Thursday, August 4, 2011

Article on foodie nostalgia

This is an article by Brent Cunningham entitled "Pastoral Romance", discussing the tinge of foggy nostalgia that imbues much discourse about food system reform in the US. Its central point is that we need to engage more realistically with the food practices of our past in order to appreciate what should or can change about the present food system. This is fair, but Linkmuch of the argument relies on casting all "foodies" as hyper-bourgeois coastal types, and painting the hard labor of farming as something universally despised by real farmers. None of this jibes well with my Midwestern upbringing, which involved a diet dominated by delicious, unpretentious homemade meals prepared by my mother, who worked at a far-away professional job 50-60 hours a week.

Cunningham's argument also doesn't jibe with the fact that most farmers get out of farming not because of the aversion to hard work that the author details, but because they are forced out by economic hardship. My great uncle is a typical case; he worked most of his life as an agricultural engineer, but for retirement returned to the farm he grew up on. He is not a foodie, or effete, or bourgeois, or even particularly socially progressive. He farms wheat and milo maize and sorghum sudangrass and raises beef cattle in West Texas. He got out of farming because it wasn't profitable enough, but now that his livelihood doesn't depend on it, he's returned out of love for the agrarian life, 12-hour workdays included.

In my life as an agronomist and sometimes-agricultural-laborer, I've constantly run into people who are trying to stay in farming because they love it so much, even though economic reality conspires to force them out. I've seen this in Illinois's corn country, dairy operations in Wisconsin, and farms small and large in poorer tropical countries. Even in Haiti, where farming is about as hard as it gets, surveys have indicated that many of the urban unemployed would love to farm if they could make a decent living at it.

I particularly disagree with the author's generally negative characterization of farming. Sure, there are plenty of people who find physical labor unpleasant. In fact, it often seems like much of the US fits this description. Much of the US also is overweight, unemployed, and addicted to various chemical substances. Just as no one is trumpeting the common-sense wisdom displayed by these other self-destructive practices, an aversion to hard work (which perhaps underlies our current fat, broke, dope fiend predicament) is something to be condemned and remedied, not something to be used as from-the-horse's-mouth evidence that the current food system is somehow on the right track. Perhaps the author is correct that many ex-farmers got out because they "wanted things to be easier". But now we're at a point where things are so much "easier" that people have nothing to do but watch TV and bemoan their empty lives. So maybe hard work has something meaningful, even ennobling about it, despite the griping of people culturally conditioned to despise work.

Another error is the author's assertion that "America will not revert to a nation of family farms". In fact, most US farms are still family farms. They may measure upwards of 1000 acres, but the labor comes from the immediate family. I'm not talking about small organic hobby farms, but big, industrial grain and livestock operations.

This continued prevalence of family farms also gives the lie to Cunningham's claim that most agricultural production is and has always been based on exploitation of others. Today as in the past, most US farms don't hire labor, and the only people being exploited are the farmers themselves, who have been sold out by the USDA ever since 1986, when it switched its focus from stabilizing commodity production and price to driving production up and prices down in order to benefit food processors and speculators. Yes, places like Florida or California rely on lots of (underpaid) outside labor, but most of the US's farmland is taken up not by fruit groves or vegetable farms but rather by wheat, soy, corn, and rangeland.

To summarize, I can appreciate Cunningham's desire for less bourgeois silliness and more historical understanding in the movement to change our food system. Likewise, the author is correct that there can and must be a happy coexistence possible between natural and industrial food, between meals from scratch and eating out, between rural life and hip urban foody-ism. But there is no doubt that our food system must change if we are to resolve our nation's health problems, social disintegration, economic woes, and oppressive labor practices. No amount of glib, work-averse grandmothers can paper over the fundamental need for change in how we produce and consume our food.

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