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See the August 3rd post for the introduction to the book blog.

Brian Donahue's essay, Reclaiming the Commons, had me grabbing for a pen. I know it's a good article when I want to underline, highlight or take notes. In this context, "The Commons" refers to the shared lands of a region by ALL it's people. In every society, you need a balance of both private and common land to build a strong local economy and to preserve culture. As of late, urban sprawl and unbridled development have created an imbalance. Brian's main objective to "reclaiming the commons" is to urbanize sustainably. He started a nonprofit based on these principles for Weston, MA called Land's Sake.

The land most at risk is that on the outskirts of large urban areas, land to which people want to relocate while at the same time remaining close to the metropolitan hub. Once-working farmland is being sold off and zoned for residential, commercial and industrial use. How do we preserve this farmland and accommodate the pressure on suburbia to expand? Brian explains, "in regard to land, a community must agree on a common interest with a shared land ethic in order to create local economies which are land appropriate." He's basically saying, we can develop but let's just be smart about it and think how economic decisions impact not only the land but the people. If we did this, things like mountain top removal would never have happened. Mountain top removal is neither land appropriate or instituted with a shared land ethic. To start solving these big questions, we need to evaluate land based on three criteria: will the land be used for residental/commercial, farmland, or forest? Those questions will determine if the land is to be privately held or shared by the commons. In some cases, you can have both. For instance, instead of subdividing a 100-acre farm into 20 sublots, how about putting those same 20 homes on one acre each keeping the other 80 acres as "working" farmland for the community?

Brian approaches agrarianism in it's purest form...as community. The kind of community we all think about when we think of the word "community"...your neighbors, town hall meetings, the welcome wagon, little league, pancake breakfasts, etc. He wants us to view land through the same lens with which we view our community, that is, with respect. In sum, Brian advocates that agrarians are sharing their knowledge outside of their own farms with others in their community to take a holistic approach to the entire landscape.

 
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See the August 3rd post for the introduction to the book blog.

I first met David Orr at a TOOLS conference for environmental groups back in 2009. He gave an inspiring speech which hailed the power of grassroots activists. When I saw that David had also written an essay for the "The New Agrarianism" entitled, The Urban-Agrarian Mind, it confirmed my thoughts to do this first book blog. David is Professor of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College - neighbor to the farm I will be working on next. One of his many accolades is having championed the construction of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center (pictured here) which is a nationally recognized, LEED certified building on Oberlin's campus. His essay tells why he wanted to initiate such a place with an ecologically conscious design.

He opens his essay with an analogy comparing the planet to a train wreck waiting to happen...we are all passengers on a train traveling south headed for environmental and social disaster. A few, we'll call them activists, acknowledge the impending fate and start walking north on the moving train in hopes of reversing this demise. It's not an easy task. There are many obstacles to overcome as they pass through each train car. They slowly make progress and are 25 or more cars back when they realize they are no further north than when they started. But they still keep walking north with conviction. We're still on that train so no happy ending yet. And we still don't know how to reverse the train's direction. But we do know that it will require an upheaval in our industrial paradigm.

For the other passengers on the train, they believe if there really is certain doom, the conductor will stop the train. We, the passengers don't see the signs because many of us have lost a sense of place or as David says, 'knowledge," i.e. agrarian knowledge that helps us relate to the land and our ecosystem. If we had this knowledge, we would observe the crisis and want to address it. As an educator, David wondered how this "loss of knowledge" happened. He looked around his own surroundings at Oberlin College and saw this beautifully manicured, energy intensive campus and realized...No wonder people don't get it. We teach them life skills in a disconnected learning environment where they are asked to think analytically with little applied science to the natural world. That's when David had his ah-ha moment for the Adam Joseph Lewis Center...a place that would restore that connection to our land community (Scott Russell Sanders spoke of the "land community" in the first issue of the book blog). If students were learning in a place that represented what society wanted from its planetary citizens then they would start thinking in centuries not years. By thinking in centuries, we plan for the future with the next seven generations in mind.

In order to transition to a better world, David proposes that we use the dynamics of industry and technology with an agrarian ethic to hold us ecologically accountable.

 
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See the August 3rd post for the introduction to the book blog.

Before there was Michael Pollan there was Wendell Berry - farmer, poet, activist. In his agrarian essay, "The Whole Horse," he asks us to use agrarian values and start at the local level when tackling some of our biggest environmental and economic problems.  

