The MOF&G Online
Chaos or Hope?
by Russell Libby
As I travel throughout the state, and in my phone conversations, I keep having different versions of the same conversation: "Is what we're doing really making a difference?" My answer is: "Yes!"
John Seymour, now 90 years old, has been the champion of homesteading and small scale farming in the United Kingdom for the past 40 years, sort of the British Scott Nearing. He describes the world we have lived in for the past century as the Age of Plunder, the age when we've taken and used the world's fisheries, forests, soil, every resource we can find--especially oil, the accumulated wealth of millions of years.
Moving from here we can continue on the same path, a path sure to lead to chaos. Recent articles on the breakdown of civil structures in Iraq, the declining water supply at the Glen Canyon Dam, the fact we are at or past the peak of oil production in non-OPEC, non-Soviet Union countries--all indicate a world gone awry. Seymour characterizes the Age of Chaos as a time of continued fighting over dwindling resources to prop up an unsustainable lifestyle. People with their eyes open, with even basic awareness of the world around them, can see elements of this chaos.
I'm not proposing that we be blind to this world. Like you, I can see the deeper implications of these changes emerging. But, while acknowledging our concerns and our fears, we have to find ways to move forward every day.
I've had two focal points while thinking about these issues through the years. One is MOFGA; the second is the slow progress I see at Three Sisters Farm when I get to work at home.
MOFGA is the work the staff does, answering your questions and organizing events, putting out the paper, making the Fair happen. Even more, MOFGA is a reflection of the energy that over 4400 members, working together, can put forward. That's why we can realistically talk about Maine being a leader in organic production. That's why many thousands of Maine families rely on local farmers for their food. Here's a case where "social capital" has accumulated over the past 30-plus years to begin to form a realistic alternative to this age of plunder. Seymour calls the necessary alternative the Age of Healing. It begins with just us. It extends through our work, a small step at a time.
Twenty years ago, Mary Anne and I bought a run-down farm in Mount Vernon. It's still not as green as we would like it to be, but the orchard now produces some fruit; the gardens grow well, even if they're smaller than they used to be; we eat our own eggs, poultry and lamb. This year I finally got the south field back to the stone wall. As we go, we learn, and we share.
Ultimately our solutions have to be based on community, on sharing, on a long-term perspective. This is what organic agriculture is all about. This is what we have to offer as an alternative to the Age of Chaos that might otherwise engulf us.
Why Buy Locally, Why Buy Organic -- Three Odd Reasons
1. It's Subversive
Well, maybe that's overstated, but not much. I'm not talking about the government, I'm talking about being subversive against corporations, and buying locally definitely helps to keep you off the radar of corporations. My husband and I had the pleasure of having dinner with Eben Moglund, a law professor at Columbia University. Eben lectures around the world about free access software and things like boosting a wireless Internet signal with a bolt in the bottom of an appropriately placed empty Pringles can. One of the topics that came up was the amazing amount of privacy lost when you use a discount card at a supermarket. (Some Maine supermarkets offer these cards, which give you a discount off store brands when the cashier scans the card into the cash register/computer.) It hadn't occurred to me that the store owners and managers can tell, from your grocery order, whether you have a new baby, a drinking problem, whether you're sick or you plan to entertain this weekend. I donít imagine that you would knowingly choose to let any corporate entity know all those things just to receive a small discount. Compare that with cash sales at a Farmers' Market, or buying half a pig from your neighbor who grows a couple, or buying a gallon of maple syrup from a friend, and you easily get that wonderful feeling of thumbing your nose at Big Brother every time you pick up your CSA share.
