Note: You’ve got to give the Dervaes’ some credit – their asshattery has inspired a whole lot of focus on urban sustainable agriculture, homesteading and making a good life in the city! Today is “Urban Homesteading Day” and in its honor, here are some meditations on the relationships we need between city homesteaders and farmers, country homesteaders and farmers and everyone in between.
Urbanization is the biggest trend in history. For the first time, more human beings live in cities than in the country. More than 50,000 farmers worldwide leave their land or are driven off of it every single day, most of them moving to cities, often to slum dwellings on the outskirts of growing megacities.
In each family that makes this journey, there will be a recognizable pattern that emerges from that shift in culture.. The first generation who moves from the farm to the city remains agricultural in mindset and practice. They will never fully assimilate into urban life, but will be the grandparents who embarass their children by picking edible plants from the side of the road and giving nutritious soups instead of vitamins.
Their children will want to fit into the urban life. They will disdain and reject the skills of their parents, in many cases, or at best view what their parents know as irrelevant. This second generation recognizes that what the first generation knew is now gone, and wants it as far out of the way as possible. The second generation will be taught how to pick and use those plants, but they will see such knowledge as old fashioned, embarassing or even “dirty.”
Then comes the third generation removed from the land. They may have eaten grandmother’s soup, or seen her pick the greens, but they will also have absorbed their parent’s rejection of these things – at least at first. And only when they are grown will the grandchildren begin to see the value of what their grandparents knew, and to try and recreate it a little. If they are fortunate, they will have noticed their lack before the first generation is gone. If not, they will try and recreate what is lost as best they can, knowing that it is never the same as the first. They will start searching for the echoes of their agrarian past everywhere, and begin trying to remake the world from echoes, growing fainter every year.
This process, with variations, gets enacted everywhere that people move out of the country and into the cities. Sociologist Lynda Kim argues that this is pretty much universal in the transition from rural to urban cultures. But does it have to work this way? Is there a way for the shift to urban life to add a dimension, without taking away and devaluing what you knew?
We may not be able to reverse the tide of urbanization, in the nearer term. We simply don’t have enough land to allow every single person on earth an agrarian life on many acres. But how do we keep the link between city and country? It is a link that is important to both parties – the exploitation of farmers who are underpaid and disregarded is only possible when you don’t know any farmers, when you don’t care what they have to do to make your dinner. And urbanites who have lost touch with natural rhythyms need to get in touch with them, to have access to the best food on a reasonable budget, to have the knowledge to meet their own needs.
America has an unusually vast gap between city and country. In many places in Africa, Asia and Russia, even urban people have a “country place.” But this does not imply a recreational second home, as it does here, but a simple shack or other shelter designed to allow you to gather or grow food during the correct season. In much of southern Africa, middle class urban dwellers keep cattle, and go out the land to tend them during the weekends. In Russia, summerhouses allow people to collect mushrooms and wild plants and grow gardens.
In America, there are still vestiges of this culture. Hunting and fishing camps are now recreational to a large degre, but there are still millions of Americans who rely for deer and fish for primary sources of food. The community garden in the undeveloped areas of urban centers might be a metaphoric version of this – the reminder that food does not have to be grown only on land your house rests upon. But the overwhelming assumption is that the first step to agriculture is ownership.
That’s wrong. It is wrong because many of the people who most need to grow food cannot afford to own land, and it is wrong because it isn’t about any one piece of land. It is about all the land. Our society can only survive the coming crises if we make the nation, and the world bloom, if we use land productively, wisely and carefully. That means using the land under the feet of urban and suburban dwellers, as well as the land in the countryside. In most of the places people live, you simply cannot abandon the best farmland – now under rows of houses. While we will not grow our calorie crops there and no one has yet invented a combine that can go around the playset, miss the neighbor’s cat and the clothesline….;-), what we can grow there is a lot of high value crops, the kind of thing that many poor people struggle to afford – fruits and berries, meats raised on scraps and food that would otherwise fill landfills, fresh greens and vegetables.
