These are challenging times. The Covid-19 virus has shown us just how interconnected we are, from disruptions in supply chains, to the tremors in the global economy, to our inability to stay put. Yet we ARE interconnected, and as fast as the virus spread, my local region was setting up communications networks, checking on neighbors, and figuring out how to be creative online. It's an opportunity to revisit how we build resilient local communities, because this is not the last upheaval we will face. Now, more than ever, we need local food systems, and the training to know what to do with all that food. We are learning to cook again. My neighbors and I are having virtual dinners: we cook the same thing and videoconference each other over the meal. We are lucky in my region that the local phone cooperative had the vision to put in fiber!
Rather than hoarding toilet paper, we should be hoarding seeds. Heck, we need to be learning how to garden again. We need to remember how to operate without as much money, how to support local small businesses that are left out of the national aid packages, and squeezed with the quarantines. Rather than rushing to Amazon, we need to re-learn how to have a full pantry, stocked for several months, with produce we've preserved from our neighboring farms. And now is a great time for those of us with that knowledge to share it. A friend of mine said that the word for Crisis in Mandarin included the character for Opportunity. This is our wakeup call to build resilient systems, rather than simply weathering a virus. And perhaps we might just use this global mobilization to tackle the climate chaos we've caused.
This winter, as part of the Advanced Permaculture Design course that I taught online, we read "Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene" by Donna Haraway, who is a feminist scientist and also an accomplished and eloquent writer. This book is about how we remain present to the enormous challenges we face in the world today. It's easy to be cynical. It's easy to check out and bunker into our homesteads. It's easy to go on with our busy lives. But Haraway challenges us to see how we are interconnected, to see how we are responsible, and suggests how we must think if we are to make it to the other side of climate catastrophe. The way that we see our selves as separate from nature is disastrous for both us and the planet. But how do we overcome this deeply rooted rupture? You need to read this book! Her concluding chapter is a speculative fiction about a person called Camille, who is bonded to monarch butterflies in an effort to save them from extinction. There are actually five Camilles: five generations of people who care about the monarch butterfly, acting out their relationship with the insect in the world as it changes. Each Camille passes on a way of knowing that helps the next Camille, even as there is room for adaptation in a rapidly changing world. It's a hopeful story, in that Camille does what needs to be done, regardless of the consequences (David Orr). I think about this as I continue to plant trees on my farm that will long outlive me, and to mentor beginning farmers, and to take an active role in the future of organic farming. Every family that buys a CSA share from me participates in this work, in building a better future. It's springtime, now, and time to get on with all this responsibility. Rather than being bonded to one organism, I am bonded to a whole ecosystem, and spring is always a dizzy season. My pig matriarch, Amelia, is about to have piglets. One of them will be named Camille.
I was diagnosed this summer with Type One Diabetes. This, if you didn't know, is an autoimmune disease where my immune system has attacked my pancreas, and I can no longer produce insulin. (They don't know why this happens.... maybe a complication of Lyme Disease? No one is studying it; the medical machine around diabetes is quite lucrative). Getting the diagnosis was like mentally slamming into a brick wall. My body had already felt that way for some weeks. It's been a couple more weeks now, and I feel much better, thanks to the insulin shots I take four times a day. But dealing with this issue has been eye-opening as a farmer, especially an Organic one.
First, I thought I was eating pretty well. After all, I hadn't bought a vegetable or fruit from a store in about 18 years, and had my own meat. But, now, after meticulously measuring every aspect of every meal I eat, and needing to include a lot more fiber, I realized that I wasn't eating so well, and I definitely wasn't eating regularly. Having a salad with two out of three meals a day makes me feel great! Also, how can you have too much zucchini???? That gets shredded and put into nearly every dish too. Plus, now that I HAVE TO eat three meals a day, I'm back to cooking nice things on the weekend and stopping to eat every day, every meal. I guess that's better quality of life?! I had no idea how hard I was working until I actually had to stop to eat three meals, plus test my blood sugar six times a day. Four hours every day that I am no longer working. Quality of life, yes, but also, geeze, that's what it takes to run a farm: 5-9, not 9-5. I'll be spending the winter making some design changes to account for my new slower pace, and I'm not sure I'm happy about it, and also wondering if I should be.
