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Karen Kisslinger Headshot

Seriously, Have You Hugged a Farmer Today?

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I live in a rural community about 90 miles north of New York City. Popular bumper stickers, for those so inclined, include advice to buy and eat local and buy and eat organic, and include reminders such as "no farms......no food" and "have you hugged a farmer today?"

When I lecture in high schools I ask the kids how many of them think food is one of the most important things in their lives. They all raise their hands. Then I ask how many of them plan to become farmers.

Usually no one raises their hand. In one of the public schools which has a strong Vo-Ag program, there are usually one or two kids who proudly raise their hands and go on record as future farmers of America....but it's usually one or two, if any.

For years I have been wanting to expand my activism about local and organic agriculture beyond my garden oriented writing and my beautiful organic gardens which feed me and my family all spring, summer, fall and part of the winter. I had my chance this summer.

The local community center has a summer youth employment program called the Community Partnership for Schools and Business. I offered to organize a farmers market for local organic produce (not necessarily certified but "clean and green") and other locally produced items, if the community center would recruit and pay for the teen labor to help run the market, and make an educational project out of it. It all happened. All the right people said yes. The church we asked lets us set up the market in their backyard. The sign company in town made us a beautiful sign. Ten farmers said yes. My friend Liz donated the green tablecloths from her stylish wedding, and the local "shop" teacher helped us turn lumber shipping crates into market stands. We have grass-fed organic meets, locally grown veggies, mesclun mix and arugula, ready made soups, Amish milled and made furniture, honey, eggs, kale and onions, just to name a few. We give out cloth bags for "market" that people can bring back at the end of the season. We have jazz musicians on the side, playing for veggie tips. This has been community building at its best...a win/win situation for all involved

As the ringleader of the market project, I decided to set up a booth and sell iced mint tea with mint that I grow in my garden. The "hook" was to add a few frozen organic strawberries and organic raspberries from my garden as they came ripe. The concoction is a hit. I also pick flowers to sell in "select your own" bouquets, 5 stems for $3.50. My table has become popular on hot days for the iced tea and beautiful flowers. For me, it has been an eye opener about the challenge of making any decent amount of money doing agriculture. When I put pole beans from my garden out in a basket, I sell them for 10 cents each. People pick out their own, and my motivation is to get people thinking about how every single bean and pea and onion they eat is hand sown, hand weeded and hand picked by someone. I know that robots are being developed to do harvesting and picking work, but for right now, the gentle hands of skilled pickers do the good work.

Being a vendor at the market is fun for me, and a great opportunity to relax and schmooze with my neighbors and meet new people. However, it's gotten me thinking more immediately about the difficulty of anybody making a decent living doing agriculture in this society at this time. I do something else professionally. I grow food as a life choice and a kind of activism, and because I'm lucky to have 2 acres of exceptional soil to play with, and I can't imagine living any other way. The people I know who are full time farmers work all the time and make a marginal living.

For those who don't have the time or soil to grow their own, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement has set up a model wherein members pay up front for a "share": their own season of vegetables. This model has become very popular, and does assure some income for farmers. I also know though, that many small organic farms get by using volunteer, "intern" and "apprentice" labor. If they had to pay a living wage to an adequate number of paid workers, the math wouldn't work. There's nothing wrong with an intern and apprentice system. In fact, it has been our history and will probably be the future of sustainable agriculture. It is a good system and a good way to pass on food growing wisdom. Still, there's much economic and social work to be done related to the value and wage we give to farm workers. At our market, we have a range of farmers, and a number of them are what I call "ivy league" farmers...those who, after getting a rarefied and expensive education or a first career at something more lucrative, have come to work at farming as the only game in town. It is always a challenge to make the money work.

If you are a typical urban American, your food is probably produced either by low paid workers on far distant organic or conventional farms, or by people with no work-place rights and protections working in a variety of foreign countries at something close to slave wages. That is the way our system works. If you are not already going down to the local green markets around your cities or towns, or if you are not one of the many people buying "Fair Trade" or planning urban lot and roof-top gardens, please consider the advantages of such consuming and producing patterns. One advantage of the green markets is that you get to meet the farmers, who tend to be a friendly and wonderful group of people.

Many restaurants are now buying from local farms in the summer and fall. Urge yours to do the same...ask if the produce is local and green grown. Plan for next year to start your own buckets and boxes of herbs and veggies. Knowing how to grow clean fresh food will be one imperative of the future. It will not be optional, and there's nothing more important, though some things may be as important.

In the meantime, stop whining about the price of healthy food. When you've stopped spending billions if not trillions of dollars a year, America, on soda, candy bars, cakes, cookies, muffins, cigarettes, do-nuts, snack foods, and other non-nutritious junk that is VERY EXPENSIVE PER UNIT OF NUTRITION AND PER POUND then you can complain about the fair price of a head of broccoli grown by a well respected farm worker making a living wage, with healthy care, reasonable housing, and good food available for her/( or him)self, her children and her community. That's what hugging a farmer means to me.

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