In January 2011, when the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan was released, an economic analysis indicated that with every five percent increase in food production in the state, 1,700 new jobs would be created. Goal #1 of the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan is to increase Vermonters’ local food consumption from five to ten percent over ten years.
The title of this piece was included in an end of year TomDispatch commentary, written by one of my favorite writers, Rebecca Solnit:
…Many seeds stay dormant far longer than that before some disturbance makes them germinate. Some trees bear fruit long after the people who have planted them have died, and one Massachusetts pear tree, planted by a Puritan in 1630, is still bearing fruit far sweeter than most of what those fundamentalists brought to this continent. Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.
and near the end of her piece, this:
I don’t know what’s coming. I do know that, whatever it is, some of it will be terrible, but some of it will be miraculous, that term we reserve for the utterly unanticipated, the seeds we didn’t know the soil held….
I am going to adopt this as my new mantra (my friends and colleagues should get ready to hear it often) for the work that we are all doing in food, in recalibrating what health and wealth means in our communities and in demanding a civic (public) life that breeds empathy and justice.
Writer/activist/teacher Michael Harrington who used the metaphor of being a “long-distance runner” for community organizing and movement work would also say this in lectures:
“…you must recognize that the social vision to which you are committing yourself will never be fulfilled in your lifetime.”
Some of Harrington’s writing and the majority of Solnit’s is about how successful movements-when pulled apart and examined-are made up from a series of direct action moments and negotiations finally coming to fruition around a shared narrative of big or even scary ideas that will lead to societal transformation.
Yet Solnit’s content is most often written about the individual or about small groups using meandering/karmic ways to create this change, outside of the broken or simply too large formal structures that stopped responding to individual plights a long time ago. And that when it happens the right way, collectively and with heart-thumping goals attached (let’s say during the American Revolution or with the 18th and 19th century abolitionists or with the woman’s suffrage movement) it starts slowly with small groups of citizens and spreads to those governing us, not the other way around. And that it takes a while.
All of that is all very nice I hear some of you say. But what does this matter to my never-ending project list and non-stop funding crunch?
What I ask is while you take the time to read this, do examine your own way of working and ask yourself now (and later on too) if you are also caring for the seeds yet unseen. If you have the maturity to manage your or your organization’s relationships in your work like a long-distance runner does with his/her energy and time.
I don’t expect you to remember this post every time that you sit at your desk or head out to the community to work on food and justice. Just remember the title of this piece and remember my teacher Michael Harrington, pacing himself as best he could. He died long before he saw what he defined as success but I believe that he was genuinely glad the work outlived him. Not the injustice certainly but the connections and the ideas.
How could any of us expect to get it all done in our lifetime? My god, I hope many of the seeds and saplings that I have planted bear fruit 300 years after my passing, just like that long ago pear planter.
However you find your pace, I hope we can all find the energy and patience to stay on for the long seasons ahead, some with cloudy dusks with fallow ground and others with sunny days full of trees bearing fruit as far as the eye can see. If not, if you only want a win, to bring in a single crop, then throw it all in now by all means. We need those too. I suspect you will find more work to stick around, but if not, I will still salute your effort and your time. And I’ll come get you when the green shoots takes hold.
Solnit gets the last word:
A decade ago I began writing about hope, an orientation that has nothing to do with optimism. Optimism says that everything will be fine no matter what, just as pessimism says that it will be dismal no matter what. Hope is a sense of the grand mystery of it all, the knowledge that we don’t know how it will turn out, that anything is possible.
Be forewarned-if you know me, you are going to hear and see this interview many, many times in the near future. An extremely concise and necessary interview with Mary Berry of the Berry Center and daughter of our agrarian apostle* Wendell Berry, on the shortcomings of our good food work at this point. I think all of her points are gravely necessary to consider and all of them have potential actions to take to push forward.
In These Times
*Don’t worry-The term “apostle” is used here in the Classical Greek context of messenger.
