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Singapore Shows What Serious Urban Farming Looks Like

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 06/04/2021 - 1:39am in

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farming, farms, Food

From what was once Singapore’s largest prison complex — the Queenstown Remand Prison, housing about 1,000 inmates at its peak — an 8,000 square meter urban farm, Edible Garden City (EGC), now bursts with colorful vegetables and fragrant herbs. Co-founded by local resident Bjorn Low in 2012, EGC is one of Singapore’s first urban farming initiatives and is located inside the former prison compound. It is one of several efforts in the city-state to strengthen the island’s food security at a grassroots level. “Our goal was and is to encourage more locals to grow their own food and thus help strengthen the city’s food resilience,” says Sarah Rodriguez, EGC’s head of marketing. 

singaporeEdible Garden City, once the largest prison in Singapore, is now an urban farm helping to bolster the city-state’s food security. Credit: Edible Garden City

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted just how susceptible countries are to turmoil in the global food supply. This is an issue of particular concern to Singapore, which imports almost 90 percent of its food from more than 170 countries. For several years now, the city authorities have been preparing for just such a crisis. The Singapore Food Authority (SFA) launched its ambitious “30 by 30” initiative in 2019, with the objective of producing 30 percent of Singapore’s nutritional needs locally by the year 2030. Supported by a mix of government grants and incentives, 30 by 30 will test the limits of urban food production. At last count in 2019, the city had 220 farms, and was meeting 14 percent of its demand for leafy vegetables, 26 percent for eggs and 10 percent for fish.

Vertical farms feed an island

As recently as 1970, nearly one in ten Singaporeans was engaged in farming or fishing, either directly or indirectly. Orchards and pig farms dotted the island, and many residents grew fresh vegetables and raised backyard chickens. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, however, most of these occupations disappeared from the rapidly urbanizing city-state. Competing demands for land use led to agriculture being limited to about one percent of the land. Singapore’s food supply grew increasingly reliant on imports. 

singaporeThe vast majority of apartment complexes in Singapore are public housing, which allows the government to designate their rooftops as agricultural spaces in the public interest. Credit: Comcrop

That began to change about a decade ago amid serious concerns about Singapore’s heavy reliance on imports. In response, the government backed efforts to shore up the nation’s food security with urban farming.  In 2014, the authorities announced a SG$63 million (USD$47 million) Agriculture Productivity Fund to support farms in increasing their outputs by using innovative technologies. Over 100 local farms have benefitted so far.

But with Covid-19 threatening to disrupt the city’s imports, the fear that essential food items may not be available became very real. “People have started to resonate with the need for reliable access to food in their own homes and neighborhoods,” says Cuifen Pui, co-founder of the Foodscape Collective, which works with local communities and natural farming practitioners to transform under-utilized public spaces into biodiverse edible community gardens. “Many Singaporeans are connecting with the concept of food security at a personal level.”

EGC, which has designed and built over 260 small produce farms for restaurants, hotels, schools and residences in Singapore, also experienced an increased interest in their foodscaping service. “Our foodscaping team saw a 40 percent increase in enquiries from homeowners between April and June last year,” says Rodriguez.

singaporeAs recently as 1970, nearly one in ten Singaporeans was engaged in farming or fishing. Now most of the island is urbanized. Credit: Comcrop

Pre-pandemic, EGC supplied produce to about 60 restaurants in the city and shipped produce weekly to 40 local families that had signed on to their Citizen Box subscription service. When restaurants shut in April last year, EGC quickly converted its restaurant-supplying beds and systems to grow crops for Citizen Box instead. “A bed that was previously used to grow tarragon for restaurants was repurposed to grow something like kang kong (water spinach) that is more suitable for home cooking,” explains Rodriguez. “We were able to supply three times more households through Citizen Box.” EGC uses natural farming methods like composting for soil regeneration and the use of permaculture techniques, to ensure that the impact on the environment is minimal and the soil remains healthy and productive for future generations.

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Currently, EGC also grows kale and chard using hydroponics and microgreens in soil, all of it in a climate-controlled, indoor environment. “We strongly believe that there should be a balance between agritech and natural farming,” says Rodriguez. “We prefer to focus on the wide variety of veggies that grow well in our climate.” 

EGC’s focus on natural farming is shared by the Foodscape Collective. It’s co-founder Pui had the opportunity to start a community edible garden in 2013, along with her neighbors. More recently, at the invitation of the National Parks Board and The Winstedt School, the Foodscape Collective, together with the local community, is transforming land in two locations using permaculture techniques. “These gardens are multi-functional spaces — to grow edibles, to grow plants for biodiversity, to nature watch, to enhance the soil ecosystem by composting food scraps, or simply just spaces to relax in a busy city,” says Pui.  

