This is a personal essay on Josh’s thought process about why we decided to make our move now, despite all the unknowns.
Here are three reasons we have decided to start a farm business in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic:
1. Local food security is more important than ever.
a. Industrial capitalist agriculture has been a disaster for
food security, all while selling itself as the solution for food insecurity.
This is because concentration, homogenization, and vertical integration have
made the entire food system so interconnected that when one part of the system
is jeopardized, the entire thing could crumble.
b. Local food production has been in decline for decades –
but in the big picture it has been the norm for most of human history. The past
60 years have been an anomaly. Local food traditions are being recovered and
reinvented. But for now, most small communities are woefully unprepared for
disruptions to the agribusiness and corporate grocery distribution models. Only
a tiny fraction of food consumed in Northumberland County (or most places) is
c. The land base can produce vastly more food than it presently
does, but not under the presently dominant agricultural economic models of mass
scale soy protein and corn carbohydrate production. Northumberland County could
feed itself, but doing so requires a shift in agricultural practices towards
higher labour and time intensive operations and away from expensive chemical
and mechanical inputs.
d. As COVID-19 reveals the vulnerability of individuals and
communities across the world, it specifically also reveals the vulnerability to
disruption of transnational and even trans-regional supply chains. Without the
capacity to produce our own food, our communities risk serious food-insecurity
with even short-duration disruptions to the supply chains.
e. Community bonds have been under attack by neoliberal
economic and social policies for almost four decades now. The result, even
pre-pandemic, is a profoundly socially-distanced society that relies on
commercialized data-gathering advertising vehicles as substitutes for actual
communication and interpersonal connections.
Long traditions of individualism and atomism in Christian societies and
the collectively traumatic experiences of mass migration, displacement and
colonization of North America combine to produce the epidemics of loneliness,
isolation, drug abuse, mental illness, and emotional listlessness that were
already the characteristic features of 21st century life. These trends are not separate from food
production, which has traditionally been at the center of the shared
experiences of family and community life.
Industrial agriculture is not the only cause, but it a significant part
of the ecosystem of social breakdown in the time of the pandemic – both
physically (factory farming, destruction of biodiversity and habitat, contact
with wild animals, globalization etc.) and spiritually.
f. Globalization of travel as well as food supply chains are
precisely and literally the CAUSE of COVID-19.
g. Re-building local food economies is one of the most
important pathways to building community interconnectedness and shared
experiences of meaning and purpose, as well as economically tying the community
together instead of constantly exporting our financial resources to parasitic
corporate grocery chains and externalizing the ecological costs of food
2. Ecosystem and habitat restoration are more important than ever.
a. We are constantly told that we are in the midst of a
climate crises and any number of interrelated ecologicial crises. There is
ample scientific evidence to support both of these claims. But one of the most
significant hurdles the environmental movement has faced is “what can we
actually do about climate change?” Most people who look closely at the issue
see that lifestyle changes are only the tip of the iceberg, and that massive
system and structural changes need to occur across the entire civilizational
system to meaningfully alter the course of global warming and climate
change. This is not to say these things
are impossible – but just that the challenge is so immense as to be nearly incomprehensible
on an individual level. Yet this is the challenge that (pre-COVID) most
preoccupied people concerned with environmental issues – precisely the one they
could do the least about.
b. What if we assumed, as most respected scientists already
do, that at least a certain measure of climate change is inevitable and already
baked-in? What now? What can we do in
the face of this seemingly intractable march towards warming? Well, temporarily removing the biggest
problem (climate change) from consideration has the effect of freeing up mental
capacity to consider what we actually can do. If we are no longer spending all
of our energies trying to impact the trajectory of climate change, what
resources are freed up and where are the best allocated?
c. I suggest the answer lies in the intertwined endeavours
of ecosystem protection and restoration and habitat creation for the promotion
and maintenance of bio-diversity. Ample
research shows that biodiversity is both a marker of and a primary contributing
factor to ecosystem resiliency – that is, the capacity of an ecosystem to adapt
and absorb shocks and disturbances without radically collapsing into a state of
entropic decay. In other words, the more different kinds of organisms living
together in a given area, the better chance they all have to survive when
things get tough, for whatever reason.
d. Habitat restoration for promotion of biodiversity (and
thereby, ecosystem resilience) is something that, unlike with climate change,
we can all do something substantial about, relatively easily too. We don’t need
buy in from massive corporations.
