May 3, 2015

Good Work


I have been helping the Memphis Center for Food and Faith for a few years now. Noah Campbell, the exec director, has dedicated his life to quietly working in the community (mainly, but not only, the faith community) to make people more aware of the value of a local food system, for lack of a better phrase.

This value, of course, is not measured in dollars, but rather in bringing people together as a community, taking care of the land and reviving the definition of good work to include true agri- culture – that is, nurturing the soil.

Part of Noah’s work has been to hatch BringIt Food Hub, which begins its second year of aggregating and distributing locally grown food thru Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) deliveries to paying customers and this year, free to needy families. Winchester Farm provides eggs and produce to BringIt.

Noah told me the other day that in order for the food hub to be self-sustaining – that is, not having to rely on grants and other donations for revenue – it will take more than 1,500 acres of farmed land near Memphis to produce a sufficient quantity of food to be sold.

Coincidentally, Mother Jones magazine published an article suggesting that, if (or when) California’s vegetable growing regions run out of irrigation water, the Mid South’s renowned “cotton ground” would be ideal to replace California soon to be deserted farm land. That idea sounds compelling, but it could take years to heal the land and find true farmers, rather than agribusinessmen, who would be willing to learn the new-old ways of what was once called “truck farming”, or growing vegetables.

At any rate, just a couple weeks prior, I led a group of folk from Memphis and Colorado on a tour of Winchester Farm. They were all interested in our experience in dealing with the lingering effects of chemical-based farming on our soils. And how we use livestock as the key part of rotating “crops” on our land.

One man on the tour recently bought a large agribusiness operation near from Memphis. He was somewhat interested in changing his ways of monoculture cropping and reducing the use of chemicals. We began discussing the merits and demerits of small scale farming, which this man also expressed an interest it.

I opined that I agree with Wendell Berry, when he says that the main goal (or at least consequence) of industrial agriculture is to eliminate human labor from the process – to replace humans with machines. I suggested that, as I wrote in an early blog, the elimination of human labor over the years resulted in hundreds of thousands of farm hands being forced out of rural areas and into big cities where most end up in poverty.

I suggested that there is a need for a resurgence of small farms where more sustainable methods can be used to form, in aggregate, a more local food system. This would provide small growers a chance to make a reasonable living doing good work.

I must say I was mortified when my guest uttered this:

“People don’t want to do that kind of work. That’s why most of the organic produce sold in America comes from Haiti. That kind of work is for Haitians.”

He went on to estimate that in the future, technology would allow for harvesting fruits and vegetables to be done with robots.

“Wouldn’t it be a better job to be sitting at a computer controlling robots harvesting than to be out in the field doing the work?’

The premise was shocking to me, there out in the sunshine with these people, smelling the cattle and feeling the sunshine and soaking in the energizing colors of spring green-up. But robot-picked food is obviously not unsettling to most urbanites. Sadly.

Upon reflection, it seems to me that Noah’s estimation of the large number of acres needed to support BringIt Food Hub with locally grown vegetables is not the only or biggest challenge here; clearly the biggest challenge is finding enough people who place a value on working the land.