The Green Desert: Field Trip to New York City

This is a continuation of The Green Desert and The Green Paradox.  The quick update is:  more flowers; still many bees; growing number of moths and butterflies.  Still no bees on flowering plants around the Roundup Ready corn and soybean fields.  

This story starts about a week ago with a phone accounting of all this to a friend in NYC, who I had called to tell we were coming to the city for a few days.

Specifically, I told him not only about the bees, but the complexities of mass production and paying the bills on a family farm, ala how my father works alone the amount of ground that would have been 3 families’ work just 50 years ago, and grew much more than they did then as well-all while using (at minimum) poisons that (at minimum) bees don’t like and seem obviously to be out of balance with nature.

So my friend said, “Well, what’s wrong is the feeling that you have to grow that much.”  Which got me to thinking.

We like to drive on our trips, and so we set out on a drive.  We like to look at the countryside and the different houses and towns, and it gives us more or less uninterrupted discussion time.  In this case we had 12 hours to NYC:  I-70, Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-78.  We didn’t have more time, so we just stuck to the freeways, otherwise we’d go on many more two lane roads.  But I digress.

Basically, it all comes down to labor, and the cost of that labor.  Sorry to go all capitalist on you, but the bottom line is:  the human-hours required to grow food, with hope of return of a living wage.

I say “living wage” because that is all that is usually afforded the land-worker, be it the family-farmer, the temporary worker, or anyone else below corporate executives of huge agri-businesses.  And I understand that cheap food is a necessity for the billions of us on the planet, and is in many cases (at least the minimum of standards) the only thing the poor of this planet have.

Now when I say that a living wage is all that is afforded the land worker, I don’t just mean that’s what happens in reality, I mean, that is all that most people mentally afford them as well.  Any more is seen as “greedy”.  We get that from locals that we are dealing with in our current county zoning battle, that is what we get from our friends.

Now (on nearly every day) I am a member of the left because I want to be on the correct side, the one that is more intelligent, the one that uses facts to argue, the one that comes up with solutions that are not just fair for everyone, but work best-to make a better society.

This is not to say that those on the right are not also f-ed up in their opinions on agriculture, but I gotta say, that many on the left are lacking some basic, boots on the ground, information about all of this.  

As someone who lived 20 years on the coasts, mostly in New York City, that early every New Yorker is so far removed from food production that their ideas about it and how it should operate are way off.  I was way off when I lived there, even though I grew up in Indiana.  

My story (I think) can illuminate some of this.  As a kid, I had to do farm work, and I hated it.  I REALLY hated it.  My dad would talk about things I needed to learn, but I never paid attention.  I was going to get out of there as soon I as I graduated.  I did any after school thing I could, so that I didn’t have to go home and work.  And my parents allowed me to do this:  they were progressive and wanted all their children to go to college.  I was a straight A student, top scores in my class, athlete, etc, so it made all the extracurricular stuff work even better.

Now farm work is no joke.  Its hot, there are bugs eating you, there is heavy lifting, there is unpleasant stuff in every job.  No one in their right mind would want to do it.  And you get dirty, and you deal with shit as well.  Must be that only idiots would be farmers.  Oh yeah, and they make all our food.

But seriously, I was right there with you, I suppose my dad is/was too:  By the time I was in high school, he was saying, ” Well you could be a farmer, and be either lower middle class or broke-go to college.”  I was able to go to a top flight school, at no small expense.  We had financial aid, but I also know that my parents did without many things and sold some things to pay the bill(s).

Way back when, sometime after caves, but before everything else, the first “airs” were put on by those in the tribe who refused to do ag work because it was “beneath” them, and/or they had amassed enough gold that they could pay people to do it.  Funny thing about gold,  it has no value, but people value it.  You cannot eat it, it doesn’t make a good tool, I have no idea why people want it, other than just pure convention. Sure, I’ve heard people say ” Oh, but it doesn’t corrode, and it looks so beautiful…,” but I could say the same thing about my ass. (Remember, when armageddon comes, and you have a choice between food and gold, take the food…)

So I was talking about labor-that it all came down to labor, and the cost of the labor, and a car trip from Indiana to NYC where my wife and I could talk this out, when we realized that mass production not only made for cheap food (in theory), but also alleviated the need for the labor back on the farm.  My dad could farm what was the 3 family farms, and that I was part of the 2.75 families not needed for farm work anymore.  I could go off to the big city and pursue my artistic dreams.  I could make virtual reality for more and better TV shows, along with some funny pictures for advertising.  There’s quite a few people in that city, and every other town, city, and hamlet on this planet, at least parts of it, pursuing any number of dreams (and nightmares) because of straight up capitalist technology, and cheap, mass-produced food.