Some farms are using climate-controlled agriculture to grow their greens entirely indoors. Credit: Edible Garden City

But with less than one percent of Singapore’s land available for agriculture, 30 by 30 is increasing demand for tech-based solutions that can produce large volumes of food in small spaces. “Technology plays a huge role in Singapore’s food security,” says Prof. Paul Teng, food security expert and Dean of the National Institute of Education International. Rooftop farms like Comcrop — one of the recipients of the government’s SG$30 million (USD$22 million) 30X30 Express grant — and Citiponics are growing greens hydroponically on rooftops.

Since the vast majority of apartment complexes in Singapore are public housing, the government can designate their rooftops as agricultural spaces in the public interest. In 2020, the rooftops of nine multistory carparks in public housing estates were made available for farming by the government.

Other farms like Sustenir are using climate-controlled agriculture to grow their greens entirely indoors. “Singapore will always have to maximize its land and labor productivity for self-production, and this means technology,” says Teng. “It doesn’t make economic sense to produce food in Singapore when there is no comparative advantage, such as with rice and other large area-requiring crops.”

singapore“We strongly believe that there should be a balance between agritech and natural farming. We prefer to focus on the wide variety of veggies that grow well in our climate.” Credit: Edible Garden City

In line with its focus on highly-productive farming, SFA plans to redevelop Lim Chu Kang — an area in the northwest of Singapore covered with traditional farms — into a high-tech agri-cluster, which would triple the output of the area. The redevelopment work is expected to begin in 2024. 

Egg production and aquaculture are also being ramped up. Chew’s Agriculture, a household name in Singapore for its farm-fresh eggs, received a 30X30 Express grant to build additional hen houses equipped with technologies to minimize egg breakage and maximize production.

As of 2019, Singapore had 122 sea- and land-based fish farms, with the majority of its offshore fish farms located in the Johor Strait to the north of the island. With these fish farms reaching maximum production levels, potential sites in the southern waters of Singapore are being assessed for suitability and environmental impact. Vertical aquaculture on land is also being viewed as an alternative to increase fish production. Land-based fish farm Apollo Aquaculture recently made news with its upcoming eight-story, state-of-the-art farm.

On the public-facing side, the SFA is encouraging citizens to buy locally farmed food, emphasizing its freshness and nutritive value. A new logo SG Fresh Produce was launched to make all locally grown produce easily identifiable in supermarkets.

As Singapore moves ahead with its 30 by 30 plans, it will still need to import the majority of its food. Not far from Lim Chu Kang is Sungei Kadut, one of Singapore’s oldest industrial estates, which will be redeveloped in a phased manner into an agri-tech innovation hub. “The government is hoping to develop the country into a regional agrifood tech hub for innovations that can offer technology exports to the region,” says Teng. “By helping other producing countries with technologies that can up their production, they will have more for Singapore to import.” 

The post Singapore Shows What Serious Urban Farming Looks Like appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

California’s Farm Worker Dwellings Get an Upgrade

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/02/2021 - 7:00pm in

Room to grow

After Don Horsley was elected county supervisor of San Mateo, California (where he’d previously been sheriff), he toured the county’s farmworker housing — and was appalled at the conditions. There were only 250 housing units for 1,400 farm workers, leading to dangerous overcrowding. “We couldn’t put people in jail with these standards,” he told Black Voice News. 

Part of the problem was that the housing was old and built for seasonal migrant laborers, whereas these days most of San Mateo’s farm workers live and work there year round. So Horsley’s office came up with an idea: forgivable loans that farmers could use to upgrade their workers’ housing. The concept was modeled after the federal government’s Housing and Urban Development grants. Under the program, the county lends farm owners $100,000 for each old unit they replace. As long as they don’t charge the tenants more than $3 per day to live there, the loans are forgiven.

farmA worker on an olive farm in Northern California. Credit: Susie Wyshak / Flickr

One local farm used the loan program to replace nine aging farm worker units — and then built three new ones with the money it saved on making repairs to the old ones. “We knew that the farmers and ranchers… couldn’t afford to replace their farm laborer housing,” said Horsley. “Doing this kept our farm laborer community housed and kept them in the area.”

Read more at Black Voice News

Policy prescription

“Housing is health care” has become a catchphrase to highlight the link between stable housing and public health, which is why some hospitals are using their budgets to build affordable places to live. Now, some health care organizations are realizing their dollars can go even further if they spend it on building better housing policies, not just brick and mortar homes.

portlandPortland, Oregon. Credit: Alan / Flickr

One of the most ambitious of these efforts took place in Oregon, where one health funder backed a campaign to prevent landlords from evicting long-term tenants without cause. Before the campaign, Oregon landlords could evict tenants for no legal reason whatsoever, leaving tenants afraid to make even reasonable requests for upgrades or repairs. In 2017, a state committee found that such evictions had a number of negative consequences, including increases in food insecurity, teenage pregnancies and medical treatment delays. 

