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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  1. There are two ways to make family farming more affordable:

    1) Increase productivity, economies of scale, etc. (Which of course results in an industrial scale farm).

    2) Simplify the distribution channels (Farm share, farmers markets etc.).

    These two have both been tried and are being tried and have had great success. Option one may be a failure in that it involves industrialization and option two may be a failure in terms of what it would do to grocers.

    I guess what I am saying is that affordable is not what you want. Affordable (In the sense of competing with industrial agriculture) cannot sustain a community (At least in the sense that agrarian’s would like to see).

    The only thing that can save the family farm isn’t a change in the family farm but in their buyers (their market). NYT’s readers are essential to the survival of the family farm, so are hipsters, so are organic cultists, so are nostalgic traditionalists, and of course anarcho-syndicalists.

    Regular folks have a different set of priorities that don’t involve making a separate trip to the farmer’s market to pick up their groceries. As they say, let them eat cake.

  2. Darn it. I thought for sure the solution to our economic & cultural problems was to have more Hipsters from Williamsburg moving upstate to grow onions on the muck. (Kidding, though I may have inadvertently just created the inspiration for the next reality TV show)

    Thanks for the humor. I needed it this morning. Dan & Empedocles raise some good points. It takes some creativity for small organic producers to compete with the global agribusiness. Competition isn’t really the word for Community Supported Agriculture. It’s more like finding niche’s that value the principle enough to pay more for their produce. Most of the people that I personally know who participate in CSA’s are from the upper economic brackets, and place value in the cultural and environmental benefits of CSA. But most of the working class folks I know are shopping at Sam’s Club, and Discount supermarkets to stretch their ever shrinking money as much as possible.

    The current recession has caused a lot of us to re-think our expenses. I have read a lot of newspaper stories about people starting gardens to help reduce their expenses, not all of them Latte-sipping, Mini-Cooper driving hipsters either. Greater awareness of options like CSA is a good thing. Despite poking fun at the hipster crowd, (which is easy, and enjoyable) they are a part of the community too, so we shouldn’t begrudge them their designer organic cheeses, so long as it is helping someone, somewhere make a living in a sustainable way.

  3. Oh…I was unaware that LA was so much more grounded than New Yawk…do tell..Whenever I attempt LA, the first thing that pops into my head is “Reality”. My Granadpappy settled there in the 1890’s and word was out by 1950 that the good times was over for that festering hell hole of motoring decay and designed to implode modernity.

    I believe Rousseau’s fellow Opera lovers wished he would stay in his Island Hermit Hut because he was prone to living in those Afghani Pantaloons he so loved to parade about in and was an inveterate pant- wetter to boot.

    Some hipsters are master dumpster divers and recyclers and live pretty simple lives…they are not all delinquents on the family payroll.

    But, you are right, there is nothing quite so provincial as a New Yorker or his tri-state suburb co-conspirators.

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