Thursday, October 21, 2010


There's a lot of hand-wringing in the sustainable agriculture/food systems/foodie movement(s) about the US's declining numbers of farmers. While most of our grandparents or great-grandparents had at least a backyard garden, the percentage of Americans with farming as occupation is now less than the percentage of the population in prison (which, of course, also says something about our criminal justice system). However, the decline in the number of farmers has seen a corresponding rise in employment in other areas of the food system, from the farmworkers who pick the tomatoes to the servers who put the bowl of gazpacho in front of you in the restaurant. (Full disclosure: a lot of this post is information gathered from Anna Lappe's presentation at the panel I attended this evening.)

But in the foodie world, it's all about the farmers. It appears that (for those with the education and means to be "foodies" in the first place) once you've made peace with your farmer (buying your produce from local, sustainable small-scale operations) you're off the hook. Cutting out all those involved in the industrial food system from planting to plate renders those millions just as invisible to those who profess a deep interest in food and agriculture as they are to those who never think twice when reaching for the Cheetos.

Social justice concerns were my entree into this whole "food" thing, so it's frustrating to see issues like pesticide protection, farmworker housing, safety in food processing plants, and compensation rates for farmworkers and servers (the two occupations not subject to minimum wage laws) given so little attention.

At a panel on local food this evening I asked the participants (a chef, community garden organizer, and author) what they thought were some of the most important worker justice concerns overlooked by the food movement. They mentioned the need for basic awareness of what these jobs involve (recommending the book Working in the Shadows: A year of doing the jobs (most) Americans won't do by Gabriel Thompson) and support for the campaigns of groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Restaurant Opportunities Center (and I would add the genius UFW campaign, Take Our Jobs). But my favorite suggestion was to work on broadening/shifting our definition of "farmer".

One of the most memorable dinner-table conversations of the year on the farm (significant not just because it was our first meal cooked by a certain five-star chef, although that didn't hurt) concerned what we, the interns, would actually call ourselves. The farm website, ATFP brochures etc. labeled us farmers, and yet an honest inventory of the work we did (weeding, harvesting, washing, packing and delivering produce) had us feeling much more like the farmworkers picking strawberries and weeding celery in the fields around us. By the end of the the mushroom-asparagus risotto (pictured here just because it was so delicious that I have a picture) we had resolved to call ourselves farmworkers.
Tonight, one of the panelists suggested the opposite. Why don't we use the term "farmer" to describe those who work the land. Simply owning or managing a piece of agricultural property does not make one a farmer. The decline in the number of farmers would certainly be less precipitous if we included those who spend the most time growing our food.

There's another possibility here too -- that producing food industrially has come close to eliminating the farmer. In Oxnard I noticed how infrequently the word "farmer" was actually used to describe anyone involved in agriculture. There were growers (landowners and/or managers) and farmworkers (those who planted, tended, and harvested the crops), but very few farmers. There were only a handful of men (and even fewer women) who either (in the case of the growers) took the time to know and work the land or were given the luxury (in the case of the farmworkers) of developing a sustained relationship with a particular place.

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