Friday, June 10, 2011

Thoughts on Small Scale Farming

Over a year ago i had an interesting conversation with an elder comrade about the farming movement.  Specifically i wanted to know what he thought about the trend toward small-scale local agricultural production as a response to and, according to some, an answer to unemployment and economic hardship faced by ever increasing numbers of people in the United States....among other things.  The essence of his response was very brief and is summed up here:
Subjective responses to objective problems do not solve them. 
The objective situation people face in Detroit, for example, has very clear race and class components. Tens of thousands of black people are unemployed or underemployed; thousands lack running water, electricity and heat (during the winter); access to public services is declining and in some areas, nonexistent; the educational system is deteriorating and increasingly privatized; access to fresh and healthy food choices is very limited for most Detroiters without a car; and resources are systematically expropriated by non-black and mainly non-Detroit resident populations (an accelerating trend over the past 15-20 years). 

These trends reflect a major shift that has been happening in this country for a few decades now - replacement of human labor with computer automated labor. Regardless of how people feel about these trends, the reality is that when people don't work, they can't spend money (i.e., pay bills, buy things they want and need, etc.). And when people don't spend money, more people loose jobs. For black people, who historically have lived under more difficult economic circumstances as a whole (because of historical/current practices), this means much greater levels of economic hardship than other populations.  Worse, given the way race factors into economic and political actions/decisions, black communities are hyperexploited:
  1. School districts with large populations of black and other people of color are increasingly privatized by white owned/operated management companies;
  2. Public services in cities with large populations of people of color are privatized by mainly white owned/operated companies;
  3. Democratic processes in cities, municipalities and districts with large populations of black and other people of color have been systematically stripped away;
  4. Black people and other poor people of color are systematically dislocated from their homes directly (being moved to suburban projects) or indirectly by driving up land/housing costs (resulting from new development);
  5. Preference for small business loans given to non-black populations in Detroit, for example people of Middle Eastern descent own virtually all the gas stations and corner stores in Detroit and people of Asian descent (mainly Koreans) own virtually all of the beauty stores in Detroit; and
  6. Wealthy business people set up meetings with and pay off (through political contributions) senators and congress people to implement legislation that favors their corporate interests.  The charter school movement in Michigan represents one of many of these efforts.
In terms of food, there are no longer any large grocery store chains in Detroit; only mid-size and small stores that stock mainly poor quality produce and lots of cheap, processed stuff. One response taken by a growing number of people and communities has been to create backyard and community gardens.  Doing this has allowed many to address the problem of accessing fresh produce.  In addition a few small stores have begun to stock locally grown produce from gardens and small farmers markets have sprung up around the city during the growing season. All of these are subjective responses that address the issue of access to healthy food, but do not solve more fundamental problems of feeding masses of people. Further, what does it mean to feed the masses when they have no money? And what type of society must come into being that ensures that all people's needs are met? Who (what group) organizes that society to ensure that all live is valued and protected? Given the history of this country, how do black people and other people of color fare?

This is not to suggest that people should not engage in small scale farming; it has a place.  However it is more a means to an end, rather than the end itself.  Small scale farming is a really hot topic now and often considered an answer to the problems facing cities whose industries have moved or closed down.  Mayors see it as an answer to unemployment and underutilization of land, while corporate movers-n-shakers see opportunities to profit.  But such a vision is short-sighted and reflects efforts to preserve a dying polito-economic system.  To me it serves as a reminder that capitalism has not always existed not will it always exist.

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