Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An Open Letter to New Farmers, Part II: Crop Mob Mentality

In last week's post, I wrote about why younger and beginning farmers might want to forge relationships with historic sites that have land and often a long history of cultivation of that land.  And while I've got you on the line, new farmers, I’d like to make a case for how you might help to strengthen the museums and history-minded organizations who are your potential partners in preserving farmland and researching and rebuilding local and regional food systems.  

I'll cut right to the chase:   I think that public history needs not only your critical savvy about how we might prepare ourselves for the changes and stresses of a changing climate and a more localized way of living, but also the improvisatory, do-it-yourself, open-source approach that you tend to take to life and work.  That approach reflects the fact that you've come of age with the World Wide Web, which enables new kinds of sharing, collaborating, learning, and creating across distances and time.  And while there's no shortage of digital enterprise going on in the public history world, I have to say that I don't think the collective inventiveness and open-endedness of this mindset has really permeated the field yet.  That's where you might play a role.
I see this new mindset sprouting up all around the local food movement.  It's exemplified by the Crop Mob, a kind of new-fashioned work bee that responds to the demographic and economic changes in farming over the past century.  How do you harvest your potatoes or move your giant compost pile when you don't have 11 kids or a handy local workforce of seasonal farm laborers?  Put out a call to your network of like-minded young agrarians, who will come help you out in exchange for a good meal at the end of the work session and the promise of reciprocal unpaid labor when they need it.  Digital communication is key to making a Crop Mob work, in addition to spreading the idea beyond its origins in the Triangle area of North Carolina.

Groups like Food + Tech Connect are beginning to marry this approach to research and public education about the food system, as they do most notably in their Farm Bill Hackathon. A hackathon is a gathering of geeks to work on some specific task:  building a tool, writing a piece of code, or, in this case, turning the wonky data of the Farm Bill into accessible narratives and graphics.  Like crop mobbing, the Farm Bill Hackathon emphasizes doing--gathering a variety of people to engage directly with complex information, make something useful out of it, and then use those products as a step toward making social and economic change.  It also emphasizes open rather than proprietary knowledge creation--a democratization of data that public historians should embrace.

The new generational mindset--what one farm visionary is thinking of as Agriculture 3.0--even shows up in heartening ways in more traditionally commercial ventures, like a two+ minute ad for the (healthy) fast-food chain Chipotle.  Chipotle emphasizes its non-factory-farmed ingredients, and the ad is a mini-history of the industrialization and nascent reinvention of agriculture.  A pig farmer expands and mechanizes his business, only to end up seeing his pigs being compressed into big pink food cubes on a factory conveyor belt;  after a dark night of the soul (above), he goes back to older methods, selling to Chipotle rather than to a faceless food processor.

Like the Farm Bill Hackathon, the Chipotle ad distills a lot of information into a narrative that is over-simple in some ways but not without nuance.  For example, it hints that factory farming was the product as much of farmers' desire to improve their operations as of evil corporate profit-seeking.  As one of the ad team puts it in the "making of" video, the farmer "ends up with this factory farm out of having good intentions or wanting to...build a successful business"--an important point to remember as we try to figure out how to dismantle or resist the industrialized food system. The ad itself also has a DIY feel to it, and although it was accomplished with highly sophisticated equipment, its stop-motion animation using handmade figures is the kind of thing that could easily be done with less high-end tools and disseminated in less high-budget ways.

There's a long history of Americans seeing the next great technology as the solution to the problems of the previous ones, so I don't want to oversell the potential of the Internet, which is already turning out to have downsides of its own.  But one of the exciting things about it is how well it combines with older, retro, and muscle-powered technologies.  Young farmers' use of digital technology gives me hope that this may be a much more selective adoption of the latest new thing than some of the earlier attempts to revitalize small-scale farming by maximizing its efficiency through mechanization.  This strikes me as more akin to how Amish and Mennonite farmers have approached technology: with a careful eye on how it might maintain and enhance community rather than unraveling it. 

And the whole combination strikes me as just what a lot of historic sites have been looking for:  a way to expand their publics, share and aggregate the knowledge they've collected, and strike a healthy balance between tech-savviness and an insistence on the importance of tangible places and experiences.  I'm not proposing anything specific here, which is sort of the whole point--I'm just thinking that if young farmers brought their inventive crop mob mentality to farming and learning at historic sites, and if public historians embraced that do-it-yourself ethos with a trifle more abandon than we tend to see in the field, some very exciting things might start to happen.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see the Chipotle ad taking off since its airing during the Grammy awards!