The Big (Organic) Apple

By Susan McWilliams for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

Small Farmer, Big City

Claremont, CA. The Big Apple dreams of the organic apple.

Everywhere you look in The New York Times these days, somebody is talking about organic farming. A few examples – all from this Sunday’s paper:

1)      On the cover of the “Styles” section, Alex Williams explores organic farming as a potential “Plan B” career.  Williams begins his account of life on an organic farm this way: “On the way to feed the hogs early in the morning, I paused and circled back toward my rented Mini Cooper, Starbucks venti in hand.”  Unsurprisingly, Williams does not take to rural life. He sounds more enthusiastic – but only a little more enthusiastic – about the other alternative careers he explores: chocolatier and pet massage therapist.

2)      Chrstine Muhlke interviewed two city-professionals-turned-organic-farmers for an article in the Times magazine. The piece, titled “American Pastoral,” is fairly straightforward, so I’ll just relate my two favorite lines from it. First: “They’ve become addicts of ‘American Idol,’ which they watch in the home theater in the large house they have built.” Second: “Like other 21st-century farms, Nature’s Harmony has a blog.” In this article, too, organic farming is described as a “Plan B” career.

3)      In the byline for a page-long op-ed on the financial crisis, we learn that author Sandy Lewis is an organic farmer. Some people may remember Sandy Lewis from his days as a Wall Street bigwig, the son of Bear Stearns powerhouse Cy Lewis and the founder of arbitrage firm SBLewis & Co. Lewis was convicted of stock manipulation in the 1980s in a fairly high-profile case, although President Clinton eventually pardoned him, and the general consensus seems to be that he did nothing wrong. Now Lewis maintains a rather aggressive website which details his long legal battle with the Adirondack Park Agency. And he raises purebred Herefords.

From these articles, I’ve drawn a few conclusions. Two of these are not immediately relevant, but they are important:

1)      The health of the pet massage therapy industry and the health of the republic must be inversely related.

2)      I need to thank Divine Providence that I do not live in New York City, where I might have to share cocktails with thirty-something hipsters while they use the phrase “Plan B Career” over and over again.

Here is my more relevant conclusion:

3)      Well, this was inevitable.

Ever since modernity began, there have been modern city-dwellers who romance the primitive or pastoral.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagined that his Emile – his perfect young man – would have to be raised in the country, far away from the corruptions of town. (Some of Rousseau’s advice to mothers in that book sounds a little iffy – like his admonition to dip children “in the waters of Styx” – but there are some really good ideas in there, too. “Distrust those cosmopolitans who search far in their books for duties that they neglect to fulfill toward those around them,” for example.) I am actually not the first person to think that Rousseau would have been all about organic farming, at least in theory. It’s hard to imagine the old man tilling a field, though; Rousseau liked his opera too much to give up city living.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, protagonist Paul Proteus becomes enchanted with the idea of farm life as an alternative to the mechanized, centralized, dehumanized reality of post-World-War-Three America. But it doesn’t work out. “Paul had gone to his farm once, and, in the manner of a man dedicating his life to God, he’d asked Mr. Haycox to put him to work, guiding the hand of Nature. The hand he grasped so fervently, he soon discovered, was coarse and sluggish, hot and wet and smelly.” After that, “he hadn’t gone back.”

My guess is that few New Yorkers will act on this contemporary version of the fantasy. Few have the kind of money that you’d need to start a farm, the kind of money that Sandy Lewis had. And few have the kind of motivation to get out of town that you’d need to go through with the plan, the kind of motivation that Sandy Lewis had. (There’s nothing like a federal conviction to make you consider a dramatic change of scenery.) And many who do pursue the idea more seriously will find, as Paul Proteus and more recently Alex Williams did, that farming is hard. The pastures may be greener, but they are not easier.

So we shouldn’t expect the emptying of the Upper East Side anytime soon. I do think, though, that this may be an opportune moment for people committed to family farming and worried about the dominance of corporate agriculture to enlist urban allies.

Of course, that project would have to include a serious effort to make family-farm food affordable. I worry that in our increasingly two-tiered society, it would be easy for family farming to become “successful,” where “success” means that wealthy people buy food from small farms, and everybody else shops at Wal-Mart.  (Although Wal-Mart sells many “organic” products, it gets them from industrial-scale factory farms, many outside the United States.)

That’s a hard sell, especially to elites who are extraordinarily provincial in the way that elite New Yorkers are extraordinarily provincial.  Since it seems that money is tight in New York, though – all that jawing about a “plan B” suggests that plan A isn’t paying too well – perhaps there is some hope in all those dreams of green space. Right, Dante?

“By such a curse as theirs none is so lost
that the eternal Love cannot return
as long as hope maintains a thread of green.”

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