Voices from the field

Voices from the field 1

Notes from a New, Peri-urban Farmer in US

Caitlin Hachmyer, Red H Farm, California, USA

I look out over my crops and beyond to the fields. I don’t own this land. I farm the land, I steward the soil. But my care for the land constantly conflicts with the knowledge that I put money and more money into an investment whose return I might never see.

New and young farmers typically rent. Success depends on developing a market niche. This favors educated, networked individuals from privileged socio-economic circles. The prohibitive nature of purchasing, and the nuanced renting mechanisms disadvantage a large segment of the agricultural workforce. The millions of farmworkers from Mexico, for instance, have stronger agricultural backgrounds and knowledge sets than most young, aspiring farmers, bur lack the social and financial capital necessary for land access. Race and class create barriers to entry.

Our products are perishable and our market niche is local. We must farm close to our urban and peri-urban markets. We need to farm in precisely the places where land prices are highest. So we rent, which has many challenges. These include conflicts resulting from land-owners misunderstanding the realities of farming; handshake agreements that fail because of differing expectations; short term leases that undermine our investment in land and soil; sale of the land or death of the landowner; loss of land to “highest and best use” development; inability to invest in perennial crops; personality conflicts…

Farming in peri-urban areas means our farm is in the public or landowners’ view. And, growing diversified, specialty crops on land that may be someone’s backyard typically involves high investment to build soil ecology and ensure healthy crops.
Farmers across the world are seen as an integral part of the solution to climate change. Highly ecological methods that sequester carbon in the soil will be key strategies. No-till farms operating at intensive, commercial levels earn more revenue per acre than most conventional farms, but the high financial investment doesn’t make sense for farmers who don’t have solid land security. Ecological farming methods are a farmer’s investment portfolio: there’s an immediate return as the nutrient value of inputs quickly improves crop health and yield, but the real return is long-term: deep, complex soil systems, established habitat and insectaries, healthy waterways, and beautiful and biodiverse landscapes.

We need farmers to invest in their land for the long term. However, even small-scale farms are still businesses, and our agricultural practices cannot always meet our ecological ideals when we can’t realize the long-term benefits of those practices on leased land.

Young peri-urban farmers in the local food movement live in tents, converted garages, little houses, and studio apartments. They wonder if they can afford to have families. Their simple lifestyles that are out of step with their broader communities. How will this create and sustain deep social transformation and a commitment to food sovereignty? For example, over 400 million acres of US farmland will change hands soon. It’s time for deep reforms.

We are all part of a complex, interwoven agricultural system whether or not we farm. When that is more broadly understood, the value of those directly tending our land and water systems, and the need for actual community-level investments, will become clearer.

We need structural change that will put farmers—the caretakers of the land—at the center of community land ownership. Change that takes portions of farmable land off of the open market and redistributes it to those who build our food systems, the foundation of our lives.

I dream of a day when I can look across the land and know that I can be there forever.

Voices from the field 2

The potential of the rural – urban interface

Blain Snipstal, Black Dirt Farm Collective Maryland, USA

The struggle for Food Sovereignty is based upon our ability to re-valorize our relationship to mother earth and people, and to shift the fundamental material and economic relations of power within the food system and society at large. This means more land in the hands of people of color, native folks, and working poor.
Recently, the rural-urban relationship, which has long been a space of conflict in our society, became the battle line that the far-right and current U.S. administration used to galvanize its base. As a result, the organizers that work for social and ecological liberation must move with extreme care and strategic thinking as to how best to push back against those antagonistic forces on the right, that only want to use violence, fear and coercion to achieve their goals.

Today, where we have a society that is approaching 80% urbanization, we must find a way to envision a future where urban life doesn’t come at the cost of rural life, or where Rural living is seen as inherently dignified and valued, while Urban living can thrive in harmony with the planet.

The future of the food sovereignty movement in this society must be able to confront this history of our rural-urban interface and the biases and behaviors laden within it. The key to our success may very well be held within this space, and the variety of actors that are working to break it wide open.

