Why farmers are scared of their own customers, and how it’s holding sustainable agriculture back
I’ve worked with about a half-dozen farms over the last six months as part of a Skywoman effort to help them get profitable, collaborate with other businesses, and advance the work of regional food sovereignty. In the course of that work, one thing has stood out above all else:
Farmers live in terror of their customers.
And I mean it. Farmers are working outrageous hours, pursuing unprofitable lines of business, burning themselves and their land out, sacrificing friendships and marriages, taking on second and third jobs, all out of fear that if they don’t fit the idealized model of the farm-to-table farmer, their customers will walk and leave them destitute.
What’s the idealized model of the farm-to-table farmer, you ask? Here’s a few attributes:
- Grows everything him/herself
- Involves the family in the farm
- Grows a great diversity of products in order to “mimic” nature
- Is physically accessible to the customer via farmers markets, farmstands, on-farm stores, etc.
- Has a business that isn’t terribly big or sophisticated
- Grows heirloom/heritage/unique varieties of everything: blue corn, lard pigs, brown chickens, purple tomatoes
Fifty years of a sustainable food movement rooted in elitism/nostalgia in equal measure to science/sensibility has led us to this point. It’s taught us to ascribe the various ills of the modern food web to its sophistication, scale, specialization, and people becoming “disconnected” from the land as a result. It greenwashes the harsh realities of an agrarian past that’s rapidly and dangerously approaching the end of living memory. These are the realities my grandparents had in mind when they sent their (male) children to college to avoid an agricultural inheritance, the realities detailed in the book I’m currently reading (affiliate link) about the life of Fannie Lou Hamer. These people and their brown bodies were intimately connected to the land, and they were the worse for it:
Before the onset of mechanization in the middle of the century, cotton culture defined the rhythm of…