanese as opposed to Chinese.  Angelica was a louma connoisseur, and she thrived in the environment, much like Rousseau in de La Pradelle’s study of the Carpentras market.  She knew how to play the game and perform like a native Senegalese.  She learned her role and she learned it well—so much so that people from her village were shocked when they observed Angelica in the louma setting.  Angelica liked it that way—it showed the others that she possessed a savvy of Senegalese culture and language she otherwise was unable to display.  But unlike the relationships de La Pradelle explores in her book, the relationships Angelica cultivated within the louma managed to transcend the marketplace.  She came to know people from other villages where her host father had been reluctant to let her visit.  She made work arrangements with them so she had a solid “excuse” to leave the confines of her host father’s compound and the village limits.  Whereas de La Pradelle has no examples of how social ties created within the market stretchy beyond the market constructs, Angelica’s experience proves the possibility exists.  Granted, most of the relationships were designated as strictly “Sunday louma friendships”…but not all.  There is the possibility that these relationships succeeded only because Angelica was already such an obvious outsider, but I do not have the knowledge of Senegalese relationships with each other as they may or may not have been nurtured through louma interaction, nor do I have the space here to explore such a concept.   I do, however, recognize this as a problematic element in my comparison of relationships within the louma with those described in de La Pradelle’s market and it certainly would be an interesting comparison to explore further.     

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Of Revelations and the Short Food Supply Chain

There are moments in my life when clarity strikes and an issue I’ve been grappling with suddenly dissolves into an understanding.  I am always relieved when these moments occur, but at times they can leave me doubting my intelligence: how could I have ever been so baffled in the first place?   Today, listening to Dr. Yuna Chiffoleau discuss short food supply chains and related topics, I experienced two such moments, and I’m genuinely amazed (and ashamed) at how long it took me to absorb these points.

The first revelation came as Dr. Chiffoleau explained how the short food supply chain recognizes value in otherwise immaterial assets.  For example, a short food supply chain reestablishes and strengthens the link between producer and consumer by creating a relationship where in conventional long food supply chains there is none.  If intermediaries are reduced, then consumers may actually purchase directly from the producer or at the very least from a supplier who can relate the story and background of the producer.  A short food supply chain also stresses the cultural significance behind a product if the product is one tied to a specific method or place of production of cultural import.  In a long food supply chain this significance can become cheapened or even lost, but a short food supply chain ensures the story and import of the product is still intact at the time of purchase.  Another example is that short food supply chains encourage product authenticity: I say “encourage” because this is not always the case, as we see in Dr. de La Pradelle’s account of vendors in the Carpentras market stretching the truth as to where and how their products are made (Market Day in Provence) as well in Dr. Chiffoleau’s admission that some producers do “lie” a bit when asked about their use of pesticides on their vegetable crops.  This dishonesty shocks me, to be honest, for I see no reason why there cannot be open disclosure as to the methods and origins of production, and I see this as a huge problem in our current food system.  If we are to place trust in these producers and vendors, it seems to be human decency to honor and respect this trust.  I understand that consumers ask with an idea in mind as to what they want to hear and that the “liars” are merely playing a role in a game where everyone understands and accepts the rules that allow for this ilk of behavior, but I find it disheartening nonetheless.  That aside, the three aforementioned examples demonstrate how endorsed yet intangible values—producer-consumer relationships, cultural significance, and authenticity—are expressed within short food supply chains.  So what, you might ask, was my “aha!” moment?  Just this: these “immaterial assets” are very similar to the ecosystem services economists and policy-makers are working so hard to define and valuate as environmental goods.  Both are non-market goods now recognized as marketable, but while ecosystem services are actually being assigned monetary values (albeit controversial) the assets specified through short food supply chains do not appear to be monetized just yet.  Sure, items of high cultural significance could be priced reflectively (think cheese bearing the Roquefort name…) and perhaps my understanding of short food supply chains is incomplete, but Dr. Chiffoleau spoke little as to the economic implications of short food supply chains compared to the social and cultural incentives and subsequent impacts.  De la Pradelle would certainly have us believe that these “immaterial assets” are not reflected in the market price, as she repeatedly claims how the products and prices are the same as if they were sold in a shop with a fixed-location.  Will these “immaterial assets” soon become linked to cost and valued outside of social constructs?

