The birds sang in the bamboo patch and a soft wind blew across the green valley, and so it was with a twinge of reluctance that I embarked on my trip to Saint Louis, Missouri to attend the SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) conference. SARE is a grant program under the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, for which I have the privilege of serving as an advisory council-member.
Generally I’m skeptical about conference-going, but SARE only holds a national conferences once a decade, so I couldn’t resist this one. Also I’ve never been to Middle America before, never seen the corn/soybean industrial complex in the flesh. I’ve been in the Central Valley of California and seen endless orchards of almonds, endless fields of tomatoes, endless fields of artichokes, endless fields of fig trees, even, but never seen Big Corn/Soy. As an “aggie” that’s a pretty big experience gap. The conference site at the foot of Saint Louis’ famous silver arch was located right across the Mississippi River from Illinois, where many of the biggest names in Big Ag have their headquarters, and – the third reason for going on this trip – only a 4.5 hour drive across Illinois to visit Jody in Indiana. So with a slightly sinking heart at the prospect of a week away from home and the guilty conscience that air-travel induces, I set off in hopes of the trip being Worth It in the general ledger of Karma.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with SARE, I mean who falls in love with a government program, acronym and all? What I love about SARE is that it is set up to cultivate a broad range of perspectives on sustainable agriculture. Everyone from ardent organic vegetable growers to pragmatic commodity grain farmers, from university researchers to conservation NGOs, from new urban gardeners to indigenous subsistence farmers are involved in SARE. What I also love about SARE, and what makes it unique, is that it is a government grant program under the direction of the producers themselves. There are a small cadre of USDA bureaucrats assigned to SARE in Washington, but the power to determine what SARE is and what it does is distributed throughout the program and heavily weighted towards the grass-roots level.
The SARE conference was described as a gathering of the four tribes i.e. the four regional sub-programs of SARE, which was an invigorating prospect. And, indeed, the conference lived up to the eclecticism that I associate with SARE, featuring vice presidents from the giant food conglomerates and seed/chemical companies talking about their sustainable sourcing efforts alongside food activists talking about their struggle against racism and colonialism, classic Midwestern farm-boys in jeans, cowboy boots, and base-ball caps, and hippie mushroom growers from the coasts. There were just under a thousand people at the conference and every one of them represented a slightly different facet of sustainable agriculture, and that, of itself, was an amazing experience.
This is SARE’s third national conference and its 30th year in existence, and while the program can congratulate itself on promoting a host of sustainability practices such as cover-crops, integrated pest management, rotational and planned grazing, and has a vast library of mostly free materials derived from thousands of research projects, the question looms: what next? What are the big issues that are emerging in agriculture? What are the leverage points? What is the shape of the future? What might it be with support in the form of strategic grant funding?
One theme that came up over and over again, the seething question it seemed, was land access, especially in the context of succession. A generation of Americans – more or less centered on the generation that grew up during the farm crisis of 1980’s – left the farm and got urban jobs. There is a missing generation in agriculture. A massive transfer of land from farmers in their seventies and eighties will happen in the next decade but there has been little recent precedent or practice among farm families and communities in the orderly transfer of land from old farmer to young farmer. And small incentive, as the old farmer will probably get more cash for his land from a non-farmer, such as a developer or an urban professional looking to park excess capital or most troubling perhaps, an agricultural multi-national, than from a young farmer interested in implementing sustainable agricultural practice. Who will own America’s farm land and how will that shape agriculture?
It was one of the more comical moments in the conference to watch the pair of current and former high-ranking USDA officials who opened the conference evade, with evident discomfort, the question of access to land by young and minority farmers. The high-ranking officials thought land transfer might be addressed in the next revamp of the tax code through a targeted tax break. Given that the 2017 tax code re-write was so skewed to the interests of corporations and the wealthy, this would seem to be a risible response, at best.
Not that I’ve got much better of an idea for how to address the issue of land access. Clearly a mechanism for the redistribution of farmland is needed but the merest hint of distributing land except through private market forces so threatens capitalism, evidently, that no Republican appointee would even allow such a potential contaminant to enter their minds, and, to be fair, no Democrat would be brave enough to bring it forward.
Like most conferences, it was difficult to choose which break-out sessions to attend, but one session that I made a point of showing up to was on the topic of rebuilding indigenous food systems. Although I’m not indigenous – being entirely a hybrid of immigrant peoples – I’ve become deeply interested in the revival of indigenous agriculture and food systems. I feel that we can learn what happened to all of us, what was taken from all of us more clearly in learning from and being allies to the efforts of indigenous peoples. Needless to say, I don’t want to horn in on their cultural renaissance with misplaced enthusiasm. Nor do I want to overlook the justified anger over the historical injustices that runs like an undercurrent through their efforts to rebuild. But I am fascinated by the knowledge and practices that are their’s to resurrect. That almost obliterated knowledge of native plants and those ways of working with them are cultural treasures precious beyond words. Not less precious is the journey that many indigenous people are on to reassert their place-based cultures and less extractive ways of life. I realize from their journey that taking back knowledge of one’s food system is a powerful act, an act of responsibility and of self-determination for any community.
The last word perhaps should be from conference speaker Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, himself quoting writer Raj Patel: ‘Local food may taste good but it won’t end white supremacy.” The point being that all this, it’s not just about the food. It is about food, but that’s not the main point, the food is a vehicle or an example, of how things could be and how they ought to be. It’s an entry point to the more dangerous thoughts and actions that might win back what we all lost on the way to becoming an industrial civilization based on an industrial agriculture.