Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Why small farms matter

I just finished writing my "Editor's Message" for a farming publication that I, uh, edit, and I thought I'd share it here simply because I think the message is important. I also think that everyone should go see this new film...
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I recently saw a new documentary "To Make a Farm” by filmmaker Steve Suderman. It follows five young people through a year growing food and raising animals on their small-scale CSA farms.

It’s a beautiful feel-good film and I was moved, uplifted and inspired by the passion, dedication and drive of these new(ish) farmers to grow food, steward the land and connect with their communities despite challenges that would test the most seasoned farmers.

After the film there was a brief Q&A with Suderman and two local farmers. While the consensus was that the film was both cinematically beautiful and inspiring, a few audience members dismissed these farmers as “romantic idealists” -- while it was great that these “city folk” wanted to move to the country, farm and save the world, could it make a difference on such a small scale? Was it realistic? Was it enough?

I didn’t respond at the time but on the drive home I ruminated about what I wish I’d said. And here it is:

Passion and idealism drive many people to their profession, be it doctors who want to save lives or lawyers who want to right wrongs or teachers who want to enrich children’s minds -- why must it be different for farmers?

While coming from a long line of farmers, or growing up on a farm, has its advantages, I don’t think either is a prerequisite for farming. Farming isn’t a birthright, it’s a choice, and the fact that city folk are deliberately choosing this life is something to be celebrated. In fact, it’s young farmers who are essential to the future of agriculture. Even if idealism brought them to the land, it’s clear-sighted realism about the benefits (and costs) of this life that enables them to stay there.

Yes, small-scale farming is physically demanding. It’s work that tests the body, mind and spirit. But as Wendell Berry writes, “We must learn to think of human energy, our energy, not as something to be saved, but as something to be used and to be enjoyed in use. We must understand that our strength is, first of all, strength of body, and that this strength cannot thrive except in useful, decent, satisfying, comely work.”

Farming is filled with risk and uncertainty, but it’s also transformative and joyful. (Ed note: I referred readers to two stories in the magazine that don't have much relevance here, so this sentence was actually much more interesting and relevant that it sounds.)

I’m not saying small farms are the solution to the complex challenges we face related to agriculture and food production, but they are one solution -- and one that shouldn’t be dismissed solely on scale.

So to those skeptics in the movie theatre, I’d say that for the local communities that are savouring the food grown by these farmers, for the land and animals that thrive under their care, and for the future farmers who are inspired to follow a similar path, “It’s enough.”

photo credit: Tarrah Young of Green Being Farm

5 comments:

Linda Spencer said...

I couldn't agree more!! If you want to change the world, you have to start by changing yourself. And choosing to grow your own food (organic at that), and live off this beautiful land is absolutely enough.

Chris said...

I'd love to see this film Fi.

Will it make an appearance over in the UK do you think?

karmacoy said...

Nice! I agree and whole-heartedly support you and young farmers everywhere!! (I'm getting antsy for the farmer's markets to hurry up and get here!) How's the maple syrple coming?

Fiona said...

@ Linda -- it's so true! Like Gandhi said, be the change you want to see in the world!

@ Chris -- I hope so! I'm on the director's mailing list, so when copies for public & home viewings are available, I'll let you know.

@ karmacoy -- thanks, lovely! I can't wait for the farmers' markets too! Maple syrup is GREAT -- another 40 litres of sap today! I'm going to start boiling tomorrow, if the rain stops, that is. :)

Steve Suderman said...

Fiona, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts like this. Your response to the question of "idealism" is better than any I've seen, and it's better than what I was able to come up with, even after making the film. You're right, we need idealism in farming, like everywhere else. After the screening in Campbellford I had a farmer come up and tell me that the film's vision of farming was unrealistic. According to her, new farmers just need to experience the misery of farming in order to knock the idealism out of them. I was a bit shaken as this was the first time I'd had that sort of feedback. I know there is a certain amount of idealism in the film, and that's probably because I'm a bit of an idealist. But I've also been a farmer, and I know the hardships as well. I tried to find a balance in the film. But my motivation for finding that balance came partly from the belief that idealism had no place in farming. I think I was giving in to the cynics without consciously recognizing it. So I'm really glad to hear your thoughts. They reminded me that we need principles, imagination, and idealism. These are exactly the ingredients that are missing, so we shouldn't apologise for using them. Thanks again. -steve

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