Monday, September 28, 2009

Young MacDonald had a farm

Yesterday and today were spent biking through southwestern Wisconsin. The weather has been a challenge -- 3 rainstorms yesterday alone and winds so strong that my main fear at the campsite last night was not the usual getting eaten by a bear or being struck by lightning but that a tree was going to fall on my head -- so I have not been encountering the usual number of bikers or woodland creatures with whom I might converse. (Also, with the fear of impending skull crushing, I laid awake most of the night.) I've had lots of time to think.

During one of these extended musing sessions, I got to thinking about how farming is simultaneously ingrained in our culture -- just look to children's songs like Old MacDonald, B-I-N-G-O (sorry if it's in your head now, too), or The Farmer in the Dell -- and devalued by it in recent years. I've been hearing about the "brain drain" from a few folks lately: how school counselors (and parents) are encouraging the best and brightest from farming communities to pursue non-farming careers. I mean, farming is hard work, who can blame them for encouraging a path that is physically less taxing, more highly respected, and often better paying than farming?

On the other side, many of the folks coming *into* farming don't come from agricultural backgrounds. In fact, most seem to be coming out of liberal arts colleges, young farmers drawn to sustainable food production because of a philosophical ideal -- maybe they harbor a pastoral vision of life as homesteaders or perhaps they pursue farming as a political act, an attempt to address food inequities. There is a sizable group of young farmers who actually grew up on farms, left, and have found themselves returning to the land, longing for a chance to grow things and feed people. This last group describes the majority of women farmers I spoke and worked with last week in the greater Madison area.

April (of West Star Farm), Kristen and Dawn (of Blue Moon Farm), and Diana (who runs Dreamfarm) each admitted to a desire to return to rural roots as the driving force behind her decision to farm. All wanted to live somewhere green, grow things, raise food for themselves and their communities. And they're succeeding. There is a thriving local food culture in Madison, with many small farms and CSAs. And yet, instead of being in competition -- as a traditional market might dictate -- the producers support each other, sharing the idea that the more the collective farms succeed, the more able they are to feed everyone. (Including me: both April and Kristen loaded Ollie up with produce before I left each farm. It's hard to turn down farm fresh produce....)

Farmers are notoriously independent and isolated. Not so with the young (and not so young) farmers around Madison. There are a few things that might explain this anomaly, but I think it comes down to community support. First, there is MACSAC (Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition) -- a group that works on everything from building farmer customer bases to subsidizing low-income CSA shares to facilitating internships at CSA farms. There are also groups like REAP (Research, Education, Action, and Policy) Food Group -- a coalition that works to build a stronger regional food system and better-educated eaters through programs like Homegrown Lunch and publications such as the Farm Fresh Atlas. (REAP also organizes events like the Food For Thought Festival, meant to highlight food issues in the region and which this year brought me in close proximity to Michael Pollan for the first time. I mean mere *feet* away: I had volunteered to help with crowd control during his book signing session following his talk on Saturday.) And, finally, there are educated consumers -- CSA shareholders, restaurants, farmers' market shoppers, co-op members -- who support these devoted farmers. If only we could mimic similar food system development in other parts of the country!

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

1 comment:

  1. Wow! I feel so inspired by you! My friend Virginia (your friend too I believe) just sent me your blog because my little family and I are trying to figure out how to move to a farm and live off the land. We fall into the liberal arts/interested in sustainability category and I can't wait to read more! Thank you so much and safe travels to you! I'll be following your journey from now on!


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