August 8, 2013
It is hard to believe that only four months ago, I was still living in a row house in urban Baltimore and now here I am, all settled on a small farm in southeast Minnesota. Talk about a change! Having spent my childhood in the suburbs and my adult life primarily in cities, I am not exactly a country girl. For the last seven years I was the director of the Baltimore Food and Faith Project at the Center for a Livable Future—and then my husband accepted a job in Rochester, Minnesota, earlier this year.
At first, I couldn’t imagine leaving Baltimore. But despite all the things I loved about the city, I really wanted to walk out my back door and pick something to eat for dinner. I also suspected that I might have more nuanced and informed things to say about agriculture if I tried my hand at a little farming myself. I decided to give it a go.
I had been growing increasingly curious about the economics of farming. Week after week, I gave talks to faith communities about sustainable agriculture and how the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers damages our soil, air, and water. I showed films about the plight of farm workers and worried about how they were treated and whether they were paid well enough to be able to purchase the exact same food they were picking. I put up pictures of farm animals confined in dirty barns with scant room to turn around. And I proposed alternatives for how individuals and congregations could make food purchasing decisions that might help to steer our food system towards something that was more nurturing of our planet and each other. All of this was well and good, but when we started to try to turn what we were learning into on-the-ground projects, things got a little messy.
Take for instance, the organic farm stand we hosted for two years in partnership with Knox Presbyterian Church in East Baltimore. We tried all sorts of things to get people to come and buy the food. Kick-off days, cooking demos, and registering for free gifts, but most days saw only a handful of people stopping by. The few customers we had appreciated the food and thought it was good. And they knew how to cook it, too. But it was all about the economics. We weren’t able to take SNAP benefits, which meant a lot of people just couldn’t afford to shop there. People on assistance only receive their benefits once a month. For a weekly farm stand, this means that the beginning of the month sees more traffic than the end, when everyone’s benefits have run out. And, unique to faith communities, most people in need are used to going to congregations for free food and are a little confused when they are asked to pay for it.
Consider also that Food and Faith has funded and provided technical assistance to 41 faith community food gardens, most of which donate their yield to food pantries. The folks who run the pantries tell me that the produce is the first thing to go because, as one worker said, “Poor people can actually afford to buy cheap processed food, but they can’t afford the fresh fruits and vegetables as easily.”
Suffice it to say that we have a food system that is economically troubled. People of limited means can’t afford to buy produce; rich people choose to spend their money on things other than food; farmers are so squeezed financially that they are applying for food stamps themselves; and tax payers are footing the bill to clean up the environmental costs of raising animals in CAFOs.
Here’s the bottom line: we cannot achieve a sustainable food system until we figure out the economics for everyone in the supply chain, from the producer to the workers to the consumers. We know a lot about why farming is so economically difficult. We are learning more about the struggles of people not only to afford fresh produce, but also to find time to search out and prepare fresh produce.
So here is the question that I am setting out to answer with my Minnesota farm experiment: Can we have a food system in which more than a few superhero farmers finesse the three goals of paying farmers what it really costs to produce something organically AND having that food be affordable to all consumers AND fairly compensating the workers who help plant and harvest that food—all without financial aid from outside sources?
I have only ever farmed for six months , and I have a lot to learn! I need to know how to deal with this new plant hardiness zone (Baltimore is 7B; Minnesota is 4B), and I have little idea of how to get started. Throwing in my big experiment to see whether I can make the economics work out for everyone involved, this will be a big challenge. I expect to make a lot of mistakes. I expect that it will take a long time for me to learn what I need to know, and that I still won’t know the half of it. I expect that I will have some insightful and possibly uncomfortable conversations with my neighbors who grow conventional soy and corn all around me, and who are nice people that I will need to ask for help from time to time. I expect that climate change will make things really hard sometimes. Last year there was a drought, and this year we had 12 inches of snow on May 2. (Welcome to Minnesota!) But I also expect that this endeavor will be one of the most interesting and fulfilling things I have ever done, and I can’t wait to get started.
I hope that you will come along for the ride. From time to time, I will be posting on the Livable Future blog about what’s happening at the farm, and how how my experiment is going. Just what is the true cost of farming this way, from buying the land to purchasing seeds to spending time hand weeding instead of spraying Round Up? What can I learn about the dominance of industrial agriculture from living in the center of it? How do our farm practices influence public health and the environment? And can a 47-acre patch in southeast Minnesota really make any difference at all?
Photos : Erik Tryggestad, 2013 (top); Angela Smith, 2013 (bottom).
Read Angela’s next blogpost, We Bought the Farm >>