OUR LAND: A Symposium on Farmland Access in the 21st Century – April 26-27 (Berkeley, CA)

Access to farmland for the next generation of farmers looks like it’s lining up to be the most pivotal issue facing agriculture today. Consider this question: “How can young farmers, almost universally cash-poor and yet who have such energy and vision for a re-invented, sustainable and localized food and farm system in the U.S. even get started when land costs are rising, the resource base of arable land is shrinking and start-up costs are steep?” This upcoming symposium has the promise of being a gathering where some real, practical and paradigm-shifting solutions to questions like this will be identified and described.

I say this because of who is behind the organizing effort, namely, The Schumacher Center for a New Economics which is the organizational and philosophical heir of the E. F. Schumacher Society that was based in Great Barrington, MA.

E.F Schumacher was the visionary economist who wrote the book “Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered ” way back in 1973 because he saw the train wreck coming and had the economics chops to describe an alternative track. Sadly, not enough people heeded his warning or embraced his proposals. But some folks did. The E.F. Schumacher Society was instrumental in not only developing the concepts for local currencies, community land trusts, and micro-lending programs, they assisted communities to implement them.

Now, in its new incarnation as the Schumacher Center for New Economics, you can bet the concepts and proposals that will be discussed at this symposium will be the ones to manifest in your community. Since most of us won’t be able to attend, they will be uploading podcasts of the proceedings (see below).

We are talking nothing less than land reform right here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Pay attention and act!

Chrys

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Agrarian Trust, a program of the Schumacher Center for New Economics, is pleased to announce the schedule for our 2014 Symposium:

OUR LAND: a Symposium on Farmland Access in the 21st Century.

April 26 + 27, Berkeley CA

Wheeler Hall (UC Berkeley) and the David Brower Center

In the next 20 years, an estimated 400 million acres of farmland will change hands as 70% of current farmland owners retire. Meanwhile, entering farmers struggle to compete with non-farming landowners for access to prime farmland, particularly in peri-urban areas. This dilemma of farmland succession is shared by Greyhairs and Greenhorns alike, who all hope for a more sustainable and resilient farming future.

We will examine this imminent inflection point from historical, ecological and political economy perspectives, and address both practical and philosophical approaches to transition. With both national and international speakers joining to reflect on this topic, we expect a full room and a lively convening of stakeholders.

Please join us on April 26 + 27 for a conversation about farmland access and transition.

This event is presented in partnership with Chelsea Green Publishing, The David Brower Center, Berkeley Food Institute, California FarmLink and Roots of Change.

All lectures will be recorded as podcasts for farmers and others who cannot make it in person. To get the lectures please join our email list.

Please read up on the event details and reserve your ticket today at: www.agrariantrust.org/symposium.

Thank you for sharing this announcement widely.

Sincerely,

Severine v T Fleming, Managing Co-Founder, Agrarian Trust

Kristen Loria, Events Coordinator, Agrarian Trust

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This is What Food Sovereignty Looks Like

FoodTankMemeThis image is a meme that was posted to Facebook by the FoodTank (a food think tank), an organization I respect. It is a quote by Bill Mollison, co-founder of the Permaculture movement. I say, yes! This is where we need to go. But first, there are a lot of nasty and unnecessary government regulations (at the federal, state, county and municipal levels) that need to be done away with for this to actually become a wide-spread and influential reality. Those rules, while in many cases appropriate to large-scale, export-oriented, general public wholesale and retail operations, need not apply to small-scale local producers who are simply feeding their neighbors through farm-direct or garden-direct exchange between the primary producer and the end consumer (eater). The People must act to remove any regulation that stands in the way of any small-scale, local producer from providing food– any food of choice– to any local end consumer through direct exchange. The People can hold the producers accountable for quality and safety of the food and we don’t need government regulatory bodies to do this for us, especially when, more often than not, they prevent or inhibit us from establishing these types of exchanges. This is what Food Sovereignty looks like.

I posted the comment above to the Food Tank’s meme and then my friend, Walt Kloefkorn, an activist from Stevens County, Washington (where some of Washington’s most progressive organizing around the issue of Food Sovereignty is happening) said:

“Most food safety regulations are not about preventing unsafe food from ever reaching the public, they are about tracing it back to where it came from. Obviously, those parts of the system add no value to a situation where food is sold directly.

The state and federal agencies are incredibly difficult to deal with for small farmers. The agencies claim that they are concerned about even one consumer being harmed, but in reality they ignore much more serious harms to consumers such as lack of access to healthy food, the thousands of chemicals that are accumulating in our bodies, and widespread food insecurity. If they had the least bit of actual concern for the safety of consumers, they would begin an immediate phase out of the potent neurotoxins we spray on our crops in ever-increasing amounts. They are captive to the corporate interests and are primarily concerned with preserving corporate profit, not consumer health.