Second, it's no wonder Americans are sick. Going out to eat as a diabetic is a nightmare. There's sugar in EVERYTHING. I look at menus with new eyes, and don't see much in the way of vegetables overall. When I order a salad, it's generally not that impressive: at it's best, nicely arranged items on a plate with the dressing meant to carry the whole thing. Usually with sugar in it. I've been gluten-free for awhile, and that's hard enough. Now try needing to know the carbs and sugar in meals and finding the sugar-free things that are also gluten free and tastey, dammit. Luckily, my German heritage works out: sausage and cheese are just fine.
Last, as an Organic farmer, I am naturally suspicious of The Military-Industrical-Pharmaceutical Complex. Now, I rely on synthetic insulin that is only produced by three companies, who keep changing the formula to keep a patent current, and thus, prices high. This, after the original inventor of insulin nearly gave away the patent so that it would be essentially public domain (see the recent NPR story about this). In my darker moments I eye up my pigs (originally pig insulin was used for diabetics). In my less dark moments, I can see with clear eyes that what I do -- what I work SO hard for -- to provide good, nutritionally packed, whole food to people, is an act of political rebellion. Resistance. Essential if we are to remain a free people. If we still are.
I just got back from the inaugral Vegetable Growers' Conference in Madison, WI where I was on a panel about maintaining quality of life as a farmer. I am a solo farmer without kids; also represented were a farming couple with three kids, and a solo farmer with one child. There was much discussion about communicating with your partner, making time for rest, and taking care of your body. The presentation was a great chance for me to reflect on how far I've come... I finished my doctorate a year ago, and have basically been recovering since then. This would not have been possible except that my partner is sane and models how to take weekends off. This habit has been hard to return to, and I am at the point in my farming career that I am reminded that one's goals are the only thing leading the design of one's life. Even though all farmers work insane hours, if we don't take care of ourselves, no one else will either.
I've recently reflected with another farmer friend that we've reached a turning point in our farming careers: instead of farming around our non-farming jobs, we are now fitting in non-farming jobs around our farming. It's a satisfying milestone. We're still working 60+ hour weeks on a regular basis, but we are able to make better and better strategic choices about our time. We are no longer apologetic about the price of our products: you get what you pay for, and we know what our work, and our environmental and social stewardship is worth. We've learned that bigger does not equal better or more money (necessarily). We know what we're good at, and what we should really leave to others. We relish our time on our land, in nature, and our ability to nurture plants and animals. We value being able to make our communities more resilient.
You may be at a turning point yourself in your career or your life. Being a permaculturist, I reflect better when I can see patterns. I've been using an online tool, called Liberating Structures, for the last couple of months as I assess the next steps for my farm. Check it out here. You can access the patterns for free. Maybe you'll find it useful too!
I was out picking wild apples (which make the best cider), when a car of tourists pulled onto the road where I was. I overheard the driver complain to his passenger that someone had misdirected them… they were looking for commercial apples. These apples (the ones I was picking) were just wild, and who knew what they were…. (implying that they weren’t any good because they didn’t have a name bestowed on them by a human). I had to laugh. It’s in the agricultural margins like that roadside tree that I was picking that the vast diversity in agriculture gets developed. Thank goodness for all of the unnamed fruit in the liminal spaces between wild plants and domestic ones. There lies quality.
It's been awhile since I posted a reflection here... between working on my doctoral dissertation and the summer farm season (which starts in March), there hasn't been time! In mid-August I hosted an art reception featuring the work of the women farmers who are participating in my dissertation research. It received a very warm reception and about a hundred and fifty people wandered through to experience the women's images, writing, and some of their voices from interviews I did over the previous winter. Watch this website in the coming weeks for a link to a new website sharing their stories. Women farmers seems to be a hot topic right now with an article about a handful of women in the latest issue of Modern Farmer magazine.
