10.5 min readCategories: Closure, Farming, Green Alchemy
Farmer John
A homeschooling single dad living in an off-grid bus conversion named 'Totoro,' Spirit of the Forest. After nearly 20 years in the fields, John decided to go a *slightly* different route, to mix things up as it were. You can find us bordering public lands and wild places somewhere between West Michigan and Southern Arizona.
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Obituary 11.15.22

Like much of the population, local farmers took a cold hard look at their operations last winter and decided to call it quits. They looked at the totality of their lifestyle and decided to choose themselves over the farms that they feign to run, and found a came to the same conclusion; their farms were running them. Having spent, in some cases, decades putting their farms first they sold off their equipment and traded them for hot tubs, saunas, and therapy in various forms. Unverified whispers between these farmers sought to simplify, reduce working hours, and have a simple source of income that didn’t ask *everything* of them.

Distraught customer bases cried out in horror as their dependable, local farms simply stopped producing. NPR called for interviews and the demise of these farms got a couple seconds of headlines. Then other local producers scaled up to cover the gaping market hole to a greater or lesser degree as these expanding farmers began to learn the lessons that caused their predecessors to ultimately close up shop. And the farmers that quit? They’re finally drinking lemonade on the front porch in a hot tub. . . when they’re not attending to their ailing parents, their kids, and working their jobs that give them a shot at decent healthcare and retirement.

Americans like to paint fuzzy warm pictures of farmers, projecting an unconscious thread from yesterday onto antique tractor logos and straw hats. They gush at farmers markets about a ‘labor of love’ and abundance. Yet, even a dedicated locavore is likely deeply disconnected from the means of production, not to mention dirt under their fingernails. Between the cultural disconnects that allow honest, clean food to be taken for granted and the cultural, political and policy morass that is USDA policy; the independent, individualist, for-profit farmer lives year to year on a knife’s edge.

Local producers that have been in business long enough have weathered the test of time. They’re figured out how to manage their soils, markets and finances. These people are dedicated, passionate, adaptable and crazy smart. Anyone that can make a full time living off of horticulture has learned so many experiential lessons about small business management, risk, capitalization and biological systems management that they have literally adapted to their space, enmeshing with the soil, weather and weeds that form the whole of land and systems in which they find themselves caretakers.

Starting a farm is no small feat, and for every farm that begins there are many more aspirational farmers out there that will not put the pieces together. Finding land and housing is just the beginning of the journey, and this first step is a huge hurdle for those without moneyed families or a partner making six figures with benefits.

Sure there are exceptions. The wise farmers have a partner that has a full time job with benefits, retirement and the liquidity to overcome these hurdles, or the day trader that finally got weary of their complicity in a farce of a financial system and grew some values. Some of us made some money growing cannabis before the markets tanked in recent years and could therefore afford land prices that keep skyrocketing. [08-09, 20-22] Yet others decide to go where land is affordable, despite limited access to quality markets and outlets. Needless to say, one can easily spend $500k+ just to ‘have’ a farm and another $200-300k over the 5-10 years capitalizing the farm with the irrigation, equipment, infrastructure and season extension that will enable a full time living to be made.

When the finances are scrutinized, potential farmers quickly realize how heavy the cash outlay is, and that no bank is going to give them a loan to buy a farm except as a personal loan with significant off-farm income. Potential farmers then begin to wonder why in the hell they would consider getting into farming with a salary range of $20k to $90k once they have established markets, equipment sets and production systems online. Even a boot-strapping organic farmer will likely have to subsist on less than $20k a year while they pour the net proceeds back into the farm in the form of tractors, greenhouses, coolers, and market vehicles. And this is the shadow of the local food movement which asks a hollow ‘market-economy’ to self-regulate it’s way to health. The local food movement of 2006-9 was great at changing the narrative and elevating both consumers and producers. This movement did not, however, address the fundamental congnitive dissonance in local and regional market economies.

Cognitive dissonance?

What is the social contract between communities and farms? The closest most Americans get to living foods is a quick trip through the produce section of the grocery before moving onto a mind numbing array of pre-prepared and ready to eat foods. Grocery chains treat produce as a loss leader, something they must carry due to their nature as food suppliers, which they make little to no profit on. A well laid out produce section gives the impression of abundance, even when many of the shelves are full of half-degraded veggies that can hardly be considered living food. Most grocery chains eliminated local purchasing in the 80’s and 90’s because of the inherently higher cost of working with local producers, even if there had been established relationships spanning decades.

Farmers markets might seem an alternative, yet as producers we know we are marketing to less than 1% of the population that will regularly attend a weekly market during the summer, let alone year round. Some markets thrive while others seem to simmer. Market management varies widely with little thought given to food producer needs and reselling of farm products at many poorly run markets. Many managers seem to want a pretty picture and are not equipped with the perspective, insight and management skill necessary to create and sustain solid, producer centered markets like those that have been cultivated for decades in college towns, high end suburbs and well to do districts in major metro areas.