This convinced the Northwest Health Foundation (NWHF) to fund a campaign for a “just cause evictions” law, which would require landlords to justify any eviction of tenants after 12 months of occupancy. The campaign succeeded, and a bill was signed into law in 2019. “Having some predictability and not having to worry about getting kicked out, that supports the health, mental health, and emotional health of families,” said the director of programs at NWHF. 

Read more at Shelterforce

Natural values

London is making a push for more “urban greening practices,” which would weave more green space into the city’s built environment to supplement its parks. The plan was inspired by Malmö, the Swedish city that has become a model for urban greening with its roadside fruit trees, frog-filled ponds and sidewalk birdhouses. 

rooftopA “rewilding” spot in London. Credit: Wild West End

To facilitate its green transformation, Malmö adopted a system called the “green space factor” (GSF), which applies values to different types of green space depending on its context. For instance, a neighborhood with flooding problems might get extra points for green space that facilitates stormwater runoff. The formula guides developers on exactly how to best integrate green space into their projects. “It is intended to encourage dialogue and collaboration between different stakeholders to come up with the best solution for the space,” said one person involved in London’s greening initiative. “It was designed deliberately to be a little bit loose.”

The GSF isn’t flawless. One challenge in Malmö has been keeping its standards stringent, as developers find ways around it over time. But its advocates believe it could provide a good baseline for London’s green ambitions. “For all the benefits of these tools — and they are tools — they are not necessarily the final answer,” said a director at the London Wildlife Trust. “Having informed ecological expertise is still critical.”

Read more at the Guardian

The post California’s Farm Worker Dwellings Get an Upgrade appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

A New Kind of Housing for Homeless Indigenous People

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 30/12/2020 - 7:00pm in

Three great stories we found on the internet this week.

“It puts me at ease”

In Seattle, the Indigenous community comprises just one percent of the population, yet 15 percent of people experiencing homelessness. A project set to open next year will embrace this community with a housing solution built just for them.

The ʔálʔal (pronounced “all-all”) means “home” in Lushootseed, a language of the Coast Salish People of the area. Eight stories tall, it will have 80 studio apartments, the vast majority of which will be dedicated to moving people out of homelessness. Out front, a 25-foot statue of an Indigenousmother will beckon residents inside, where Coast Salish art will decorate the walls and a cafe will serve traditional Coast Salish food. A primary care clinic run by the Seattle Indian Health Board will offer traditional healing methods alongside Western ones. “I am comfortable being around Native people — it makes me feel at home and puts me at ease,” one homeless man who hopes to move in next year told CityLab.

Colleen Echohawk, one of the organizers, emphasizes that ʔálʔal will provide conventional services such as vocational training, as well. “We’re not just the folks experiencing homelessness,” she said. “We’re builders. We’re developers. We’re homeless advocates and providers.”

Read more at Bloomberg CityLab

Waste not, want not

One dollar per year — that’s how much Carolyn Phinney is paying for 15 acres of land in Martinez, California directly adjacent to a wastewater treatment plant. Not exactly prime real estate. Or is it?

Phinney leased the land from the county in May with a clear intention: use the treated wastewater, which is absolutely free, to grow produce to donate to local schools and food banks. So far Phinney is only cultivating half an acre of the farm (she’s the only employee). Nevertheless, she’s already used that half acre to grow and donate over 13,000 pounds of produce. 

farm

Phinney’s project shows the incredible potential of wastewater irrigation. Not only is the project getting healthy food to those who need it, it’s saving the earth in the process. For years, the county had been dumping the wastewater into the nearby bay. Now, instead of polluting the ocean, it’s growing supersized eggplants, tomatoes and radishes with what Phinney calls “liquid fertility” — wastewater’s naturally occurring nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. She hopes to have the entire 15 acres flourishing within the next few years. “We could produce several hundred thousand pounds of produce [if we were] in full production,” she said.

Read more at Civil Eats

Safe but not boring

A number of cities are re-engineering their busy intersections to make them safer for pedestrians. But how many are doing it with pizzazz? Sure, a few posts and curb bump-outs can do the trick, but some cities are making safety stylish. 

 

Streetsblog has some great photos of cities that are turning their pedestrian safety measures into art, including the one above, from Kansas City, Missouri, where a reimagined intersection doubles as public art. As cities consider making some of their Covid-sparked street redesigns permanent, it could be a golden opportunity to turn those sites into spaces that dazzle pedestrians as they protect them. 

Read more at Streetsblog

The post A New Kind of Housing for Homeless Indigenous People appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

When Life Gives You Milk, Make Cheese

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/12/2020 - 7:00pm in

Three great stories we found on the internet this week.

Dairy deliverers

As Covid-19 has shuttered restaurants, the small farms that supply them have suffered. But in New York, some are finding a way to stay in business — by filling a gap that big industrial food suppliers can’t.