This first “aha!” moment leads me directly to my second, when I abruptly came to see that I was missing a major factor in the relationship between economy and society.  I’ve repeatedly come back to the belief that the economy plays a significantly negative role in shaping and defining social behavior, but for some inane reason beyond my scope of comprehension I never once thought to question the possibility of the economy playing a positive role.  It’s safe to say that I’m not a fan of money and markets—I believe wholeheartedly in the adage that “money is the root of all evil,” but in spite of this I like to believe in positive social influences driving “alternative” agriculture and, as it is defined in France, short food supply chains.  However, it was only when Dr. Chiffoleau talked about the different social networks (friendship and cooperation networks, to name a few) that arise from market interaction did I grasp how economic endeavors do not always result in negative outcomes.  I understood the concept of personal satisfaction derived from consumption and utility, but this seems shallow and less auspicious than concrete social relationships that trace their origins from constructed markets.  I’ve hated the economic element of human life for so long I’m not sure how to process this newfound appreciation, but I hope it will allow me to explore the economic components of food systems without the automatic (and, as it turns out, perhaps unwarranted) dismissal as to any associated benefits.  Time will tell.          

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Fact of Fiction

Two weeks ago we read an article detailing the shifting labor forces exploited during the development of American agriculture.  At first reading, I hadn’t made the connection, but as I sat there in class listening to the discussion, my mind repeatedly came back to one of my favorite novels, Snow Falling on Cedars written by David Guterson. 

The story is centered around a murder, and Guterson does a masterful job of narrating the tales of all the individuals involved in the murder and the trial, and situating the complicated relationships between these characters.  The leading theory as to why the accused may have committed the murder is based on a land dispute between two families: a Japanese-American named Kabuo Miyamoto was in the process of trying to reclaim seven acres that once “belonged” to his family from his one-time friend Carl Heine, Jr. when Carl suddenly turned up dead on his boat after a night of fishing.  Carl’s father (Carl Sr.) had once negotiated a contract with Kabuo’s father (Zenhichi) in which Zenhichi leased the land for 8 years until Kabuo was of age that he might own the land, but this contract became complicated by WW2 when the Miyamotos were assigned to a Japanese internment camp.  Carl Sr. had given his word that the contract would remain valid despite the fact that Zenhichi would not be able to make the last two payments, but Carl Sr.’s wife Etta, who had always despised the deal, promptly sold the entire farm (including Zenhichi’s seven acres) to another farmer after her husband’s passing.  A few years later after Kabuo and Carl Jr. had both returned from the war, this farmer decided to sell the land.  Both Kabuo and Carl Jr. inquired about purchasing it, and Carl Jr. got the deal simply because he had made the first contact.  Kabuo vowed publicly to get the land back, and it is this outward aggression that places him as the prime suspect in Carl Jr.’s death. 

Throughout the book, Guterson draws on imagery that speaks to the powerful romanticism of the farming involved—strawberry farming.  It shapes the characters he creates, so much so that both Kabuo and Carl Jr. strive to leave their fishing days and return to the line of work in which they grew up.  Kabuo has a few lines in the book that clearly illustrate his attachment not only to the work of strawberry farming but also to the land: “’My father planted the fathers of these plants…‘We lived as children by the fruit they produced…We’ll live there.  We’ll grow strawberries.  It will be all right.  I’m going to get my farm back.’”  Carl Jr.’s wife shares similar sentiment about why her husband needed to return to the land and to farming: “It was what he’d grown up with, and the sea, despite its size, was no substitute for green fields…he would have to leave his boat for good and grow strawberries like his father.”  What we see here is a literary embodiment of the importance of sustaining a livelihood true to oneself and to one’s family.  These are not direct successions, to be sure, but they reflect the need to follow the family tradition.  The uniqueness of these “successions” lies in that both sons return to the family land and farming business after their fathers have passed away and lost the land, suggesting a stronger connection than just the trap of having to fill in as the “next generation” to keep a farm going.