As a member of the Black Dirt Farm Collective, we have had many years of experiences of creating critical spaces of dialogue, popular education and hands-on dignified work to break open this interface and re-center a radical agrarian politic. What’s important to note here is that this radical agrarian politic, or Afroecology as we call it, must be based in both creating material changes in the lives of people and the earth through collective work (i.e. mutual aid), as well as transforming the ways we have come to think and act individually and collectively. From these experiences, we have found that the rural-urban interface has the potential to create a multi-faceted and self-valorizing dynamic in which progressive urban actors can begin to imagine themselves in more natural or rural spaces, and rural actors – namely farmers, can build community (social and economic) and open their lands as communal spaces for mutual aid.

Voices from the field 3

New opportunities and spaces for collectivism

Joel Orchard, Northern Rivers young Farmers Alliance, Australia

I believe we are in the midst of a significant cultural shift within the small scale farming sector especially in the young farmer’s movement. There are many opportunities to explore new spaces for collectivism and connection between the new ‘neo-peasantry’ and the emergence of more educated, food-literate consumers within growing urban populations. These relationships are forging new approaches to food sovereignty. The rural-urban fringe is under siege as cities expand into traditional farming lands, paving over fertile soil; peri-urban farmland is a valued commodity undergoing rapid gentrification. How peri-urban land is managed and made available for food production needs to be a key planning feature for successful local food economies.

Conventional family farm succession is gradually being replaced by increased activity in local food economies by first generation farmers from urban and professional backgrounds. They typically come with strong commitments to environmental and social ethics and seek peri-urban farmland with proximity to services and direct market access. They bring a new political discourse to small-scale farming, framed by ideas and values for food justice, anti-establishment sentiments, solidarity economies, and desire to embed themselves deeply within landscapes and social ecologies. Here lies my hope in building a more solid base for the development of the food sovereignty movement.

Farmers Markets have provided the basic building blocks for direct distribution and short value chains. However, they are also plagued with cultures of protectionism, individualism, and elitism. The CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) movement builds even closer relationships between farmer and consumer at the rural-urban, community food interface. But if local food economies remain consumerist and individualist, there is little hope for broader systemic change.

These shifts towards smaller scale production, agroecologies and diversity are facing new challenges. Localised food models are limited by land access and affordability, and a wide range of bureaucratic regulatory constraints on production, housing, and land use. The industrial food system has renewed their efforts at competition and co-optation.

I recently spent a week in Thessaloniki for Urgenci’s 7th International Symposium on Community Supported Agriculture and met with young farmers committed to these common values and facing all of these issues. The obstacles we must overcome and the bridges we build are not regionally unique. The international movement food sovereignty gives us the strong common language we need to embed in the transformative actions and activities to forge new food economies across the globe.

Voices from the field 4

Political education is key

George Naylor, president of the National Family Farm Coalition, USA

I grew up through eighth grade on the Iowa farm that my wife and I farm today. My parents and I moved to the big city of Long Beach, California, way back in 1962, the result of my parents getting too old to farm and almost 10 years of farm depression. That farm depression came from the destruction of the Roosevelt-Wallace parity price guarantees that had become the foundation of family farm agriculture in the U.S. Many of my new classmates also came from “back east” though we soon tried to not be associated with that culture. Our family bought groceries at the Japanese market run by folks that had been herded into internment camps during World War II. Besides the beautiful strawberries and vegetables, their store offered huge piles of processed food like oleo margarine and breakfast cereal—along with meat and hot dogs that came all the way from my home state of Iowa.

(Can you believe, my school friends said they preferred the taste of oleo to butter?!) Thanks to my new surroundings, I soon became very detached from the farm life and community I left behind. Like so many urban people I’ve met since, even my sense of when crops were planted and harvested became pretty fuzzy. When I was a kid on the farm my mom canned over 400 quarts of fruits and vegetables to go along with the carrots and potatoes we stored for a balanced diet in the winter months. We ate beef from our stock cows sometimes three times a day, and I “washed eggs” from our hens. We brought eggs to market in our town or they were picked up at the farm several times a week, that is, until eggs became so cheap and Campbell’s Soup refused to pay more than 3 cents per pound for the old hens.
Nevertheless, “home grown” and “made from scratch” really meant something. It all demanded hard work and perseverance, but that was the norm among the families of my farm friends and neighbors. What a contrast to what I became accustomed to through the years in California where everything came from one supermarket or another (the Japanese market faded into oblivion, replaced by Lucky and Krogers). If it were not for my earlier life on the farm and my relatives still farming in Iowa, I too would have been clueless as to where food truly came from.