Civil Eats has the story of Lively Run Goat Dairy in upstate New York. When the restaurants it services closed, its business dried up overnight. Meanwhile, big dairies were dumping thousands of gallons of milk — they were set up to sell “the kind of 20-pound tubs of sour cream that ended up at Chipotle,” said Pete Messmer, one of the brothers who runs the Lively Run Goat farm. “They couldn’t switch over to retail.” 

That’s when Messmer had an epiphany. Lively Run Goat Dairy could buy the excess milk from the big farms, process it into cheese and turn it over to food banks. “Bigger businesses have a much harder time [pivoting] because they need so much more infrastructure in order to be efficient,” Messmer said. “A business like ours can be nimble and switch over quickly.”

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They initially paid for the effort with a GoFundMe campaign, but it was so successful that it caught the eye of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who mentioned Messmer’s farm in one of his press conferences. In April, Cuomo announced the Nourish New York Initiative, which is now allocating $25 million in state funds to connect upstate farmers to food pantries to do just what Lively Run Goat Dairy has done.

Read more at Civil Eats

Naturally spiritual

In addition to being one of the most innovative and functional democracies on earth, Taiwan is an environmentally conscious country, too — a mindset that begins in childhood. Yes! reports on how environmental stewardship is tied to the tenets of Buddhism in children’s education in ways that seem to reverberate for years. 

taiwanA town on the banks of Taiwan’s Guangfu River. Credit: Jared Yeh

Buddhist organizations — at the forefront of much environmental activism in Taiwan — use children’s stories to teach kids about the interconnectedness of all things. Often, ecological responsibility is placed in the context of reincarnation and karma, in books like Samantabhadra Bodhisattva’s Great Battle against the Trash Monster and Record of the Wanderings of a Plastic Bag. These books, published by Buddhist groups, teach about the concept of “cherishing” to help kids understand environmental protection on a more spiritual level. The goal is to produce what sociologist Bengt Larsson called in a 2012 paper not environmentalists, per se, but “ecological selves.”

Though the impacts of these efforts haven’t been quantified, there’s evidence that suggests they could have an impact — one Australian study found that anthropomorphism, in which elements of the natural world are given human traits, in children’s books by J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling, increased kids’ concern for the environment. 

Read more at Yes!

Homes for the middle

Middle-income folks typically don’t qualify for subsidized housing, even when those middling incomes aren’t enough to pay the rent in expensive cities. A new California program seeks to fix that, offering housing support for people in this “missing middle,” who earn between 80 and 120 percent of their area’s median income.

anaheimDowntown Anaheim. Credit: Chris Pesotski / Flickr

Launched this year, the Workforce Housing Program allows the California Statewide Communities Development Authority to purchase rental units and then rent them to moderate-income tenants at restricted rates. The authority then uses this rental income to pay off the purchase price over 30 years, just like a regular mortgage. This allows the initiative to pay for itself, with no costs to the cities that adopt it. So far it’s been taken up in Yolo County, Woodland, Carson, and most recently, Anaheim, the home of Disneyland. “For us it really is kind of a no-brainer, because this is a group that’s often overlooked when we do affordable housing in our city,” an Anaheim city spokesperson told Next City.

Read more at Next City

The post When Life Gives You Milk, Make Cheese appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Sexual Harassment Has Virtually Vanished from These Farms

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 07/12/2020 - 7:00pm in

Nely Rodríguez stands in front of 43 farmworkers and supervisors who sit side by side at picnic tables wearing various protective workwear — hats, ski masks, bandanas, socks as sleeves.

Rodríguez, a member and worker-leader of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), points to a drawing of a female farmworker bent over picking tomatoes while a male supervisor stands over her saying, “¡Mamacita, qué rico te vez!” or “Hot momma, you look so sexy!”

“What should you do if this happens to one of your compañeras?” she asks, speaking with warmth and dignified confidence. A few workers laugh, others yell in collective response, “Report it!”

It’s June 2019, and Rodríguez, 53, is in the Sea Islands of South Carolina at Lipman Family Farms, America’s largest field tomato grower and one of the country’s largest agricultural employers. Here, orderly rows of tomato plants coexist next to old-growth jungle with oaks and Spanish moss. Five hundred men and women are harvesting crops across Lipman’s eight farms in this St. Helena Island site — one of more than 30 Lipman locations in the U.S. 

farming sexual harassmentNely Rodríguez, a member and worker-leader of the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Credit: Vera Chang

Back in 2011, Lipman was one of the first growers to join the Fair Food Program (FFP), a worker-led human-rights initiative run by CIW. The FFP is now on 27 farms, but, as an early signer, Lipman was instrumental in getting other industrial tomato producers to participate in the program in order to gain the same access to participating buyers, which today include 14 U.S. corporate retailers — grocery stores, fast food restaurants and institutional food providers including Whole Foods, Chipotle and Compass North America. By joining the FFP, growers agree to a code of conduct that promises that fields will be free of sexual harassment and assault, among other fundamental human rights.

