So organic is the new conventional. So voting with your dollars will not challenge the neoliberal order. What, then, is the path to sustainable agriculture? Connor Fitzmaurice and Brian Gareau got down into the weeds – literally – in search of possible answers, and they present hope and direction in their book Organic Futures. In what reads like an extended response to Julie Guthman’s political economy analysis of organic agriculture, Fitzmaurice and Gareau give us a cultural anthropology study of some of the people who are forging an alternative to Big Organic.
Organic farming has gone from an alternative agriculture movement to a big business, with big growers hewing to the letter of the law while disregarding environmental, economic, and social sustainability. Yet there are still organic practitioners who reject the profit motive and seek to live out the values of the original movement. These are small, predominantly younger farmers who rotate crops, grow a diversity of cultivars, plant hedgerows, sell locally, and even question the USDA list of allowed chemicals. They are subject to the supremacy of market forces that constrain us all, but they have carved out their own space where they can put at least some of their ideals into practice. It is this tension between the structural and the personal that Fitzmaurice and Gareau explore with their ethnographic portrait of one small New England organic farm.
Regarding the very idea of a New England farm, an idea that might induce images of stubborn old-timers eking out a pitiful yield on rocky soil during a two-month growing season, Fitzmaurice and Gareau point out that New England farming is actually quite productive, with yields comparing favorably to those in the rest of the US, but that the fractured landscape is not conducive to the kind of big agribusiness that dominates in places like the Midwest and California. The farmers are younger, reviving the region’s agriculture after farming there came to seem unfeasible after Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz’s admonition to get big or get out. They are generally white and college-educated, a demographic that also includes a significant proportion of the farm workers there. They take advantage of a niche market where proximity to consumers and face-to-face interactions are valued.
The concept that Fitzmaurice and Gareau emphasize is that of matches. As small organic growers negotiate the demands of running a business with their concern for environment and community, they undertake many smaller negotiations with people and practices. When conscientious neighbors volunteer to help fill CSA boxes and get free produce as a gift of gratitude, that is a match. When a local restaurant appreciates the quality of the farm’s produce and makes a standing commitment to purchase part of the harvest, and in turn the farm gears part of its production to meet the needs of the restaurant, that is a match. When the farmer hires an environmental studies major with a vision of agricultural sustainability to work as a laborer, and then treats that laborer as a human being and a participant, that is a match. When the farmer uses a microbial preparation on the tomatoes to fight late blight in a wet year instead of turning to the more toxic — but organically permitted — copper spray alternative, that is a match. And when the farming couple rents out the cottage on their idyllic property to draw a substantial portion of their annual income in order to approach a middle-class lifestyle, that is a match.
These small matches are the everyday acts that reflect the larger struggle between values, customs, lifestyle, and positive self-image on one side and the monetization of human interactions on the other. Farmers and farm workers often aspire to farming in an environmentally friendly manner and creating community. They value their connection to the outdoors. They have a need to see themselves as good people doing the right thing. However, Big Organic, largely from California, has driven down prices at the farm gate, all but wiping out the price premium that organic producers could count on to compensate for lower yields and higher expenditures on labor. Instead, the higher retail price of organic produce accrues to the intermediaries farther along in the food chain. The organic farmers profiled in the book have to depend on special circumstances to make a living, including inherited property with an easement that limits its use to agriculture and natural environment, farmer mentors, a zeitgeist where buying local is valued, personal connections to buyers and volunteers, and a non-farming source of income, not to mention one member of the farming couple having a knack for handling the organic certification paperwork.
One of key practices of the subject farm is their CSA, an acronym standing for Community Supported Agriculture. The practice entails selling season subscriptions to local consumers and then providing them with a weekly basket of whatever produce the farmers have to offer at that time. This arrangement provides up-front cash when it is needed at the beginning of the season, when farmers might otherwise have to take out loans. It benefits the environment by giving farmers extra incentive to plant a diversity of crops, and also giving them the ability to opt out of the use of chemicals if one of those crops should fail. It strengthens the community by bringing together neighbors who volunteer to help fill produce baskets on pickup day and giving subscribers at least some personal connection with the farmers. And it benefits the organic movement by occupying a niche that Whole Foods and Walmart have had difficulties moving into.
