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Looks like the new Agrarian Age has arrived

I define “new agrarian age” as a society in which rural and urban lifestyles become indistinguishable. Roof top vegetable gardens in downtown Manhattan for instance. A more typical example is a landscape where urban agriculture and rural manufacturing exist side by side in harmony. I saw a photo recently of horses plowing a large garden plot with the Cleveland, Ohio, city skyline in the background.

Some years ago I visited Paws Inc., where Jim Davis, the creator of the comic strip “Garfield” has his business headquartered. The location in rural Indiana (where Davis grew up), is so far out in the country that there was no suitable sewage system to handle the waste from his three big office buildings and fairly large number of workers. He had engineers design and build a greenhouse where plants, fish, and other aquatic animals flourished by feeding on the nutrients in the wastewater while purifying it before its return to natural waterways. Aquaculture and urban culture surely joined hands in that greenhouse. Silviculture too because Davis was also raising tree seedlings in the greenhouse to reforest wornout farm land in the area.

Last week I attended the annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), spending the day signing and selling books and gabbing with people. Those of us who remember the early days of OEFFA were stunned and jubilant at the overflow crowd. So many people wanted to come to the conference in fact, that about 200 had to be turned away because of space limitations, Carol Goland, OEFFA’s executive director told me regretfully. I looked around the main exhibit hall (a highschool gymnasium) crammed with booths where all sorts of organic and natural farm supplies were being sold. I was remembering the early days, when, said Mike McLaughlin, a farmer and OEFFA official since the early days, “we thought that four exhibitors was a major achievement.”

It is difficult to make generalities about any group of humans, but I’d say that today’s OEFFA member is more sophisticated about the possibilities of the new ecological trends in agriculture. Back in the early days, I’d say that we were mostly angry and rebellious at being called radical just because we didn’t like what industrial agriculture was doing. Today’s OEFFA members are more assured about the way forward. They would rather figure than fight. If someone called them radical, they would merely be amused. They are convinced that the agribusiness methods of the past are so obviously unworkable that there is no need to fight anymore. Move on.

And they are moving on. There was something electric in the air. I could feel it. At meetings of industrial farmers these days, the talk is fairly bleak, but here, among new farmers and gardeners with a hundred new ways to produce food and sell it locally, the people just seemed to glow with optimism. I’ve been sitting at tables selling books it seems like forever. This time, buyers would approach me with victorious little smiles on their faces. Something about the way they would pick up a book and plop it down in front of me for signing while they got out their billfolds bespoke an exuberance that was full of quiet confidence. Sometimes a buyer would briskly pile three or four books up and say “How much?” An author’s dream. OEFFA itself had a long table of books for sale. I was told that on Saturday, the big day (I was there on Sunday), people stood three and four deep in front of that long table, buying books. A couple of attendees who stopped to buy a book from me were carrying— you’d never guess what. Brand new pitchforks they had also just purchased. When a farmer buys a new fork and a new book in the same breath, that’s new age agrarianism.

I could be wishful dreaming again. This could be just another spurt in the ancient back to the land idealism I’ve seen come and go twice in my lifetime. But maybe something more permanent is in the offing. Money farming is pricing itself out of the food market, and maybe government, which continues to prop up this kind of farming with artificial money, is being forced to realize that. As farmer and author Joel Salatin, the keynote speaker, symbolized to the world: ecological and organic farmers are here to stay and they are ready to take the helm.
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