Orion Magazine published a piece in this month’s issue by author Rowan Jacobsen that extols the virtues of the emerging food hub as the next welcome part of our movement.
Much of what is in this piece is spot on and well crafted to explain why the addition of local infrastructure and aggregation is quite necessary for many farmers and vital to the goal of building regional food systems. However, calling farmers markets “window dressing” as was done in this article shows an extremely abbreviated view of the role that grassroots, low-capital farmers markets play in this still-emerging food system.
When we talk about building more farms from an idea to full production, farmers markets are still the best place to give those new farmers the space and time to build their businesses while they watch their peers and learn from them, from shoppers and from other leaders that stop by. When attempting small amounts of new products that are not yet clear winners in the marketplace, where better to test those varieties but with diverse, ever-changing weekly populations such as those found in a market? When a local community wants to have healthier citizens, where else than a place that allows everyone to enter it just as they are and allows each participant time to get to their own version of local food awareness and civic engagement?
Achieving the moment where communities truly value local food production is a long strange trip and takes many seasons and a multitude of different organizing attempts to build even enough of those “early adopters” much less the early majority that will surely need to at least pass through tents on more than a few sunny days to begin to change their habits.
In case we have forgotten what the different market eras have done already:
The earliest markets that started in the 1970s brought small family growers and eager buyers together (mostly organized by farmers themselves) and did so using very little infrastructure or investment from outsiders. Many of those markets began because farmers were stymied by indirect buyers, even those buyers that worked on behalf of natural food stores and locally owned supermarkets. “Grow it to sell it” was a very powerful statement and maybe even a revolutionary one back then.
That era was followed by neighborhood leaders adding markets designed to invite a whole new group of community members (for example, senior citizens), and THAT was followed by small rural communities using farmers markets to revive their Main Streets and hold on to their towns.
Last but certainly not least, the public health community invited by markets to help bridge serious food access issues and pilot innovative programs has brought new energy to every market over the last decade and built partnerships that work tirelessly together in the halls of Congress and with other policymakers to show what local food can do, can accomplish where hospitals on wheels by themselves cannot. Each of these eras added an important piece to the food system movement and is still needed to curate it and don’t doubt it, future market eras will do more in areas not yet imagined. To paint the farmers market as “one size and one goal fits all” misses the continued evolution of this efficient and elegant mechanism.
To accomplish the big goals of behavior change for everyone (farmers, shoppers, policy makers etc), farmers markets have invited every food system idea into their midst, allowing never-ending tests in the only place that they were all really possible: the democratic town squares of food where personal yet collective transformation happens.
Can all farmers and buyers fit into markets? Of course not, nor were they meant to. But to speak anecdotally about sales at markets declining and there being “over saturation” when the entire community food system has reached (by most estimates) one to four percent of the population is shortsighted at best. Have sales declined for some farmers? Certainly. Maybe because serious infrastructure or rule changes were needed or maybe because markets needed some help along the way to manage their multiplying productions, help that mostly never came.
Let’s put it this way: the need for infrastructure is an argument that markets themselves have been making for a few decades, and in some cases, actually made happen for their farmers. It is not counter to the idea of the tented market in any way and when community infrastructure is added all producers will benefit. The need for capacity is also an argument that has been made by market organizers for decades; however, if it only comes at the sight of shiny new buildings and asking farmers to scale up-without eradicating the barriers that still exist for some of them-then has capacity help for them truly arrived?
The core truth is that the entire community food system remains immature. It is immature because it has not connected its networks and built collaborative communities of practice everywhere (using the terms of Meg Wheatley and Deb Frieze’s Emergence Theory)
All systems need appropriate stages of improvement to lift all in its rising tide. In order to work on economic, cultural and environmental levels, new leaders must be allowed to emerge and to connect. New ideas (yes absolutely) have to be allowed in alongside of those already present. Markets have needed help to make their case to newer and larger audiences for some time and see that food hubs can help make that happen. The business baseline of good food hubs is one that markets can learn from while sharing their community-building lessons in return.
