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How to single-handedly change the world

I just finished the book “Dark Age Ahead” by Jane Jacobs, and it’s provoked quite a bit of thought in me since then. The author seems to specialize in books about urban decay, but in the vein of James Howard Kunstler, the discussions of urban decay inevitably bring up discussions of why urbanization ever boomed in the first place- and why it will continue, despite its mistakes and speed bumps along the way. With Jane Jacobs, the quick asides, describing the decline of rural America, and her thoughts on the pillars of society, both urban and rural together, force me to think about what we’re really doing in the small scale farming movement, or even in farming in general. We have a tunnel vision of our time that can miss the historical trends which, like glaciers, move at glacial speed, but like glaciers, grind down their obstacles or shape them nearly beyond recognition.

She discusses the criticality of maintaining skills in an ever-specialized world. From a farming perspective, what I fear most is the loss of traditional, balanced, holistic farming. The ability to understand the roles of different animal species, grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit, within at least a foodshed, if not within a single farmstead itself. The preservation of old skills could equally be applied to many professions, like carpentry, textiles, or any other thing. The ability or knowledge to work with local materials. I suppose most knitters know how to work acrylic yarn spun in factories in China where the pollution is still tolerated, while farms lay idle throughout New York and New England, producing only a small bit of woolen goods (and certainly no linen, very little or no fiber hemp, or other viable Northeast fibers), even while appreciation of the utility of these fibers is approaching an all time high.

Older people (at 31, I count myself old now, based on my rants) complaining about lost skills is a bit of a broken record. What an old set phrase it is, a “broken record”. Better put, a skipping track on a music file. There are truly some things that could be safely forgotten by most all people, and we’d be okay. Like most people do not need to know how to light a whale-oil lamp anymore, and that’s quite fine. But what qualifies and what doesn’t? Skilled, knowledgeable farmers who know how to make a piece of ground get better over the years, those folks will be hard pressed in an economy where it’s so easy to externalize your own abuse of the ground. As farming is less and less inherited and more often chosen, many of us will not be on ancestral ground we’re tightly tied to. Many of us, believing strongly in modern, Western individualism, strongly hope our children will follow their own paths and not feel an obligation to continue what we started. How will our values of land stewardship fare in this new open sea with its own currents and winds that may push the loose-ruddered where it wants to? It’s a question being partially answered by farm education programs, apprenticeships in their thousands across the country, in farming conferences, etc, but we have to always wonder, will it be enough for the glacial changes coming our way- slow, but unstoppable short of, literally, a change in the global (economic) climate?

I guess I should clarify, the glacial change I see that directly relates to farming, is the global population continuing to increase, the global middle class growing, and rightly demanding their fair chance at a better diet than their parents, while simultaneous trends in the global economy speak of more and more specialization and scaling. A growing Chinese, Indian, and African middle class that wants affordable chicken, pork, beef, and dairy, while also having raised expectations about vegetable and fruit consumption, along with their demand on manufactured goods and other markers of the global middle class. It’s why Northeastern fields lay idle, at least temporarily, because they’d cost too much to work in relation to the vast fields of the American Midwest, Brazil, and beyond, cranking out so much corn and soy on a scale never seen. There is going to be increased demand for food, but it’s at a particular price point. One that we may not be able to supply in our market. Driving around my home territory, with great annual rainfall, a winter that keeps many plant diseases in check, there is great potential. But the sloping fields, the rocks, the demand on real estate from ever-burgeoning suburban and McMansion lots from people fleeing the unlivable portions of the cities, all seem to press to make it hard to produce in our area. But the global economic truth seems to be that the things we can make, at the price we make them, may just not be wanted. That’s a hard thing to understand or accept, I guess. Central Asia is poisoning itself and sucking itself dry growing cotton, so it can get woven in India and China, and get sold for $12 a 6 pack in a Wal-Mart, or $30 a shirt, if sufficiently marketed, at some midscale store in a (dying) American mall or some outlet. Meanwhile, around us, fields lazily worked, unstewarded, or even let totally idle, monocrop farms struggling with the commodity price of the 1-3 things they can sell whose prices are in direct tandem with each other (corn, soy, and milk prices move too closely in relation to each other to count as diversifying your portfolio).

