Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Good Growth

Our local Whole Foods Market is decked out with pumpkins (some pretty big ones--that a person could sit on--for $50), and the seasonal squashes and other goodies are in, if not as plentiful as last year. The summer's heat blasted many local farms, with the result that Fall menus will likely feature veg from Mexico and Chile rather than from around here as many of us would like.

I had planned to have acorn squash at least, but that gave up the ghost long before Halloween decorations even made it into the stores. So I've got a few peppers coming in, and maybe some late eggplant, but aside from the herbs, that'll be it.

What this post is really about, though, is work. Real work: the stuff that needs to get done in order for people to survive. And the work of the season is harvesting. With the U. S. economy in the doldrums, and anti-immigrant fervor at a peak, one would think that farmers would have their pick (ahem) of potential hands to pull up the onions and pop the corn off the stalk.

Not according to this morning's New York Times, however--and this isn't the first I've heard of this problem. The upshot is that although America is a far fatter and less healthy nation than it should be, and even though the unemployment rate is embarrassingly high, farmers can't find nearly enough local workers to get the job done. I've heard more than one report of people signing on to harvest crops, and leaving after a few hours because they thought the work was just too hard.

I know I tend to romanticize farming; I even have the temerity to use the term "farm" metaphorically in the title of this blog. But farming lives somewhere at the center of our American identity (think of our pastoralist forefathers, amber waves of grain, and all that). Many of our ancestors farmed this land, or the land from whence they came. My own name even contains "farmer" in German (although we still haven't figured out how one could farm owls). But farming seems to have evolved into something different in recent decades.

The growth of agriculture has meant not an increase in the number of people who farm. Rather, it has morphed into fewer, larger farms owned by conglomerates. The idyllic-sounding "family farm" has become a memory to many, because small farms now find it so difficult to compete with Big Ag: Bigger machines, more oil (including fuel manufactured from corn, which--if I remember correctly--used to be a food crop), larger spreads of monocultures, genetically engineered species. Everything's designed to be more efficient and cheaper to produce, and then we hear complaints about how hard it is for mega-farms to make a profit. Heaven help the small farmer, unless she happens to live near a city where she can sell her fresh harvest to a restaurant or at a farmers' market.

I'm always amazed at the small-government advocates who don't seem to give a hoot about small anything else, because they'd rather buy their genetically-engineered corn at WalMart for pennies, rather than pay more for better food from more sustainable sources. Yes, I know the Large Marts all over the place are touting their local sources and organic produce--but all that's a piddle in a puddle when we look at the big picture.

The picture isn't pretty. After reading about farmers' trying to hire unemployed workers to fill in gaps from lower numbers of immigrant workers, and the unwillingness of the new hires to do the work after only a few hours on the job, I couldn't help but wonder about what we've become. Fat and lazy? Disconnected from the earth that sustains us? Softened by electronic toys and digital media that distort the very idea of farming ("Farmville," anyone)? Do any of these people really care about where our food comes from--what they put in their own bodies? It seems that most folks these days would rather work at Micky D for minimum wage than get out into the open air and get some exercise for the same amount of money per hour.

At my rapidly advancing age and stage of decripitude, I can't quite afford to give up my own job--despite the increasing stress afforded me and my colleagues as we watch beloved co-workers laid off, our own work-loads increase, and as we face the challenge of teaching students whose preparation levels seem to drop every quarter. But don't think for a minute that if the axe fell on me I wouldn't be looking for seasonal work in the field to supplement my meager retirement prospects. I'd certainly be a great deal healthier, sturdier, thinner, and freer of stress-induced belly fat than I am today.

But this is a philosophical as well as a practical concern. What have we become? Why is farm work, the foundation upon which civilization itself was built, held in esteem so low that so few people think it worth doing? When we talk about culture (that ineffable essence that describes what it means to be human) and cultivation (how we educate, nurture, and exercise our vast intellectual possibilities), we're using the language of farming. (Agriculture: ager = field, cultura = tending, tilling.) Even traditional American teaching cycles are arranged around the agricultural needs of our ancestors; kids get off in the summer because at one time they were needed in the fields. And shall I also mention all those seasonal festivals that arise at planting, tilling, and harvest times?

I'm going to be talking about the origins of agriculture in my first-level art history classes next week, because when we began to farm, we also began to create the monumental works that mark a culture and provide it with a physical identity. Turkey, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Bronze Age Greece--the makers of temples and tombs were all farmers first, and only later warriors. It was to help account for crops that writing was invented among some people. Some of the most enduring painted and sculpted images from antiquity depict farming or honor agricultural products and nurturing deities.