The extreme fragility of the mono-cropped industrial food system and its vulnerability to various shocks, such as spikes in energy prices, climate disasters, and crop disease outbreaks, could easily lead to widespread food shortages, and even famine. Small, diversified farms supporting local and regional needs are the best way to restore the resiliency that will be needed to fend off these potential disasters.”

Yup, that about sums it up. Stay tuned. This is not merely rhetoric.

Wisdom from an Organic Elder and His Reference to a New Organization: Food Commons

governance[1]This article, “Sustainable Farming Needs Math as Much as Mulch, Says One Veteran ” by Nathanael Johnson in Grist, an interview with Tom Willey of T & D Willey Farms in California’s San Joaquin Valley, is a must-read for folks thinking about the future of organic and sustainable food systems and farming models. I remember receiving pallets of T&D Willey Farms’ produce to re-distribute between Santa Cruz and San Francisco back in the ’80s when that’s what I did– their quality was out of this world; wooden wire-bound cases with hand-made informational flyers on each case. I may have even picked up at their farm on occasion (it was a while ago). The article is a direct follow-on from the New York Times article about the elders of the organic movement that I referred to in my previous blog post. What I find especially interesting about Tom Willey’s reflections on his and his wife’s success on their organic farm in California is that he is not blind to some of the aspects of the model that brought them their success that he now recognizes might need to be relegated to the trash bin of history in favor of new models that will make food production that much more sustainable, equitable and resilient. I’m fairly certain these new models are being born and nurtured every day with inspired projects being developed at the local level in communities all over, especially by young folks.

So, while reading the interview with Tom Willey, I saw that he mentioned a new project, Food Commons, that he thinks embodies some of this new thinking, a fundamentally different approach to feeding each other that’s “out of the box” compared to the models we’re used to. I got very interested. I read the entire Food Commons website.

I am intrigued by their suggestion to appropriate land held by banks connected to non-performing loans to form the basis of basically a land bank, a Commons, to install farming families on, to put to sustainable use in food production and, importantly, local distribution. I am also interested in how, as a society, we can establish mechanisms, through state, and especially federal buyout programs, for the transfer of privately owned farmland from present-day owners to a trust such as a Commons. These would be publicly financed and designed to eventually preserve in perpetuity a large percentage of our nation’s arable land, both rural and urban. Such a program would have to go far towards meeting the needs of the farmers (many likely aging, and their families) who would be willing to participate in the program while transitioning their private land away from exposure to the real estate market and committing its future use to food production as true public Commons. I think it would be possible to design such a program and to start advocating for it as part of future farm bills. It would need to be a national, grassroots campaign. It would be difficult to fund it, but not so much if we, as a society, decided our future food security and local economic vitality were more concrete  national benefits than is an obscenely bloated Pentagon budget. The Food Commons folks put it this way: “It is possible to think of the Food Commons Trust as a ‘National Park System’, a ‘Bureau of Land Management,’ or a Public Utility dedicated to national food security and health – but, importantly, without the typical government bureaucracy, it would be established as a public, not-for-profit Trust, chartered to operate for the perpetual benefit of the American public.”

I also have a hair-brained idea (that I just shared with the folks at Food Commons) that one way to fund the revitalization of local food systems would be for localities to tax their jurisdictions’ food warehouse distribution centers and/or grocery stores on food items that are shipped in from outside a given region and dedicate those funds to be administered by local citizens’ food authorities for local food system enhancement.

I also conveyed to the folks at Food Commons my belief that farm families who would be living and farming on the envisioned Commons, who abide by the stewardship agreements such arrangements would require, should be able to live rent free and have very long-term leases. Only sales of product or revenues from associated ventures should be attached for paying into the Commons organizational budget.

Under the Food Commons’ governance heading on their website, I see phrase in bold: “steady-state profitability” explained in the following terms: “The governing boards will establish goals, incentive structures, and checks and balances that drive efficient use of resources and sustainable positive economic value creation, not unlimited growth and maximization of shareholder profit at the expense of other stakeholders, including future generations”. “Economic value creation–” That is key. Unfortunately, it’s not too often these days that I come across the concept of “steady state” economics, but I am happy to see it mentioned in this context. There is a passage in E.F. Schumacher’s famous book from the 1970’s “Small is Beautiful” where he describes a business model he observed in India. When an enterprise had achieved a steady state (stable revenues, good wages, etc.), rather than continue to grow, it would in essence divide like a cell and spawn another instance of itself. I think something along these lines would be a good mechanism for the Food Commons project. It could also incorporate the Mondragon Cooperative’s model of providing education within the system so that the model maintains itself and also provides for its own “cell division.”