We could produce durable American-grown clothing that’d be a price somewhere between those two, and supply farmers with a new crop, towns with new processing facilities for fiber, with their jobs and income, but it doesn’t seem to be the way of things. There’s a great local fiber mill one town away, that can handle all grades of wool, but only finished grades of linen (from flax plants) and hemp. The American Northeast could be outfitted in things of its own making, and yet we aren’t.

*PS- I have to say, I've seen several Vermont brands of wool, and they're a free vision to a potential future. The word "Vermont" itself is like free branding- they already had a great head start with that. But several fiber brands have started and gone belly up, which tells us that the time may still not be right for local fiber to make a mainstream appearance, except for some diehard wooly types. The stars may just not be aligned yet. Maybe someday, the cache of owning quality linen or hemp goods will be more fashionable than owning the newest lines from outside brands. On that day, the retail price of a locally grown shirt may be high, but it'll be quality, it'll be designed to last, and it will be fashionable, in some sense of the word, to wear it.

Jane Jacobs specifically mentions rural economies being left behind as they fail to understand the knowledge economy. I can choose to be offended by that, but I have to step back and ask if it’s basically not spot on, and what I should do about it, or what I should use my voice to advocate for. First off, do we flee, do we emigrate? Or, do we, each rural corner of America or the world, try to come up with patchwork solutions to how to keep our communities vibrant while fewer and fewer of us are needed to produce the food and other raw resources for the world? Will each foodshed, each place like the Battenkill Valley, the Hudson Valley, the Catskills, try to come up with their own way to tap into the wider world, and what will that look like, and will it not just be a self-fulfilled doom for all of us to compete with each other for the final cream, the final excess of the economy, to be skimmed off? It very much feels like that is one possible direction. One fad crop or product or another is touted to each region, in turn, as the thing they can use to differentiate and stay alive. If everybody listened to the consultants, the extension agents, the pushers, wouldn’t we just be in the same boat- too many farms producing too much of the same thing? At the same time though, the great macroeconomic trend is that for some crops, we do in fact need a critical mass of people doing the same thing, to justify the equipment dealers stocking the things needed for niche crops, to justify the specialized processors needed for adding value to the raw product, and so forth. The question, to reiterate as Jacobs puts it, is how does a raw resource microeconomy thrive in a knowledge based macroeconomy. 

The other question, then, is what macrotrend is really behind all this. Is it the quality of life, preferred by most humans, given by living in larger communities? To live in a denser area is a wider net cast in job searching, house hunting, school-district scouting, and all those things that people value. Those desires are legitimate, unstoppable on any scale other than personal choice. It makes me wonder, though, if it’s not connected to our American tendency to abandon broken things instead of fixing them. In my time in American religion, I noticed a trend that I think many sociologists have noted- Americans love to shop even for churches. If you think the pastor is too fire and brimstone, or too rosey, or if the worship is just a bit too loud, or a bit too quiet, you just go shopping for a new one. If you don’t like something you can just pursue endless options, as fixing things is often harder than just skipping on over to the next option. As we sense a community falter, the final exodus of the middle class who can leave, happens, and there’s left a stagnant remnant of people who couldn’t afford to leave, and potentially don’t want to, either.

I’m not one to speak innocently of this- I am part of the problem. I join groups, I join clubs and societies, and faced with the effort to help make them reflect me more by being a more active or vocal member, or to just quit on them, I, like most people, tend to elect to leave. It’s something I think I have to work on. And I wonder if that fundamental American individualism and obsession with choice, and its availability, is why we can have half a grocery store aisle filled with 20 brands of bread and 20 iterations of each brand, and yet still be no further ahead in life with a near-paralysis of choice. I never knew I needed 400 options on how to consume refined wheat, until that aisle, and it made me no happier than before.

Anyways though...what I wonder, for my local rural economy, and for each of the other rural economies in turn, is what can be done about the loss of community through depopulation? What community skills do we need to keep alive, or revive, to keep rural areas livable? The decline of some of our old institutions, like each small town’s five to ten churches, leaves a vacuum. Don’t get me wrong, I personally am done with religion, and know all too well why it had to go in my personal life, but what I wonder is what do we do instead? How else do we stay knit together as a group of people? How do we transfer old skills of stewardship and land use before they’re lost? How many books do we have to scour to re-learn skills we’ve already lost- things you didn’t know that you didn’t know. That’s the scariest “fog of war” in all this- how many questions already got answered but the answer was lost. I'd love to have a time machine and work with my great grandparents for a farm season, and instead I scour old tomes at used bookstores, hoping to glean what I can.