Lately I've also been thinking about growth. And although that's a post for another time, about the only really beneficial growth I can think of these days has to do with crops and kids. Most of the other senses of the word we're currently using are essentially unsustainable. But growing crops--and growing children both provide us with hopeful metaphors. It's not coincidental that some of the first formal schooling our offspring get is in kindergarten--a garden for children.

But schooling has little to do with gardens these days. Except in a few schools that actually cultivate garden classrooms (about which I've written elsewhere), we've taken our kids out of the fields and plopped them down into over-crowded classrooms, tempted them away from the out-of-doors with myriad electronic gizmos, and taught them to eat Happy Meals that will end up making them fat, unhealthy, and reluctant to do the real physical work it takes to harvest real food.

That Mad Farmer, Wendell Berry, has the right idea. We need to re-ground ourselves in the metaphors that arose from our nation when it was young. Before we became enamored of constant growth, upward mobility, and efficiency, we knew something about the cycles of things. I just hope we can remember them before it's too late.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested

when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

--Wendell Berry
"Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front"
From The Country of Marriage, 1971

Image credit: Ansel Adams, Farm Workers and Mt. Williamson, 1943. This is a rather idyllic photo taken at the Manzanar "relocation" camp outside of Lone Pine, California during the second World War. Despite their forced internment at the camp, the incarcerated Japanese occupants contributed to the U. S. economy by farming. A woman I met in Philadelphia, who had been at Manzanar as a child, told me that farming helped the internees maintain their dignity because it was honorable work. The photo is available through Wikimedia Commons, from the Library of Congress collection of Adams's photos of Manzanar.


desertsandbeyond said...

My forefathers were farmers on both my mother's and father's side. Of course, during the time they came to this country, that's what most people did. I have inherited that green thumb and I love to garden. I also enjoy taking photos in the Coachella Valley of the various crops. We have a 365 day growing season.

clairz said...

We have been living in an agricultural area for a few years now. We see the incredibly hard work it takes to grow the chiles, cotton, alfalfa, cabbage, and pecans that grow around us. Although I wish to buy our food locally, the stuff that's grown in the nearby fields has been sprayed with chemicals that make me choke and then is trucked far away, so we buy from the tiny organic farm a few miles away. The cabbages across the road probably end up in a Walmart in another state.

Here is something that struck me when I read your post. Just as young people are reluctant to till the fields because of the hard work involved, they are also reluctant to raise children. I may be generalizing, but it seems to me that families are shrinking while potential parents concentrate on their own lives and upward mobility, perhaps because they think that children are just too much trouble. They are right, of course: Raising children is hard work, unprofitable, and the parents may not live to see the harvest. I wish they could all read Wendell Berry.

Anonymous said...

I always know when I come over here to read Owl's Farm I will find two things,thoughtful writing and a kindred spirit.
People ARE lazy and would rather hire someone else to do those jobs around the house that were once only thought of as family chores.If you were fortunate enough to own a home however humble you took care of it yourself. The only people who didn't were the very wealthy (and some of those still did their "chores") and the frail elderly.
This is about not passing on skills that should have been taught in childhood. Many parents coddled their kids in the notion that they were providing a better life for them.It so happens that it is only softer not better.
I am the last person in my family to work for wages in a field. Yes my daughter is willing and able to go spend a day picking apples or berries as a foodie outing and enjoy the actual fruits of that labor but perhaps not willing to get up in the foggy dampness of an early October morning,grab a thermos of coffee and head out to turn the harvested Pumpkins in the straw so they do not mold and spoil.
People mostly get their "Harvest" fruit as decorations from the grocer or worse from a very insincere pumpkin patch on an asphalt lot with blow up slides and a mid-way of games.
They are so disconnected from the where,what,when and why of how their food is grown. They have never had soil under their fingernails that was not purchased at a Lowes or Home Depot in a clean 1.5 square foot bag. They have never ached from catching pumpkins being unloaded by hand off a field truck and tossing them to the next person down the line into the patch so children could choose a lovely orange globe without fighting their entangling vines. Our local ranch is gone now,sold to downsize and retire by the last owner in the middle 1990s. I harbor a little hope though because a few years ago another longtime local bought the remaining couple acres,the Foothill ranch name and began anew. He sells at farmers markets right now and if ever he gets a chance to expand into a fruitstand I will be right there to apply for work as a cashier,ambassador,fruit tosser and squash roller!
I cannot even begin to tell you what I think about GMOs here it would fill pages!

Nancy said...

A little late with this comment but when I was in my wild and crazy youth I moved back to California with a boyfriend to make it big in San Francisco (those glorious days of being a hippie). Instead we wound up being so incredibly poor we went off and became migrant farm workers. Migrant because we lived in our car while doing it. What an eye opener - it changed a lot of how I think about respecting others, work, and even how started me towards a path of more like Buddhism. I was crop dusted, discriminated against and met wonderfully kind and friendly people. Thanks for the words.