In my last article I managed quite successfully to avoid making any sensible point at all. Today I’ll have another go at it.

There are three realities that need to be understood before proceeding.

First: Lifestyles have become so spectacular that it’s tough to keep all the balls in the air. People, including me, associate the juggling act with success. Yet, there is a conflicting undercurrent that longs for something simpler. Juggling to stay ahead is stressful and exhausting, not rewarding. Individuals possess the subconscious intuition to realize that unchecked expansion and delight cannot be maintained indefinitely, and the promise of unlimited fulfillment has failed. Paradoxically, in an era of limitlessness, demand for less is perhaps the greatest demand of all.

Second: The simplicity demand affects farmers and food. As a retail farmer, I feel overwhelmed by a wall of untapped demand that looms over our heads as customers seek a direct connection to food. Too much opportunity is a killer; no matter how much our business grows, customers will want more. There are times when we’re so busy that we’re essentially out of business. Professional farm business advice is extracted from the same culture that provides instant gratification. When farmers attend conferences to learn how to deal with their customer base, they are universally steered towards growth and complexity, which only exacerbates the stress and erodes local food authenticity.

Third: We do not have to convert our farms into miniature replicas of foodservice giants; with proper management, a farm can survive on less without sacrificing living standards. Consider that subsistence farmers in developing countries spend less time working and more time recreating than people in high-falootin’ societies whose only objective for working is to work less and play more. Those living in subsistence societies choose to accomplish just what needs done in a day and nothing more. Recreation is often based around a necessary task that must be completed anyway. Consider as an example transhumance festivals during the era of peasants: Sheep needed to return from high mountain pasture for the winter, a task that disrupts the whole village. The village disruption became a festival.

With these three thoughts in mind, we will progress.

Wendell Berry suggests deliberate limitations as a first step towards freedom from freedom. From a farmer’s perspective, this requires an understanding of everything the land can produce with careful, loving management and a minimum of purchased inputs. Deliberately selecting a customer base proportional to those finished goods equalizes the system, from the environment to the end user.

Creating such an interconnected system isn’t an easy task. As Berry goes on to say, “It is obvious that this effort of thinking has to confront everywhere the limits both of nature and of human nature, limits imposed by the ecosphere and ecosystems, limits of human intelligence, cultures, and the capacities of human persons” (Berry, 2017). Fred Provenza refers to the radical cultural transformation of a specific group of people as a “kind of collective courage” (Provenza, 2018). In order to create equilibrium, then, a farmer’s task isn’t to grow more, but to coalesce daring people into an agreed upon set of natural limitations. In a very real sense, a community is born, consisting of the land and the land’s people.

Part of that transformation involves adjusting employment expectations. I often joke that I could fully occupy my entire extended family if they were all willing to work for nothing. That’s sort of funny, but is it really an outlandish thought? Working in exchange for the joy of having somewhere good to be alive is not oppression. And in many cases, the work that needs doing is a form of recreation: Hiking, picking apples, gathering nuts in the fall, planting trees, shepherding livestock, and other activities are all experiences working people pay for. I can think of four revenue streams that could contribute to our farm business right now if it didn’t cost a full salary every year to keep the person doing the work. Are there people out there who would work for room, board, and a good place to live? I think.

We’ve broadly covered the labor aspect. Next, the customer component.

The land’s people must have the opportunity to see, feel, smell and touch the landscape that provides raw ingredients so that they can understand what it is they’re eating. When people better understand the landscape that creates their food, they are more prone to enjoy the food the landscape provides, opposed to simply rejecting it because the flavors are unfamiliar. A farmer will benefit tremendously from inviting customers onto the land in order to provide this understanding — in other words, developing “working festivals” based on the rhythm of the seasons. Not only is it fun to go exploring across a landscape, the togetherness solidifies loving relationships that improve overall well-being (and leading tours provides another job on the farm).

We’ve just scratched the surface of a huge topic that could fill many pages. The root is simple: A specific farm provides every aspect of life for a specific group of people. I’m perplexed by how difficult it seems to untangle this basic reality from the complex interactions of societal expectations. It takes bold confidence to reject everything and try for something fundamentally different. But people are getting brave. Can we do it?

Yes.

Sources: Berry, W. (2017). The art of loading brush: New agrarian writings. Counterpoint. Provenza, F. (2018). Nourishment: What animals can teach us about rediscovering our nutritional wisdom. Chelsea Green Publishing.

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