I’ve thought so many times about writing some version of this post, but for whatever reason in the past it just never felt like quite the right time. I want to talk about food- specifically about the future of it, about our relationship with it, about who grows it and what they need to keep doing that. I also want to open up the conversation to brainstorm about how to keep this thing alive and well and in service to the community.
I think part of my aversion to speaking about this has been because I understand the delicate moral territory this represents. I didn’t want to make appeals for localism that appeared short-sighted or out of touch with folks’ need to just do what works to get food on the table. I get it, and I respect this. In no way do I advocate a kind of moral hierarchy or purity mindset regarding these things, and if anyone wants to read a great article on the reason those kinds are arguments are destructive, check this out.
A cringe-worthy symptom of the emerging conscience around localism has been that it quickly got hijacked and parceled up for the well-to-do among us. A good simple example- ever wonder where the phrase “up and coming” originated with regards to places and communities? “Up and coming”…for whom? What was it before? Who is at the center of that idea, what are the value assumptions and, conversely, the things that are devalued in the process? This phrase tends to mean that a generally low-income, creative, functioning community is being assessed by the economically powerful, who are now taking a look at what those communities created with an eye to buy it up. They work at qualifying it within the progress narrative that serves outside interests and ultimately disenfranchises and exploits the people who were rooted in the place to begin with.
This is how capitalism works, this is how a consumer culture (or non-culture, I should probably say) functions. It doesn’t cease to work to colonize and commodify the remaining functional ideas and movements of people who are on the lower rungs of the hierarchy. We have to go slowly and deconstruct these dangerous notions, these phrases that pop up and promise us all abundance- because if they are using the current system as a baseline for the assessment, it’s a broken promise from the start. That is certainly at play within the local food movement, and we are seeing it happen in a big way in this community through the evidence of gentrification and increasing housing precarity and food scarcity.
That said, I see a lot of really absolutist opposition to the movements that get commodified and contribute to gentrification. Small businesses, artist movements, local food restaurants and hubs, etc. These are indicators, and they very quickly stop operating in service and become inaccessible and obsolete to the existing community. For all I know it might actually be the best resistance strategy to boycott them altogether. I don’t know that for sure, though, and personally I’m hoping for some kind of a hack- some kind of a way to keep the movements that contribute to actual community resiliency and agency “on mission”. Put simply, how do we a) guard against selling out and b) successfully resist economic injustice without also suffering overall? This will demand not only a lot of really critical thinking, but also a fair amount of subversion to be successful. After all, those with more economic power make the rules, do they not?
At this point I usually kind of zoom out and start to think about how it’s all fairly human-centric, that human suffering is conceptualized really dysfunctionally and without much ecological context, and… I’ll try to stay on task, though. I’ll just tell you about my experience at the farmer’s market.
Over the past 6 years I’ve watched farmers start and quit within a year or two. I’ve seen longer commitments fizzle out when it just doesn’t make economic or practical sense anymore. Most of us have to cater to outside customer bases with money (fancy restaurants, and just generally the Ann Arbor buying community) to help subsidize the work we do within our own communities. Many of us, ironically, receive food assistance to get by. The farmers I know who are still going strong are either subsidized in some way or they work too hard. Two friends I’m thinking of in particular- one who has 8 hours of base farm chores to do each day, not including any markets or sales work, and still relies on outside income brought in by their partner to get by. This person had an injury that deserved serious rest and they were still at market alone, lugging coolers and crates and tables to offer veggies to this community. I know another who works two jobs and pulls 70 hour weeks and still doesn’t have the capital to hire any help. They’ve both gotten into diverse markets, run CSAs, they’ve basically tapped creatively and energetically into whatever they can to make it work. And still, I look at them with admiration and worry while wondering if we’ll ever have a model that makes sense and supports these awesome people. The basis of our culture and economy – food- in my experience, is not something that can make a living for people without a) asking unreasonable things of the farmers or b) building the same kind of debt-inducing expansion and devaluation of work and land that got us here to begin with.
While I don’t know the stats, my feeling is that the farmer’s market in this city has not grown, despite the growing interest in local food and small farms. All of this year at market I was, personally, very firmly conceptualizing my presence and offerings there as being a soft form of activism and an attempt at community building. I’m sure that is why I’ve hung on as long as I have- I’m incredibly fortunate to have a partner who’s job largely pays the bills, and that he understands and validates my work as having value in spite of the presence of money. Almost every week I’d have the same conversation with someone, be it another farmer or market staff or customers… “Why isn’t this working as well as it could? How can we keep vendors here, let alone help them make a living? How can we get the community to want to come and make this connection each week? Why does everyone I know believe in and want a local food system and yet they rarely show up here?”