Wendell's thoughts are deep and you need to sit with his words for a while and let them simmer. I got the impression that he wants his readers to be critical thinkers and ask questions. As I marinated in his text, I came away with this...as consumers and citizens, we become outraged that there can be e-coli in our spinach or that an oil rig can explode and spill millions of gallons into the ocean. For a while, it's all over the news. It appears someone will pay and it will never happen again. During the outrage phase, we see a flaw in our system that has been identified and believe things will change...food safety will be improved, drilling regulations will be increased. When actually, another news story takes over, someone's hand was slapped and business carries on as usual. Nothing really changes. Primarily because we use the same industrial methodology to fix an industrial problem. Until we take a whole systems approach to right these wrongs, can we really solve the problem. A whole systems approach would help us realize that things like "oil dispersants" in the Gulf disaster are just going to hide the problem, not fix it. Quick follow-up story: BP has asked for permission to begin offshore drilling again in the Gulf region. Worse still...they are funding a lobby group that opposes regulations to offshore drilling.

What Wendell really came to talk about is economics, local economics...The conservation movement is one of the biggest proponents for local issues like air quality, watersheds and preservation but they talk little about the economics. The conservation movement could be strengthened and enlarged if economics were more part of the dialogue. It would help conservationists see what they have in common with those fighting to save things like their ranches, markets and schools. In doing so, more people would join the conservation movement.

Wendell goes on to explain that "economy" is intrinsic to agrarian culture. But because industrialism is an economy first and a "culture" second, agrarians are seen just as country, subsistence farmers. The real difference is...when building markets, agrarianism considers the economy and culture simultaneously through a local lens versus independently and globally. Some may think that agrarianism is elitist and proposes that everyone be a farmer. Quite the contrary. It advocates for a balanced economy and communication between stakeholders. By using an agrarian approach, "any manufacturing proposal would be formed and scaled to fit the land, ecosystem and community and be employed and owned by the local people." When this is achieved, "consumers who understand their economy will not tolerate destruction of their ecosystem."

 
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See the August 3rd post for the introduction to the book blog.

The essay by Gene Logsdon, “What Comes Around,” is the reason I wanted to do the book blog. When I first picked up the book, "The New Agrarianism," I opened right to Gene’s chapter. One word in particular jumped off the page, “Malabar.” I immediately recognized the name. As I scanned the paragraph, the context confirmed it was the same Malabar I remembered from my childhood. Malabar is a the Ohio farm of 20th century, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Louis Bloomfield, who wrote of pastoral life and land stewardship. I visited this idyllic farm as a child with my family. It was in the height of my horse infatuation where all I wanted to do was ride horses and have one of my own. I must have been 13 or 14 years old at the time and the place reminded me of something out of Little House on the Prairie. I decided if I ever got a horse, I would name it Malabar. Seeing that word again for the first time in over 25 years, hooked me and I began to read.

Gene’s essay is a reminder that, "what comes around, goes around." In the case of large-scale, industrial agriculture, there is a reason they call it unsustainable…because it cannot endure. As Gene describes, its cumbersome and rigid operations cannot adapt fast enough to climate change, consumer demand and economic fluctuations. It will eventually give way to smaller scale farming which can. Old, and new, farming practices are being refined which enables a farm to invest in sustainability.

Helping us to transition are the “new” agrarians…hybrid households where one spouse works a subsistence farm while the other works an urban job as the main bread winner. People are gaining a sense of place and an understanding for food sovereignty. They want to become better connected to the land by taking an active role in where their food comes from and its secured availability. These backyard farms could turn into small-scale community farms producing enough meat, dairy and vegetables for area neighbors and perhaps a region.

Parting Thought…Gene really made me sit up with this statistic. Get this…If just 40% of Americans significantly reduced their meat consumption, the factory farm system would cease. It would be put out-of-business. Out-of-business!!! We can do this people!!!


 
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I have two weeks until I start my third farm project which will be based in Northeast Ohio on George Jones Memorial Farm on the outskirts of Oberlin. In the meantime, I'm going to weave a book club style format into the blog posts starting with chapter commentaries from Eric Freyfogle's book, The New Agrarianism. Instead of a book club though, I'm calling it a "book blog" ;)

Agrarian typically refers to the values upheld in land stewardship. And is often used to describe farm life and the practice of growing food. But with roots dating back to ancient China, agrarianism can been seen as a social movement to strengthen communities by developing a strong connection to the land and all it offers. The book, The New Agrarianism, is a collection of essays and short stories by some of today's most prolific writers on the food movement including Wendell Berry, David Orr, Gene Logsdon and others.

Let's start with Scott Russell Sanders' "The Common Life"...I'll keep it short and sweet. My take away from Scott's essay is we need to have a very deep appreciation and awareness for the land so much so that we feel it in our toes and the pit of our stomach. As he so colorfully describes, it is the same visceral feeling we get when a person we like looks over at us and smiles, when you get a hole-in-one, a cold shiver from a summer rain or the sound of a police siren. It goes deep! The love and respect for the land should go that deep. Scott says it best when, "Loggers would stop seeing every tree as lumber and developers would not see every acre as real estate." He quotes Aldo Leopold who compared land to a community. A community is made of rocks, soil, water, plants, animals and...yes, humans. We're all a part of one community!