Note: this article has the title “Farming While Black” because it’s part of a series about perspectives of people of color in the food and agriculture business. This particular story, however, is told from my point of view as an enrolled member of the Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians — the indigenous people of southern and central Maryland.
As it often does, it started with a bumper sticker.
JM Stock Provisions — a butcher outfit with a location in Charlottesville — didn’t mean any harm when they posted this:
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Charlottesville Through the Looking Glass of the Local Negro
Back in May, I was on the farm watering a group of pigs in a great big field of chickory. In one hand was a black plastic tube pouring water into a 100-gallon trough. In the other hand was my cellphone, which I was using to relieve the boredom of watching the muddy water rise around the pigs’ noses. I flipped through a newsfeed peppered with a half-dozen of the President’s daily outrages, eventually happening across an article titled something to the effect of “Charlottesville Confronts Racism.”
If you’re aware of the recent Nazi/KKK/Militia/Alt-Right Axis-of-Nostalgia rally that took place in Charlottesville a few days ago, then you may have missed the two earlier rallies that took place here in the Spring and mid-summer. Between the two, a few dozen Klansmen and a small band of people led by distinguished fist-magnet Richard Spencer descended on the city to whine about statue-oriented programming and “White genocide” in what is arguably the Whitest place in the western hemisphere.
American farming, on any meaningful scale, is driven by one thing and one thing only: the almighty dollar. We’d all like to think that producing the food and fiber that nourishes us physically, mentally, and emotionally is about more than economics — but at the end of the day, farmers have to eat too.
That’s why Amazon’s proposed acquisition of Whole Foods is such a huge deal. When I spend time with farmers, many of them big commodity farmers in the Midwest, they (generally) aren’t ideologically opposed to growing organic or otherwise changing their management practices. The biggest reason they don’t do it is because it’s expensive, and there usually isn’t a market for it. And when they say market, they mean in the most literal sense — there is not a physical place where they can easily, and with certainty, go and sell thousands or millions of bushels of whatever they’ve grown for a good price (or any price, these days). Few local elevators separate organic produce, and otherwise finding specialty buyers and storage takes a whole lot of time that farmers don’t have.
Many farmers don’t grow organic because they don’t know where to sell it. But Amazon could change that.
Back in 2013, my wife (Annie) and I made an abrupt change. I was working as a software engineering consultant near Washington D.C. with a team that I loved (and still do), but a client that seemed determined to send me to an early grave. When the stress of the job finally culminated in a cancer scare, Annie exercised her spousal veto over our lives: our plan to start a farm as a retirement project got moved up to right that very minute, I left my job and she hers as director of Washington Printmakers Gallery, and off we went to Annie’s hometown outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
We had no background in farming. Neither of us went to ag school, had any experience as farm interns, or had even WWOOFed. The biggest thing I’d ever planted was a 100′ diameter three-sisters garden in a park in southern Maryland. My grandparents were farmers, but none of that knowledge got passed down to me. My formal education in farming occurred on the weekend of my 31st birthday, where I spent two hot days in July at the Polyface IDS. I devoured books and YouTube videos on permaculture and pasture farming, and that was that.
Last night I watched a TedX talk that successfully induced fear into its audience about how we are being betrayed, deceived, and cheated into buying food that is raised inhumanely, unethically, and ultimately, is dangerous for our bodies.
The speaker dubbed the collective group behind this deception the “fiberatti — a secret society of people trained in deceptive food marketing.”
He first attacked the dairy industry, calling attention to the differences between the rolling grassy hills portrayed in milk marketing campaigns and the scenes of a real dairy. He then moved on to speak of the fiberatti’s influences on pork, poultry, crop farming, and the beef industry.
“Whistleblower” is a peculiarly American term for someone who sees something wrong happening in an organization and calls foul. The problem with the sports metaphor is that, on the athletic field, the person blowing the whistle is empowered — a referee or umpire. In business, however, whistleblowers are usually vulnerable employees who face retribution and blackballing.
Government regulators at agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have programs in place to encourage whistleblowers to step forward and reward and protect them. Businesses typically resent that and charge that it encourages fraud. But a new study by a business professor at the University of Iowa shows that whistleblowing has a clear and valuable deterrent effect (Gretchen Morgenson in The New York Times).
From driverless tractors and robotic pickers to technologies that preserve fresh produce 5x longer, we are obsessed with using technology to solve the many, many challenges in our food system. But after spending a few days in Omaha this week, hanging out with some of the most advanced and progressive farmers in America, I realized that technology is really just a small part of the solution we’re looking for. The real future of farming isn’t growing plants or animals; it’s growing businesses.
Don’t be confused, farms are already businesses — incredibly capital intensive and highly risky businesses at that. In one year, a farmer might buy a few million dollars in inputs and assets, sell a few million dollars of commodity crops, and come out in the end with something like $30,000-$40,000 a year in “profit” (read: wages). That’s a terrifying amount of risk to take for a meager reward. And farmers do it. And now, at a time when commodity prices are cripplingly low, they’re looking to mitigate some of that risk with new businesses on their farms.