The dispute over land touches on a significant issue during a specific moment in American history.  At a point when farm labor was mostly hired immigrants, it was nearly unheard of for these immigrants to then acquire their own land.  Part of this lay in the fact that a few states (Oregon in particular) enacted policy that mandated that no Japanese immigrant could legally own land, and indeed it is this policy that Guterson draws n.  Nevertheless, this promise of land is a huge draw for these immigrants, as suggested by the side story of Hatsue’s (Kabuo’s wife) mother arriving in America as an overseas bride in an arranged marriage: her family must be assured that her suitor is in a financial position to purchase land of his own before they agree to send their daughter.  Unfortunately for his Japanese characters, Guterson stresses the racism prevalent during this time period: although Carl Sr. agrees to sell seven acres to Zenhichi, he only agrees to sell the worst seven acres of his land, not the original seven requested. 

The point of all this rambling is none other than to show how the culture of agriculture and relevant agricultural policies are manifested within literature otherwise unconcerned with cultural studies.  Snow Falling on Cedars is, at its heart, a novel that deals with human relationships and a murder mystery, but the underlying theme involves the complexities of strawberry farming as a livelihood and how it shapes Guterson’s characters.  He most likely did not start the novel with the intent of exploring family farm succession or the importance of agricultural land in establishing identity, but Guterson brings just these issues to light while creating a powerful human interest tale.    

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Enterprising Yeoman

As Durkheim pointed out in his paper “Primitive Classification,” humans have been classifying things (specifically) each other for a very long time.  Sometimes we define according to similarities, and other times we define according to differentiation.  We can attempt to dissect the reasoning behind these classifications to better understand not only the classified but also the classifiers.  Whatever we decide to do with this tendency to sort and organize the stimuli in our daily lives, it will never be a neat and tidy process.  Classification is generalization, and there will inevitably exist certain outliers that contradict our identification of a class.  However, despite the occasional contradiction, classifications endure, and so it is with Sonya Salamon’s classification of two agricultural demographics she labels the ‘yeoman’ and the ‘entrepreneur.’

To be critical, Salamon is theorizing on a specific group of farmers from rural Iowa who happen to be in relatively easily divided ethnic groups she refers to as ‘German’ and ‘Yankee’, and we’d be erroneous to presume her classification scheme might be easily transferred to a broader agricultural spectrum.  Salamon herself raises a question in her yeoman/entrepreneur split when she discusses the rearranging of identifying characteristics that occurs when a marriage bridges the two orders, and I’m sure she would agree that to assume all farmers associate completely with either one or the other is a gross simplification of reality.  That said, however, it is this simplification I’d like to focus on.  While Salamon’s constructs of yeoman versus entrepreneur may have questionable gaps and incongruities, yes, but in general theoretical application they appear to hold up quite well—even in other settings.  I have a hunch that perhaps Salamon’s groupings are simplistic for the sake of explaining and belie the true complexities within all cultural issues, but when I apply her models to farming families I know the classifications work surprisingly well. 

At the first mention of the ‘yeoman’ classification, I identified my host family in Senegal as such.  Everyone always says that in Senegal farming is very much a man’s work: the women help weed and harvest and typically keep a small vegetable patch during the rains but the seeding, the plowing, the weeding, and the harvesting is all controlled and decided by the man of the family—it’s his job.  The women labor because they are an extra set of hands to work the tools, but the decisions on which field is seeded with what and the order of weeding and harvesting is never a woman’s decision.  The women are responsible, too, for furnishing the labor force with the morning and afternoon meals, as men only ever cook if they desire something extra (and even then they’ll often order a woman to do it for them) or if there are no women present to do the cooking.  They may ‘own’ a field originally under the ownership of their father, but this ownership is merely in title only (i.e. ‘Aysatu’s field’ is used mainly as an identifier), and the only economic gains of the harvest come from women’s gleaning work done after the main harvest.   Succession is clear—it will always be a son who takes over the farm management (and household management, too, for that matter) and typically the son will only take over the farm once the father is ready to relinquish his hold as farm manager.  Here, the similarities with the yeoman model become blurred, as more often than not the father only relinquishes his position as farming head once he is too old and feeble to physically continue with the tasks.  Even then, many sons lament the fact that their father, too frail to visit the fields himself, will still manipulate the goings-on from the household compound.  It might be expected that the eldest son assume position as head of the household and therefore the head farmer once the father passes, but as many sons migrate from village to town in search of additional income, this is not always an option.  In this respect, my host family followed the entrepreneur model: the sons were encouraged to leave the compound in search of merchant jobs in the city instead of remaining in the community as the yeoman model predicts.