Understanding where we stand depends on having a populace that is connected to its own agriculture. That is, we cannot afford the status quo in which millions of city and suburb dwellers are left wholly out of the project of creating a sustainable agriculture. And since few people can afford to live in expensive cities and also own large quantities of rural land, we need to think of more creative ways than traditional ownership to draw those connections.
We cannot afford to wait two generations for people to reclaim the land each time they are uprooted and their lives are transformed. Changing the story in which Grandmother’s knowledge is disdained until it is too late begins from the recognition that leaving the country is not the same as leaving the farm – the farm travels with us, it is reconstituted in new ways, large and small, as we go. It travels into window boxes and community gardens, it becomes part of the farms of friends and the markets we patronize. instead of saying “we are not like those people we came from, concerned with what and how we eat” we must begin to say “This is my farm. This small piece of earth, this kind neighbor’s dirt, this farm outside my city with which I am in relationship…all of this is my farm.”
How might we reconnect urban dwellers to their own agricultural traditions and begin to speak about our farms? CSAs have provided an excellent beginning, giving patrons a direct connection to “their” farm, but up until now, most CSAs are providing only in-season produce to their members. There is no reason why urban dwellers shouldn’t also get their grains from CSGs, signing up in the spring to receive a fair share of wheat, beans, corn or rice. There is no reason why we shouldn’t get our yarn, sweaters, mittens, gloves, tshirts, socks, tablecloths and blankets from CSFs, that produce fiber goods, or yarn that someone can bring to their neighborhood weaver or sock knitter to be made up. While this would be more expensive than buying sweatsocks from Walmart, it would also be putting our money where our principles are.
But it isn’t just enough to have a relationship with farmers. There are some things you can only learn by touching and smelling and living. We need to bring urban dwellers out to the land, at least some of the time. Train and boat lines that run from cities to the countryside could take teenagers who need summer work out to farms. It wasn’t so very long ago that many teenagers barned tobacco, baled hay or picked cherries every year. It could be that way again. In much of London, the hop harvest was the call for families to go out to the countryside for a working vacation. This reflects the fact that more hands are needed on farms at some times of the year than others – and that those times are often when city dwellers most long to get out of the hot, polluted cities.
While buying your own dacha in the countryside is a pricey proposition, there is no reason why urban dwellers might not invest in local farms. They might buy some sheep that will be theirs, paying to have them fed, tended and grazed, receiving lamb and wool at the end of the year. Horse people routinely stable horses this way – there is no reason we could not do so with food animals. The owner, of course, would have a relationship with the animal. Or perhaps urban dwellers might join together to buy a plot of land with a farmer. The farmer would farm the land, paying out the owners in produce and food in perpetuity. Thousands of young people would like to get on some land – there is no reason they should not. Such arrangements are new, and potentially come with difficulties, but normalizing them would go a long way to making them easier to navigate.
The movement to limit development has meant that towns and cities often now hold parcels of land that cannot be developed. There is no reason why such community resources should serve only the tax rolls – there is no reason why cattle cannot graze the local commons again, why farms rescued from the bulldozer should not be transformed into smaller truck farms, or farmed by tenants, or turned into community gardens. Many already are – the intervale in Burlington Vermont being a stunning example. We should wave it like a banner, this is not a vacant lot, this is not empty space, this is our farm!
Thousands of urban homesteaders are standing up this week and saying “this is my homestead, my farm in the city.” We must encourage that. Moreover, we must encourage urban dwellers and country dwellers alike to work on the larger project of making sure that everyone can say “this is my farm.” Whether they point to a community garden project, to an urban homestead on which they help out, to their own little plot of land in the city, to an exurban farm that brings food to their city market, to a place in the country where they go to help with harvest, to grow gardens or forage for wild foods, to a large farm that they return to year after year on the train….all of these relationships should be leading to the point that each of us has the right to a farm, a right to a relationship with the thing that they stand on…and for.