This is where I think marketing has failed overall, even if it has brought in customers and converts here and there. Are we actually talking about selling food and supporting farmers and changing the way we eat and live or are we merely selling a novelty product? I suspect it’s the latter, whether or not we intended that. We are trying to package something up and sell it right back to the system that created the scarcity to begin with. This felt very evident to me, especially in the last season at market. The reality is, to me, that we can’t consume our way out of a problem born from consumerism. We can, however, connect our way into a new way of thinking about this stuff. We can reckon with what is, and we can identify community values and needs and actively work to reconcile these things as best we can. In other words, can we get people to come to market not because it fits, but because it doesn’t fit and that’s what we are trying to change? Can I appeal to those who are able to say that we have to show up, pay more (aka what the food costs), and then cook it all ourselves with the scarce time we’ve got? It’s a tough sell, but I think that’s what we are actually selling people.
I was invited to a permaculture design course this past summer to participate in a section called “Invisible Structures.” Milton was teaching the course with another friend out at the Cooperative at Dawn Farm. I wasn’t to prepare in any way, just bring myself and offer something up. When I got there and things started going, I really understood why he invited me. This stuff, it’s what I do, however imperfectly. I largely observed. There was talk about just basic concepts and social parameters- like, what are the intangible but important social and cultural phenomena that actually need to make their way into our designs? We pulled these cool “Group Works” cards and talked about these concepts, and I dig that stuff. Then we tried to practically apply this stuff to projects that are currently going.
This is where I end up feeling that people get really idealistic without a lot of social evidence to back up their ideas. The idea that our moral sensibilities are strong enough to resist the current structures that oppose them, that we just need a better prettier design and all this is kind of a mistake… that kind of thing. I don’t mean to devalue those contributions, but it doesn’t tend to be where I go these days. At a certain point it felt right to speak, and I essentially made a case for grieving. I made a case for confusion and looking at barriers to better designs. I brought up the earlier example of the farmers market as something I’ve personally been doing that kind of design assessment on for a while, saying: How can we have so many converts and so little practical support? How do we design success here? Or is it less about design right now and more about honesty and a lack of solutions? I saw people straightening up with ideas about how to make the connection between farmers and consumers more convenient and streamlined, again implying that if we just design things better we’ll get on top of it. I replied with understanding but ultimately cynicism, explaining that my criticism is that all those “solutions” continue to enable the lack of relationship and connection- those solutions seem to come out of the same insanity and disconnection that’s creating the problem. How can this be a sane and lasting design solution? The “solutions” are rarely to decenter the insanity and sit with the discomfort and uncertainty that creates.
Here’s what I’m thinking. We are losing not just farmers, but the human connection to our landbase, and it’s eroding our humanity. I believe what’s happening is an endangerment of our ecological heritage that threatens to make us virtually unrecognizable to the place we belong to. I mean, we are already there, if I’m honest. This is not a judgment on people’s consumer habits, it’s an observation of what modern life is producing and what it’s missing. I believe that the only real route to remedy this lies in a deep remembering, a reconnection at a primal level- with the land, with food, with the design of life itself. How can we possibly hope to know the needs of the earth without connection to it?
I don’t have all the answers, but that’s where I am now. I have to connect, lean in, and try to remember where I came from. If I’m doing any good work right now it’s to help other people do the same- but unfortunately what I’m offering is less and less fruitful looking. I look over the body of my contributions and it’s hardly the smattering of microgreens I grew. I had another ah-ha moment at market a few weeks back that really helped me to refocus. A person who works at market was dismissive and rude to me. I don’t even care about the fine print, but the take home was that I felt misunderstood, mildly humiliated, and as though for just a moment my commitment and flexibility and friendship and work there didn’t matter beyond a very stiff business-type agreement. Ultimately, I know that’s not true. I actually really like the person that incited these feelings in me, and we quickly made peace. I ended up being very grateful for the experience though, because it helped me realize that if my foundation there was just business… well, I realized that would be so empty for me that it couldn’t keep me there. It helped me realize that the business component was actually the weakest link for me, and looking at the farmers around me I doubt that I’m alone in that (although I recognize that I’m kind of a rambling weirdo here, so I don’t speak for us all, just to say that almost everyone is there because they care, not because it makes good business sense).
It made me take a look at all the motivations and the yields of the various things that I’m doing, and think about what’s rooted in “business” and what’s rooted in my values and mission. I saw that almost exclusively the things I do to make economic sense of my work are actually, at best, an act of compromise to help fund the things I really believe in, and, at worst, serve as an actual barrier to those things. I don’t expect that everyone has the luxury of reassessing their work in this way, but I’m grateful that, for me, that is the somewhat torturous-yet-enlightening side effect of the particular work I do, and I’m able to do it. I’m not writing a prescription, but I am following a trail and inviting people to keep me good company.
So what am I doing? I’m trying to willingly inhabit this uncertainty and confusion, because I think that’s the start of our way out. I decided to take a year break from market as a vendor. I’m going to be homesteading full time, learning how to slow down and care for a place without the constant mind to commodify it or to justify that impulse. I’m going to be shopping at market every week as I’m able, and intentionally giving farmers money and maintaining my friendship with them. I’m going to use the food they grow, write and talk about it and share ideas for how to use it, encourage other people to do the same and stop trying to convert it into something that needs to be convenient or perfect I’m going to be growing a lot of food myself, lots of projects, and I’ll be finding new ways to share it all. I’m going to be doing things that make very little business sense and hopefully make a little more sense some other way.