My host family, however, deviated from the normal succession expected within Senegalese culture.  My host father—who was the eldest of his brothers—had traveled and experienced a lot before he returned to take over the family farm from his own father.  He was an extremely enterprising man, and he worked hard to exploit the market in his favor.  He was one of the first farmers in the area to embrace agroforestry as an investment for his children, and the year after he made a killing in the habanero pepper market everyone in a 15km radius was growing hot peppers.  He understood the importance of a steady income and encouraged both of his eldest sons to migrate to Seracounda in the Gambia so they could open a hardware store.  He dreamed of them remaining in Seracounda and providing steady economic support to the family back home in Senegal while the youngest son would take over the farming and essentially become the main man of the house.  There was some talk about why he had encouraged the family to set up in this way: Sosay, the youngest son, was an ambitious man with a tendency to daydream, start projects, and never finish them—perhaps Baay had figured the compound would be the safest bet for him, and he groomed him as best he could to take over managing the farm.  When Baay, passed away, however, it became quickly apparent that the family did not approve of planned succession.  Domb, who had been absent for all of his young adult life and knew very little of farming, was promoted instead, and I saw him work hard the next year and half to learn as much as possible.  Sosay had openly expressed interest in running the household and farming pursuits, but he’d also expressed interest in moving elsewhere and becoming an entrepreneur himself…but in a business besides that of agriculture.  Perhaps the family tension would have been less had Baay followed the traditional yeoman model instead of creating a divergent model of his own.  Or perhaps Sosay’s ambivalent and hesitant attitude is primarily a result of Baay’s overindulgent, insistent grooming of Sosay to fit the part: Salamon does suggest that yeoman models of succession might in fact spawn unenthusiastic successors due to the lack of a real challenge or fight for the right of succession.  This example is certainly not a clean one (I never promised it would be) but it does draw on many of the points Salamon makes with regard to yeoman classification.  American and Senegalese cultures are arguably dissimilar in many aspects, but the similarities of agricultural schemes makes me wonder as to the underlying culture of farming families and whether or not it can span seemingly disparate social cultures.   

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Farming Family

“Family” itself is a difficult term to define: there is immediate family, extended family, family in-law, and then those we refer to as family but who actually have no relation through either blood or marriage.  Defining “Family farm,” as it turns out, is even more difficult—whether it is in an academic or “real-world” setting. 

Today we visited two centennial farms—agricultural establishments which have been in existence for over 100 years: The Pasches identify their farm as a dairy outfit, and indeed it appears that most of their income and daily activity is centered around the milking industry, while the Grahams identify themselves as organic farmers who cover a wide scope of activity from feed production, meat processing, as well as beef and poultry raising.  Both farms also identify themselves as “family farms,” but it became clear today on our journey back to East Lansing that how “family” is defined depends greatly on our own cultural context.  To Abe Pasch, his was a family farm on account of his great-grandfather having started the dairy in 1910, who then passed it on to Abe’s grandfather, who then passed it on to Abe’s father and uncle.  Abe now shares co-ownership with his father and uncle and spoke briefly as to the possibility of his younger brother joining the operation in the future.  In this respect, the farm does indeed appear to be family-run, but questions arose as to whether the fact that the Pasches employ 12 individuals from outside the family to help handle daily duties invalidates their claim to be a “family farm.”  Does “family farm” necessarily imply that all labor must be supplied by family members?  Does it imply that at least the majority of labor must be supplied by family members?  These are challenging qualifications to make, and it seemed that none of us in that car shared the completely convergent opinions on the matter.  It seems to me that a majority of the labor should indeed be carried by the family members, but with the numbers of cows in the Pasch operation and the limited number of family members available (or willing?) to work this would prove an impossibility.  Should size then be a determining criterion of what makes a “family farm?”  The Pasches seemed to be in complete control of the farm’s operations as opposed to the farm being owned by a corporation or other agribusiness enterprise.  Perhaps the problem is our automatic tendency to contrast “family farms” with factory or industrial farms: we lose sight of the fact that a “family farm” does not necessarily have to be any more ethical, sustainable, environmentally friendly, or socially responsible just because it employs the term “family.”  After all, plenty of unpleasant things can be tied to family functions—think “mafia” or the ever-feared inheritance battle after the passing of the family head.  We might instinctively associate the term “family” with warm visions of a quaint farmhouse and the tight-knit father-mother-son-daughter group which inhabits it, but this is again a romanticized perception of rural agriculture life.  It may exist…it may not.  And if we look at farming as just another form of business (which I believe it is, even with all of the cultural components added in, as there are many similarities with family-owned businesses and family-owned farms) then we should not be surprised to discover a certain complexity in definition, in function, and other. 