After the #MeToo movement erupted, web traffic for sexual harassment-related searches more than doubled between 2017 and 2018. But in agriculture, forestry and fishing there were fewer reports than before. “We don’t see the floodgates from the people who are most affected,” said Anna Park, the L.A. District Regional Attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “I’m not sure that #MeToo has trickled down to low-wage earners.”

And yet, Rodríguez and others working with the Fair Food Program have shown that the opposite is possible: When farmworkers have the opportunity to prevent — not just remedy — sexual violence, they seize it. 

A dark history of harassment

The case of Diego Muriel, a supervisor at a farm labor trailer camp, shows how agriculture’s weak regulatory environment has meant that sexual abuse is also often present alongside other forms of violence — it’s just harder to see. 

The Fair Food Program uncovered scores of testimonies by workers who hadn’t pursued charges against Muriel claiming that he would “rub against” female workers as he walked the fields. According to the report, he would “stare at women” for long periods of time, gift them extra piece-rate tickets (payment per amount harvested) “so they would let him touch them,” and let himself into their bedrooms while they slept. As the report describes, he took a 16-year-old to a motel for three days only to release her when the girl’s father “put a gun to his head.” And according to the report, Muriel then paid this statutory rape victim, who became pregnant, to disappear. A male worker said that Muriel told him, “All the women that work in the field, married or single, I have taken advantage of them.” Another male farmworker confided, “Most women are afraid of losing their jobs and won’t speak up.”

Back at Lipman Family Farms, Rodríguez explained that the program works because workers are empowered to monitor their own rights. This shifts the culture away from secrecy. The first step in doing so: education. And FFP education sessions are nothing like boilerplate anti-sexual harassment tutorials.

farming sexual harassmentWorkers are empowered to monitor their own rights, shifting the culture away from secrecy. Credit: Vera Chang

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers runs live, interactive, peer-to-peer trainings that use theater, artwork and real situations to teach workers about their rights. Since the FFP started, CIW has conducted 775 in-person sessions that have educated more than 60,000 workers across seven East Coast states. 

As the culture of reporting takes off, it’s possible that more people have become comfortable speaking up.

For example, in 2018, nearly 70 percent of sexual harassment complaints in the program were from Haitian workers. Although they represented less than 20 percent of fieldworkers, the Haitians were new to the program and so only recently educated about their rights. The way Rodríguez sees it, other workers’ successful reporting of problems helped Haitian workers come forward.

The FFP has begun to create a culture of reporting problems through vigilantly protecting workers from retaliation through legally-binding agreements with real economic consequences for growers. The real threat of withholding corporate sales acts as the hammer in enforcement of the FFP’s Code.

“We’re there to make sure that workers have the knowledge to end what was an ugly situation for many years for many people,” Rodríguez said. “It’s no longer easy to stay quiet or watch what’s happening to a woman and not do anything.”

Rigorous audits

The day after the Coalition of Immokalee Workers finished its education sessions, the Fair Food Standards Council (FFSC) — the program’s third-party monitoring body — hit the ground with audits.

Like detectives, FFSC auditors piece together fact-rich tapestries of narrative and observation to get what they call “a high-resolution snapshot” of workers’ experiences and the power structures in the field. FFSC interviews all levels of supervisors and at least half the workforce at any given location, well above industry practice. At Lipman on St. Helena that day, this meant interviewing at least 372 workers. The crews moved from row to row in a heat index of 103 degrees, filling 32-pound buckets with tomatoes, then hoisting them onto their shoulders and heaving them atop a flatbed truck. Occasionally, a worker would stop to drink water from a white cone-shaped cup.

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I followed FFSC auditor Tomas Laster down a tomato furrow. He spoke with a farmworker wearing latex gloves and a white t-shirt smeared with tomato residue. Laster, the worker and I moved together through the rows, alternating between hunching and crouching, as the worker reached for fruit low to the ground. Being at the same height helps mitigate power disparities, Laster told me.

“Have you felt comfortable working here?” Laster asked. “Has the supervisor ever spoken to you in a disrespectful manner?” “Everything’s fine,” the fieldworker responded.

“Any bromas pesadas [jokes in bad taste]?” “Is this a workplace you’d want your mom or sister working in?” he asked, digging below the surface.

Asking directly about sexual harassment can be too outright a question for many to answer candidly, and interpretations of harassment can be subjective. It’s often helpful to ask about something that’s happened to someone else or something workers saw, rather than what they experienced personally, FFSC Associate Director Derek Brinks explained.

farming sexual harassmentThe Fair Food Standards Council prepares for an audit. Credit: Vera Chang

“It’s the first real audit organization that I’ve ever seen,” Lipman’s Chief Farming Officer, Toby Purse, said. “You can’t fake your way through it.” FFSC’s audit reports are a whopping 60 pages. And the audit process requires many people working many hours to run.

