Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Rural Honeymoon and the Hard Years: What a Real Farmer Is.

My innocent, cautious walk into the social fabric around me has ended. My rural honeymoon is over. The hard stuff has begun. It took about 16 years of marriage to get through the hard stuff. I hope this isn't like that.

I have finally interacted with people beyond the few that live on land touching mine, sell me hay, or the like. I started going to meetings. Blech. I even had to put heels on again. Double blech. It all started in the fall of 2014. I was reading our country paper, The County Courier. I love that paper, because country people have real discourse about politics and other matters through the letter-to-the-editor section. It is not to be missed. We do make fun of it for one reason, though.... it seems to always tell you what happened last week- never what is going to be happening in the week ahead. For six straight years we have missed the Mattaponi Indian Pow Wow, something I would really like to take the kids to, because it is on the front cover of the paper the week after it happens. Every late May that is our running joke: "Woops! We missed the Pow Wow again!"

So, I was reading the paper and saw a letter-to-the-editor about a sludge permit to spread industrial waste on thousands of acres in our county and surrounding counties. Turns out that if you rename something toxic, fertilizer, suddenly you have an easy way to dispose of it. I found out about the public hearing and here I am, two years later, still fighting the horrific practice. I have spent hundreds of hours of time and much emotional energy... and now work with other activists across Virginia trying to stop it. There are quite a few stories from those two years to tell... but for this blog renewal entry (after SO much time off), I will just have to pick a place and start.

In a nutshell, Virginia's cities are dumping on Virginia's rural counties. First their trash, then their sewage sludge, now their industrial waste. And not just Virginia cities- they truck and rail it in from other states. The layers of money and politics (and corruption) tied into the practice is like nothing I have ever seen before. Even leading environmentalist groups won't touch it. They dare not, or they will face the political equivalent of a silver stake in their activist vampire heart. What is this silver stake? One word: farmer.

Wield that word and politicians drop to their knees. I don't know of much else that could pain me the way this whole mess has. Farming is in my heritage, my present, and my future. I brought it into my husband's life and then my boys' lives; and now it is in their hearts. The word farmer is a term that is being used as a name by a set of people that do very different things to the land than anything I would ever consider doing. Saying the word now requires any informed person to back up and clarify to which type you are referring...

Yuppies know a good bit about the differences between industrial agriculture and eco-agriculture. Most anyone who knows about real food does. It is a black and white distinction drawn between either organic or not, GMO or not, local or not, fair trade or not.

It was easy for me to draw those distinctions too, and still is. The problem I am having is that I live among these industrial ag people now. The impact of what they do is not only felt in every political venue or food choice, but in the water and air we breathe (literally). I am still disgusted with the practices, and I still make the distinctions. What you can't do until you live in the community of a group of people, though, is get into the weeds of the issue (so to speak) to understand that there are differences among them.

Some will harm people for a fatter bottom line, it's true. Some are in financial bondage beyond anything the average person could imagine. Then there are other slices and variations. Some refuse to use sludge because they haven't drunk the sludge-industry-paid research Kool-aid that Virginia Tech has handed out. Some who haven't drunk the Kool-Aid may not need the money, but some undoubtedly do (but do the right thing anyway).

When you get further into the weeds and begin to understand the history of how they got to where they are, and who the powers reaching across global economies to glean wealth from them are... it gets even more sordid.

I keep researching. I keep working. It often seems to get more confusing, not more clear. I sat down across from a GMO farmer at a local dinner tonight. He and his wife were truly fabulous people. I took the risk of asking if I could ask them questions at a later time about GMO farming. Our conversation was interrupted because of intersecting conversations... but I think I may have scared the guy when I starting explaining why I have questions. I probably killed the possibility when I said the Farm Bureau probably considers me an enemy. I drove home wishing I had kept my mouth shut. I don't want to ruin relationships out here. They matter to me. I love rural people and I belong here.

The fact remains that all I have seen tells me that institutionalized farming organizations: the Farm Bureau, the VA Cooperative Extension, the USDA... aren't always looking out for the farmers they say they are looking out for... and they sure as hell aren't looking out for the health of the people. When one goes down the rabbit hole, one finds that the predatory economic interests which killed independent farms in the last century were likely behind the formation of these organizations in the first place.... these organizations that say they are protecting farmers. It reminds me of when the mafia lets you pay them for not breaking your legs (calling it protection) after they killed your brother. Yeah, it's kind of like that.

Many of these guys don't remember when or why they (or the farm owner before them, even if it was their grandpa) got on agricultural welfare. The system is the system, and it has been that way for a while now. Some of them are really just liability holders and laborers that think they are farmers. They are land managers for massive agribusiness conglomerates who don't care at all about our communities, counties, or the city dwellers downstream... because they don't live here.

To make good choices you have to first believe you have choices- ethical choices and financial choices. You can decide you won't poison your neighbors. You can decide that your products are worth a higher price. Every bit of research I see says that it isn't profit that is keeping them where they are- it is mindset and will. There is more money and more ethical choices to be made, but changing is harder than not changing. It does require effort, and being weaned off a nursemaid that doesn't want to let you go because she is getting more from you than you are getting from her isn't easy. What is that verse from Corinthians? Oh yeah: Quit you like men, be strong.

When all is said and done, to me there is only one real class of farmer that has the right (yes I said right) to call him/herself a farmer. That is, a free and independent farmer who does no harm to his neighbors, customers, or the land.... and (I have added one more group to this class), those who want to be like that. That gives room and grace for some, who aren't those things, to find their way back to the heart of a beautiful way to make a living. I find myself working hard for the future of both sets of people... and even one more- the people still stuck in the rat race (but who would love to be out here some day). That used to be me.

When the hard years come, love stays you where you are. I am still with Cory and we have reached the really deeply beautiful years of marital life. There is a huge rural mess out here, but we are staying to work through it- trusting that it too will be better eventually than it was in the beginning.

We are still finding our own way, but also trying to serve others. It seemed easier back in church when someone just gave you a job and suddenly you were declared to be serving in ministry. This is much more complicated and stressful- still, I hope, when all is said and done, it will be said of me that I loved my neighbor. And, that we were farmers.