The Graham’s operation felt like even less of a family farm to me, despite the fact that the farm was run by the husband-wife-son team of Jim, Pat, and Matt and employed fewer outside workers than the Pasch outfit.  Like the Pasches, the Grahams owned several adjacent farmsteads that they included in the entity of farm operation, but while the Pasches worked in tandem as a brother-brother pairing the Grahams made clear they had little desire to join in partnership with Jim’s brother, who also owns a farm and is considering the switch to organic.  In fact, Jim and Pat spent several minutes expounding on how the division between the brothers took place, relaying that the only real connection was that the father (of Jim and his brother) remained in partnership with both of his sons but that no direct partnership between the brothers was intact.  Ironically, this apparent lack of trust was confounded by Jim’s telling of the verbal contract that exists between him and his son Matt as to the ownership of the farm.  While no degree of partnership between Jim and his brother exists, Jim and Matt have established a bond strong enough to survive the perils of an absent legal contract.  This testifies as to the fortitude of immediate family ties while concurrently disparaging them as well.  Another challenging aspect of the Graham operation as a “family farm” is that of Matt’s sister’s distancing herself purposefully from the outfit.  Pat alluded that she believed her daughter’s estrangement from the family business lies in the relationship between the two children as well as a developed wariness for family collaboration due to past strife between Jim and his brother.  In fact, Jim even suggested that this past strife might be in part due to friction between the two brothers’ wives and admitted that he didn’t know a whole lot of family operations that didn’t experience similar difficulties.  The point is, being “family-owned and operated” doesn’t necessarily mean everything is peachy keen one hundred percent of the time, if at all, and if the “family-operated” part becomes no longer viable due to labor shortage, then “family-owned” might be all that’s left.  So maybe the problem with “family farm” is that the “family” isn’t qualified as either just “owned” or just “operated” or both.  We are allowed to fill in the gaps as we see fit, and that might just come down to how we’ve conceptualized farming while growing up, while reading scholarly articles dissecting the matter, or while living elsewhere for a few years.  

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Agricultural Dance

I want to return to my last post for a moment and discuss a bit further the mechanization of agriculture and the movement against such.  We questioned briefly the sustainability of an agricultural model that relied on heavy machinery and equipment—not only because of this system’s dependence on fossil fuels and otherwise environmentally unfriendly resource depletion but also because of the social and cultural loss signified by the isolation and depreciation of community as spurred through the competition among farmers involved in commodity agriculture.  I might comment that with the rise of mechanized farming methods came a shift in agricultural identity and that this shift might not always be construed as negative but merely as an adaptation of rural agricultural work, but this would serve only to nudge this post in a direction I do not wish it to go.  Instead, I’d like to highlight a couple of perspectives that further idealize the non-mechanized agricultural methods, specifically as a romantic reminder of what once was and as a return to more “sustainable” methods for the world’s agriculturalists. 

