Would You Like Ketchup With That Dollar?
Length: 1515 words (4.3 double-spaced pages)
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Money does not satiate the stomach, only the food it purchases can. Material possessions contain the lowest number of kilocalories-per-gram (i.e. none) when compared to fatty acids, carbohydrates, and amino acids. Power tends to be nutrient deficient (eggs, however, are quite functional). And, as of yet, science has been unable to show any effects (positive or negative) of elite membership upon the area of the brain related to hunger -- the hypothalamus. Food is the most basic and essential component of human existence, next to air, of course. In the last instance, it -- not wealth, power, or status -- matters most.
Yet, its sheer abundance in the core nations of the world remains unparalleled in most or all of human history. So much so, that it goes scarcely noticed anymore. In the market it is viewed as a commodity to be bought and sold, an abstraction of itself, not real or tangible. In the grocery store the abstraction, through clever marketing and advertising, becomes a heavily constructed and objectified notion of reality. Meanwhile, the consumer remains alienated and detached from one of the elements most antecedent to life and existence. I have read of some -- great Yogis of the East, who, through their enlightened communion with the Divine, are able to transcend any physical need of sustenance. But, the revelations of Sages remain lost to most of us, too caught up in the mayhem of capitalistic endeavors to even think about such mysticism.
The commodification of food and the industrialization of agriculture have removed us from the cadences of nature. With time, industrial agriculture is proving more and more unsustainable, less reliable and wonderful than it is touted to be. While large agribusiness continues to strive for greater crop yields, increased mechanization, lower labor costs, more acreage, new technologies, consolidations -- maximum profits -- farmers are striving to feed their families, to keep their land, and to justify their existence as farmers. If traditional farming is not dead already, it is surely dying.
Yet, there are some who refuse to allow the fields to lay forever fallow.
They represent a new generation of farmers -- younger, smaller, often female, and more scattered. Their model of agriculture differs wildly from that of their predecessors: in the place of monoculture crops, there lies diversity; rather than mechanize, niche farmers humanize; predictability gives way to individualization; and efficiency becomes a subjective perspective of the land, rather than the objective reasoning of some bureaucracy. More often than not, niche farming represents a practical model of sustainable agriculture.
Yet, niche farming functions within the Capitalist system -- goods are created to be sold in a market. In this case, the market is based not on what people need, but, rather, what they want. This works wonderfully -- so long as everyone has plenty of what they need, that is. A strong market, in general, contributes directly to niche-based farming because it affords people the opportunity to spend more freely. Thus, it is still a business heavily dependent on the industrial model of agriculture and the economic power of large transnationals whose influence upon the market as a whole cannot be denied. Moreover, this strange interdependence is further compounded by the fact that niche markets depend on fewer, rather than more, farms specializing in any given product at one time. In other words, the market for the vegetable known as bok choy, for example, is liable to weaken and become flooded should too many decide to specialize in its production. This would serve to counteract the added value given a product when there is a high demand and relative (rather than excessive) supply.
Another difficult feature of niche farming is that it circumvents the traditional middleman inherent in the industrial model of agriculture. In the latter, corporations create the marketing necessary to get a product from the fields to the grocery store, and ultimately into the shopping carts of the consumer. Indeed, consumers pay more for this component -- which includes packaging, advertising, celebrity endorsements, etc. -- than they do for the product itself. Niche farmers, then, must become their own middlemen, marketing directly to their target consumers. The marketing intensive nature of niche farming can be difficult for some, and especially for those farms located in more rural areas, farther out of reach of their consumers who live in urban areas and have higher incomes.
But it is a challenge that is inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurial-minded folks who recognize the power and economics of independence and are willing to take risks. Inspiration proves strange and diverse: farmer’s markets, internet sites, formal and informal partnerships between farmers and chefs, tours for schoolchildren and adults, farm stands, and even petting zoos are many of the ways farmers are reaching out to consumers directly. There is a side effect to all of this, of course – but, for once it seems to be a good one: an unlikely alliance is brewing between urban centers and the agricultural centers that surround them. There is growing recognition of interdependence between farmers and consumers whose livelihoods ultimately depend on one another. Moreover, consumers are not just purchasing goods; they are receiving an education, an understanding of and respect for where their food comes from. It is a reclaiming of subjectivity, a connection with food where once there was only alienation.
It is this kind of awareness that can have profound effects on consumption patterns. I believe that consumption practices are the key to the future of farming. While I agree with those who believe in the power of information and education as tools for empowerment, I do not see them as the sole impetus for social change. Knowledge, ideas, information are useless if not carried to action. Niche farming, then, is an embodiment of praxis. The seeds of change are scattered across its land, and it is here that a new ideology is beginning to emerge, taking firm hold with every successful harvest. True, it is not perfect; it does not solve, replace, or simplify the existing system -- in fact, it is both a product of and embodiment of it. But should its seeds continued to be sowed, there lies the blueprints for new structures, upon which a counter-ideology may situate itself firmly -- one that values both land and farmer; one that is not only productive but sustainable; and one that empowers as well as satisfies. And what could be a more perfect catalyst for change than one of life’s necessities?
Look, each of us believes that we are individuals, unique and beautiful snowflakes. And perhaps that’s true – but let’s face it, people: we are all consumers. We believe, for whatever reason, that our self-worth, our status within society -- our purpose, no less, is intimately linked to the things we buy, the material possessions we own. Yet, we go about consumption the way we breathe air – mindlessly. We give no regard to the consequences of our actions; to the effects our consumption practices have on the world around us, beyond ourselves. Marketing blinds us from the truth surrounding the goods we consume; it seeks to objectify reality, to remove it from our hands. And as we subjugate ourselves to this false reality, we are reduced to cogs in a great machine – powerless, far removed, and without knowledge. Yet, it is merely a veil -- one that can be lifted by seeking that which we have allowed to be taken from us, the truth.
It is time to reclaim subjectivity. It is time to decide what our values are and whether or not the current economic system is a help or hindrance to our goals. But reclaiming subjectivity requires work, and above all a burning desire to achieve enlightenment. And it is not always easy. It requires patience, tolerance, failure, hardship, perseverance, mindfulness -- sheer willpower. There are no certainties – only the dualistic nature of the modern world where both risk and opportunity abound. Farmers understand this better than anyone, for they stake their lives on it at every sunrise and with every sunset. Sometimes, faith is all that remains.
Is niche farming the answer to all our problems? Of course not; but, it is a starting point. We all need food to survive, to provide the energy for the labor needed to drive the whole system. It is unlike other commodities in both the frequency of its purchase and the depth and breadth of its influence. It is an easy way to send a powerful message, to support the values and ideals of a counter- ideology so necessary to the permanence of change should it ever occur. After all, history shows that one cannot simply assault an unfavorable system with a mere frontal attack – this is doomed to failure; rather, it must first be surrounded by new structures under the guidance of a new ideology. Only then will the new system have the proper support it needs to flourish. Niche farming is one of these structures. Not perfect, but it needn’t be, for praxis – action and application of knowledge is, in my opinion, the essence of perfection itself.