“I prefer talking after coffee, but call anytime,” Auditor Jenna Hostetler told a picker as they wrapped up an interview. In June, she handed the worker a card with the FFP’s 24/7, toll-free hotline number that’s answered by the same auditors who are in the fields. Having 24/7 accessibility to workers is crucial in an industry where harvests start before sunrise and end late in the evening.

What sets the investigations apart

FFSC is similar to the judicial system in many ways. Investigations can require the testimony of witnesses, the cross-examination of accused perpetrators and/or interviews with an entire crew about an incident. But there are key distinctions that make the FFP work better with a migrant agricultural population.

Laura Safer Espinoza, a retired New York State Supreme Court justice and FFSC’s executive director, explained that FFP workers don’t have to travel to an office or sign an affidavit. There aren’t formal adversarial proceedings, and the process of discovery is prompt. If there are sufficient witnesses, the complaint can be investigated by the company and FFSC without disclosing victims’ or witnesses’ names.

Victims of sexual harassment with physical contact don’t have to prove that they were touched in an inappropriate place or that the perpetrator intended sexual gratification, as they would need to demonstrate in a legal case. The informality of FFSC’s communication lends itself to transparency, adds Espinoza. When necessary, FFSC has stayed in contact with complainants who have left the state. This doesn’t happen in the legal system.

farming sexual harassmentExecutive Director Laura Safer Espinoza in the Fair Food Standards Council office. Credit: Vera Chang

Espinoza says FFSC typically reaches a resolution about complaints within two weeks. Cases that move through the legal system, on the other hand, can take years or even decades, which risks losing contact with aggrieved workers who may never be able to collect judgment. FFSC always provides complainants with access to the civil or criminal justice systems, should they choose to pursue those. However, many workers — vindicated by FFSC’s prompt, confidential investigations and consequences for abusers — choose not to.

“Workers have seen enough supervisors’ heads roll for things that would never have even raised an eyebrow before — a slap on the butt, an arm on the shoulder. If a worker complained about that before, first of all, they’d be fired. Second, others would laugh. It’s not a laughing matter anymore. Those days are over,” said Espinoza.

The Fair Food program’s near-elimination of sexual harassment

Since the Fair Food Program started in 2011, auditors say cases of sexual assault have been virtually eliminated on participating farms.

“This is probably, in my experience, the most roundly complete anti-gender-based violence effort,” said Aaron Polkey, staff attorney with Futures without Violence, a nonprofit that was instrumental in the creation of the anti-sexual harassment training video for the agricultural industry. It “cuts off the oxygen that fuels sexual violence, in an environment where it would otherwise run hidden and rampant.”

The 2016 EEOC Select Taskforce on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace called the FFP a “radically different accountability mechanism.” Ambassador Luis C. deBaca said that the FFP’s concept of workers controlling their own program for remedy and monitoring their own rights is basic but unusual — revolutionary, even — because it’s rarely, if ever, done.

farming harassment“This is probably, in my experience, the most roundly complete anti-gender-based violence effort,” says Aaron Polkey, staff attorney with Futures without Violence. Credit: Vera Chang

Growers who have signed onto the Fair Food Program agree to reflect on their work in ways that can be challenging at times. 

“I make no bones about it. I’d prefer to have nobody in between me and my customer’s relationship,” he said, when I asked him about what it’s been like to work with the FFP.

Compliance with the FFP has been a lot of work for Lipman. All the farm’s systems are now radically different from the agriculture industry norm. “This company would not look the way it does today if we weren’t partners with the FFP,” Purse said matter-of-factly. He characterized the changes the program catalyzed as a “paradigm shift,” but said that they’d been worthwhile. For example, Lipman has high retention rates for the industry, which helps mitigate risk. Everyone I spoke to also said they would return to Lipman if given the opportunity.

I’d actually first heard about Lipman from Gloria Olivo, a Florida tomato picker. “Before I joined the company, I’d always moved from one farm to the next. There wasn’t much respect,” she told me. “People have rights here.” Olivo, a sexual abuse survivor, has been at Lipman for the past six years now, an extraordinarily long tenure in migrant labor.

Lipman is such a desirable place to work that there have been three fake Facebook pages by illegal recruiters pretending to represent Lipman, plagiarizing their name and logo, according to several Lipman employees. (The pages were shut down.)

Sexual Harassment Remains an Evergreen Problem

Mirroring the wider #MeToo movement, the problem of sexual harassment on farms will never go away completely. But for perhaps the first time in agricultural labor, there’s now a system with ample safeguards. Under the FFP, workers can articulate problems that were formerly hidden, and sanctions proportionate to perpetrators’ inappropriate conduct are enforced.