I’ll return to Wendell Berry’s poetry, if only because he expresses his views on the matter so clearly it is impossible to ignore his argument.  In his poem, Horses, Berry compares the task of plowing with a team of horses to a musical performance—a dance, a song.  In the poem, Berry reminisces of a boyhood chore  he thought of as play—tilling the fields using a horse-drawn plow—and how the music of this energy transfer between man, beast, and land was choked by the introduction of engines in field work.  His language is strongly romantic, as that founded in memory is apt to be, but as we know Berry preferred horse-power to work his own fields in Kentucky we can presume this poem to be not only an ode to the “old ways” but also a personal creed as to his preferred way of life.  Berry writes of hearing “that song/again, though brokenly/in the distances of memory,/is coming home” and of coming “to/a farm, some of it unreachable/by machines, as some of the world/will always be.”  Not only has Berry conclusively tied agricultural to a sense of place—in this case “home”—but he has also speculated as to the limited nature of mechanization.  Literally, Berry is referring to marginal lands where machines cannot (and as he assumes may never) go, but there is also a sense of the inequality that has risen through agricultural mechanization and the inability of certain cultures (think the global south) without access to mechanization to compete with those who have access (hmm…the global north?) 

                By Wendell Berry

When I was a boy here,   
traveling the fields for pleasure,
the farms were worked with teams.
As late as then a teamster
was thought an accomplished man,
his art an essential discipline.   
A boy learned it by delight   
as he learned to use
his body, following the example   
of men. The reins of a team   
were put into my hands
when I thought the work was play.   
And in the corrective gaze   
of men now dead I learned   
to flesh my will in power   
great enough to kill me   
should I let it turn.
I learned the other tongue
by which men spoke to beasts   
—all its terms and tones.   
And by the time I learned,
new ways had changed the time.   
The tractors came. The horses   
stood in the fields, keepsakes,   
grew old, and died. Or were sold   
as dogmeat. Our minds received   
the revolution of engines, our will
stretched toward the numb endurance   
of metal. And that old speech   
by which we magnified   
our flesh in other flesh   
fell dead in our mouths.
The songs of the world died   
in our ears as we went within   
the uproar of the long syllable
of the motors. Our intent entered   
the world as combustion.   
Like our travels, our workdays   
burned upon the world,
lifting its inwards up
in fire. Veiled in that power   
our minds gave up the endless   
cycle of growth and decay
and took the unreturning way,   
the breathless distance of iron.

But that work, empowered by burning   
the world’s body, showed us
finally the world’s limits
and our own. We had then
the life of a candle, no longer
the ever-returning song
among the grassblades and the leaves.

Did I never forget?
Or did I, after years,
remember? To hear that song   
again, though brokenly
in the distances of memory,   
is coming home. I came to
a farm, some of it unreachable
by machines, as some of the world   
will always be. And so
I came to a team, a pair
of mares—sorrels, with white   
tails and manes, beautiful!—
to keep my sloping fields.   
Going behind them, the reins
I fight over their backs as they stepped   
their long strides, revived   
again on my tongue the cries   
of dead men in the living   
fields. Now every move   
answers what is still.
This work of love rhymes   
living and dead. A dance   
is what this plodding is.   
A song, whatever is said.

Berry is not the only advocate of non-mechanized farming systems.  In Scott, Michigan there exists a non-profit organization called Tillers International (Tillers International website) devoted to “encouraging an attitude of experimentation to produce more local food with less global fuel.”  Their mission statement is “to preserve, study, and exchange low-capital technologies that increase the sustainability and productivity of people in rural communities,” and they primarily work as an education service, teaching skills otherwise denoted as archaic: plowing with oxen and draft horse teams, harvesting using hand-held scythes and draft-drawn reapers, etc.  Tillers International prides itself on “studying American agricultural history and re-invent it for modern use in international projects.”   Tillers does provide domestic instruction for anyone enthusiastic about learning these “artisanal skills,” but they also focus on adapting these technologies in developing countries as improved methods of production at rural sites.  Here, then, we see an alternative method of agricultural intensification and extensification—one that embraces innovation and technology but only those methods independent of fossil fuel.  If we are to believe Berry, this will serve to foster community and sustain culture, and this surely cannot be a bad thing…but what about the inequality perpetuated through this promotion of non-mechanization?  This is most certainly NOT the intent of Tillers International, but their focus on this track towards sustainability continues to exclude the global south from the level of production the global north has embraced for several decades now.  I’m not suggesting I would like to see developing countries adopt commodity agriculture (although arguably some already have) but it is curious to think about how this focus on “sustainability” may in actuality deprive developing countries of the opportunities developed countries have already taken advantage of.  What would happen if an organization with a similar intent on improving rural innovation would use machinery and equipment but in a way that was socially and environmentally sustainable?  From my experience in Senegal I’ve gleaned that developing countries (or at least Senegal) do in fact want the technology—it is rather an issue of capital that keeps them from exploiting it.  Who’s to say they would exploit it in the same manner that the western world did?  So many advocates for sustainability seem intent on vilifying mechanization…but does mechanization always and inevitably lead to socially and environmentally negative outcomes?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Subsistence and Sustainability