As I've sat with everything the women farmers in my project have given me, I keep coming back to the strength and wisdom that they've gained from their land, that has kept them going through personal illness, family tragedy, economic challenges, and the very real awareness from all of them that what they are doing is utterly different than the direction the dominant food system is headed. It is so different, in fact, that a number of them described being treated like a threat by their conventional neighbors or professional associations. (Gandhi said once, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.") While there wasn't a common set of skills that made up the essential successful woman farmer, the attitudes, values, and beliefs of these women made them considerate partners in their farm ecosystems, leaders in their own communities, and successful businesspeople. We need many more farmers like this. Despite the industrial agriculture hegemony, these women have proven that size is not a predictor of success, and certainly not a predictor of long-term sustainability. Maybe that's why these farmers are so scary to the people that want us to believe we have no choices in our food, that we need their products to farm, or that we should sacrifice our rural landscapes and communities for the Trojan horse of "feeding the world." I have to share with you one of the farmer's comments that to me sums up our pragmatic hope for the future. I asked her where she thought agriculture was headed, and where she thought it should head:
" I think it is disastrous, and I do not want to be on that train. There was a time when I guess I thought I wanted to be part of the solution. I don't think there is one, not for conventional agriculture. There is no way on that scale that it is sustainable. And because of where I live I have enough neighbors on for whom they are completely economically and socially dependent on that train wreck, and I don't have the heart to tell them what it is. They can't see it, because they can't. What I want to do is start to create a parallel universe where those of us who are learning these skills can step in when the time comes to teach the ones who will carry it forward. My husband Chuck had a really good analogy that stuck with me ever since we talked about it of the $50 table. Because he said, if you come into a room where they are playing poker, and everybody is laying down $100 bills on their bets, and you have $500 in your pocket, don't sit at that table because you'll never win. Go find the $50 table. And so that's what we are trying to build is the $50 table."
In a world where a handful of multi-billion dollar companies control most of the global food supply, it's worth asking why the $50 dollar table is so attractive to an increasing number of new farmers (lots of them women) and why that table is so threatening to neo-colonial forces. Why are seed libraries so scary that two states have tried to ban them? Why is labeling food that has GMO ingredients too much information in this land of the free? Why is the Farm Bill one of our biggest federal expenditures and why does it keep creating incentives for all the "food" that is making us sick?
This past weekend, I had a research poster at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse about a pilot project to my dissertation collecting women farmers' stories and art about their lives. I saw a lot of people reading the poster, which made me glad. At the end of the event, I was going to take the project down, and I saw a young man and his friends staring intently at the poster. I made an introduction and asked if they had questions. The young man said, in a somewhat puzzled voice, pointing to the image in the top corner of the poster, "that looks like my farm!" I brushed it off as a coincidence, but I told him the name of the farmer who had painted the image.
"That's my Mom!" he replied.
We had a great conversation, and laughed that he had recognized his land. I spent a lot of time afterwards thinking about the encounter: how a farmer knows her or his land so intimately, the patterns are recognizable out of normal context. How the diary farmer who painted the image captured every stream and field edge, wildland and wetland, pathway and contour, showing her deep sense of her place -- deep enough that her son could recognize that place hundreds of miles from home. As I interview women farmers for my dissertation, an often repeated theme is how they feel inseparable from their farms. It's hard to tell where the land leaves off and the human begins; where the business ends and the community starts. As spring slides inexorably closer, I can feel little stirrings in the land. With the slightly warmer weather, the chickens are running around their coop with more energy (though they haven't braved the snow-covered field outside their open door); I go for a run myself down my country road. Somewhere under all those drifts, are the contours of my own farm. My hands work through the soil in my greenhouse, feeling the promise of summer in the tiny, hard seeds I plant, patterns of surprise waiting to unfurl in the world.
It's the new year, and time to order seeds for the upcoming season. This is a "found" poem I harvested from phrases in the plethora of catalogs that I pour through every year.
Since I am using some research techniques involving art for my dissertation, I have begun to pay attention to the number of farmers who are also artists. What is it about art and agriculture that they are so often linked? I think about the constant creativity required to respond to changing weather, soils, wind, rain, and animals. I think the best farms are performance art: a dance with an ecosystem. The keen observation skills we need as farmers are also needed as good artists. The patience it takes to create an image one brush stroke at a time is also the patience to nurture a soil.
