A Nation of Farmers – Women a Key

July 24, 2009

nation.of.farmersLast winter when I interviewed farmer and author Sharon Astyk of upstate New York, she said, ”The land requires better stewardship than human beings have given it in a long, long time. Human beings are about to pay the price that they have been deferring. We must ask, what does the land require from us if we are to have a future?”

Astyk and co-author Aaron Newton strive to answer that question in their new book A Nation of Farmers. In it they call for a return to widespread, small-scale, clean agriculture in America. Doing so, Astyk recently told Voice of America, would ameliorate the negative effects of both peak oil and climate change. It would also help to renew democracy by reducing our dependence on corporate interests and re-orienting us towards the Jeffersonian ideal that the US should be “a nation of farmers.”

Agriculture, once the most common of human activities, must move back to the center of our lives, Astyk and Newton write, advancing the proposition that the country needs up to 100 million new farmers — 25 times more than now.

On her website, Casaubon’s Book, Sharon Astyk notes that this isn’t a move-to-the-boonies-or-starve ultimatum. In fact, many people are ideally positioned to become farmers right where they are…Suburbia occupies vast swaths of former prime U.S. farmland. NASA’s ecological forecasting research group reports that the people living there already water about 30 million acres of lawn, three times the land planted in irrigated corn.

Astyk says that growing as much of one’s own food as possible can be a cornerstone of sound household finance, and that the necessary land and water are already in the same places as many of the people who now participate only in the demand side of agriculture.

Women are a Key
Even in the US, Astyk notes, the only fast-growing segment of agriculture is that of independent women farmers. She says the average farmer in the world is a woman, farming 4 1⁄2 acres, growing 15 different crops on them. They own no tractor and do most of their labor by hand.

“Many of the new farmers will also need to be women,” Astyk told me. “People will need to grow food for themselves more and more, and that’s going to press the job toward women…

“…The link between farmers and eaters needs to be emphasized. Farmers can’t say what people are going to eat. They have to respond to consumer demand. Women do most of the shopping and cooking…To change the agriculture system means changing the way we eat…Ultimately it will be women who decide whether we create a better system, or a disaster.”

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Millennial Agrarians Rise to Meet ‘Grim Vision’

July 15, 2009

collapseAn authoritative new study sets out a grim vision of what lies ahead: climate change will cause shortages of food and goods, inciting violence, potentially provoking much of civilization to collapse.

This blunt warning is the heart of the 2009 State of the Future study from the UN’s Millennium Project. The report, which will be made public in August, is based on the input of 2,700 researchers, and backed by a range of organizations including UNESCO, the World Bank, and the US Army.

According to the report, “The scope and scale of the future effects of climate change – ranging from changes in weather patterns to loss of livelihoods and disappearing states – has unprecedented implications for political and social stability.”

The immediate problems are rising food and energy prices, shortages of water and increasing migrations “due to political, environmental and economic conditions,” which could plunge half the world into social instability and violence.

The report suggests the threats could also engender wise and healthy responses. “The good news is that the global financial crisis and climate change planning may be helping humanity to move from its often selfish, self-centered adolescence to a more globally responsible adulthood…Many perceive the current economic disaster as an opportunity to invest in the next generation of greener technologies…and to put the world on course for a better future.”

What is good and healthy and helpful?

Leon Secatero

Leon Secatero

Reading the stark forecasts from this report put me in mind – thankfully — of someone I knew and admired, the late Leon Secatero of the Canoncito Band of Navajo, To’Hajiilee, New Mexico. Whenever Leon would hear pronouncements of inevitable doom, he would acknowledge the potential, then respond calmly.

In one of our conversations back in 2005, Grandfather Leon spoke with me about the future. “The journey we are beginning now is for the next 500 years. What will be the sacred path that people will walk over the next 500 years? Even in the midst of all the changes taking place and all the things falling apart, we are building that foundation now. That’s something important for us to remember and to focus on. If we don’t do it, no one else will.