Fast forward to 2018—look at the accelerating urbanization, the industrialization of food production and food processing. No wonder there’s a new fascination with good food and how it’s produced. The question is, is good food just like the latest IPhone or electrical car, or is good food the gateway to understanding how food became a commodity while we all are forced to live in big cities taking whatever jobs we can for survival? If we can see where this has led, can we see where this will all lead? Can we gain the POLITICAL understanding to create a different society where we make rules to respect each other’s economic contributions and value natural resources that can ecologically sustain future generations?

In the early 2000’s I protested the WTO and free trade agreements in Via Campesina delegations, and learned how national food policies were to be changed by international neoliberal trade agreements that would further eliminate food reserves and commodity price supports to mimic the U.S. policy that had destroyed family farm agriculture. I learned how food import dependency would be created in so many nations around the world, thus strangling the chance of national democratic farm and food policy or any political sovereignty—making food as a weapon. I visited various metropolises like Sao Paolo and Mexico City to see how free trade had already destroyed rural communities and turned proud farmers and peasants into urban refugees in these metropolises, much like my family had been in 1962.

From my point of view, we must never lose sight of the global implications of the term Food Sovereignty. While we can create new awareness and encourage a new culture that values farmers and rural communities by buying local, etc., these must go hand in hand with political education to develop political power to create a world that values all people and Mother Nature whom we all depend upon.

Voices from the field 5

Rural-Urban Linkages in Ouagadougou

Georges F. Félix, Boricuá de Agricultura Ecológica,(Puerto Rico)

Burkina Faso is largely self-sufficient in food. Over 80 % of Burkinabè population practice subsistence agriculture with staple crops like sorghum, millet and maize. Peri-urban markets around Ouagadougou result from urban expansion in which much of the produce is channeled through local and regional markets. Produce is often sold door to door by farer-vendors. Crops include green leafy vegetables, root crops, and fruit. Peri-urban farming in Ouagadougou is a livelihood option that is prone to water-level changes of nearby lakes and vulnerable land tenure, yet it survives as a source of the diverse, traditional foods found in local markets.

Ouagadougou’s peri-urban farming allows women to earn money selling in local markets. Aminta Sinaré is a math teacher who also tends an organic subsistence/market garden with forty other women. Mrs. Sinaré says: “We grow salad [vegetables] during the cold season. During the rainy season [when it’s hot], we grow okra, cabbages and other vegetables. We produce what is suited to the season.”

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country located in the heart of the Sahel, which is severely vulnerable to climate and global changes. The last couple of decades, farmers have witnessed the huge variability in rainfall patterns, from droughts to flooding, leading to lost harvests, increased erosion of pastures, and more importantly, food crises [West CT, Roncoli C, Ouattara F (2008) Local perceptions and regional climate trends on the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso. Land Degradation & Development 19 (3):289-304. doi:10.1002/ldr]. But water access and the high use of chemicals in agricultural production plague peri-urban production.

The challenge of food sovereignty in the urban-rural interfaces in Burkina Faso may provide important political linkages between rural and urban farmers. Both have to address the need for increased food production and detoxifying the food production process. Securing land tenure and providing much-needed support at watershed scales, including farming system re-design are also shared demands.


Box 1

Food Sovereignty at the rural-urban interface #1

The rural-urban interface can be found in the far-flung suburbs, repartos, banlieu, and underserved neighborhoods of the inner cities of the Global North, and in the favelas, barrios, slums and misery belts surrounding big cities in the Global South. But it is also found in villages and towns dotting the global countryside. It is so ubiquitous; it is sometimes easy to miss.

On top of that, beginning with the industrial revolution, capitalism created a rural-urban divide by subjugating rural people and economies to the logic of metropolitan capital.

