Sunday, December 11, 2011

How do we know when farming is "for real"?

I launched the blog last week in a fit of somewhat irrational exuberance, without having all of my initial examples listed and organized on the links page. Finishing that task this week pushed me to think through how I’m defining “working farm” and “historic site,” the two sides of the equation that I’m planning to focus on here. And it reinforced my initial sense that there are lots of things going on at the borders of these two things, but still relatively few that are actually finding ways to merge them.

When I think about what makes a “working farm,” I’m looking for something that is directly involved in selling food that people will eat in their everyday modern lives (not just apple butter or maple syrup that is made as part of a demonstration and perhaps sold as essentially a souvenir, but something that people would buy as part of their food shopping).

This definition knocks off the list a number of farming projects at historic sites that seem, on the surface, to be worth including. For example, at Booker T. Washington National Monument, the local Rotary Club helps distribute food from the national park’s Heirloom Garden to low-income residents of the area. At Carroll’s Hundred in Baltimore, the “Black Damask Project” involves urban youth who have helped replant a 1760s orchard as a way to help them gain a sense of community history. These kinds of projects, while they utilize historic places, foods, and methods in often exciting and creative ways, don’t rely on the proceeds of the food they grow to support themselves. They’re more oriented toward education, demonstration, or providing a service, rather than selling a product.

There are certainly lots of farms and farmers in the sustainable/local food movement who are interested in more than just making money.  To give just one example, my friends Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc at Seeds of Solidarity in Orange, Mass., blend farming, education, environmental awareness, and social change on every level of their operation.  (Those are Ricky's greens in the photo at the top of the page.)  But entering into the real-life agricultural marketplace makes an important statement that farming is about real-life food production, and that it’s not enough just to show how food can be grown, cooked, and consumed in ways that challenge the dominant industrialized food system--we also have to address the marketing and distribution pieces of the puzzle as well. Finding a customer base and a distribution network becomes a test of a farm’s vision and viability, and argues for the realistic possibility of small-scale farms surviving without heavy subsidy of one kind or another.

So the various historic sites that host community gardens (for example, Fort Dupont in Washington, DC or the massive community gardens at Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City) didn’t make it onto my links page, because those growers are producing food for their own use rather than selling it to others.

And for a different set of reasons, historic sites where representing the past is the underlying goal also didn’t get onto the list. A recent issue of Organic Gardening features an article about how Colonial Williamsburg recreates colonial-era food gardening techniques and crops. But the emphasis at CW is on depicting the past as accurately as possible--what Richard Handler and Eric Gable have called “mimetic realism”--rather than on farming in a way that directly engages the present. That dividing line shows up in a discussion of how the site’s growers deal with pests that hadn’t taken up residence in North America until after the eighteenth century. “We have to deal authentically with inauthentic pests,” one of the gardeners is quoted as saying. This is very different from the approach of Tillers International, which has created a “Reinvention Lab” to experiment with ways in which historic methods and tools might make “low-capital” farming more feasible for farmers around the world.

So that’s how I chose the examples on these links pages. Can you think of other examples that might test or challenge my definitions here? Should I be including anything that I’ve decided to keep off the list?


And I promised to give a shout-out to the first ten of my Facebook friends who signed up to receive these blog posts via email. Here are the top ten—but I’m very grateful to all who’ve signed up so far!

Thanks to Carrie Kourkoumelis, Pam Donnelly, Craig Stockwell, Susan Sawyer, Maureen Riendeau, Stacie Gay, Amahl Bishara, Sue Cloutier, Linda Ruel Flynn, and Leah Mason.

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