Saturday, December 29, 2012

Creative Agrarian Work: Cities, Suburbs and Race

"Some of the more creative agrarian work now being done is the protection of farmlands, and especially smaller farms, so that they do not become housing developments or second homes for urbanites with ready cash. At the same time, those who live in cities and suburbs must have a stake in the countryside that is both emotional and economic. The common biblical metaphor for the relationship between a city and its surrounding villages is that of a mother and her daughters (Num. 21:25; Josh. 15:45, 57, etc.); it connotes mutual belonging, affection, benefit, and need. That image should be embraced and promoted by those of us who, farmers or not, sense the 'deadly impermanence' of the global economy and seek sustenance outside it, for ourselves, and even more, for our children.

Transformed models of land ownership are being developed and implemented, including regulations and easements on private property that restrict some form of alteration and protect wetlands, forests, and arable land. Some family farms are being purchased by public and nonprofit conservation trusts operating at various levels: national (the American Farmland Trust), state and provincial (e.g., Main Farmland Trust, Ontario Farmland Trust), county and regional. The suburban town of Weston, Massachusetts, ten miles from Boston, has developed an educational farm on town-owned conservation land. The town contracts with a nonprofit community farming organization to run the farm, and local youth work in its various commercial enterprises (firewood and timber, maple syrup, organic flowers, fruits and vegetables), gaining both employment and skills training.

Moreover, farmers' markets and membership farms (Community Supported Agriculture, 'CSAs') are now enabling small farmers in exurban areas to stay on the land, while urbanites and suburbanites have the pleasure and tangible benefits of investing in their 'breadbasket' communities. In dramatic contract to the general statistics for family farm collapse in the United States, the number of small farms that sell directly to their neighbors increased by 20 percent between 2001 and 2007. The number of farmers' markets increased from 340 in 1970 to 3,700 in 2004. Anathoth Community Garden in Cedar Grove, North Carolina, is a CSA that demonstrates another potential benefit of community farming, namely, the healing of rifts along economic, ethnic, and racial lines. In this small rural community, such rifts had led to a murder, apparently provoked by racism. Out of the community's agitation and grief came a vision: A lifelong member of the community, a woman whose grandfather had been born into slavery, offered five acres of land to Cedar Grove United Methodist - once known as 'the rich white church' - for the purpose of planting a community vegetable garden. Now Asians, Mexicans, Hondurans, African and European Americans, Christians and non-Christians, poor and relatively rich, work that land together, and have weekly dinners on the ground. The older farmers contribute their local knowledge and their manure - things that no one had seemed to value before. The food goes to those who need it most; some need it very badly. A community that a few years ago was riven by fear is now growing in trust and joy. in biblical terms, the people of Cedar Grove are reclaiming their nahala, which is, in its widest sense, the means of livelihood and blessing in community bestowed and received as the gift of God."

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