The “prototype” projects described on the Food Commons website are also very interesting.

I will be attentive to the development of the Food Commons project.

It’s a wave that’s building. Maybe your community will be part of that wave..

The Rebirth of the Commons

TheCommonsSo, in case you missed this from a week ago, here’s a link to a NYT article about the “Elders of the Organic Movement” who met for a week-long conference at Esalen in California in January. When I joined the organic movement, first in Maine in the ’70’s and then in California in the ’80’s, it was not long after these pioneers had broken ground for a food and farming revolution that has become a global phenomenon. They were still young, idealistic and extremely energetic. The participants in this conference of Elders, looking back at their accomplishments, raised fundamental questions which we really need to start answering and, more importantly, doing something about. Questions like: Does the National Organic Program (the set of rules which organic farmers must follow) need to be torn up and re-written in order to prohibit abuses such as “clamshelled tomatoes,” or “thousands of acres of single crops?” Don’t you think part of organic agriculture is to package organic produce in ways that are respectful of the earth? Don’t you think blocks of mono-crops don’t have a place in the organic movement?

There are so many more abuses the current rules turn a blind eye towards. When the USDA took over organic certification, they clipped the wings of the organic movement turning organics from a mindset into a merchandising niche. And now that it’s a $31 billion industry (that’s U.S. organic production), is there any chance that the organic consumer– for whom the movement was created in the first place and who still imagines organic agriculture as the clean, pastoral right livelihood it was intended to be and not a profit-hungry, industrial behemoth– is there any chance the organic customer base can counter the well-funded organic trade group lobbyists in order to haul the organic movement down out of the stratosphere and back to earth as a useful tool for simplifying and sustaining food production, making it so we Earthlings can have a future with healthy children and a food system that doesn’t consume more calories in production than it produces in food? I doubt it. Don’t get me wrong: If it’s really true that those millions of acres of farmland (and related water systems, surrounding eco-systems, farmworkers, etc.) that are represented by that $31 billion figure have been spared chemical fertilizers and pesticides and have some soil-building programs in place, that’s not something to dismiss out of hand. But organic agriculture arose from a moral responsibility to the Earth, its inhabitants and our future generations. It originated as a whole-system alternative to the extractive and toxic agriculture which unfortunately is still the dominant form today.

Organic incorporated lifestyle. It considered downstream consequences. It was all about renewable energy sources. It embraced Voluntary Simplicity. Organic agriculture as practiced by the big boys in the industry today is not a wholistic alternative that takes into account social equity, quality of life and working conditions for farmworkers, carbon footprint reduction, land reform, food access and so on. It has gone astray.

The dream of the Elders of the Organic Movement is not dead, but its presence within the official organic program is like a candle in the wind. It’s time to bring that little flame back inside. Place it in our hearts and know that there is a food and agriculture revolution that is very much alive and needs a new cadre of change makers to take it to its next level. It’s going to involve decentralizing food production and making vigorous efforts to revitalize local food systems. It’s going to mean making people who control present day food production very uncomfortable, for there is no force greater than a mobilized citizenry and our answers will not fit neatly into their old paradigm.

It’s happening already. It’s happening all over. Let’s keep it moving. It’s the burgeoning, global Permaculture community. It’s the non-GMO movement. It’s the anti-corporate shift towards local control and local self-determination. It’s the Food Sovereignty movement (in its international form and its nascent domestic form).

It’s the huge wave of young people wanting to farm (not acknowledged in the NYT article) who have seen the ugly, alienating results of two centuries of capitalist rat race and what it has done to people’s lives and to the environment. They have discovered that working the soil and producing safe, clean and nutritious sustenance for their neighbors is a calling to their basic humanity and resonates with what they know to be good. They visualize villages, towns and cities dotted with farms and gardens of all sizes that are growing families and kindling local economies with a robust exchange of local food, goods and services. They see a day very soon when productive farmland is freed from the death sentence of real estate speculation and pried from the clutches of private ownership; a day when land is made available, rent-free, for those who would steward it, green it, cultivate it, raise farm families on it and feed their neighbors with it. I’m talking about the rebirth of the commons where every square foot of arable land and every soul who is called to its tending will be revered as a national monument and a public resource. All of society will share the responsibility of maintaining these treasures. This will not be given to us, but it is ours to reclaim.

I’m not going to stop beating this drum. I’m hearing the rhythm being taken up all over. The walls are going to come down and we are going to see a different future. People are going to take back control of that one thing that defines us at our most basic level: The food that sustains us.

Who will we count as among us? Who is ready to take up the cause?