Part two on feminism, community, and the organic food movement
by Cynthia Spring
The Limitations of Choice
In hopes of dispelling my own discomforts with farming (voiced in my previous post), I pressed some young farmer friends for their thoughts on new domesticity, the local organic food movement and traditional (gendered) divisions of labour. These interviews began while I was visiting a farm in the Okanagan this summer, and were continued over email, Skype, and formal questionnaires. Through these correspondences, I found that the young farmers I spoke with were all too familiar with the contradictions inherent to the food movement. As young farmer Hannah said over dinner one evening:
When we go to the market and someone comments on how expensive our tomatoes are, I’m quick to explain how much those tomatoes are actually worth. We have spent months growing these! But when I’m back in Nova Scotia and shopping at the Halifax farmers’ market, I know I’ll probably be the one saying: ‘five bucks for tomatoes? Yeah right!’
Those who spend their springs, summers, and autumns growing and selling food seem to have a good understanding of how much their produce is worth. But, as we all probably know by now, even farmers and their apprentices can’t always afford the food they are growing. Although some farmers have chosen to work in the organic food market, they may not always be able to choose organic food for their own consumption.The limitations of the food movement’s celebration of personal choice, then, become increasingly clear as money becomes increasingly scarce. In this position of sometimes-farmer sometimes-consumer, my friends often contemplate and frequently confront the limitations of their choices. As one friend Natalie explained to me:
Organic food is a luxury in our society, reserved for the rich, as is almost any of kind local or fresh food. At the same time, I’m aware that as a culture we spend less on food than ever before, and that this is an artificial cheapness: the labour, transportation and distribution systems are set up in such a way that a very few people are profiting at the expense of the lives and health of all of the others involved in making and distributing our food. But to tell people who already struggle to feed their families that they should in fact be paying more for their food is an unappetizing prospect.
And yet it is this dynamic that encourages young farmers to continue farming, in hopes of making good food more accessible to everyone: “I still have hope,” said Natalie, “that there are new ways to set the whole thing up. That a farm could feed its community in a variety of ways: labour exchanges and real community-supported agriculture, systems that would integrate the farm and its food into the life of the community it serves.” The exchange between local organic farmers and the consumers willing (and able) to purchase their produce has managed to raise public awareness; supporters of the local organic food movement, for instance, are quick to point out the disparity between how much we are willing to pay for our food and how much waged (or unwaged) labour is required to produce it. But expression of such awareness, in this instance, is reserved for the affluent and financially stable. If we want to advocate for a more integrated and inclusive farming community, we need to find alternative modes of exchange. (If anyone has any ideas about how to go about this, Natalie has asked that you please share in the comments of this post).
Divisions of Labour
In order to bridge the gap between how expensive organic and local food is and how much money people are able to spend on food, we have to come up with new ways of doing business. But how do we go about doing this without relying on a progressive middle class that is willing to make the “ethical” choice? A few of my female friends explained that they encounter a similar struggle when trying to overcome traditional divisions of labour. Young farmer Heather told me that a division of labour between men and women developed in a past farming project. When this group of young farmers became uncomfortable with the fact that men were more likely to deal with constructive and technical tasks while women were responsible for the harvesting and selling of food, they discussed possible strategies to overcome this issue:
“When we talked about it,” Heather explained, “it became clear that those divisions were arising partly due to our individual sense of comfort and entitlement, which obviously is inextricable from our gendered upbringings.”
Incidentally, the problem came down to a matter of choice. Certain people took on certain tasks because they assumed that others would prefer not to do them. Heather conceded that, in the current farming project, cooking schedules and all-inclusive workshops have created a structure that ensures everyone is pulling their weight (and getting the opportunity to do so). In being conscious of the tendency for certain genders to stick to certain tasks, my friends have found ways to feel good about the work they are doing. But resisting a division of labour is clearly something that we can’t simply overcome but requires an ongoing process of discussion and reassessment.
