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.