Fitzmaurice and Gareau detail the ways in which the profiled farmers take the extra effort to make their vision of organic agriculture work. They put in long hours planting, weeding, harvesting, packaging, record-keeping, negotiating. At one point they hand-pruned the flowers from a field of potatoes in order to keep bees from succumbing to the biopesticide to be used on the Colorado potato beetles. They pack extra turnips into a bunch to make a good impression on the CSA members. Perhaps most problematic, they forgo the comfort of the middle-class lifestyle that their education level might afford them and their children. Fitzmaurice and Gareau decry the disproportionate burden that small farmers must shoulder in bringing about a more sustainable agriculture.
From my agroecological standpoint, I paid more attention to the details of pest management than Fitzmaurice and Gareau with their sociological focus. Bt bacteria might have been the biopesticide used on the potato beetles. If so, there should have been no danger to bees visiting sprayed flowers, as the strain of Bt used on beetles would be beetle-specific. I cannot say for sure, as Fitzmaurice and Gareau do not name the biopesticide. Other pest problems on the farm included aphids on the chervil and hornworms on the tomatoes. The chervil was unsalvageable, and the more experienced member of the farming couple was considering interplanting flowers in the following year’s tomato crop to attract beneficials that might reduce the hornworm population. It is well known that more diverse vegetation reduces pest populations, and nectar sources in particular attract predators and parasitoids that kill pests. How unfortunate that young farmers with years of experience did not already know to intercrop flowers with their chervil and tomatoes. To me this was an indicator of lack of institutional support to provide education and training for farmers who strive to farm more sustainably.
In the end, Fitzmaurice and Gareau concede that Julie Guthman’s political economic analysis is correct. Under a neoliberal economic order, local organic produce is considered another niche market. Elite consumers make individual choices to consume status-symbol foods according to their preference, reinforcing wealth inequality, while the powerful economic players make allowances for such individualistic activity and continue to steamroll society with industry consolidation, downward pressure on wages, regulatory capture, defunding of public support for small farmers, increasing uniformity with the illusion of choice, and further exploitation of the environment. Fitzmaurice and Gareau’s philosophical answer is that any socioeconomic current that might eventually supplant neoliberalism will necessarily emerge as a component of the existing neoliberal order. As such, a movement of conscientious community-building farmers who create alternative socio-economic relationships (“matches”) might be the seed for an as-yet inchoate new economic paradigm.
As hopeful yet critical theorists, Fitzmaurice and Gareau make some recommendations, based on the Plentitude model. First is a transformation of the CSA model. The profiled farmers lamented that the CSA was not creating more community. The subscribers would show up on pick-up day, exchange a few words or hold a brief conversation, and then leave, never taking part in any of the actual farming activities. Fitzmaurice and Gareau envision a Community-Supported Community Agriculture, something perhaps akin to a community garden with professional farmers guiding it all. The consumer community would plant and care for the produce that they would harvest and eat, not in the atomized fashion that the carefully demarcated plots in existing community gardens necessitate, but as a rational agroecological whole.
Second is an extension of current farm-to-institution arrangements, such as farm-to-school programs. Students could go beyond enjoyment of fresh local produce by actually interning on local farms. They could earn credits for their efforts, and the institutional underwriting of such a program would provide support for the farmers and the community-building.
Third is an explicit inclusion of farm labor justice in organic certification, perhaps through separate third-party certifiers. Fourth is a stronger commitment by organic farms to environmental consciousness, from the number of trips CSA subscribers make to the farm, to tighter on-farm nutrient cycling and generation of energy, to cropping choices more suited to the local conditions than to consumer demand. Finally, movement organic agriculture must continually strive to remain alternative as Big Organic moves in to co-opt the innovations of sustainability, and the key to this is using community-centered development to counteract the power of money.
Anyone have other ideas?