It’s fairly obvious there is a difference between American agriculture today and American agriculture of yesterday.  It is often argued that government policies and market structure promote the extensive mechanized version of industrial agriculture we see today stretch across the mid-West—agriculture as a business focused on profit-making ventures and competing with not only neighboring agribusinesses but with international contenders as well.  I make this statement knowing it is a broad blanket statement: there is no one type of agriculture that dominates all of the mid-West and certainly no one type of agriculture that dominates all of the United States, but when we compare American agriculture to other countries, especially to the  global south, we can’t help but observe the fundamental dissimilarities. 

While we may have a hard time generalizing American agriculture as extensive and mechanized due to regional disparities, we can confidently assert that American agriculture is anything but subsistence agriculture.  We questioned the other day whether or not American agriculture is sustainable and mused that there is no simple answer.  The three pillars of sustainability are often seen at odds with one another: supporters for economic sustainability argue for consistent economic growth while advocates for both ecological and social sustainability contend that consistent economic growth threatens overall sustainability in that it ignores inherent resource limits and social justice in the face of profit.  The question of mechanization and its role in sustainability was introduced, but for whatever reason—possibly the wickedness of its nature—we neglected to fully address this concern.  Wendell Berry-esque views were mentioned—the mechanization of American agriculture pitted farmers against one another in competition, breaking down the social connectedness between neighboring farms and the sense of community and collaboration—but so was the concept that perhaps this shift away from community was the result of multiple influences and not just pure mechanization.  This reminded me of Senegal and the recent mechanization taking place there.  The farmers of Senegal work hard and constantly complain of being tired, so the idea of renting a tractor to till the land instead of using animal draft power is one with strong appeal, as is the idea of renting a corn thresher to save the women from the back-breaking work of pounding the corn away from the cob using enormous mortar and pestles.  However, to rent these pieces of machinery for a day is far more expensive than most households can afford, so they rely on the custom of banding together and working as a community instead, collectively renting the equipment and working together to help their extended families and neighbors complete their harvest in the expectations the family and neighbors then return the favor.  This example proves that mechanization does not automatically breed competition, and in fact this method of communal harvest is simply an extension of the tradition in which women rotate from compound to compound helping the others pound their corn knowing reciprocation will be forthcoming.  The difference with the machines, however, is that the men are involved, maintaining those strict gender roles that are only ever blurred in times of necessity. 

When I think about this example, I continually find myself harping on the nature of the agriculture itself as an explanation of the path of American agriculture.  Subsistence agriculture is not the same as commercial agriculture—those cultivating to provide their family with food rarely compete with their neighbor to see who can produce more.  Instead, they focus on getting the most out of their land and labor as it pertains to their family’s welfare, and because they know that by helping a neighbor they are in turn assured their neighbor’s help this remains a viable strategy even when introduced to mechanized harvesting methods.  Ultimately it might be argued that by sharing the machinery these societies foster a stronger sense of ecological sustainability (rather than if every family had a machine of its own) and economic sustainability (saved time, labor, and capital), but I feel as if the social component of sustainability far outweighs these others.  Subsistence agriculture, as opposed to industrial or commercial agriculture, lends itself strong social cohesion, thus lessening the odds for exploitation.  I view this as a positive attribute of subsistence agriculture, but I will not argue that subsistence agriculture is intrinsically superior to any other type of agricultural system, including American agriculture.  Subsistence agriculture notoriously suffers from low inputs: low quality land availability, low start-up capital, and inconsistent labor due to health issues, etc., thus forcing subsistence farmers to do whatever necessary to get as much as they can out of the land.  Sustainability is an issue in American agriculture, for sure, but it is just as much of an issue in other forms of agriculture as well.  Instead of villainizing the mechanical revolution and its role in American agriculture, perhaps we need only to revise how it is incorporated into our agricultural systems.