Starting a farm in a pandemic

Starting a farm in a pandemic

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 produced here.

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 production.  

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 farm.

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 future. Now.

Stay tuned for more from Evermeadow Farm.

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