Today’s capitalist food system continues to extract wealth from the countryside in the form of food, energy, water, raw materials, labor, and increasingly, through land speculation and financialization.

Rather than focusing our attention on the liberating potential of the interface, capitalism exacerbates the inequities and frictions of the rural-urban divide.

The importance of the rural-urban interfacefor food sovereignty is twofold: it provides the places where producers and consumers can build alternative market relations—like farmers markets, food policy councils, and CSAs;
it also provides social spaces where growers and eaters can politisize these alternatives by constructing new forms of food citizenship—like commons and political alliances.

These political alliances between rural, peri-urban and urban communities are critical to the construction of food sovereignty. Why? Because under neoliberalism, the countryside has been “hollowed out” losing most of its public institutions (and many of its farmers).

This leaves rural communities vulnerable to massive corporate wealth extraction, impoverishment, and many forms of state, gang and paramilitary violence.

Food Sovereignty at the rural-urban interface #2

In industrialized countries family farmers are now such a small minority of the population it is impossible for them to build political power on their own. In the Global South, peasant farmers, fishers and pastoralists, all historically oppressed, are scattered across great distances with poor communications and infrastructure, cut off from the cities where structural political decisions take place.

Nonetheless, the places and spaces of the rural-urban interface provide a laboratory for the oppositional and pre-figurative politics that are the hallmark of food sovereignty. On one hand, following the lead of agrarian struggles, political demands for the corporate dismantling, the right to food, the redistribution of land, and access to fair markets are emerging in urban and peri-urban areas. On the other, alternatives like permaculture and agroecology are showing eaters what our food system could look like if the political barriers to massive adoption were removed.

The dense social fabric of the rural-urban interface, can help articulate the diverse (but often fragmented) power of social movements, linking food sovereignty to struggles like the municipal movement, the food justice, environmental justice, and gender justice movements. The possibilities for mutual learning and convergence among these movements offer the opportunity for food sovereignty to serve as a lever to transform the capitalist systems in which our agricultural and food systems are embedded.

Box 2

Ecuador: Strengthening local food markets and urban-rural linkages*

If people don’t eat healthy local foods, then quality local seeds and community biodiversity, key to agroecological farming, will disappear. So over the last five to ten years we have promoted a process of forging direct, win-win relationships between farmers and urban consumer organizations to strengthen local food systems. In practice, this has resulted in empowering farmers, increasing their incomes, and strengthening their ability to negotiate with buyers. Consumers gain access to healthy, local food at a lower cost–while supporting agroecological farming. Producers from several communities have joined the Canastas Comunitarias movement (Community Baskets, a model similar to “Community Supported Agriculture” or CSA agreements) and started direct sales and agro-ecological farmers’ markets and fairs.

The Canastas and alternative food networks foster more personal, beneficial, and transparent relationships between urban and rural organizations; raise public awareness; and provide opportunities to address issues such as gender relations and appropriate policies for food security, rural investment, and biodiversity. In the words of farmer Lilian Rocío Quingaluisa from the province of Cotopaxi: “Engaging directly with urban citizens is great for us as women farmers. It means we have better income, we do not have to work on other people’s land, we are more independent, and we can spend more time with our families and animals.” Another farmer, Elena Tenelema, adds: “The baskets eliminate abuse by intermediaries. Second, they give us a guaranteed income, which we can use to improve our health, for education, or to buy animals. People in town get to know and eat our products. That is one of the most important things that we are fighting for as indigenous farmers.”

There is growing recognition of these kinds of promising local market initiatives in the political sphere in Ecuador, and the constitution recognizes them under the framework of Social and Solidarity Economics. But fostering direct and reciprocal food systems is not an easy task, especially in the face of industrialized agriculture and food distribution, and much work remains to be done.

We must create productive dialogue and linkages across public institutions, civil society, NGOs, universities, research institutions, and rural and urban communities. This includes collaborating with influential urban networks and consumers’ organizations. We need to be constantly aware of innovations in the urban-rural relationships, including peri-urban and urban agriculture. As Pacho Gangotena, farmer and agroecologist says “I believe that social change in agriculture will not come from above, from the governments. It will come from the thousands and millions of small farming families that are beginning to transform the entire productive spectrum…. We are a tsunami that is on its way.”

