Friday, September 18, 2015

The Emergent Agriculture--a review

There is not a lot that is new in Gary Kleppel's book The Emergent Agriculture: Farming, Sustainability, and the Return of the Local Economy. A cogent, well-reasoned take-down of industrial ag--but then, there's a herd of those, ranging from succinct to verbose (for the record, Kleppel is more towards the succinct end of the spectrum). A call for a more appropriate agriculture? Read that. An overview of New Ag farms? Nice, but seen that. 
Where Kleppel's book shines is in the discussion of  the new/old structures of how food moves from producer to consumer. And it should; Kleppel is himself both an academic and a farmer.
Antonio Gramsci described a group of people who, though members of the working class or the bourgeoisie, are an organically developed "thinking class" that "articulate, through the language of culture, the feelings and experiences which the masses could not express for themselves." He called them "public intellectuals." There should be a name for those who, although they hold membership in the traditional academic intelligentsia, chose to immerse themselves in traditional forms of work. We need more of these two groups, and Gary Kleppel, professor of biology at SUNY Albany, is definitely in the latter group.
When trying to see the shape of a new way of living, a new societal paradigm, it helps to have the kind of training given to those who pursue an academic career. Such training helps one to see both the large view and the details. When your talking about agriculture, it really helps to have gotten your hands dirty.
When Kleppel talks about the new/old methods of marketing food, it helps that he's worked a farmer's market and participated in a CSA (community supported agriculture). When we grew food, it was quite clear that the place most farmers fell down was in the marketing of their products.
When farmers get $0.02 out of the sale price of a loaf of bread, the correct response is not to grow more wheat. The better response is to find ways to capture more of the profit from your production.
I kept saying that our customers didn't come for the vegetables as much as they came for the connection. They wanted the story. An example: We had a number of zucchini that were not straight, but curved around small scars in their skins. People hesitated to buy them until I pointed out that these scars came from our pesticide; chickens. The occasional peck at a bug would scar the zucchini skin, leaving it to heal slightly bent. The damage was quickly seen as a mark, not of failure, but of superiority. These were not perfect because of the type of farming we did.
These are the connections celebrated in Gary Kleppel's book; unmediated links between producer and consumer. But not every farmer is ready to be a farmer, an ecologist, and a marketer. This is an area that he misses--the role of the co-operative movement. Co-ops can fill the gap of missing abilities. Small cheesemakers. Farmer's supplying a group-owned store. While the future may play out the way The Emergent Agriculture suggest, it will also be more complex, more intricate, than it suggests. Good book, though.

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