Therefore, to style the farmers market field as a static anachronism is a dangerous idea to the health of the entire food system, without even recalling the very deep work done by its direct marketing sister-CSAs, which have certainly pushed forward the economic boundaries for intermediate farmers and allowed their infrastructure to grow.
Let me state it clearly: for farmers market communities, food hubs are welcome. (I wonder if the opposite is also true? And if not, why not?)
Food hubs will not replace the need for farmers markets in the case of many farmers and for many eaters; they will expand the idea for some of those farmers ready and willing to negotiate with wholesale concerns and most likely attract the farmers who were never deeply interested in retail sales or in introductory relationships with constantly changing buyers. The true hubs will stand alongside of markets and CSAs to share the responsibility of changing the way that all producers are valued. They will help encourage and expand needed investments and updates in food handling that do not ask small family farms to hand over their farm to large corporate interests.
The need to change the power structure and allow farmers to LEAD the negotiations over what price, product and types of appropriate growth that each farm needs is the goal for farmers markets, for CSAs and for food hubs too. With all respect to a favored author of mine, to separate us into what was and what is next is very wrong.
Authored by Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems & The Wallace Center at Winrock International
From the Executive Summary:
Findings from the survey showed that food hubs across the country are growing to broaden the distribution infrastructure for local food. From the survey, 62% of food hubs began operations within the last five years, 31% of food hubs had $1,000,000 or more in annual revenue and the majority of food hubs were supporting their businesses with little or no grant assistance—including food hubs that identified as nonprofits. Financially, the most successful food hubs tended to be for-profit and cooperative in structure, in operation for more than 10 years and working with a relatively large number of producers. The values-based nature of food hubs makes it hard to judge many of them solely on their level of financial success.
The survey also revealed a number of persistent challenges and barriers to growth that even the most financially successful food hubs faced.
For example, many food hubs indicated their needs for assistance in managing growth and identifying appropriate staffing levels for their hubs. They also often pointed to their need for capital and other resources to increase their trucking and warehousing capacity.
This is one of my favorite food system sites . Wouldn’t it be great if each state and every regional projects collected and shared this type of visual data?
Note from the organizers:
Map updates include expanded Nutrition Assistance data and updated points of interest for Maryland.
Nutrition Assistance – new and updated data about federal nutrition assistance programs.
SNAP usage by Zip Code
Schools with 50% or more children who are eligible for free and reduced cost meals
Afterschool Meal Program Sites
WIC office locations
NOTE: The following existing data layers have been moved to this category:
SNAP Participation by County
Points of Interest – updated points of interest note changes in addresses and expand lists statewide.
Institutional sites in this list – schools and hospitals – will be expanded further this year, as we gather data and statistics about how these institutions are using local food. Here are the layers currently updated:
“By rejecting reforms and doubling down on mean-spirited cuts in nutrition and the SNAP program, a critical mass of people across the political spectrum couldn’t stomach this bill. The result was a strong ‘no’ vote, leadership looking embarrassed, and the House in disarray.”
FOOD POLICY AND PROGRAM MANAGER
The role of the Food Policy and Program Manager is situated within the larger Propeller Social Venture Accelerator program with a focus on food systems and land use. The two primary goals within the Propeller Food Systems sector are: 1) Providing access to healthy, affordable food to disadvantaged residents and communities in New Orleans, and 2) Equitable economic development for food-related entrepreneurs in New Orleans and the surrounding region.
(scroll down the page to find this listing)
In case you sometimes forget that the farm bill is a political fight, and there will many attempts to derail a thoughtful, serious conversation about the type of food we eat, who produces it and who will get access to it.
“6th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference: Digging In!” Burlington, Vermont August 2-5, 2012
Presented by: National Farm to School Network
Proposal Application Period: February 8, 2012 – March 7, 2012
No proposals will be accepted after March 7, 2012