A telling coda to Diego Muriel’s predations illustrates the shift that the FFP has wrought. For years, Muriel made comments to a mother and daughter about their bodies — their waists, legs and bottoms — while they worked and traveled with him, according to an FFSC report. When the family told the company about the farm labor contractor’s behavior, Muriel retaliated, decreasing the father’s bus driving hours. One night in 2013, the family called the FFP’s 800 number, and Muriel, who had violently harassed men and women for years, was terminated. FFSC’s two-week investigation of this case involved many complainants and witnesses. It resulted in corrective action plans for the farm, including an audited retraining of all the supervisors who had worked under Muriel.

Refugio “Cuco” Flores, a farm labor contractor who works at Lipman, agrees with Purse that sexual harassment may never leave the fields for good.

“Things are bound to happen that [are] not good. Either an accident, a fight, disrespect, or harassment,” he said, describing risks faced by isolated people on farm fields. And yet, Flores is also experiencing a changing culture in those fields.

“We didn’t notice [how common sexual harassment was], like cavemen didn’t notice that killing somebody with a rock was bad.”

Flores, 43, began working as a contractor when he was 16, and now runs eBerry, one of the largest farm labor contract companies. A former wide receiver, he sees his work as akin to managing a football team. During peak season, though, Flores has a crew nine times that size — 450 workers. eBerry supervisors and workers start harvests in Florida, move north to South Carolina and Virginia, and finally travel by school bus to New Jersey.

There used to be a lot of casual touching in farm work, Flores told me. “Hi, mis amigos,” Flores said while he air-gestured patting with his hands, the way he’d greet fieldworkers daily. He says he’ll never do that to anyone again. Flores used to save the first few rows of the bus for female workers, but he doesn’t do that anymore either. Flores and I spoke in a private, tree-shaded area of Lipman’s parking lot. He’d never speak with a female employee alone like that anymore, either.

I asked what changed for him. “The Fair Food Program,” Flores replied. “We got educated, and it made sense.”

*The names of some people have been changed in the interest of privacy.

This story was supported with a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

The post Sexual Harassment Has Virtually Vanished from These Farms appeared first on Reasons to be Cheerful.

Dream Pastoral Inversions: Re-approaching pastoral fraughtness through questions of Australian rurality

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 05/12/2020 - 9:09pm in

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Now the dream is a picture-puzzle of this sort, and our predecessors in the field of dream interpretation have made the mistake of judging the rebus as an artistic composition. As such it appears nonsensical and worthless.

—Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams

mum’s partner was in a rollover last night after leaving jam tree gully…he was run off a gravel road and the ute with mower on the back (he’d just been doing our top paddocks between the trees) caught a culvert as he pulled over to avoid a collision and the ute went through a fence and rolled. the person who caused it didn’t stop but fortunately someone found him a short while later (and it’s a very isolated gravel road so he was lucky!) and he is now in hospital down in the city—tracy is driving my mum down now. he’s okay, but lot of staples in head etc etc.

—email to Russ, 2018

Inside the pastoral is no field trip but rather entails separations from a rurality that have been and remain invasive, biospherically damaging, and degrading to so many people outside the land-food-capital interface. We are intended to fear the power of farmers—the non-unionised collective of property owning or land controlling (tilling)—because they hold food over us. Mass agriculture is sold as the panacea against mass starvation. Increasing populations have to be fed, obviously, but the use of (multinational) agrichemicals in/and genetically modified crops might act as a ‘saviour’ commentary in synch with profiteering in the context of ‘Global South’ ‘rapidly increasing’ populations, significantly enhancing Global North capital’s ability to manipulate fear/anxiety across ‘demographics’ and to concentrate its wealth and control. The case of the ‘unwanted’ GM cows in Australia’s south-easternmost state, Victoria, adds a further dimension; from Dolly the Sheep via a mammary-gland cell, and certainly in medical research, the animal of science is also the animal of food that privileges and prioritises human bodies. Big Pharma agriculture is the dream rebus of horror—the words of largesse and gifting combine with images of the well-managed locus amoenus at every ‘spot’ redressed by seed patents, heavy-industry machinery, satnavs, and apps developed in the counter-contextuality of the decolonised ‘ideas’ spaces still being manipulated by colonial capital. As industrial agriculture retains its footing and profitability and only collapses under present virus conditions where labour cannot be accessed, a more sustenance-based (and in dialogue with habitat) agriculture is completely devastated by sickness.1

Emerging from these nodal points of ‘pastoral’ referentiality, necessity and desire make for a seemingly nonsensical rebus that can form poems of devastating clarity. ‘Western’ pastoral poetry essentially arises from aesthetically configuring (for entertaining a privileged audience) herding and grazing (by those who serve) on land, if not held in common, often bordering on the cordon sanitaire if not beyond. And, if on a rich patriarch’s land, that land still having a certain amount of threat and wildness to embody the patriarch’s sense of the chthonic, of hunting prowess, of control ‘over the forces of nature’. And if that sounds a little like the black-and-white movies of the Rank Studios or Hollywood of the 1930s to ‘50s, then think again: the big white houses of colonial land grants are still central in many Western Australian wheat belt districts, and if family connections have changed (many have not), the symbol of the (restored) house remains, uncannily.

