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From the farm to the occupation

Photo by pameladrew212Photo by pameladrew212

When an email from the group Food Democracy Now! landed in my inbox last week, asking farmers to occupy Wall Street, it seemed only right that I notify the subscribers of Grassfed Cooking—a monthly e-newsletter I run for other farmers of grassfed meats—and ask that they consider joining.

Some farmers, myself included, heeded the call and joined the march. Many who couldn’t make it to the city on short notice wrote to express their support. But a handful of caustic, angry responses showed up in my inbox as well:

“I hate to tell you, but you are part of the 1%...You may not be a millionaire banker, but you do own a business….Folks at OWS believe you should provide for their needs, and that they need to do nothing in return.”

“You just lost me as a subscriber.”

“OWS objectives are to destroy our free-choice political system and our free-market economy and replace them with anarcho-socialism. [If they succeed,] your first task of a morning will be to fire up the computer for the latest email from the Agricultural Czar, telling you what to plant in which field, and when.”

“OWS methods are as ugly as the future they envision, including defecating on the American flag and urinating on police cars.”

“What is wrong with you?....These “occupiers” are the ones that want something handed to them for doing nothing.”

“Occupy Wall Street is EVIL!”

“I wish you had stayed apolitical.”

Maybe I should have deleted the emails and moved on. I get plenty of nasty letters from anonymous folks who don’t like the fact that I eat meat, or that I’ve advocated homemaking as an ecologically and politically powerful vocation. Those letters go into a folder called “Alternative Fan Mail,” where they pretty much get forgotten. I could just do that with these. Or I could write and tell the senders they were being misled by corporations with a vested interest in convincing them that occupiers were bad people, out to ruin their way of life. I could explain they were being manipulated to get their continued compliance with the existing power structure. Chances are, they would tell me I was the one being misled. Our exchanges would zero each other out.

My stomach churned in angst over these notes. It was like getting hate mail from family, from people I deeply respect—people who believed in me and my work long before anyone else did. I started my writing career publishing recipes for grassfed meat. As a proponent of sustainable agriculture and grass-based ranching, and as a family farmer trying to get the American public to think outside the grocery store, it was the most important place for me to begin. If I wanted Americans to change the way they eat, then they needed recipes.

But for a long time, it was hard to get my work out. Glossy magazines didn’t want to talk to me; big house publishers said my topic wasn’t important. Tips for success were dropped in my lap along the way: “Hire a publicist.” “Go make friends with Rachel Ray.” “Pray that Martha Stewart will discover you, and then you’ll have it made.” “Accentuate your cleavage.” Not very practical tips. About two years after publishing my first cookbook, a well-meaning publishing professional from New York dropped by my farmers’ market booth to pick up a pack of sausages. Seeing my first cookbook on display, he chatted to me about my writing efforts. Before he left he leaned over and whispered his final prognosis for my career: “You’ll never make it. You don’t do lunch in the city.”

No. I didn’t do lunch. We were too busy growing lunch.

I decided that, if no one wanted to pay me to do my work, then I would give it away for free to the folks who valued it: other farmers. I began GrassfedCooking.com, a website devoted to helping pasture-based farmers communicate with their customers. I sent out the e-newsletter, providing recipes or tips for working more effectively with grassfed meats, or else opinion pieces that covered developments that impacted small farmers. The site slowly developed a faithful following of salt-of-the-earth farmers, food activists, and meat lovers. It became a kind of community.

Then I asked them to join a protest, and stepped in a hornet’s nest.

How to respond? To dismiss the opposing views would mean dismissing our relationship. That doesn’t help the Occupy movement, and it doesn’t help the grassfed farming movement. In the end, I did my best to have a dialogue, to point out our common interests, to respectfully explain that I was moving forward with my choice to march on Sunday. Not all farmers think of our work as political, but I do; it’s hard not to notice the role that corporate power plays in distorting our food system, from prices to farming practices.

I know I lost a few readers. But I think I managed to convince a few of them that, while they may not agree with all of the folks who have chosen to occupy Wall Street, there were at least a few people down in New York on Sunday who didn’t fit the profile that the news had told them to expect.

In truth, nobody fit the profile. My experience at the Sunday rally was one of the most moving four hours of my life, surrounded by hundreds of people who cared about the same issues I do: food sovereignty, the need for city people to start building soil and growing their own food, the need for rural and urban folks to build better relationships with each other to sidestep the corporate food system. I met dairy farmers, meat producers, seed producers, vegetable growers….even some friendly vegetarians. I met food activists, senior citizens concerned about the quality of food for their grandchildren, community gardeners, college students who were trying to learn how to feed themselves ethically and healthfully. We saw American flags, held up high. One of them led our march. And I saw a side of New York City that I’d never seen before. New Yorkers hung out their apartment windows, came to sit on their steps, sat out at cafes and stood in front of their small grocery stores and food stands. They cheered and clapped as we marched by. They sang and chanted with us. We marched through community gardens reclaimed from abandoned lots. I stepped on ground that was as lush and beautiful as any earth I tread upon here upstate.

The most poignant moment for me, however, was when our march passed through a community garden and I heard cheers from up above me. I looked up and saw four urban teenagers standing in a tree house. They waved and smiled, then held up a giant sign for us to read: This land will live again.

This land will live again. It will live in America’s countryside, in her mountains and rivers, as well as in her cities. To me, that’s what the Occupy movement is all about—finding ways for all living things to thrive. And for those of us in the grassfed farming community, that’s what we’re all about too, even if we don’t all agree with protests.

Shannon HayesShannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.


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