Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Story of Stuff ... And Farming

Over the last week I have seen blog posts on the various blogs that I read about a new short movie out called the "Story of Stuff". Tim over at Nature's Harmony Farm blogged about just the other day and I finally had a chance to watch it yesterday. I'm not going to comment on the first ten minutes of the movie. It deals with production, pollution, the theory of why we have disposable stuff, and all those kinds of things. That isn't a battle that I want to fight, or something I want to promote on this blog which is about beginning farming ... but, at the 10 minute and 12 second mark I think it gets pretty interesting. In fact I believe it speaks to the core of what makes a small-scale farm work ... and work full-time.

So, if you want you can watch the entire thing ... or you can download by clicking on THIS LINK and find the download button (then start watching at the 10:12 mark ... or you can go straight to the "Story of Stuff" website and wait for the movie to load at the top of the page, then click the chapter marker for "consumption". The "consumption section lasts for about five minutes, but I won't stop you from watching the rest...

Okay, that is how you get to the movie ... now, what does it have to do with farming? I believe one of the biggest road blocks to becoming a full-time small-scale farmer is consumerism. And, that one of the things that will make beginning small-scale farmers succeed is for people to jump off the consumerism bandwagon and slow their lives down.

Consumerism is the exact opposite of living the small farm life. Small-scale family farming is not about having the biggest green or red tractor, the largest truck, the whitest fences, the biggest house, the most involved in extra-curricular activities kids, or about keeping up with the Jones'. Small-scale family farming is about interacting with your family, with your livestock, with your crops, with your consumers/customers, and with your family some more. One image I loved from the movie was their illustration of the consumerism circle ... we watch TV find that we need more stuff to fit in, so we go to the store and buy more stuff to fit in, but since we bought more stuff we need more money ... after spending the money we need more so we go to work, get tired from working so much, come home and turn on the TV ... and then the cycle repeats! If I am going to live out my faith, spend time with my family, and become a small-scale full-time farmer I'm going to have to opt out of this broken consumerism cycle. It is dangerous, it is painful, it is un-Biblical, and it is just plan wrong! Yep, consumerism is the opposite of the small farm life ... small farmers need to produce things that last (I understand that food goes away, but quality sustainable food does have lasting benefits), they need to produce stuff that is quality, and they need to produce stuff that contributes to their surrounding community.

Also, as I mentioned, I think as people jump off this consumerism bandwagon they will be seeking out these small-scale family farms to purchase their food from. And I see people jumping off the consumerism bandwagon left and right. Not just back to the land hippies (no offense if that describes you) or environmental wackos (again, no offense intended), but also conservative Bible believing suburban people who work as teachers, lawyers, church employees, business people, and so much more. There is a counter-culture out there when it comes to consumerism ... and it is growing. As a small-scale beginning farmer I think it is important to catch these people as they try to opt-out of the cultural norm and connect them to their food and the countryside that surrounds them. In fact I would say that this short section of the "Story of Stuff" movie really energized me in our journey towards farming.

Like I said, watch the whole thing if you would like and take anything away from it that you want. Agree with it, disagree with it, yell at it! I don't really care, but I was most interested in the section on consumerism ... or maybe we should call it greed (which is another word that doesn't fit with small-scale family farming).

**The website doesn't appear to be working this morning ... I'll put up the links that I can and you can just check back throughout the day. Sorry about that, but I do hope you check it out.**

6 comments:

Steven said...

Ethan, and anyone else in Iowa. I hope you all can make it to the caucus tonight. I encourage you all to vote for the person you think is right and not necessarily the most electable. As we've seen with the Farm Bill, King Corn topics, ethanol subsidies, and the legality to sell raw milk, etc. politics can effect the small farm in many ways!

God Bless and stay warm!

Yeoman said...

I didn't have the time to respond to his earlier, but you raise a lot of excellent points here.

The enemy of family farming is consumerism, in all sorts of ways.

To start with, there was some sort of a sea weather change in American society post WWII. It's hard to peg exactly when it occurred, but gradually, since WWII, American society refocused its attention from being focused on a decent Middle Class life (as a focus, not always realized by any means), to a life of endless consumption. Whatever the cause of this shift, it really started heating up in the 60s and 70s, and was in full flame by the 80s. It's the rule now. We hear people referred to as "consumers" all the time, and our economy is, amazingly enough, focused on what the American public can consume. The government gives lip service to being concerned about our lack of savings (and it probably really is somewhat concerned), but everyone gets really concerned if their is a slow down in consumption.

That's a pretty shocking state of affairs if you really stop to think about it.

