Food for Thought

Sharon Astyk | Posted on 04/05/10

This is a phenomenon that cuts across class lines, cultural lines and even hard-to-cross political lines in the US. There are conservative Christian homesteading families who grow their own because they believe God has called them to do so and leftist hippies meditating as they plant their salad greens. People who think that climate change is real and people who think it is all a conspiracy meet together to share an order of baby ducklings and rhapsodize about homemade sourdough.

Maccabeus is a Great Pyrenees dog, which means he's the size of a pony and looks a little like a cross between a polar bear and a lion.  His job is to protect the livestock on my farm, and he takes this job very seriously.  He's also a giant sweet-natured marshmallow that loves every living thing with passion and energy, and a still-growing puppy who doesn't quite realize he weighs more than 100 pounds.  All of which sort of explains why I was out in the freezing yard, ankle-deep in mud, wrestling a spit-covered and peeved-looking Angora rabbit out of my dog's paws.

As best I can tell, sometime in the night Mac had accidentally knocked over one of the bunny hutches, and onto the porch popped a fluffy rabbit (whose coat will eventually become a scarf).  Mac recognized that this was not how things were supposed to be and did good work ensuring that the rabbit not escape under the gate or get eaten by predators. Having captured the rabbit, he expressed his love for it...apparently for hours.  Pyrs are a drooly breed.

I carried the sopping wet, muddy bunny into the bathroom, where I dumped him in the tub so he could warm up and dry off before going back outside.  I gave him water, oats, and an apple slice, washed off my muddy feet, and began to get ready to milk the goats, feed the chickens, ducks, and turkeys, and then start seeds for spring.  After that I've got some apples turning mealy that need to be canned up for applesauce, wool to spin into yarn, and a barn to clean.  Oh, and a rabbit to detangle.  I might as well clip the other Angoras as well while I'm at it. And THEN the usual homeschooling, cooking, and cleaning.

I was not raised on a farm.  My parents or grandparents were NOT farmers.  My husband comes NOT from farming people but from an apartment in New Jersey.  Both of us are overeducated people who trained for firmly non-agrarian careers: my husband teaches astrophysics and I used to teach Shakespeare and early modern poetry.   Even I find it reasonable when people ask me why it is I'm digging in the dirt all day, instead of all the other things that I could be doing.  Heck, on mornings that involve spit-soaked rabbits before my tea, I may even agree with them that it seems crazy.

If my life is a little nuts, and it may be, I'm not the only woman out there who has consciously chosen a crazy subsistence life. Among professional farmers, the only fast-growing segment of American agriculture is independent women farmers. The state of Pennsylvania alone, which lost 2,000 farms in the net last decade, added nearly 1,000 farms run by women. But with only just over 1 percent of Americans working on farms, we can't get a sense of the scope of women's participation in self-sufficiency projects looking only at professional farmers. There's a real sea change occurring in the relationship everyone has to food, especially the primary provisioners. From 2007 to 2009, for example, there were an estimated 2 million new vegetable gardens grown in the U.S. alone, and while it is hard to know exactly how often women are the primary or collaborative gardeners, previous evidence suggests that women constitute about 60 percent of all gardeners.

There has also been a boom in backyard chicken keeping and other forms of small-scale husbandry, and a return to home baking, jam making, and preserving.  Some people attribute this to growing concerns about ethics and safety in food supplies, others to a new back-to-the-land movement.  It is undeniable that movies like Food, Inc. and books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle have made it harder for people to be unconscious about their food choices.  Now that everyone is talking about carbon footprints and we've all heard that we burn ten calories of oil to get every calorie of food we eat, the logical next step is to change this.  For many people, safe food is something that you have to either get locally or grow yourself.   Taking care of our families got more complicated as we learned more about our food system - but we also started to find some of the deep appeal of doing things for ourselves.

I know a lot of these women.  My other job, besides farming, is writing about food, small-scale agriculture, energy, and environmental issues.  More than 60 percent of my readership is female, and almost all of them are involved with their food at some level, whether planting gardens and raising backyard chickens, doing serious farming or preserving and putting up their own. And they aren't doing it because they feel guilty, but because they love it.

In a recent New York Times article, Peggy Orenstein wrote about the ways that backyard chickens have become ubiquitous, and argued that for women with coops and compost, raising food is a way out of the Mommy wars, the trap that offers women the choice of corporate labor and coming home to do all the housework or staying home and being accused of wasting their time and educations wiping noses and behinds. In this, she builds on the work of Shannon Hayes, author of Radical Homemakers, who argues that for women caught between two unpalatable choices - a career with a heavy domestic burden or an isolating life as a stay-at-home parent - this offers a meaningful third way. Orenstein wonders if there's something fundamentally precious about middle- and upper-class women building chicken coops and thinking about food. In this, I think she echoes concerns expressed by a lot of people: is this preoccupation with dinner really important?  Shouldn't we be doing something else bigger, more substantial? Caitlin Flanagan recently wrote a screed against school gardens in the Atlantic, arguing that we can't afford to waste precious educational time on something as intellectually unimportant as dinner.  Other people wonder why anyone would stand over a canning kettle or scrub their own floors, shovel manure, or milk a cow when someone else will do it for you.

I think Orenstein's focus on upper-middle-class trendsetters ends up being distracting - most of the people I see raising food are doing it because they can't afford to eat the way they want to any other way.  And while we tend to erase what how we eat by putting it in the category of "personal choice" and thus insignificant, 300 million personal choices add up to a lot. I think it is telling that during wars or times of crisis, campaigns are mounted to get people to grow Victory gardens and reduce food waste - precisely because these activities aren't purely personal, but deeply political.  In the era of climate change, this doesn't seem to need much arguing.

Of the half of all the world's food that is produced by women, the majority of it comes from small farms and backyard gardens.  Most of those women are impoverished, and they are the people most victimized by climate change impacts and rising food prices.  It isn't easy to figure out how to deal with the complex system of our dependencies on corporations and the harm we do to the poor, but this is one solution, a way of saying "well, at least my dinner will be as honest as I can make it."

Perhaps that's why this cuts across class lines, cultural lines, and even hard-to-cross political lines in the U.S.  There are conservative Christian homesteading families who grow their own because they believe God has called them to do so and leftist hippies meditating as they plant their salad greens.  People who think that climate change is real and people who think it is all a conspiracy meet together to share an order of baby ducklings and rhapsodize about homemade sourdough.  Teenagers and their grandmothers can talk canning, low-income neighbors can share produce, seniors can offer their memories of days when subsistence work was ordinary.  Along with more independence, what emerges is an inter-dependence.

This interdependence is the most important aspect of all, and the reason why the slimy bunny is just one more piece of the puzzle - we talk about self-sufficiency, but that's not the central point.  It is wonderful to eat a meal that came from your proud labor, to enjoy the exquisite taste of homegrown, but the exercise of learning to produce your own is fundamentally collaborative - whether you are working a community garden plot or shopping the farmer's market, sharing a recipe or bartering eggs for grass-fed beef.  What emerges is a connectedness - a connection to the past, to everyone's grandmother and the women that fed us before, to the women who tend their flocks and gardens all over the world, and to other women, here and now, slowly becoming less dependent on corporations and more dependent on each other.



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