2. To Help Dan
This winter I met Dan, a real live Midwestern soy farmer who grows about 1300 acres of GMO soybeans and corn in South Dakota. Knowing that I'd probably never have another chance to talk to someone who was actually using those types of crops on that scale, I asked him, "Why GMOs?" Dan said he uses a lot fewer chemicals on GMO crops, and because he worries about his health and that of his family, he'll do what he can to reduce his chemical usage. I told him that one of the main reasons we have an organic farm is because we hand harvest everything and I can't stand the thought of my farm help, all young folks in their 20s, touching all those chemicals all summer long, and because I would worry about my kids playing around chemically-treated crops and fields. Commodity farmers can do their work from a tractor and don't have the same contact with the crop that we do, and Dan agreed that he wouldn't want to touch chemical pesticides, either. He said that a farmer down the road from him was growing organic corn, and it seemed to be working pretty well. He wished a big enough market existed so that he could sell organic corn and soy, too, but he needed to make a living for his family. We don't grow a lot of corn and soybeans in Maine, but if we buy organic corn and soy products, and dairy, eggs and meat from livestock fed organic grains, we will be helping Dan and people like him find a way to farm more safely and still make a living.
3. Because We Can
"You don't know what you've got till it's gone," sang Joni Mitchell. This winter we visited a place that may have once been paradise, with citrus trees and avocados growing in people's yards with not a speck of insect damage (try that with an apple tree), and with warm weather. But now that place--Los Angeles--is a seriously paved paradise. I had had no idea of the extent of the sprawl and hardscape. Our drive from Long Beach (on the coast) north to Pasadena (at the edge of the Angeles National Forest.)--about 35 miles--took an hour and a half. The entire distance, seemingly every square foot, was filled with stores and houses. It was as if Western Ave. in Augusta extended from Gardiner to Fairfield, and even further east to west, and was just as developed, side streets and all, the entire way. When travel takes three times as long, and all the land is cut up into house lots, where will people farm? Over 1000 certified growers farm in California, but only 21 of those are in either Los Angeles or Orange County, and only one of them grows the wide variety of mixed vegetables that is standard for so many Maine growers. How lucky we are, to have the choices we do. Let's support our local farmers now to ensure that they'll be there in the future, and to celebrate the fact that we can.
Frugality: A Menace to Society?
by Mitch Lansky
© 2004 by the author. For information on reproducing this article, please contact the author through firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are dangerous people in Maine who threaten our economy, if not our society. Some of these people may be in your own town. Consider Vernon and Viola who live in the old farmhouse down the road. They tend a neat vegetable garden and can, freeze and root cellar much of their winter needs. They burn firewood to heat their house in the winter. He keeps his tools sharp, his equipment maintained and running, and rarely needs to buy new replacements. She darns socks, cooks meals from scratch, and can make something tasty from leftovers. What are they doing that is such a menace to America? They are being frugal.
Our economy is in trouble. We have lost millions of jobs in the last few years. If we are going to pull ourselves out of this mess, we need people to spend more money, not less. Vernon and Viola are not contributing their share. Indeed, President Bush, in response to the 9/11 attack, encouraged Americans to go out and shop and to take vacations. That is the proper response to threats to our country. Frugality subverts our American Way of Life.
Our economy needs to grow to stay healthy. When people do not spend enough money, our economy gets ill--it is depressed. To stimulate the economy, the Federal Reserve has lowered interest rates over the last few years, hoping that people will borrow more money and then spend it. Debt, apparently, is a good thing, as long as people are spending like there is no tomorrow.
The key to making our economy grow is to put a consumer product or service between every scratch and its itch. Vernon and Viola shouldn't be growing their own food (especially if they minimize their purchase of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and equipment)--they should just buy it at the local mall, where they will have to drive, because it is too far to walk. The food should be shipped from California, and processed as much as possible. This would help the economy, because it will stimulate the transportation sector, the energy sector, as well as the food industry.
And if Vernon and Viola should find themselves ill due to eating too much processed food, why that would help the economy too. The health care industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in our economy--which shows that the sicker we are, the better off we are. Unfortunately for us, Vernon and Viola work hard, go for walks, and eat whole foods that they raise--they just don't get sick often enough.
