The story has been recounted to me many times. In my infancy, upon hearing what my parents had named me, some elderly relation of mine gasped, “Wolf! What a terrible name to name a child!”
Perhaps it was my father’s affinity for the Canis lupus, or the very loose rhyme between my name and wolf, but she had somehow heard wrong. My name is not wolf, but the lupa often follows in stride, surfacing in dreams or memories to influence the direction of my own footfalls.
Most recently, I have been trying to decide on my next step. Although there are many paths aground, I will limit this account to two. The decision is whether I continue farming or dedicate myself to the written word. Or, throw my rock and hopscotch into both.
The art of agriculture is the very one which gave direction to my rebellion against the conventional life-paths embraced by so many of my friends and family.
It was some years ago, in a sandy valley north of Albuquerque and east of the Rio Grande, that I heard the subtle sound of soil being scraped by a shuffle hoe. I looked up at the dry Sandia Mountains, and I was done.
It was supposed to be an affordable way to travel, volunteer on a farm and get free room and board. It was that, and it was a door into a world that would fulfill me and bias me against my old rebellion of perfecting the over-easy egg.
I would continue on to scrape soil in central Mexico, Massachusetts and now Vermont.
Perhaps it is because I am gliding on the infinite crest of the learning curve, that I am anxious for the wave to break. Although I know there is endless agricultural knowledge that I have not yet absorbed, I am somehow sitting at the table with an empty plate, fidgeting with my napkin, oblivious to the conversation around me.
A co-worker suggested I start my own farm at the Intervale, an incubator program for beginning farmers in Burlington, Vermont where I live. The Intervale is 700 acres of bottomland, which in the 1980s was restored from an abandoned state, and is now shared by local farmers. These farmers rent land and equipment from the Intervale Center, and ideally share resources and innovation.
But the wolves are there, too. In the same breath that suggested the Intervale to me, my co-worker said, “But they’re a little cliquey there.”
Vermont may be farm-friendly, but the farmers themselves are in steep competition. It’s natural that we form small alliances to survive. It’s not something anyone wants to admit, because sustainable farmers are supposed to be a smiling anti-example in our competitive society. Although Vermont farmers want the best for their neighbors, the successful ones I’ve met often try to best each other at every turn. But forming alliances doesn’t have to mean sticking to our pack.
A competitive market has been the business example for many years, and it is what destroyed the small farmer in the middle of last century. Constant price competition dropped income so low that only the larger farms were able to prosper. Financially-bound consumers chose, and continue to choose low-prices over high-quality.
Here in Vermont, we have a micro-economy of socially-concerned consumers who are willing to abandon that dichotomy, and the local food movement is booming. But still the local farms are in competition for this small group of consumers, because other groups, including low-income families are still not part of their market.
Some medium-sized farms feel challenged by programs that help small farms like the Intervale’s Food Hub, which combines the efforts of smaller farms to provide a one-stop market for individuals and community businesses.
It’s that very model that allows these small farms to flourish, and can work for the medium and large farms as well. Instead of growing and merging, perhaps an economics of shared markets and supply chains can benefit the producers as well as the consumers. If small, medium or large farms combine their efforts to get diverse products to the consumers, they can continue to give the attention to detail and quality that tends to proportionately decrease with increased scale.
This is where the economists cry “hippie”, and say that this ideal is not a reality in our dog eat dog world. But we are not dogs. An old line from Candide comes to me. Voltaire writes, “Men must have somewhat altered the course of nature; for they were not born wolves, yet they have become wolves.”
What we were able to alter once, surely we may alter again. The model that the Food Hub uses is a powerful tool for creating a link between farmers and local markets that is in direct opposition to the mega-farm model prevalent in places like California. Other New England models include Muddy Boots CSA and Deep Root Organic Co-op.
Muddy Boots is a self-called “consortium of four Vermont farms combining their ideas, resources and skills to bring fresh, seasonal produce to the Boston area.”
Deep Root “exists to promote local, sustainable, and organic agriculture through its small, family owned farms.” The co-op has been distributing food throughout New England since 1986 and now includes farms in Vermont and Quebec, Canada.
The fluctuations between rural and urban lifestyles require a flexible economic model, especially involving such necessities as food. The areas that are most appropriate for growing large quantities of food, often are not home to the millions of people in need of that food.
Yet, organic and sustainable farmers often compete for the comparably small markets around them due to the high costs of transporting their products to the larger markets.
Enter the business minds. If more of the market-saavy choose to focus their attentions on developing business models like Deep Root, Muddy Boots and the Food Hub, we could start using the bridge that the demand for fresh local food has built.