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.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Aggregation and Integration

Today I want to write a little bit about cultural identity and how it shapes our interaction with other cultures.  Both of the women who spoke with us today had transitive lifestyles while growing up, and neither currently lives in the same region as their immediate family nor expressed interest in moving there in the future.  The two also had very divergent views as to how to cultivate culture in their own lives: while one woman frequently referenced the importance of finding a “black community” for her children to identify with and how she wanted them to “see people like themselves,” the other woman kept stressing her desire to find a future home in a place with a high level of cultural diversity, valuing the progressive nature of such places and crediting her diverse cultural experiences with having shaped who she’d become.  (Interestingly enough, we all seemed to accept the first woman’s attitude, but I found myself curious what our reaction might have been had she been Caucasian and had stated her desire to raise her children in a “white community” so that her children might be surrounded by a homogenous population and culture…) The woman who prized diversity alleged that her identity came from a constant exposure to different cultures—not only in that she “adopted” aspects of the new culture she moved to but also in that she could compare her own set of values and skills with this new culture.  She seemed to have created a conglomerate culture for herself—an identity that could adapt and fit into a great variety of cultures—but I also wondered if this didn’t somehow prevent her from forming a true, deep connection with any particular culture and consequently with her peers from that particular culture.  While I was in Senegal, there were several of my fellow volunteers who had been raised abroad in a plethora of countries, and it was clear to those of us born and raised in the States that those raised abroad lacked the sense of American culture the rest of us shared.  As a way of coping with our sense of changing identities vis-à-vis the Senegalese counter culture, the rest of us were goaded to draw on our shared cultural backgrounds, but it became critically apparent that those raised abroad were unable to relate in the same way.  I cannot testify as to how this lack of cultural identity—or rather an aggregate cultural identity—affected the abilities of these volunteers to integrate into Senegalese culture, as integration is affected by a great many factors (volunteer personality, level of activity, host community attitudes, etc.) but I’m willing to question how each of these cultural backgrounds simultaneously enhanced and hampered the integration process.  

I could argue that those of us with a strong sense of “home” culture were better equipped to understand the importance of our host country’s culture: we could easily draw comparisons between the two and respect the host country’s cultural rituals and traditions based on the inherent recognition of the importance of our own.  Those with an aggregate cultural identity, however, would have no corresponding implication of importance, as they were able to pick and choose rituals and traditions from a variety of cultures and were never surrounded by a single cultural group long enough to have it become naturally engrained in their sense of identity.  However, their exposure to a variety of cultures could have sensitized them to the importance of exploring and accepting the “other,” thus furnishing them with an open mind and willingness to embrace unfamiliar cultural aspects while we “Americans” might be so absorbed in our own culture so as to be intolerant of any deviance from what we already know so well.  As I mentioned before, integration is a complicated process that is influenced by a variety of elements, but I’d be interesting in studying what role one’s cultural background plays and to what extent when one is exposed to a culture in conflict with one’s own.