I am beginning to experiment with the intersection of farmer/artist: making paint out of the clay and compost of my farm, thinking about how visitors experience my farm and how it may inspire them to a stronger connection with themselves and the earth. Perhaps this is the deepest commonality of all: farmers, artists, earth, we are all makers: drawing forth something alive from the dust and water. We just need those seeds.
Now that the snow is falling, the farm is a study in contrasts: the stark brown skeletons of the milkweed plants, the thick edging of white on every tree limb, the vibrant chartreuse green of the Chinese cabbage. Those sprouts will grow slowly for the next couple of months in the greenhouse until they are harvested in February for the winter CSA. The odd tension between winter senescence and the sappy determination of the microgreens in their planters mirrors my own combination of exhaustion from the summer farming season and excitement, now that most farm projects are buried under snow, to get deeper into the mental work of my PhD and of designing the next farm season.
In some ways, the heart of my farm is my winter CSA business. It was the crucial economic piece of my farm dreams as a solo farmer: to have year-round income and stretch out the work over the whole set of seasons. It has become a metaphor for so much of my life. In the way that I defy the cold and snow and dark to run a full CSA, I am fierce about challenging the silencing of women’s voices in farming, and women farmers in policy-making.
Creating broader changes in agriculture, agricultural policy, and the social will to have healthy food systems in an era of climate change and wanton consumerism will take dogged persistence over a lifetime. This summer was physically demanding at a level I had never experienced before. The work was relentless, and there was no time to dodge weather I would rather not have been in. As I pulled carrots and daikons in a long day of freezing rain, working into dark with a headlamp, I thought about all the jobs I could be doing instead… sitting at a desk, going home at 5 p.m., getting paid a regular check, getting paid for my work, period. But I don’t want a job, I want a livelihood, and I want work that gives me deep purpose. At some point you reach a level of exhaustion when the only thing that keeps you going is the fire deep inside you; sometimes it is beyond any meaning you can put into words except maybe determination. As I hauled tubs of produce to the root cellar, I realized that fire was maybe the same fire that I call hope that keeps me going in the broader work of sustainability and societal transformation.
This year more Americans were killed than ever before in the Black Friday ritual to the gods of consumption. Where is the meaning in that? Why don’t the news programs have an honest discussion of the real costs of our cancerous economy? At the same time, climate change brings ever more disastrous storms, the gap between the haves and have nots widens. These things are deeply interconnected. I farm, like many of the women I have been interviewing for my dissertation, because it is a tangible thing I can do to wrest a hopeful vision of the future out of the whiteout of our contemporary life. I may never see the result, but I keep working. The snow piles up outside my house one snowflake after another; billions of those little water crystals will trap my car in the morning as I try to get to town. Incremental change can still be a massive drift of a result.
My greenhouse is only 12 feet by 24 feet, but it is the abundant centerpiece of feeding ten families through the scarcity of winter. My farm is only a tiny little 40 acre field in a tough growing environment, but it models what is possible with human ingenuity in a time of peak everything. I can’t separate my scholarship from everything the soil teaches me, and the northern snows whisper to me. Perhaps it is time we all listened to the winter.
Not all the crops harvested this fall were grown by me. Today I finished wild rice that I had collected several weeks ago: knocking the rice kernels into the bottom of a canoe while my partner poled the canoe through the tall grass. This was the first time I've been able to parch and winnow my own rice, completing the whole process. It boggles my mind that I can spend a day in a canoe on a lake, and another day hanging out with friends by a wood fire and end up with my year's supply of rice. I would have to spend a great deal more work than that to grow other types of my own grain! Today, wild rice is under threat from a variety of sources: genetic contamination from cultivated wild rice, and water pollution. Even slight increases in sulfur in the water (from industrial processes like mining) will negatively impact the rice beds. Yet another reason -- cultural, economic, and ecological -- to protect the Lake Superior watershed I call home.
Dr. Clare Hintz has a B.S. Degree in Biology and Writing, a M.S. in Sustainable Systems with an emphasis in Agroecology, and a Ph.D. in Sustainability Education with a focus on Regenerative Agriculture. She currently teaches permaculture design and regenerative agriculture from her production permaculture farm in northern Wisconsin. She is the editor in chief of the Journal of Sustainability Education. In her spare time she knits, reads feminist science fiction and cooks really good food for friends.