Now when we say “farm work”, we need some clarification. Even now, with all crops in the ground and harvest 6 weeks off, there is work every day.  Mechanical work, painting, fixing fences. Absent herbicides, weeding is an every day job.  Maintaining a 1/8th acre garden is a full-time, hot job.  (It is absolutely amazing (in a bad way) what happened to our garden in just 6 days absence.  But that’s for the end of the story, we’re still on the way to NYC.)

Of course 1/8th of acre cannot even come close to what you would need to live on, I’d guess its more like 10 acres, assuming great crops, with an an outlet to an upscale “organic” market.  Of course, I would think having 1 person maintaining 3 or so acres of garden would be cruel.  I can’t imagine they would have time to do anything else, and they would be physically beat.

I realized that (assuming the incredibly complicated and financially risky transition period to a situation like my friend suggested “where your father doesn’t need to grow so many crops” was able to be navigated with success) we would need some of the people to come back from NYC (and the other meccas of culture) and work the land.  And not as “gentlemen farmers” for whom it really doesn’t matter if the crops don’t produce, or if you get them in at all, but as real, pay the rent/mortgage with farming (and, BTW, have the opportunity to send their kids to college, and or to be rich, like their counterparts in the city doing their equally as important jobs.

And the food would also cost more.

Our friends are all various shades of the left, from mere Democrats, to Greens, liberal, progressive.  Some more interested in activism than others, some more interested in food than others.  Nearly all are either artists, actors, comedians, or musicians.  Our inner circle of friends is approximately 1 vegan, 1 vegetarian, and 4 or 5 omnivores.

The friend I was speaking to on the phone was the vegetarian.  Soy is the largest part of his diet, certainly eating some form of it at least once a day.  

I asked him a few times on the trip “How much more would you pay for soy if it was worked in small farms with no herbicide.”  His answer would land somewhere around “A little.”

I noted the conucopia of food available in NYC, and not just in the supermarkets.  Go down Mott Street and see all the fresh vegetables, many of which I did not recognize, or go to any juice bar-they all use bananas and other tropical fruits.  We not only want cheap food, we want all kinds of food, food from all over the earth, and food “out of season”.  I guess the world transportation system must be ok to some degree and/or still used for this theoretical new and better scenario we’re working towards.

I also asked my friend “Would you come back to work in agriculture-leave your profession and city life(style)–or do you know anyone who would?”  and he said “Well’ I’m sure you could find someone to do it for not too much money…”  Now this is a very sweet guy, conscientious, progressive, and he might be being cast in too harsh a light.  But I note here the assumption:  Farm work = low paying job = not job I want to do.  

Seems strange that one of the few “businesses” that actually produces new wealth is pretty much at the bottom of the totem pole, and viewed as such.  I mean, most commercial endeavors just redistribute wealth around, but farming actually creates value out of nothing.  Not to discount the (commercial) inputs to farming, but it is largely new wealth created, each season, from the grace of Nature/God/Earth.  It is one of the core fundamentals for all beings on this planet, and one of the last endeavors left that ties our psyche to nature, weather, and the cycle of the seasons.  And one more very important thing:

It is the extraction of cheap labor, out of the actual land worker, that is and has been the basis of each and every advanced civilization on this planet.

Think about it.  It’s true.

My friend also has an additional assumption:  That those in the city are “smarter”.  He kept advising me to “show” the locals the “better way”.  Now I know his heart was in the right place, but he wasn’t getting it at all, and reminding us all too much of some new locals here in Indiana, who are trying “show” the old-timers new and better ways of doing things.

I want emphasize that these essays are more to ask questions, than to give answers.  But we’re back in Indiana now, and the garden is overrun with weeds-after just 6 days.  It will still produce, but thank god we don’t use it as our source of income.  Something ate a bunch of peaches, a big crop which were just about to be ripe, and overnight about half are damaged/eaten.  Other bugs moving in on various other garden crops.  Again, thank god we are not trying to survive like this.  Good thing I have another job as our main income, or we wouldn’t be able to pay the property tax bill we got in the mail. How much labor would we need, and how much would the crops sell for, and how much is reasonable for the poor of the world to pay, for us to farm the correct way?

And that is the critical question.

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  1. didn’t like what I wrote and deleted.  So I’m posting a link I hope you’ll like:

    True story. The scene is a Manhattan supper club, circa 1952. Eleanor Roosevelt approaches a table at which John and Elaine Steinbeck are dining. Elaine makes introductions, and then…

    Eleanor Roosevelt: “When I go to the Soviets, they ask, ‘Does that awful treatment of farmers still happen in the U.S.?’ I say, ‘No, my husband and John Steinbeck took care of that.'”

    John Steinbeck: “That is the best literary review I’ve ever received.”

    • bigtwin on August 7, 2008 at 1:45 pm

    While lying in bed last night I realized I didn’t post a tip jar.

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