* Pedro J. Oyarzún & Ross M. Borja, Fertile Ground:Scaling agroecology from the ground up, Chapter 4: Local markets, native seeds and alliances for better food systems in Ecuador, 2017.

Box 3

Retrosuburbia; agriculturally productive landscapes*

Permaculture is one of the few threads in the food sovereignty movement that has focused significant activism and effort on the potential of suburban landscapes and residents to be part of the solution to the complex problems that characterize globalized modern food systems.

Cities with extensive suburbs are correctly understood as a product of the motorcar and cheap energy. When contemplating a world constrained by climate and resource limits, most urban commentators have assumed suburbia is the least adapted form and will be replaced by more compact patterns that make more efficient use of urban infrastructure especially public transport.

While the assumption that energy and resource constrained futures will reduce the allocation of space to private motor cars is a reasonable one, I believe the idea that higher density landscapes are a necessary and inevitable response is flawed for many reason.

One of those reasons is that suburban landscapes have enough soil with access to sunlight, water and nutrients to grow the bulk of the fresh vegetables, fruit and small livestock products of the residents. Exploiting this largely untapped potential could massively lower total environmental footprint, increase local economic activity and resilience and enhance social connectivity and health. It could also lead to conservation of prime arable land for staple foodcrops both locally and globally. Higher density development aiming to maintain high daily movement cities would be putting the “sustainability” cart before the horse (of food security and sovereignty)

Places like the Red River Delta in Vietnam (before industrialization) had a higher density of people than Australian suburbs, living more or less totally self-sufficiently. Although such places are special cases; very fertile, flat with extensive irrigation systems, our suburbs have water supply infrastructure that make cities in Australia our biggest irrigated landscapes. We have hard surfaces that shed storm water, which could be harvested and directed into potentially productive soils. We have individual houses that can be retrofitted for solar access because they are generally far enough set back from neighboring houses to harvest solar energy. There are a lot of ways in which the suburbs can be incrementally retrofitted in an energy descent world for frugal but fulfilling and abundant lives.

Given the speed with which we are approaching this energy descent world of less, and the paucity of any serious consideration to planning or awareness, we should assume that adaptive strategies will not happen by some big, long range planning, but organically and incrementally by people doing things in response to unfolding conditions. In a multistory building retrofitting requires a lot of negotiation with owners and other stakeholders and the solutions are technically complicated. In the suburbs, people can just start changing houses and doing things without the whole of society needing to agree on some plan.

So the suburbs are amenable to this incremental, adaptive strategy where someone does something here, and we learn from that, and we don’t need a great roadmap. Historically, there have been people who think they’ve got this grand plan for how it’s all going to work… be really wary of those people!

In practical terms, big suburban houses with only one or two or three people, often who are not present, will re-adapt to work from home and start home-based businesses, take the double garage and dump the cars out and set them up as workshops, and turn their backyards into food producing places. The street, which is a dead place at the moment, will again become an active space because people will be present. That recreation of active suburban life will be not that much different from what existed in the 1950s. There will be larger households—whether that’s a family or a shared household—whether people are taking in boarders to help pay the rent or mortgage, or to share the tasks that need to be done. I’m optimistic about how the suburbs can be retrofitted to adapt to challenging futures, be agriculturally productive and resilience and still house more people without building and paving over more earth.

* More info: David Holmgren, here.

In the spotlight

The new global majority: Peasants in the city and countryside

Food sovereignty as a banner of joint struggle was put forth by the peasantry of the world, organized in La Via Campesina (LVC). But achieving real food sovereignty would require major structural change, passing through genuine agrarian reform, a reversal of free trade policies and agreements, getting the WTO (World Trade Organisation) out of agriculture, breaking monopolies over our food system of supermarkets and agribusiness, and promoting real agroecology, among other transformations. That means building political power in favor of those changes, not an easy feat in a world lurching toward the far Right.

