This week in the urban agriculture class I teach at the college, the students were having a discussion about what would keep them from selling their farm products to a local restaurant. Reasons varied, from timing and quantity of harvest to discomfort or shyness about approaching chefs, but most held at their core a fear of not measuring up, of not delivering the exact thing a discerning chef would want, exactly when he would want it.
While there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about new farmers doubting their abilities, the conversation alluded to a more prevalent sentiment regarding food products, or any product really, that got my hackles up—in the hierarchy of “who matters” in our system, the end consumer is on top, and each descending rung of producers below garner less and less respect. The highly discerning and quality-demanding chef becomes a beggar at the hands of the almighty customer who will make or break her career. The industrial farmer, in order to deliver blemish-free, appropriately cheap food, exploits the labor of migrant workers and fossil fuels and wastes and pollutes topsoil and watersheds. A more sustainable small-scale farmer, who relies more on human labor and co-creation with the earth is at a disadvantage because her food costs more and possibly has some nicks or holes in it.
I realize this looks like a good ole fashioned critique of capitalism, but I’ll argue that it’s not. When it comes to my life’s work of creating resilient and delicious local food systems, it’s not so much capitalism I have a bone with—rather, it’s with the faulty accounting systems on which the omniscient “market” operates. The externalities, in economist jargon, coupled with the need for a more accurate and celebratory exploration of the “supply chain,” which necessarily involves flipping the hierarchy on its head. It looks something like this:
At the absolute top, the place of most power and respect, sits the earth, and whatever brought it to be. I like this because, not only is it factually true—we are made of the earth and rely totally on it to live—but it guides us into making better and better decisions at each descending rung.
Next, an honoring of the seed steward, the mother. For those who caretake the precious seeds, and for the plants—the primary producers, who can make tissue from sunlight and water, enough to feed every being down the chain. For the farmer who nurtures the plants or animals grown from that seed. One who does this in service to the awesome earth, and to the dear and deserving life that springs forth from it.
As the chain of consumers grows, from middlemen buyers to farmer’s market or CSA customers to chefs and grocery stores, each one must join in with a fuller awareness of what has gone on before to arrive at that point. The miraculous earth springing forth the wondrous seed and the plants that make food from the sun, and the seed stewards who’ve lovingly selected the seeds of these foods over centuries and the farmer who grew the plants, tended them, picked them, and brought them to where you are.
A grocery store adds gratitude for the distribution network for collecting and bringing the food to it. The diner at a restaurant, rather than tasting and dropping the thumbs up/thumbs down hammer, instead basks in complete awe of all the work and miracle that brought the food, already cooked, to where he sits. The earth, the seed, the plant, the seed steward, the farmer, the distributor, then the chef and the kitchen staff who coaxed wondrous, succulent flavors from it and the dishwashers who cleaned the plate and the server who brought him the food.
Heartwarmingly, this is where the ladder becomes a loop, as the castoffs of our food, and eventually, ourselves, fall into the open mouths of the decomposers, the fungi and earthworms and microorganisms that recycle all this tissue and flesh back into nutrients that will help bring forth and nourish the next generation of plants and seeds. Thus, we participate fully in the cycle, and it’s important to remember where we fit. To put it bluntly, as the end consumer, we’re one step from the recycling bin, and honestly, the farmer could skip that step if she needed or wanted to.
And from the vantage point of a farmer, and of one who’s mentoring hopeful new farmers into existence, this shift in perspective seems crucial if we are to ensure a sustainable supply of food to stock the restaurants and grocery store shelves. Farmers increasingly need to skip the step to the end consumer, packing up their knowledge and skill and handing over their land to a big box strip mall because culturally we don’t value them enough to provide them an ample wage for their efforts.
I’ve always been a fan of the CSA model because of its emphasis on the producer. Our CSA members pay us money without seeing the end product, trusting as we must in the continual capability of the earth to spring forth new life, and being willing to shoulder the risk alongside us should something go awry. They put their wallets and their palates in our hands, and they gain a broader culinary experience by eschewing their ability to choose what they get in their share. We, not them, choose what they will be receiving in their share for the week. We tell them when and where they must come pick up their food, in accordance with a schedule that works for us, the producers.
In a conference last month, I sobbed in my seat as I heard a story about a CSA farm in California whose members attended an early season meeting at the farm. As they watched the farmers’ kids playing, one of the members asked the farmers if they had a college fund for their kids. Of course, they said no, they didn’t have the money to have one.
“What about health insurance?” another asked.
“A retirement plan?”
Of course not. And their members, most of whom had steady jobs with health insurance and retirement benefits, decided this was unacceptable. They wanted their farmer to have the same level of security they had, to be valued at least as much as they were for their life’s work. They asked the farmer to sit down and crunch the numbers, to figure out how much their CSA shares needed to cost to afford their family these basic things. The farmers came back to the members and told them that a CSA share would need to jump in price from $400 to $900 for this to happen. And the CSA members agreed!
I sat in that room, surrounded by farmers, unable to hold back tears. What would it feel like to be valued like that? To get real about what food needs to cost to actually pay a producer, one who farms with the utmost respect for the earth, a living wage, and then to be supported fully in that!
I don’t know exactly what it will take to get us there, but we must. As spring begins again and a new season of cherished seeds find their way through the hands of reverent stewards into the wet, welcoming skin of the earth, let us come together in celebration and gratitude for all it takes to get food into our bellies, and let us work together to find ways of truly supporting that noble work.