Race to the Farm

Written by: Paul Thompson

Primary Source:  Thornapple CSA

I’m headed off to the SAEA meeting later this week, where I’m part of panel. SAEA is the Sustainable Agriculture Education Association. It’s not part of my regular circuit, but I’m looking forward to it. The panel is being sponsored by INFAS, which is part of my regular circuit. INFAS is the Integrated Network for Food and Agricultural Systems. Not to bore you with more information than you wanted, it was put together about a decade ago by WKKF. WKKF is the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which (if you look all the way down to the bottom of the page) created my position at Michigan State University. After creating a bunch of positions rather like mine at several different universities, WKKF created INFAS to help us coordinate our work. WKKF did both of these things with an eye toward structural change in the global food system. Now if it hasn’t already been bad enough this week, getting into the details on what that means would try the patience of any websurfer. So go find someone who can mansplain it, because I’m just going to skip the whole thing.

Before I got off on this series of acronyms—and we all know that acronyms are second only to robots as the bane of existence in postmodern America—I was going to say that my mind has been on the presentation I have to make at SAEA. And that’s disrupting my blogging this week. So just put up with it. This is one of those occasions where I need this space to sort things out. You can help me if you like, but no sarcastic comments about how all of this is just a bunch of high flown academic BS that means nothing to the average person. As I said earlier this summer, I already know that, and besides, I assert the prerogative to control the flow of sarcasm in this little corner of the Internet.

We’re supposed to be talking about the connection between sustainable agriculture and race on this panel. While there are lots of things that might be said once you get rolling, getting rolling is the hard part. People who teach sustainable agriculture (remember this is the SAEA) mostly do stuff on crop rotations, composting, weed control and (as we mentioned just the week before last) picking cucumber beetles off of your bok choy by hand and throwing them into a bucket of soapy water. I, at least, do not recognize immediate points of contact between these issues and the subject of race and racial oppression. We’ve organized the panel with the general presumption that many people in the audience will not make this connection, either.

So with less than a week before I have to stand up and pontificate about this topic, I have to confess that I still don’t know what I’m going to say. I do think there’s an obvious starting point, however, and one thing I have learned over the last forty years in academic life is that it never hurts to state the obvious. That goes double when topics engage race, because what’s obvious to us white males is not only unobvious to others, it’s obviously false. So stating the obvious, I would point out that sustainable agriculture got its early start in the 1970s and 1980s primarily as a way to simultaneously correct some environmental deficiencies in mainstream farming practice and to help smallish family farmers survive in an era when the margins on commodity crops were just too thin for them to compete. If you were not willing to get big, as Earl Butz once advised us, you’d better get out. Sustainable agriculture was the collective voice of a generation of smallish and medium sized farmers making polis with hippie vegetarians and feministas to say “Hold on there, Earl. We think there is another way.”

Of course, as things have transpired that other way has stressed higher quality fruit and vegetable production (increasingly moving into meat, milk and eggs) and as a way to make this whole thing work for farmers, getting a higher price for that higher quality from consumers. Already by the 1990s some folks had started to notice that whatever this was doing for smallish and medium sized farmers, it wasn’t really delivering much for economically marginalized people living in urban neighborhoods. For one thing, this high quality stuff wasn’t being stocked at the bodegas, quickie marts and liqueur stores where they were often forced to do their shopping, they couldn’t have realistically afforded it, anyway. This sparked a lot of WKKF’s active experimentation with food justice, focused both on the plight of farmworkers (who were still being treated miserably) and on ways to get fruits and vegetables into urban cores. I rather suspect they formed INFAS because they wanted us to tell the world about that.

So maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m sure I’m missing more than a few things in this, but it never hurts to start by stating the obvious.

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Paul Thompson
Paul B. Thompson holds the W. K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. He formerly held positions in philosophy at Texas A&M University and Purdue University. His research has centered on ethical and philosophical questions associated with agriculture and food, and especially concerning the guidance and development of agricultural technoscience.
Paul Thompson

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