And clearly, no top down solution will work, as by its very definition, it will erode the very goal we have, which is for locally developed, adaptable solutions for local problems. Kunstler, in his books, diagnosed the way that zoning laws accidentally killed our small town downtowns. The solution is cheap apartments above cheap storefronts, for working people who don’t want or need larger homes. Light industry and local job options in short walking distances. To fix, is to largely just undo the last “fix” we made of “overcrowded” cities with choking smog pouring into tenement housing. We over-worshipped lot sizes, segmentalized residential and commercial, and drivability, and forgot what a draw an economically mixed neighborhood is like, when done right. 

It feels like if we keep our towns vibrant, the rural districts around it will have their little metropolis to go to that will save their need to drive 45 minutes to a Wal-Mart, as often as possible. If town populations stay strong, the rural area feeding them and exporting beyond can stay viable. If rural areas can at least not shoot themselves in the foot, that is the first thing, though. I see rural areas that pursued the “tax base” obsession of giving concessions to big businesses or developers at all costs, and slowly became so unlivable that they lost more than they gained. The middle class, after voting in some box stores or industry, to relieve their property taxes, leave in ten to twenty years, when they realize they don’t like how ugly their home has gotten or how many out of towners beat the hell out of their roads coming to and from the new destinations, and how the national brand chains pop up in natural response to these draws, to help out of towners avoid the risks of the local diner, the local pizza shop, the local pharmacy, in favor of the thing they know, and boom, the downtown that first made you fall in love with the charming little town, is dead, and the traffic makes it all too obvious that your solution was your own doom.

Big questions like these beg for some practical, personal things to do about it, while acknowledging that individually, I have little to no power to answer them or change the outcome other than my few personal choices left me. Do I diversify my farm more, do I add or detract to local efforts to diversify our local economy? Will we, as voters, come up with plans that strengthen or weaken ourselves, within these trends? What can I do to make sure old farming knowledge is passed on, while not over-hallowing old things that may never come back? If I knew the answers to these questions, I could probably make millions in the stock market, because it basically involves predicting the world economy for the next century.

What we can do, though, is choose to do individual good things, working on actionable information. The most basic rearguard action for protecting the good parts of old practices is to not do harm, like the most basic, protective part of the Hippocratic Oath. If you exist in a surviving rural community, I think that means maintaining positive relations with as many people as you can within it. We have a short term fad in our country right now, of not being very civil, but we’re going to need to relearn that, and it’s critical to the bigger picture of rural living. Secondly, once we know we’re not actively eroding good institutions, is to build them up, and build new ones. I suppose this is intra-farmer networking, but also treating your customers and suppliers kindly, your neighbors, and building nets of people whose success you root for, and who root for your success too. Avoiding age-ism- in both directions, avoiding judgmentalism between conventional and organic, small scale and mid scale and large, and remembering that we’re more on the same team than not, is pretty important. I think that’s something my fellow organic friends sometimes miss out on, in the midst of getting excited about the small scale and organic movement. You still have loads in common with the guy spraying RoundUp plowing his corn field, because he will probably be there to help get your car out of the ditch in a winter storm, than your most passionate customer at your favorite far away market. I grew up seeing it in action but I encourage newer passionate unconventional farmers to keep their eyes open for that. Farming will get lonely and those who remain, of both schools of thought, are passionate and have more in common than either know, and you’ll want to be on good terms with all the people that you can be.

Anyways...I started this thinking I was going to give a coherent book review, but I just have rambled with my own thoughts inspired by the author and by other things I’ve been digesting lately. These are questions that are moving targets, there is no answer, other than our individual choices, day by day and year by year. How do we protect farmland from temporary fads in construction and zoning...how do we make sure good farming skills are learned, and passed on, within our competitive capitalist markets where you may not be rewarded for some of those skills.

1 comment

  • Wow, DJ, I will have to go back to this often to review. The really annoying thing about being my age is it takes me longer, and with repetition to process what I read. You are genius.

    Aunt Shellie

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