The past year has offered many unexpected lessons. While work was something I gratefully threw myself in to, as pandemic weeks stretched into months other areas of my life took a serious hit. The dance aerobics class that I have faithfully attended for 8 or so years, and the folks I look forward to seeing every week, was put on hiatus. I could no longer re-locate to one of the many great coffee shops in town to get into the writing zone fueled by coffee and ambient noise. Most surprisingly to me, I stopped reading.
Like many of you, I’m a life-long book worm. I was the kid parked at the side of the public pool with an increasingly waterlogged paperback shielding my face from the sun. Multiple moves across the country were complicated by boxes of books that weighed approximately one million pounds. To this day my favorite vacation activity (after eating new foods) is… sitting by the side of a pool and reading. As the unspecific but ever present dread of the pandemic set in, my ability to immerse myself in narrative ebbed, which lead to more existential anxiety. Who was I if I wasn’t a reader?
I recognized that I had attached a moral value to the act of reading, and the identity of being someone who reads. But why? It is, for all intents and purposes, a hobby. It is an activity I do because I enjoy it. While book worms like me may argue for the value of reading (reading provides information, expands imagination, develops empathy, yadda yadda), what is the objective difference between reading and say… coin collecting? They are both seen to have value outside of the act itself, impart knowledge of the world, and are presumably enjoyable to those that engage in them. I’m not the first person to make this argument, but this diversion into my personal reckoning over the moral worth of reading is a roundabout way of getting to a harder question about unpacking our unspoken assumptions about moral worth.
Much of my work is associated with exploring, identifying, and codifying the relative value of ‘local’ food. I spend arguably too much time navel gazing about what ‘local’ can and should mean in theory and practice. Thanks to the harmonized metrics from the national farm to institution metrics collaborative I have a consistent way of working through questions of what does or does not constitute a local food product for any given community, so I’ve moved on to harder nuts to crack.
Let’s start here: Is gardening a moral good? Is the act of gardening a virtuous act, or is it in the same hobby bucket as reading and coin collecting? It can be both pragmatic and enjoyable. It requires time, knowledge, and resources. It makes no promises and asks no favors from the outside world.
Now let’s level up to a harder question: Is farming in and of itself virtuous? Is the historic notion of the ‘family farm’ (one family unit, a single farmer who is responsible for all production and marketing decisions and who employs farm laborers who are not the same as farmers) a simple social and moral good that we should promote uncritically? This question may seem like indulgent intellectualizing, but it’s one that I have to contend with in various iterations on a regular basis. What constitutes a farm
Farm vs Agricultural Production Unit
I received an email the other day requesting a recommendation for a CSA. The person was new to the community and expressed the opinion that the options they had found in the area were mostly ‘big’ farms supervising a lot of hired labor rather than a ‘real’ CSA where the farmer is involved in all the activities. While I’m hard pressed to think of many farm operations that don’t have some kind of hired labor during the peak season, the experience spoke to my personal and professional challenges articulating what constitutes a farm and why it should matter.
Brace yourself, we’re about to jump into the rabbit hole.
Does your idea of a farm require some direct relationship with a piece of land and soil-based production systems, or is it any enterprise that produces raw agricultural products? Where do you place hydroponic or other non-soil based production? How about a lab that produces cell-cultured meat? Is that a farm? How much controlled environment are you(we) willing to entertain? Is a hydroponic tomato quantitatively different than a tomato grown in the soil? How about a tomato grown in the soil in a high tunnel? What kinds of ownership or control over production decisions are acceptable or even desirable? Speaking of controlled environment, how do you classify agricultural production ventures that are not locally owned, but whose facilities are located within the local region?
There’s no single or simple answer to these questions, which is why the community we create through our work at The Food Connection feels vital. We need the time and space to sit with these questions, to have the conversations, and build a shared vision.
The vulnerabilities in our food system and our nation that the last year forced into the spotlight require a reckoning. The way we frame and define farming, food, and community is part and parcel of how we value their relative worth. Those of us working in local food systems need to reconcile the contradictions between our varied notions of what makes ‘good food’ and the realities of how our food system structures the production, distribution, and patterns of consumption of food across our community and our country. I haven’t offered any answers, but I welcome the conversation.