“All anyone needs to do is look around,” Leon said. “We have been destroying nature systematically for many decades. Now nature is destroying us with winds and storms and earthquakes and volcanoes. All that was known a long time ago. The elders have been telling us for years that this would come. Now it’s here and it’s hurting us.

“We need to take a close look at this and then really come to terms with ourselves,” Leon said. “To move ahead into the next 500 years we must leave some things behind or they will contaminate or even eliminate the future. We cannot go forward if we keep destroying the earth. But we must also ask, what is good and healthy and helpful? Those good things can be part of our foundation, part of our pathway into the next 500 years…”

There is a growing cohort of people who are actively asking these questions, and responding creatively. I have come to think of them as the Millennial Agrarians, and they got a nod of acknowledgement this week from USA Today.

In the story, reporter Elizabeth Weise wrote “Agriculture specialists say there is a burgeoning movement in which young people — most of whom come from cities and suburbs — are taking up what may be the world’s oldest profession: organic farming.

“The wave of young farmers on tiny farms is too new and too small to have turned up significantly in USDA statistics, but people in the farming world acknowledge there’s something afoot.

“For these new farmers, going back to the land isn’t a rejection of conventional society, but an embrace of growing crops and raising animals for market as an honorable, important career choice.”

In the face of the grim vision described by the researchers involved with the State of the Future report, these Millennial Agrarians are an embodiment of hope. We are going to need millions more people – perhaps as many as 80 to 100 million more – to face what is happening in our world, and to respond intelligently to the call of the land.


Headed for a Breakdown in our Food System ?

July 7, 2009

empty.shelvesAs fireworks creased the sky on July 4, writer David Beers posted his interview with Michael Pollan on Alternet, an interview that serves as a digital omen of things to come. Pollan, the best-selling author of In Defense of Food and other works, spoke in the interview about an open secret – that is, a secret open to anyone paying attention to our land, our economy, and our food.

Commenting within the context of scarcer oil, degrading ecologies, wobbling economies and global warming, Pollan observed: “When we say the food system is unsustainable we mean that there is something about it, an internal contradiction, that means it can’t go on the way it is without it breaking up. And I firmly believe there will be a breakdown…”

“…One of the reasons we need to nurture several different ways of feeding ourselves — local, organic, pasture-based meats, and so on – is that we don’t know what we’re going to need and we don’t know what is going to work.

“To the extent that we diversify the food economy, we will be that much more resilient. Because there will be shocks. We know that…We’re going to need alternatives around.”

Thousands of people – I think of them as the Millennial Agrarians  — already recognize this looming potential for our food system to break down, and they are taking creative action on the land to cultivate alternatives.

Will Allen

Will Allen

Among these agrarians, Will Allen of Growing Power farm and land trust in Milwaukee has emerged as leader in urban farming. He has been acknowledged and supported by the Ford Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, and by a Fellowship Grant (Genius Grant) from The MacArthur Foundation.

On July 1, in a reflection of the deepening public interest in agrarian matters, Allen was profiled in the Sunday Magazine of The New York Times.

The Times correspondent wrote: “Propelled by alarming rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity, by food-safety scares and rising awareness of industrial agriculture’s environmental footprint, the food movement seems finally to have met its moment. First Lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack have planted organic vegetable gardens. Roof gardens are sprouting nationwide. Community gardens have waiting lists. Seed houses and canning suppliers are oversold.”

Will Allen is one of the people helping to lead not a mere ‘food movement,’ but something much larger: an agrarian reformation. the way. He is in the company of thousands of other Millennial Agrarians, a class of citizens on the rise.

The many people and organizations cited in The Call of the Land offer more than philosophical ideals. They are demonstrating an array of proven models, paths, and networks that embrace an evolving agrarian ethos and that can be emulated widely now.

Many of those who hear and heed Michael Pollan’s message, and the facts his warning is based upon, are choosing to take a stand with the emerging agrarians of the 21st Century.


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