Thursday, June 28, 2012

Land Grab

30 years ago, on the island of Jersey, a potato farmer's daughter told two treasure seekers that she and her family often found old coins in their fields during harvest time...they'd fill a sack and plow the rest under, so the story goes.
These two adventurers, intrigued, have been hunting up ancient buried trove ever since, for a specially granted 10-15 hours per year, in the potato fields. Now they've unearthed a reported 50,000 celtic and roman coins from Julius Ceasar's day, worth an estimated 15 million dollars.
They are not the only ones who are beginning to look to farmland for treasure.
Foreign investors from all over the world are buying up large farms, aiming not only to sink their money in land, but in some cases farm it from afar, or rent it out at a price to those willing to "take advantage of rising food costs" and turn agribusinessmen. In some places, like in Africa, these absentee owners have displaced subsistance farmers and are causing some worry in local communities, as they make use of local rivers and streams filling huge tanks to irrigate fields. In other places they are being welcomed as a possible business opportunity for locals, a chance to move up in the world from small farmer to paid employee. Big agriculture is being sold in out- of- the- way places now, not really because it makes sense for the communities stamped with these large absentee-owned farms, but because its starting to make sense for the absentee investor.
But, as Olaf, the Swedish farmer in the movie "Sweetland" remarked at a shared dinner with a banker relative, "Banking and farming don't mix."

Last Sunday we spent the afternoon just up the road on a
neighbor’s front lawn with out heads tilted up at the clouds- making quite a
change for us from our usual daily following of dirt, earthworms, beetles, and
ground-bound plants. The “Embrace Adrenaline” Scandia Trapeze club meets every
weekend in summer at Sherri’s house- and practices the fine art of flying on
her massive trapeze rigging- which was a birthday present to her from her
loving husband, upon discovery of a new nagging interest in soaring.
Many of the members are well past 40 years old. The space
which they inhabit while “flying” and “catching” is very finite. It can’t be
more than 40 ft….and yet what a world is contained between the bars, the
rigging, and the poles. An untold interior life is magnified on the trapeze for
each flyer chalking up and scaling the rope ladder to the board, gathering new
courage to leap off into a space maneageable only by the strength in their
fingertips, arms, and core. Comeraderie is high amongst them, all circled
around this unusual art….uplifted by a successful salto, or a good “catch” or a
return bar almost grabbed.
I could have stood spellbound for well on 6 hours had not
the familial obligations of meals and picture book moved me. There is a certain
familiarity we have as farmers with the aerialist on the trapeze. Like the
flyer and cathcher, the dream of the small farm is only achieved through
constant vigilance, timing, a juggling act of many preceise actions which, in
toal, add upto something which can inspire on sight…the trapeze artist traces
lines against the clouds, our own motions are a corrolary, tracking across the
contours of the earth. The exileration they feel in the their mere 30-40ft of
space up in the rigging is similar to the full human experience and range of
emotion we receive within the relatively small boundries of the farm’s property
line. It has long been my suspicion that given the profound dignity of each and
every human person, and the breathtaking beauty of any given natural landscape,
becoming truly content- and not just content, but also truly a-fire with the
grand glowing goodness of life ,becoming sparked with joy in living and
breathing inspired to further growth…all this happens with finding out how to
exist within a relatively small sphere so that your whole attention is given
to it, you are not emotionally or physically invested anywhere else but rooted
to one spot. Children are so good at this. It’s why they are the ones to find
the fuzzy white catipillars, the ants’ nests, the antique piece of jewelry
unearthed from the little spot of sand at your doorstep…they will, at any given
moment drop to their knees and discover a hidden world at their toes…this is
more accurate a view of reality than the adult one we wander about in, judging
to be real only what we have a use for or a want of.
During the shift from agriculture to agribusiness (a shift
which began with the undustrial revolution and seemed helped considerably by
the war) there was a a huge push to eliminate the small family farm. A
committee report from the Agriculture Department Chamber of Commerce from as
far back as 1945 described small farm units as “economic and social
liabilities”. Farmers, according to this committee, did not make fro good
consumers…and therein lied much of the problem. They were too fulfilled and
provided for on their small farms, feeding their neighbors to have the ambition
necessary to attain a higher standard of living , and acquire the technology
required for frowing thousands of acres of commodity crops that the U.S. could
use in foreign trade deals, or political manuervering in the world, using food
as a gargaining chip. So began the wholesale swallowing of small farms by
agribusinessmen, and the public policies aimed at thelping them out….aimed at
ousting “the little guy” You may remember the USDA’s “Get big of Get out”
mantra. But I’ll tell you what we lost with the small family farm. We lost
personal stewardship of the land ( a problem which continues to show up in our
drinking water and our collective top soil loss) and we lost many important
lessons in life which taught us to look for wonder and fulfillment on the
home-front. (You know, the Wizard of Oz point.)
With foreign and out of state
investors now making grabs for American farmland (and African and European) the
work our CSA members are supporting on our little farm is so vital. Farming as a business venture, from afar, without the chicken poo on your shoes and no sun in your eyes is not going to end well for the land, local communities, or the investor himself. Food security is not about having enough to scare big and small nations into fighting on our side, or trading with us. IT is about a system of production in the hands of as many as possible. It is achieved by backyard, next-door, and down-the-road means. Grow it. Buy it from a neighbor. Seek out a farmer down the road and keep him on the map. Because that map is getting smaller. The print is getting larger. And farmers are fewer and far between. We need to wake up and shake things up.
"Stay tight" is what the trapeze artists say, reminding eachother to pull in their abdominal muscles remember their core, and keep their limbs firm and together in order to avoid chaos in the net and in the air. "Stay tight" they say. I hear them. When they say it I hear "Stay home." Stay home, and FLY.

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