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Hampton Institute - August 2019

Two Kinds of Farming

The summer of 2012 was hot in the Midwest. By the fourth week of temperatures over ninety degrees Fahrenheit, and over two months without rain, the grass was brown and many of our crops in Northeastern Indiana were not faring much better.

I lived on a twenty-six acre farm, three acres of which my friends and I were homesteading and vegetable gardening. Our farm - "Bluefield Farm," named after the abundant chicory with its blue blossoms - was an oasis in the middle of an industrial agriculture desert. The surrounding landscape, on the other hand, was filled with acres of corn and soybean. Most of the farm lay pastured with organic hay, but we planted market gardens on about one and a half acres of the landscape.

The work was hard but rewarding. Gardens require thoughtful soil preparation--compost or manure ensure proper nutrition for the plants, and manual tillage loosens the soil so that roots can take hold and take up crucial minerals, but unlike plows, does so without killing beneficial worms and fungal threads. Hand tillage and planting of even two acres can be backbreaking, but shared labor lightened the work, and even made it enjoyable. Mentors helped us to know when to start seeds, how and when to transplant, and offered tips and strategies for dealing with insects and weeds without utilizing chemicals. Late night research provided information on companion and succession planting, to negotiate plant tolerance and space. And always, the gardens humbled us with our amateur knowledge of how to grow enough to feed ourselves with a margin of extra.

The contrast between our farm and the surrounding agricultural practices was evident on a daily basis. Our small-scale gardens were planted with seedlings before the surrounding fields were dry enough for the tractors to till. Even in the heat and drought of 2012, we had some crops that survived. The diversity of our planting plan meant that although some of our vegetables did not tolerate the hot, dry weather, some did. Surrounding us though, were thousands of acres of soybeans and corn that desiccated into brown stalks without the water they needed. The large scale of those farms of hundreds or even thousands of acres was brittle and fragile.

But it was an event that summer - a disaster - that truly marked the difference between industrial food production and the small scale agroecology we practiced on Bluefield farm. Up the road just a quarter mile was another kind of farm. A chicken farm, but more properly just a collection of large industrial buildings. This was an egg production facility, alleged to provide all the eggs for all the Kroger grocery stores east of the Mississippi. I believed this to be true, because it consisted of four buildings, each a quarter mile long and one hundred yards wide. The factory boasted of two million hens, each housed in a cage constructed such that the daily egg born of their bodies was moved on a conveyor belt to be collected, cleaned, bleached, and packaged. Production was mechanized to facilitate as little human intervention as possible, but workers were still needed for various tasks - one of the inauspicious duties was the daily chore of collecting birds dead in their cages and throwing them out.

I was in town one scorching day when I heard the news from one of the locals - the giant fans, big as airplane engines, just couldn't keep up with the heat. Those big buildings became giant ovens, and three hundred thousand chickens died from hyperthermia.

When I got home from town, I rushed over to our small chicken coop, constructed of leftover odds and ends of wood and tin nailed onto a frame of two by fours. Our ten hens were fine, pecking away at the occasional insect, and fussing about as they generally did under the shade of a tree. For the rest of the day, though, I could hear the commotion of large machinery in the distance. I was told that they buried the dead chickens--all three hundred thousand--in a massive heap of feathers, flesh, and bones.

Three Pillars of White Heteropatriarchy

Scholar of Indigenous Studies, Andrea Smith, wrote a short but incisive analysis of the interconnected nature of racism in the United States. Her thesis was that while various racialized groups experience racism in different ways, their struggles for liberation are connected as each form of racism is a pillar in white supremacy.

The first pillar is the logic of slaveability/capitalism. The logic of slavery anchors capitalism and at its worst renders black bodies as nothing more than property to be used in the cotton fields, or, after the 13th amendment, to be put to work via Jim Crow laws. Despite eventual abolishment of Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration of black persons today continues the logic of slavery by corporate prisons and prison work for low wages.

The second pillar of white supremacy, according to Smith, is the logic of genocide/colonialism. This logic holds that native people must constantly be disappearing. The myth of the Americas as open landscape for the taking necessitated the genocide of indigenous peoples who had lived in relationship to the land for thousands of years. Religious rhetoric fomented this genocide, calling the "New world" a "new Israel," which of course meant that the colonizers had the right to murder the indigenous inhabitants of the land. The logic of genocide perpetrated the forced displacement of native nations onto reservations and continues today in the myth of the disappeared Indians, spoken of as the original inhabitants who are now vanished.

The third pillar of white supremacy is the logic of orientalism/war. This logic sees Oriental nations (inclusive of the Middle East) as perpetual threats to the superior civilizations of the West. While these exotic foreigners are not disappeared or owned, they loom on the horizon as a source of fear, and thus represent the reason for the creation of the military complex that takes over the national budget of the United States and perpetuates the control of the globe by Western nations. The "War on Terror" that allows everything from drone strikes to water-boarding and indefinite detention of brown bodies continues due to this logic of the foreign threat which justifies perpetual war.

Why discuss racism and white supremacy in an essay about agriculture? Food justice advocates already argue that the food system is inherently inequitable. Class and race have too much impact upon access to healthy foods. Fresh vegetables and less processed foods cost more, and food deserts exist in many urban neighborhoods dominated by people of color.

But analysis of food injustice often misses the explicit links between racial injustice and the manner in which white supremacist logic has affected the land itself. The heart of industrial agriculture extends the three-fold logic of white supremacy against nature itself: just as capitalism commoditized Africans into slaves, so too does profit enslave the soil to constantly produce; along with genocidal policies toward Native Americans came ecocidal land management that disappeared mature ecosystems; finally, the perpetual war against the foreign threat was directed toward pests and weeds. In what follows, I look more deeply into each of these pillars of white heteropatriarchy and how they affect the land community.

Slavery

Just a short walk down the road from Bluefield farm was an old graveyard, with some markers dating to the mid-1800's. Scattered elms and oaks shaded the cemetery, and it offered a quiet place to think. I went there often, sometimes in the heat of the day for a break from weeding, and other times at night to sit pensively under the moonlight. The last part of the ten-minute walk from the farm required a walk up the knoll atop of which lay the gravestones. I did not think much of this rise in the landscape until I heard a story regarding this phenomenon. As it turns out, old cemeteries like the one I frequented often sit higher on the landscape for a reason. These cemeteries were established in the early days of settlement by Americans in the Midwest. As farmers cleared land and farmed for over one hundred and fifty years, poor land husbandry led to significant soil erosion across the landscape. Areas immune to this loss were areas that had never been cleared and farmed--places like graveyards.

Slavery, the fundamental capitalist logic behind white supremacy that allows bodies to be monetized, extends in industrial agriculture against the soil itself. This story of slavery, mineral depletion, and soil erosion goes back to the heart of the European settlement of the Americas, to the earliest of colonies.

In 1606, a shipment of colonists funded by the Virginia Company, a group of wealthy London investors, landed in eastern Virginia. They founded the colony of Jamestown, but struggled to survive, much less to turn a profit for the Virginia Company. But soon the colonists discovered that tobacco grew well in the climate and began producing thousands of pounds to ship back to England. The crop was so profitable that farmers grew only the little food they needed to feed their families and utilized the rest of the land to grow tobacco. By 1617, the colonists were able to send twenty thousand pounds of tobacco in one year across the Atlantic. ...
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