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..

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