Food is the reason I got into agriculture. It’s not the reason I stuck with it, but it was a scrappy farmers’ market in Abingdon, Virginia that first inspired me to really think about how food is produced in the United States.
(I intend to edit this entry with more informational links. Until I can, many of the arguments I make here are based on research using data from the USDA, found at this link.)
So it’s appropriate that now, living on a farm, I eat more amazingly fresh, delicious food than ever. I wrote a letter to my family about my first few weeks on the farm, and I told them that “we might live like peasants, but we eat like kings.” It’s a conscious choice and effort to eat well—and when I say “eat well,” I want to be clear that while I believe all food has morals and ethics, I am referring in this instance to the money and time we spend on our meals, not that eating the way we do is in any way “morally superior” to the way other people eat. I’ll write about the problems of food ethics in another post. For now, I’m going to talk about the labor and cost and source of the food we eat on the farm.
When I say we live like peasants, I mean that Ben and Patricia and I spend a lot of time talking about what we really need in life to be happy. One of the things we agree on pretty strongly is spending more money and time on our food than most people would justify.
The photos up above chronicle three especially profligate breakfasts: On Sunday, Patricia made Brussels sprouts with bacon (our sprouts, local bacon), corn bread, locally ground grits, our eggs, fried catfish (caught off the coast of NC), and fresh tomatoes (grown in a biodiesel-fueled local greenhouse).
On Monday, I made sausage gravy (local pork) and biscuits served with tomatoes and leftover Brussels sprouts.
On Tuesday—today—I woke up craving salad, so I tossed mizuna, arugula, and butter lettuce with homemade balsamic dressing, baked biscuits again and served them with local mozzarella and tomatoes and eggs.
(Dinners are as complicated, but I am more likely to grab my camera in the morning.)
These are not cheap or fast meals. They require a lot of time and effort to put together (usually Patricia’s) and they cost money. Local meat and fish and dairy, especially, are not cheap—the animals are not treated like factory inputs, and the people who care for them are not treated like replacable parts.
Many processed foods in the United States are heavily subsidized in both obvious and subtle ways, and many, many people rely upon the affordability and the ease of those processed foods. Given the cost of housing and health insurance in our country, not to mention the steady decline of wages, the increase in hours worked outside the home, and the pressure to spend money on consumer goods, cheap, convenient food makes sense for most people. It’s efficient, after all, right? Fewer hours in the kitchen mean more hours to work.
So it follows that it’s illogical and inefficient that Patricia and Ben and I make veritable feasts two or three times a day. In terms of gender, it’s unfair that Patricia does the most reproductive labor on the farm. If we went out to eat or bought frozen meals, she could spend more time working outside with Ben and I (she definitely wants to!). The farm could make more money if we all worked more, we could all be paid better, and we could buy more expensive food.
Maybe we could invest in someone who would turn local food products into processed meals, so we could assuage some of our guilt about not giving our money to our neighbors. It would be expensive to do that, so we’d have to talk our neighbors into selling their products more cheaply, but perhaps they could just pack a few more chickens into the coop to make up the loss. They could eat a few less of their own eggs, too, and maybe work an extra few hours on the weekend. If their neighbor can’t compete and goes out of business, well, that’s an opportunity to expand and make more money. Never mind if it’s a loss for the community.
Soon our local food frozen meals will take off, and we’ll be rolling in cash. We’ll donate some money to charities to support our neighbors who’ve been forced to sell their farms, but most of it we’ll keep for ourselves. We’ll buy a flat screen TV, and maybe we’ll hire a personal chef to keep making us delicious food. We deserve to be comfortable. We worked hard, and sacrificed leisure time, and it paid off. Right?
While my tongue is firmly in cheek, and this is a highly unlikely scenario, I do think it embodies many of the choices—and lack of choices—facing the middle and working class in America. Is there another option?
For us, we work a little less so that we can savor our meals. We try to share babycare so Patricia can participate more; I am trying to cook more often. We make less money than we could, in theory; Ben says that making money on the farm has as much to do with spending less money than bringing more in. None of us has outside jobs; we don’t have health insurance (we’d sure like it, if buying independently was more affordable).
I like this life. I don’t think it’s without complications or issues—we don’t buy exclusively local food, and I have a chocolate problem—but I am happier with this simplicity than any moment in which I had plenty of money and not enough time or space to enjoy it. Illogical, inefficient, full of love and meaning and intention. I’ll take it.