They don't even have enough sense to spend a lot of money to get entertained. They don't have CDs or VCRs. They don't go out to the movies. They entertain themselves mostly by going fishing, playing the fiddle, listening to birds, picking flowers or spending time with their grandchildren.
Part of the problem of Vernon and Viola is that they don't have a TV. Americans need to be reminded constantly that they need to consume, and if they do not consume enough (or the right things), they will have low status, poor sex appeal and lack fulfillment. Americans need such messages hundreds of times a day. These messages are thoughtfully placed nearly everywhere that people look or hear--on TV and radio, in magazines, on billboards, in shop windows, even on people's clothing. When you are not constantly reminded to consume, you forget. Our society cannot afford to let people forget something so important.
Fortunately Vernon and Viola's grandchildren are true patriots--they watch lots of TV and have all the desires and habits that come from such a pastime. But while they seem to be on the right track, the example of their grandparentsí frugality is a distant but real threat. What if the kids should actually emulate these subversives? The frugal example might appear attractive to some citizens who are having a hard time making ends meet.
More ominous, Vernon and Viola are not alone. They belong to a local subversive "cell" of other frugal people. For example, Lucien helps Vernon shear sheep, and Vernon helps Lucien hay. Lilly helps Viola shell peas, and Viola helps Lilly can tomatoes. Ellsworth trades his eggs and Edwina trades her spun wool. When they barter like this, these people are not contributing to the Gross National Product, they are not supporting companies on the stock exchange, and they are not contributing sales taxes.
If more people started being frugal, our economy and government might collapse. Vernon and Viola have to go. But for our benefit, they should go slowly--with a debilitating disease that takes high-technology medical treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation. While an intrusive medical intervention might interfere with their dying with dignity, it would certainly benefit our economy, and thus our society as a whole. And when these two die, let's hope that their children have enough sense to have a big, expensive funeral.
A Mini-Farm Retrospective
The little girl who told me, during one of our woods walks, that "bark is like tree-shirts" is now voting age and will soon graduate from high school and head for McGill University in Montreal (absentee ballot in hand). The little boy who clung to my leg while I boiled organic potatoes in the kitchen is now a teenager, ironing peace signs onto his shirts, telling me in the process how much the peace sign looks like a chicken foot.
After nearly two decades on our little farm, signs of success blossom. Every year more and more people ask specifically for our organic Christmas trees. Each spring we try to find more efficient, less labor intensive ways to grow nursery stock for Fedco Trees. In our home vegetable and fruit garden, we find more ways to extend the season and grow more of our own food--but, at the same time, look forward to the social interaction at the farmersí market, where we buy many of the items we donít grow. There is something to be said for not being a complete homesteader!
Would we do anything differently if we could start over? Possibly. When we came to Maine, we spent two years searching for the perfect land (sufficient acreage of flat, well-drained, not too stony loam) and finally found it--8 miles from town and over 11 miles from the local high school. That was before the kids came along (and before the high school moved out of downtown). Now, we put an excessive number of miles on our vehicle. We could have had a good home garden and nursery operation, and raised potted Christmas trees, on less land closer to town, and our kids, as teenagers, would like to have been near town.
So if you are just getting started on your search for a farm, I offer one possible suggestion: Check enterprise budgets for different agricultural and horticultural crops (Cooperative Extension is one good source) and consider growing something that brings a good return on a small acreage, then look for that acreage close to a town. You may not need good soil, if youíll be growing a crop in pots or raised beds with "imported" soil.
Just check zoning regulations before you buy land. Be suspect of any locale that wonít let you keep chickens.
We note with sadness the death of a great MOFGA supporter, Pam Greenman, this past spring. A memorial for Pam will be held at Merryspring Horticultural Park in Camden on June 13, in the afternoon. For more information, please contact Pamís daughter, Beedy Parker, at 236-8732.
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