Farming, Family, and Community
Farming is often imagined as an opportunity to retreat from the irresponsible ways that our society treats the environment, animals and people. But is it also possible to find a different method of community building through farming? While my friends have committed so much time to learn how to grow food, they are, like me, also interested in learning more about alternate models of the home and community building strategies. We are wary of becoming alienated, not only within the rural setting in which farmers work, but also within the structure of the couple (or the couple with children). For the nuclear family is the most certified way of being in the organic food movement, a world where bringing your kids to market is not just a great way to save on daycare costs but is in fact integral to your business plan. And when you think about it, the real problem with DIY lifestyles and new domesticity is that although these choices prioritize health and enjoyment, they don’t question the traditional structure of the family. Women are still predominantly responsible for voluntarily supporting their dependents so that they can enter and productively contribute to the workforce. While some of us might see our decision to stay home as a liberated one, many things in our world depend on the routine exploitation of women’s labour.
Thinking about the farm as a means of fostering community, instead of a family’s private means of earning a living, might help us locate some of the political possibilities of farming. One friend explained that when working on a project where communication and inclusivity is paramount, building trust takes time and, once established, is easily broken. Trying out communal living does not always result in happiness or ease, but is sometimes conducive to painful struggles. However, the process of building these relationships beyond the nuclear family, both on the farm and in the home, is incredibly important:
I think that by decentralizing ownership and labour, we’re working to fight the myth of individualism that comes with capitalism and neoliberalism. Instead of a farmer and a wife and maybe some seasonal farmhands who are disconnected from the larger project of the farm, I dream about a farming community, where people living both on and off the farm will participate in ways that are valuable and rewarding to them
During some energetic discussions about what an alternative model of the family or living together might look like, I remembered Nina Power’s concern over the lack of popular interest in this topic:
We can have as many vibrators as we like, and drink as much booze as we can physically tolerate, but anything else outside the echo chamber of money-possessions-pleasure is strictly verboten. Communes you say! Collectives! Alternative models of the family? What are you, mad?! It’s a weary indictment of the state of things when virtually every book on these topics has been removed from your university library…Alternative living these days is more likely to refer to the fact that you’ve bolted a solar panel to your roof rather than taken any practical critique of the nuclear family”.
Although women are free to consume and enjoy as many luxuries as they possibly can, we are hardly at liberty to critique our domestic roles in the context of our political, social and economic relations outside of the home. The politics of women’s reproductive labour loses its potency if the return to domesticity is simply an act of personal fulfillment, a step towards some promised state of happiness. The lack of interest in considering alternative models of the family, Power contends, indicates a general sense of complacency towards discussions of women’s reproductive and household labour:
The increasing dominance of the ideology of domesticity, shored up by endless televisual imperatives to clean, decorate or sell your home, increasingly strips all living arrangements…of their real political status. While one of the lasting achievements of feminism is to re-establish the link between household labor, reproductive labor and paid labor, capitalism has to perpetually pretend that the world of politics has nothing to do with the home .
Insofar as the ‘increasingly dominant ideology of domesticity,’ commodifies, personalizes and effectively depoliticizes the home, feminism is at odds with the food movement, DIY culture, or what Emily Matchar has named new domesticity. And yet, as Power succinctly argues, recalling the political and economic effects of women’s unpaid labour is integral to feminist discourse and praxis. Perhaps living in a rural community with friends one summer is just another variation on the privileged and personal embrace of new domesticity, but I wonder if the farm is still a place where we can explore the politics of women’s domestic labour. By thinking about ways of living together that aren’t centered on the couple or the nuclear family we might be able to reconsider the link between the private home and the public world.
The morning Nadine and I left the Okanagan, we were brimming with excitement over the possibility of creating this kind of life with our friends on our own farm one day. As we hugged our friends goodbye, they asked us to come visit again. We smiled at this invitation but shook our heads to say no, we only have a certain amount of vacation time this summer: “Besides, we’ve got to start saving up for our farm!” I don’t think the irony of this statement was lost on any of us, but I’m also not sure that we can think of alternatives to the apparent inevitability of quietly working mediocre jobs throughout our twenties and thirties in order to eventually purchase farmland and embrace collectivity. It is similarly difficult to imagine surviving as a farmer without relying on choice politics or what seem like secure class structures. This difficulty begs the question: do we have to rely on the business structures and family models we have inherited in order to build a sustainable community based around farming? And, if we choose to live communally, do we have to accommodate an ideology of individualism that supports the local and organic food movement? We hope that the answer is no, but we know that there is still so much work that needs to be done.