While there may be something close to consensus, and the ability and willingness to engage in collective mass action, among the world’s peasant organizations, and those of other, rural small-scale producers of food like indigenous peoples, artisanal fisherfolk, nomadic pastoralists, etc., the sad truth is that population of planet Earth that still lives in rural areas has finally fallen below 50%. In some countries the figure is much lower. What that means is that rural people cannot change the food systems on their own. The good news is the exodus of peasants from the countryside has largely gone to one kind of place. That is the urban periphery of many if not most of the world’s cities, whether the favelas in Brazil, shacktowns in the Caribbean, burgeoning slums in Asia and Africa, latin neighborhoods in the USA, or the Banlieus in France. The urban poor are the single fastest-growing segment of the world’s population.

If one visits any of these areas of urban destitution, what one finds are displaced peasants who have migrated from the countryside, the sons and daughters of peasants who migrated, and the grandchildren of peasants. Many or most people still have extended family in the countryside. If the city where they now live is close to the rural areas where the extended family resides, they often visit peasant relatives on weekends and holidays, and even bring back farm fresh eggs, homemade cheese, vegetables and fruits to market informally in their neighborhoods. Typically they are still “peasant” in some real sense, raising chickens and vegetables and planting fruit trees in their urban backyards and patios. And they usually have a family “imaginary” of an idyllic life left behind when they came to the city, a life with fresh air, clean water, safe and healthy for raising kids, and good, honest work. Because of this both real and imaginary “peasantness,” we can almost count many of them as part of the global “peasantry.”

At same time, today’s peasantry still in the countryside is undergoing a generational shift. While a few years ago most thought that virtually all peasant youth would leave the countryside and move to the cities, this move has often not been permanent, but rather part of a circular, back-and-forth flow. They may spend a year or two in the city to finish school, living with an aunt or uncle, before returning to the farm, or maybe work in the city to earn and save money from time to time. What this means is that the new generation of peasants, in all countries, feels at home in both the country and the city. They know and relate well to their relatives in the city. And they have a lot of skills, like social networking, that come in handy when they market the produce of their farm or cooperative in the city, or when they help organize a march or protest.

Together, these two groups, the “rural peasantry” and the “urban peasantry,” now make up the vast majority of humanity. While there are virtually no useful census data to calculate their numbers, it might not be a stretch to say they make up 70 to 80% of humanity. That is a lot of people. Together, they are a potential constituency or “correlation of forces” capable of transforming the food system and many other aspects of society. Making that potential into a reality, of course, would mean a lot of political education and organizing work, and overcoming the forces that divide and confuse people, like Right-wing fundamentalist religions and politicians. Still, this potential should give us hope, and a possible strategy for long-term structural change for the better.

Newsletter no 35 – Editorial

Food sovereignty at the rural-urban interface

Illustration: Lucy Everitt for the Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network – communitygarden.org.au

The rural-urban interface is a complex social space where politics and culture are in constant flux. It can also be a physical place, where the wealth and resources of villages, towns, peri-urban suburbs, and suburbanized rural areas are in dispute. Taken globally, it is a vast territory with potential to grow food sovereignty.

This issue of the Nyéléni Newsletter addresses the challenges and opportunities of building food sovereignty in peri-urban areas, and the ways that the producers and consumers of urban and rural communities form alliances to transform the food system.

There are many emblematic cases of food sovereignty at the rural-urban interface, including the peri-urban farms of Havana, Cuba; the institutional provisioning experiences of Belo Horizonte, Brazil; and the multitude of farmers markets, community supported agriculture, and coops around the world. These all occur within the fluid movement of people, politics, goods and ideas linked to global processes of de-peasantization and re-peasantization.

The contributors to this issue of the Nyéléni Newsletter seek to open a dialogue on the interface by asking:
What is happening with rural-urban relationships? How are they or can they build food sovereignty?
What are the bridges (political, economic, social and cultural) that link the city and the countryside?
Who are the main actors building these relationships?
What are the obstacles and opportunities to building urban-rural food sovereignty?
What are the goals and objectives of food sovereignty at the urban-rural interface?

Eric Holt-Gimenez, Food First