Government policies would be helpful but are also not necessary. We all live somewhere, and all of those
somewheres (even in cities) are part of ecosystems that are already habitats
for diverse creatures, and all of them have the capacity to support even more,
depending in part on what actions we take. Growing plants, especially natives,
growing even small amounts of food, discouraging pesticide use, putting in
infrastructure to support nesting birds and so on. Those of us fortunate enough
to have yards and fields that we are responsible for managing have an even
greater opportunity (and therefore a greater responsibility). As an example, we have a small strip of land,
no wider than 20’ and about 100’ long bordering our yard. When we moved here it was mown lawn, part of
an endless sea of flat green monoculture grass that waves across the whole
village. We stopped cutting it, planted
some trees and native shrubs, and sat back. In the span of 4 or 5 years there
have already been remarkable improvements: a huge increase in insect life,
drawn by the habitat and the flowering plants, and each other; wild and
self-seeded plants we never knew were hiding in our yard; and birds – far more
than we had seen before. On summer
evenings you can hear the distinct difference in the number of chirping
insects. Its quiet in most of the yard,
but in this small strip it is a cacophony. We’ve even seen larger animals like
skunks, rabbits, and foxes taking shelter there.
e. My point is, it doesn’t take much. All of us are in some way responsible for
managing some part of this earth, however small. The decisions we make in our
management have ripple effects. Even a
tiny increase in habitat allows for the maintenance of more life and more
diversity- and thereby, ecosystem resilience.
f. Because we can all contribute to increasing and expanding
habitats to promote biodiversity, and because this increases ecosystem
resilience to shocks (like warmer climates and weather events) – I believe
habitat restoration and expansion is one of the most important and powerful
tools we have to address ecological crises, crises which include but are not
limited to climate change.
g. And where is the greatest opportunity for habitat
restoration and ecosystem restoration?
To answer that, we simply have to inquire, what is the condition of the
greatest bulk of the land? Here in Southern
Ontario, it is unequivocally agriculture – and specifically cash crop, monoculture,
heavy input agriculture. Soy and corn and sometimes wheat. Rarely much else. The percentage of land that
is used for large scale cash crop (soy and corn) operations in Northumberland
and the province generally has grown steadily year over year, and particularly
quickly since 2000. The percentage of
land in diverse crops like hay, pasture for livestock, vegetables, and other
niche crops has dropped proportionally.
Farms are getting bigger, hedgerows and tree lines are being ripped out,
and endless rows of soy and corn are increasingly the characteristic image of
the rural landscape. Thus, it is these ecologically barren agricultural
landscapes that are the places most ripe for radically positive transformation
through habitat restoration and biodiversity promotion.
h. Right now most farmers are understandably convinced that
the cash-crop system is the only way to be competitive and survive in tough
markets characterized by high capital expenses and vertical integration. But in many ways this is a race to the
bottom, both financially and ecologically.
