When Daniel Tucker and his fellow authors were brainstorming for the book Farm Together Now, they realized they weren't capable of contributing to the conversation analyzing the problems with the food system.
So instead, they focused on meeting people all over the country who are experimenting with solutions for the broken food system.
We're All In This Together
Annie Corrigan: Let's talk about the some of the folks who piqued my interest. One guy, David Meyers of On-The-Fly Farm in Michigan. There's a graphic in the book that has a list of the expenses and then the list of income, and it matches up. It's equal, so no profit for this farm whatsoever. Did you find that a lot of farmers were operating with that budget sheet?
Daniel Tucker: David was unique in that he calculated in his farm business ledger a cost that most people don't account for, and that is really what drew us to David: a solidarity subsidy. What he means by that is that he's going to ask urban people he knows in the Chicago area - he's a farmer in southwestern Michigan just right around the bend of Lake Michigan - he sort of insists or requires that the people who buy his food pay a little extra so he can give a certain percentage of it away in low-income communities throughout the city.
David was the only person in the book that operated that way, though I can say pretty definitely while everyone was had different economic situations, they were all committed in some way to something that might be called solidarity and that they were using food as a tool to basically engage people around a whole host of issues.
AC: I'm curious to talk more about that solidarity fund, where people give a little bit more so that other people can have healthy foods. This seems to be working on a very small scale for this one guy's farm. Can this work on a large scale? Could this be a large-scale solution for our country's food system problems?
DT: I don't think that model is going to scale up pretty big, that's true. That's an important thing to recognize. A lot of these experiments work quite well and they're quite admirable and inspiring on a small scale. Like all economic endeavors, when you start to scale them up, the contradictions start to show through more or the complexities start to show through more. But, that stuff is always there, and it's just a little easier to work around on a small scale.
I think that some of the models that are introduced in the book can be scaled up, but in particular I would say the people who are organizing themselves as cooperatives. There's a long history of agricultural and food-related cooperative businesses in the US and that's something we can draw from. The cooperative structure allows for a subtle but meaningful shift in the way the economics of food or any business work.
Who Gets The Money
AC: Before we get too far away from the economics of food, let's talk about farm subsidies. Lawmakers are thinking of cutting farm subsidies. From your perspective, is this a good thing for the American food system?
DT: I personally don't think that subsidies are the problem. I think where the subsidies go and the logic that drives and orients the subsidies is the problem. I think the government has a responsibility to regulate the market - and that's not a view that everyone shares by any means, but that's my perspective - but how that regulation takes place is the important detail that has to get worked out. So, if more subsidies could go to encourage smaller scale sustainable agriculture, I think that would be a great thing.
Affecting Food Policy
AC: Now let's shift gears and go to Oakland, California: City Slicker Farms. It's three urban farms, and over 100 backyard farms. The book describes the folks that this farm serves as low income; they're having to deal with high crime, not a lot of jobs or opportunities in their area; and not only that, they have to deal with a lot of pollution and very little access to fresh foods. Let's talk about the people on that farm.
DT: City Slickers is a really interesting model because unlike a lot of garden projects that exist in urban areas, they really insisted (the organizers) that what they were doing was farming. They weren't giving people plots so that they could grow a small amount of something to mix in with their meals. They were actually producing on a much larger level and everyone was going to reap the benefits, but everyone was going to work the same lots together instead of breaking it up into little plots which kind of gives you a hodge-podge result. Then the other program they developed was to start encouraging and providing the basic tools for people that wanted to do backyard gardening.
They also have done really innovative things on a policy level with the initiation of the Oakland Food Policy Council, which was I believe the first in the country on a sort of major metropolitan scale, where they actually developed an actual food policy agenda for a city. That's an idea that has taken off and inspired cities like Chicago where I'm from.
That policy tool set is a really important one because while the food system is integrated across international territories, a lot of the way that distribution could work is going to happen on a really localized scale. And so creating certain subsidies either for markets and corner stores to carry fresh vegetables or for it to be easier for people to turn vacant lots into garden, things like that, that's going to come from a food policy council on an urban or metropolitan scale, and they really pioneered a lot of that work out in the Bay Area.
Urban Farms As A Cultural Movement
AC: It sounds like also they're serving a food desert. The USDA released a map that plotted food deserts all over the country. Is this is a solution for food deserts potentially on a larger scales?
DT: Urban farms are a piece of a solution for food deserts, but food deserts are simply a reflection of years of neglect of certain parts of cities across the US and rural areas as well. Creating urban farms in and of themselves isn't the solution to reversing years of neglect, but it's a component. I think it's a powerful component in as much that it provides food but also that it is a symbol, and it's a symbol that everyone can see, that this land that people said wasn't worth anything and people didn't care about for years and years is now in a kind of community controlled production. It's a productive place and it's a hopeful place. That's really important, and that's something I thought about again and again working on this book: the relationship between work that was sort of changing economic systems and work that was sort of symbolic and more changing the culture of how people relate to each other, how they relate to food, how they relate to the land.
I really think that in order to change the food system you have to carefully consider what kind of transformation you want to see in the market and economic relations as well as the general culture.
Start With Healthy Soil
AC: Let's talk about the land a little bit. When you're creating an urban farm, you obviously have to think about what plot of land you're going to take to create a farm out of. Soil is a living thing, and if you leave it along for a really long time, it might not necessarily be the best soil or best plot of land for growing food. Talk about some people you spoke with who had to re-purpose soil in the city or had a hard time figuring out how to grow food in a certain spot.
DT: Certainly I think it's a big challenge in urban areas and also rural areas because people have grown the same kind of plants and vegetables on rural farmland for way too long and have not cared for their soil. The group that I interviewed in Central Missouri - Sandhill Farm, which has been there for over 30 years now - when they first got started they made a lot of mistakes, but then they finally realized that actually what they were doing was not farming, they were just growing good healthy soil. They shifted their mentality to put the emphasis on the soil and not necessarily on the bounty, and their farming practices became actually a lot more successful.
The Future Comes Closer To Home
AC: In ten years, where do you see the farming system in this country?
DT: I think if we take advantage of this moment, in ten years we're going to be eating a lot more food that is produced nearby us and have a lot greater sensitivity to where our food comes from and how far it's traveled to get to us, and also what is possible in the different climates that we inhabit across this geographically vast country that we live in.
That's going to happen for two reasons. The more negative reason is because I think it's just gonna have to happen because food prices are soaring across the world, and the kind of logic that we use to organize how we ship grain and vegetables across oceans, that's not going to be able to last forever. That's not to say that's going to go away entirely, but people are going to have to start prioritizing more local and regional food production for that reason.
Then the more hopeful reason is that I think people are recognizing the real joy in relating to food, each other, land, in a different way that has kind of been forgotten. It's something that we not only have to get back to in an historical sense, but also think about, "How does a healthy, fair, sustainable, local food system look today when over half the world's population lives in cities and there's real economic and environment crises to be concerned about?"
I think people are doing a great job of experimenting with solutions to those kind of challenges right now. I'm hopeful that in order to be to a better place in ten years, people will start to put their heads together and think about some shared principles and values that we can push forward with together.
More: Hear the interview with Daniel Tucker by listening to the Earth Eats podcast.