If our food is an afterthought to busy lives, what is the depth of support many communities demonstrate for community food producers? The social contract seems to have little inner depth outside of an exchange of energy in the form of dollars, as there is little substantial depth to the relationship between food producers and buyers; little difference in the core consumer relationship to producers outside of freshness and quality.

Perhaps this is the game. We seem to believe that humans have existed in a rural – urban divide for so long that we cannot picture anything besides the core producer/consumer contract. Yet, we live in a rapidly changing world, a world that calls us to conscious choice in action. In this world the layers of our collective consciousness are peeling away at times with grace and ease while the next moment a pallet of onions is overturned from the harvest trailer and promptly run over. The local food systems in our communities have yet to challenge and overcome the on-demand consumer mindset. These consumers have accepted what has been handed them as an ideal where history is carried forward into the present without evaluation and due consideration. The cost to these same consumers is disconnection, projection, idealization, and abdication of responsibility.

The Rotten Onion

A rotten onion has a distinct, foul odor that carries on the wind. Seemingly unscathed, this onion lacks weight and substance of its healthy counterpart and metaphorically resembles the mental health crisis in the US when tested for firmness. How this dis-ease of onions has spread through irrigation water, cultivation or cultural means is largely irrelevant; a rotten onion, is a rotten onion and saying as much is a matter of simple witnessing. The local food systems that we live in has yet to challenge the on-demand consumer mindset, and consumers have yet to own their responsibility to the food they eat in a meaningful, experiential way.

As consumers in a ‘free market’ our culture has indoctrinated us to believe we have no responsibility to those we purchase ‘things’ from. Whether that thing is an iPad or a sauna kit or a tomato is largely irrelevant. We spend our dollars as we wish, where we choose, and have no obligation to be consistent, conscious or discerning. As consumers of ‘things’ we have abdicated responsibility to the consequence of our decisions over the longer term and have no feedback mechanism for making more aware decisions with our purchases. We have accepted big box and strip mall culture as the norm, and have accepted it to a greater or lesser degree as the world we are willing to live in. Buying local, attending a farmers market or purchasing a CSA share is just a drop in the bucket of our annual expenses and can be opted out of when and where we choose depending on kids schedules, whims or hangovers.

We expect farmers to not only grow the stuff, but to enable our complacency by furnishing cultivated and tested recipes because we are too unwilling or undisciplined or otherwise unable to resource ourselves competently to make a simple, scratch dinner. The expectation of farmers expands beyond production to insist that they conform to a cultural projection of what farmers should look like as a means to confirm projected ideas and ideals about who we are. As a producer at a farmers market, we know the projections our customers demand because they literally tell us who they think we are. How many times have producers heard an “it must be a lot of hard work”, “a labor of love”, or “god’s work”? These statements land like caricatures or a mask that has been superimposed on an otherwise unique human out of collective history carried into the present by a myth of the American farmer. This mythology needs to die, and consumers have a choice on whether to support local horticultural producers with more than their purchasing power.

Local farms have needs that go beyond the purchasing of their products. They need stable markets, well managed farmers markets and advocates at all levels of local communities. Showing up at the farmers market or joining a Community Supported Agriculture program is just the beginning.

Collectively, we need direct investment from communities for beginning and existing farms. We need zero interest loans with flexible repayment terms. Direct community investment is one path, yet there are many ways to resource local food production, elevating it to the needs of food producers. This begins by seeing past the caricature to see the people responsible for clean, healthy food. How can they be seen? A conversation is a good start. The world opens from there, as local food producers need co-collaborators. Can you imagine working 70-80 hours a week while multi-tasking between employee management, accounting, marketing, social media, content creation, harvesting, planting, equipment maintenance, father/mother, cook, house maintenance, wood splitter, yard mower, and expect to have a fucking life? It is a recipe for no friends, little outside contact, burn out, and adrenal fatigue. So the people creating all of the healthful food for you are, to some degree, martyring their health because they are doing everything they can to steer their operations towards a healthful state before they give time to themselves.

There is one subset of farmers’ market customers that defies this critique of local farm economies: cancer patients and survivors. These fine folks literally radiate gratitude at a market. They have done their homework and are literally fighting for their lives by any means necessary. The understand intuitively the vibrational qualities of the food they choose to consume, and the perception of cost is irrelevant because their desire to live is so strong.

Unconscious or aware, we are faced with a collective choice of whether our choices serve or deny life. That’s all we have on this fine planet, folks. A simple choice, do we want to live? If the answer is yes, then further questions arise; how do we want to live? The health of our communities, our farms and our soils are intrinsically linked to the choices we make for ourselves and our families. One cannot both be an alcoholic and declare themselves ‘saved’ for the unconscious issues that drives intoxication will ripple throughout our lives and relationships.

What will you choose?

How can we uplift ourselves, our communities and the food we choose put in our bodies?

How can we enable food producers to lead the same healthful lives we want for ourselves?

How can we serve life by taking a little less and giving back a little more?

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