What kind of a system is it where farmers destroy the only remaining
fragments of ecological diversity and habitat on their land (tree lines between
fields) to eke out tiny percentage gains
in annual return? Is farming really such
tight margin enterprise that a 0.5 percent increase in efficiency is worth
destroying vulnerable habitat for? For cash-crop farming, the answer is often
yes – Ontario government figures show that most farm operations that gross into
the hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars make an actual annual net
return of only 40-80 thousand, all while carrying astronomical debt loads.
i. But there may be a way –a way that people can make a
living on the land while increasing biodiversity and restoring habitat. The way is regenerative agriculture – a
farming ethic that takes soil health, biodiversity, and habitat protection
alongside and community health as its main objectives. Profitability is still
crucial, it is needed to enable all the other aspects to flourish, but it is
not the actual point. There are many
farmers working now who are demonstrating that regenerative methods such as
rotational grazing, cover cropping, permaculture, no-till and others are not
only restorative for ecosystem health and resilience but also profitable and
economically sustainable. A key component of this is local community engagement
– people supporting the farmers so that the farmers can support the people, and
the land. A collectively beneficial web
of interaction greater than the sum of its parts. An emergent system – that is, a system that
has the capacity to defy linear explanation and logic, a system that can adapt
rapidly and move quickly to meet needs as they arise. A system that is perfectly suited as a
rising alternative to the exponentially
destructive logics of pandemic-generating capitalism, globalized logistical
chains, and centralized corporate power.
3. We are taking responsibility for our lives.
a. I’ve always wanted to farm. Janita has always wanted to farm. I’ve believed for a long time that the best
environmental impact we can have is through careful, intentional and
ecologically minded agriculture. But we
were always waiting for the right moment – the time when everything was
organized, when we had enough money, when we were in the right place, when we
owned enough land, when we had enough knowledge and skills, when our social
network was big enough, or when we had x number of years experience raising x
number of animals. A whole lot had to
change, in our minds, before we thought we were going to be ready to really
b. This was all before.
c. We are in a time, now, where many blinders are falling
off. The vulnerabilities and injustices that form the very core of our
techno-capitalist mode of civilization are more apparent than ever. Crucially,
our own vulnerability has come into stark relief. I’ve always been somewhat of
a “prepper” and I’ve fantasized since childhood about what it would be like to
live through the apocalypse. I’ve
realized since that not only is this not actually desirable, but also that
there have already been many apocalypses in human history. The most recent of
which, perhaps, has been the ongoing catastrophe of colonization in the lives
of indigenous peoples. This apocalypse
continues to this day, overlapping in terrifying and soon (certainly) to be
deadly ways with the ravages of COVID-19, both viral and sociological.
d. As descendants of Europeans living in rural Ontario,
Janita and I are beneficiaries of so many layers of privilege that it is
impossible to identify and understand them all.
This we know. But we also know
that such as they are, there are things that even our privileges cannot protect
us from. Things we are all now having to face, things that we always knew were
there, coming, but which we still had the luxury of avoiding if we so chose. We
feel that we no longer have that choice.
e. We had been planning to launch a farm enterprise in 2021,
with the goals of dramatically improving our own family-level food security,
building biodiversity and ecosystem health in our immediate environments, and
contributing to our broader community’s food security. But the novel coronavirus forced our hand.
f. We are grateful about this fact. We now see more clearly
than ever that we had been lulled into a sense of complacency in which we
externalized our responsibility and invented reasons why we were not ready to
do the thing we knew we wanted and needed to do. We see now that there is no
time better than the present to get started on our agricultural journey,
because all of the barriers we had set up in our minds were only there to keep
us comfortable in the world before the pandemic – a world where we could still
live in the peaceful illusion that capitalism and the global food supply system
would carry on indefinitely and that we would have time to develop our
agricultural plans “when the time was right”.
g. For better or worse, that world no longer exists. It may
struggle back in fits and starts, maybe even for long stretches at a time. That would be a salve for many people, and we
hope that everyone who needs help and time and shelter, and government
assistance, and functioning markets etc. etc. gets what they need. We don’t
just hope – we active pursue these things, by carrying on in the university, by
taking part in the arts economy, by voting, by being active in our church
etc. But we realize that we can no longer
take any of this for granted. We can no longer rely on governments or
corporations. The powers that be have shown themselves to be basically helpless
to stave off this crisis. These crises.
h. And so, it is up to us to take responsibility for our own
Stay tuned for more from Evermeadow Farm.