A HOMEGROWN note: This week’s post comes from Bryce Oates, a farmer in western Missouri and a regular HOMEGROWN.org contributor. Just a reminder that the following is Bryce’s opinion, not necessarily HOMEGROWN’s (or Farm Aid’s) or yours, but we want to hear your 2 cents, too. Got a thought to add? Post a comment and speak up. There’s plenty of room at the table—but let’s set a good example for our elected officials in D.C. and keep it friendly. Who knows? Maybe we’ll cook up a solution together. Thanks, everyone.
Flexibility. It’s an important skill to have in modern life, whether you’re urban, rural, or something altogether different.
I, for instance, must be flexible with my daily schedule. I have to find time to write some things, plant some things, hammer some things, and feed some things. But I also need to be open to the minds and actions of the living things I live with on the farm. The cows, for example, might be where they’re not supposed to be. They don’t read my maps and grazing plan, you see, and they might decide they’d rather eat the special turnips I planted for human consumption rather than the turnips I planted for cow consumption.
So I must be flexible and herd the herd back to the fescue and clover, fix the fence, and change my plans once again.
I value flexibility, as it helps me laugh off the miscues and pivot to the present moment in order to salvage the wreck that can be my life.
Flexibility is also helpful when you’re trying to be a good local foodie. Maybe you want lettuce on your BLT, but it’s not lettuce time, so you have to go with kale or chard instead, making your BLT into a BKT. Put a fried egg on it, and you’ll never care again what type of green is available.
Or maybe you’ve got tacos on the brain but you don’t have any more ground beef. So your flexibility muscle tells you to try some chunky stew meat instead. Whether it turns out good or bad, you still got to have some cheese and sour cream and cabbage atop corn tortillas. Flexibility can help you conquer the day.
But not everyone is so good at flexibility. Some control freaks value rigidity above all: rigidity with respect to the rules, rigidity with respect to ideas, rigidity with respect to tacos.
I would say that a hallmark of modern conventional agriculture is rigidity. “I want corn in my field,” the row-cropping farmer might think. “And corn alone.” So we’ve built up an entire system of controlling the soil and bugs and plants in Farmville so that our rigid row-cropping minds can look out over “clean fields” with big yields. We’ve got thousands of identical barns housing millions of identical chickens eating billions of pounds of rigidly constructed feed grains. And it’s all there so that our inflexible selves can purchase rigidly similar chunks of tofu-like chicken breast, the cornerstone of modern America’s healthy diet plan.
Flexibility and rigidity: the dynamic interplay between two cosmic forces, the battle between control and whatever word you want to insert for control’s opposite force. Un-control, dis-control, chaos, disorder, disruption, et cetera.
I’m musing about flexibility and rigidity because of a very specific set of circumstances we all find ourselves in today: the inability of our nation’s so-called leaders to keep the significant chunk of moolah and services flowing that the government provides to all of us. Yep. It’s Shutdown Nation, and here we are, living in it during the harvest season of 2013.
Bryce on the farm
For farmers and rural residents, we experienced a double whammy of uncertainty this week. Along with the shutdown of many USDA services due to the lack of a Continuing Resolution to fund the government, Tuesday saw the expiration of the current Farm Bill. Yep. Here we are again, harvesting and planting without any clear concept of the policy incentives the USDA will be operating under for the next season. I guess we better lean back on good ol’ flexibility so we don’t go crazy.
It’s useful to remember how we got here. Farm Bills are not inherently contentious. There has been a rural-urban coalition that puts together and passes these legislative vehicles every five or six years. Farmers get subsidies, crop insurance, and conservation funding. Rural communities get access to funding for community facilities, clean water infrastructure, communication system improvements, and economic development. The urban poor get access to food stamps (or SNAP benefits, as we call it nowadays) to help pay for the stuff farmers grow. There are money and staffing benefits in all Congressional districts.
It would paint a false portrait, though, to say that Farm Bills have not had their controversies. The way subsidies work and who gets the funding is always a fight. Lots of important programs are always on the verge of being cut or eliminated entirely. But still, all in all, once the package gets through the committee process, the greater House and Senate get together and get the job done.
Not so in 2013.
In the world of Republican politics, food stamp slashing and burning is a key plank of Farm Bill politics. Conservatives’ resistance to social spending has led the House to separate the Farm Bill into two pieces: one for farm subsidies and crop insurance and such, the other slashing food stamps by $40 billion and de-linking food stamps from the farm portion of the Farm Bill. And this House Farm Bill only came after a year of refusing to pass a popular bipartisan bill from the Senate.
Just like the ongoing debate over the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare), the millions of us Americans who depend on the Farm Bill for our livelihoods are being held hostage. For all of us, whether we’re farmers, rural residents, or the majority residing in urban communities, the Farm Bill is a huge engine of the American economy. Rather than being a giant expense we “can’t afford,” the Farm Bill could be a tool for more sustainable agriculture, prosperous economies, and better nutrition. Even the proposed Senate Farm Bill has its weaknesses. But it’s far better than attempting to cut spending on the backs of low-income families who might otherwise starve.
So here’s hoping the politics we are facing today can yield to something better. Maybe the Democrats can stand up for good programs designed to alleviate poverty and expand opportunity for all of us. Maybe we could pass a better Farm Bill that lifts up conservation-based agriculture and builds access to healthier food for communities all over the map. Maybe we could pay for it by raising taxes on the rich since they’ve garnered so much of the so-called “recovery” during the Obama administration.
Remember, it’s about flexibility. If our elected officials continue down the path of rigidity, even in the face of broad-based pain and suffering, it’s time to get some new blood in Washington. Democracy itself is slow and lumbering, but sometimes there are moments where people rise up and overcome narrow-minded politics. Maybe we’re leading up to one of those moments. I hope so.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.