Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Farming important? Of course it is.

A new Guardian op-ed by Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation draws attention to the insecurity that just-in-time shelf stocking and other modern efficiencies have inadvertently added to the food system, which combined with a general lack of resourcefulness, creates a new kind of societal risk.

Apparently we're a couple snowstorms away from the breakdown of civilization. Simms believes that we may no longer have the built-in resourcefulness to deal with otherwise minor breakdowns in provision systems.

In London maybe, or New York, but not here in Maine.

Most of us Mainers have stockpiles of food and fuel, and the mental and physical wherewithal to get more if we need it. It's unlikely that we would suffer too greatly if a war that engendered rationing, or a civil disaster, were to cut off supplies for a while.

The small farm that my wife Aimee and I run is fairly groaning with food, fuel, and fiber right now, as we eat our way through a pig and two lambs, several hundred pounds of frozen, canned, and root-cellared vegetables, burn our way through three cords of homegrown and another three of purchased firewood, and knit our way through 130 skeins of wool, enough for twenty to thirty sweaters.

With a back-up generator and the equipment and knowledge to go out and grow more food and get more fuel next year and the year after that, I'd say we were fairly well-fettled as far as food and fuel security goes.

But it's worth noting how we got to this point. Aimee and I got here, like most other rural Mainers, by willfully ignoring the constant, insidious messages from the mainstream about how success should be measured. Raising lambs and pigs and growing spuds and chopping wood is not generally held up to be the premier "brand characteristic" of a successful academic, or even a successful person, in today's America.

By the standards of the mainstream, Aimee and I are not just eccentrics: quirky and cranky and perhaps mildly cantankerous, going against the flow. We are wrong, and wasting our time to boot. Why struggle to raise home grown food when it's obviously cheaper and more pleasant and less, well, suspicious, to let the professionals do it?

But I grew up in Britain in the 1960s, just a few short years from the end of rationing. I walked past uncleared bomb sites on my way to school. My parents and grandparents told me about rationing. They explained how my maternal grandfather fed his family with a community garden, domestic rabbits, chickens, hens, and the trapping of wild rabbits. He managed to keep his food enterprises going through the war even though he was drafted.

Another article summarizes the scrabble for farm land, the so-called "land grab," that is taking place now in the developing world.

How should we think about this problem of food security?

Well, for one thing, we might learn to value anew the many millions of acres of recently abandoned farmland here in Maine. As climate changes, and food insecurity deepens, any decent patch of soil suitable for rain-fed agriculture might be useful for a field or a garden.

We might also value anew the occupations of farmer and gardener, and teach our children to honor their craft.

The great world of commerce and global markets may be where it's at, but we all have to eat.

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