In the context of farmers, this had an important impact starting as early as the 20s and 30s. The last time the American farmer had rough economic parity with the urban population was during World War One, when the war inflated farm prices a great deal. After the war the farm family began to fall behind, in terms of consumer goods, and the government took note. By the 50s, a focus of farm policies was this perceived disparity. The problem with this is that it really has nothing to do with the quality of life.

It has had its impact, however, as the society at large no doubt has. Part of the reason young people leave the farms and ranches is that everyone believes that they'll have a "better life" if they do. They won't, but they might be able to buy more crap. I use that work intentionally, as that's largely what it amounts to.

Hardly noticed in all of this is this is that a large section of the urban population is bitterly unhappy. That explains, in part, why we see rising land prices, as discussed above. People often instinctively are drawn back to the land, although they rarely understand the draw back to it.

For that reason, in the current economic environment, I am not optimistic that we'll see an agrarian revival. There are those like us, who want to farm, and sacrifice to do it. But most of the land purchases which are not by large scall ag units go to people who know they want land, but don't know why. They also want all the crap, and farming won't make enough money to buy it. And their combined land/crap desire fuels the worst sort of land purchase, the small holding which is merely a big yard, and not an economic unit. Out here, that's the "ranchette".

While I'm obviously pessimistic about it, I can see two potential ways this can be turned around. One if for a large scale movement to save rural land, which indeed does seem to be heating up. The other would be a large scale increase in fuel prices, which drives up the cost of owning land as a hobby. That is occurring, but it doesn't seem to have had an effect yet.

Mellifera said...

Ok... total aside... but the branch of history my husband is working a lot with European colonial, and for him that involved *gasp* learning French. It's amazing the things you find out when you can read the French news. ; )

There are a lot of differences in American and European popular culture, but I think the one that probably explains a lot of the rest of it is that Americans picked money and Europeans picked time.

After WWII, as Yeoman noted, things in the US began to change. By and large production increased after WWII because of greater industrialization, both in the US and Europe. That meant each worker could make a lot more *stuff.* What to do with all the surplus capacity for making stuff? Europeans decided to have the same amount of stuff and more time with their family. Americans decided, screw the family, I'm gettin' me more stuff.

The general anti-industrial sentiment is why they also have a really different agricultural process over there. I'm definitely not gaga on Europe, they have their own problems over there but contrasting American and European problems can lead to some interesting insights.

Yeoman said...

Post war Europe, or indeed rather post WWI Europe, in most countries, has seen an emphasis on preserving family farms which is far greater than any in our own country. It is particularly pronounced in France. It is much less pronounced in the UK, which has seen some of the same farm problems that we in the US have seen.

Continental European farms are sometimes noted in the US as being unproductive, but they are not. They retain a different model, however, in that they still consume some of their own production, which falsely makes them seem less productive by our way of looking at it.

An admirable part of European agriculture, in my view, is that various European governments, where land is of course tight, have decided that the agricultural section is an indispensable part of their national character. France, which receives a lot of bad press in the US, has that as part of its national outlook, and actively works towards keeping family farmers on the land. The US pays a lot of lip service to keeping family farmers on the land, but does little to advance that goal.

In terms of the shift towards consumerism, as long as the French language has been noted, it's interesting to note that North America had a late agrarian community, French speaking, in Quebec. While they do not acknowledge it, the Quebecois were able to preserve their culture as they were strongly agrarian and religious. This set them apart as a culture from English speaking Canada.

Agrarian Quebec passed in the 40s and 50s, and at the same time the devotion to Faith also passed, all in the name of modernity. At the same time, it is notable, the Quebecois started to have trouble hanging on to their culture. They've been working at it ever since, but ironically the two things that really kept that culture together have been forgotten.

Mellifera said...

Ah, Quebec! I remember seeing in a book (probably geared towards collectors) of colonial-era wooden boxes, a "bread box" of most unusual design: it was long and skinny with a little hatch on top and nailed to the wall. It sure wasn't shaped for Wonderbread, I can tell you that. "This type of bread box was popular in Canada and parts of Maine." Oh come on, just say it- it's a baguette box. : )

I have a book called "60 Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong," aka "Why are the French like that?" written by an expat Frenchman and his American wife that was used by some college class as an informal textbook on French culture. It's a really interesting read- French history and culture is kind of like an alternate universe. All the same things happened (WWII, Vietnam) but the effects were completely different.

In any case, the authors spent a lot of time trying to figure out why France and America are so darn different. Their conclusion: "France is a culture of aboriginals." I couldn't tell what they were getting at, but once you think about farming and being rooted vs. mobility and consumption and high-paid city jobs, it all clicks.

Ethan Book said...

Interesting discussion Yeoman and Mellifera! Thanks for adding so much to the conversation.

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