Modernising pastoral begins with the rise of (ancient) Rome as an obscenely militant, self-automating superpower, and not with the ‘early modern’ period—and is certainly set by the late eighteenth century and might be seen as a subtext, even, of the French Revolution. Post ’68, the struggle over the compulsion to increase profits while retaining ‘traditional’ farming rights and protecting land-usage patterns by farmers in France (prior to the Yellow Jackets’ cross-communal consumer-driven anti-wealth and pro–energy usage contradictions) was one of the greatest and most virulent sources of social agitation. A pastoral protectionism on one level, but of a pastoral that tried to reconcile private property ownership with ‘tradition’, and anti-control by big business, but with tariff protection and market sureties. The pastoral life is a construct of freedom and profit, of openness and behind the closed doors of the barns where the research takes place: it is the window in the side of a cow on a university property in a city pretending to be a farm, then being sold off for housing. It is the breath of fresh air from a country-rural ride with a dose of Roundup spray drift; it is the class action that follows in America, not Australia. It is writing a poem against Monsanto and being legally silenced.

The dream of the pastoral is the advertising campaign—Barthes by proxy; of course I am thinking specifically of ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ (1964)—in which the denoted is the list of ‘benefits’ the farm and its literary correlatives (insert name of poet and name of poem of agri-mining-industrial-landgrab-colonialism HERE) and the connoted is THE FARM as universal signifier, it being essential in itself, and also overriding other land uses (be they collective, communal, industrial, privatised or familial). THE FARM connotes life, connotes a control of nature, connotes presence and permanence. The farm as concept highlights the competitive aesthetics of traditional familial connections with specific tracts of land, and the ‘need’ to increase production because in bringing fruition and fertility it will ideally increase human life, seemingly to boost productivity to feed people, but ultimately to maintain profit and if not a labour force in the age of mechanisation and post-mechanisation, then to maintain an audience for products thought up and sold, profited from, by capital. State and business collude in this but are also at loggerheads, and this drives an ongoing pastoralism in the arts. And I am not talking per se of, say, Hugo’s Normandy or Rimbaud’s vagabondage with the possibilities the countryside offered for social disruption (and avoidance—and the cascading racialisms and bigotries that implode in A Season in Hell), but a universalism of THE FARM that is utilised as an extension of The Art of War in all its cultural variants—that is, extensions of state and capital, of individuals, groups and also families entrenching power in the earth itself (as with mining) and often making it dynastic in the process. So if the farm is the code, it is also its decoding. We buy or are supplied with its produce and are indebted to its clarity of meaning, which are in fact obfuscations of design, research and control. Farms are claims to the past but are about controls of ‘future’. They contain many variants of rurality, even the more industrialised farms, but they always rely on the persistence of memory of having to provide, meaning that they are likely to continue to provide, even more than what the ecological, social and health (and animal rights) ‘costs’ might be. They are implicit and explicit at once. They are of the dream, but ‘real’, seasonal and controlled, natural and artificial.

In Australia, rural causation of climate damage, land toxicity, extinction through clearing (flora and fauna) and mass fire events that extinguish ancient forests are counteracted or even entirely denied because of the ‘necessity’ of food production and even a colonial-generational relationship to landholdings. The ‘need’ for fire to germinate and regenerate is deployed by capital as an excuse to limit economic loss through a reduction in emissions, controls on rapacity. Indigenous knowledges of fire usage are ignored on an official level, though given some acknowledgement on the level of decoration, rather than concede that this is stolen country that was ‘agriculturally’ far better managed and lived with before invasion and colonial control. Acts of dispossession of Aboriginal people are absorbed into a patriotic nationalism that is reinforced by rural-town war memorials and an ongoing active myth of the rural that serves Canberra and state parliaments as a lever for large-urban-population needs and fears. They will be fed if the rural is not messed with. As long as someone is out there providing poems that give comfort to this national myth, it will roll on. Les Murray, brilliant a poet as he was, happily filled this role. Judith Wright didn’t, but she was thought to do so by people who didn’t actually read her poems closely, and especially not her non-fiction. 

In Feminism & Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge (1993), Gillian Rose notes (and cites) the historic ‘stronger men’ dynamic of the ‘field trip’ and also its ‘heroic ethos’. Geographers become stronger men by challenging Nature—‘geographers, like the mythical giant Anteus, derive their strength from contact with the earth. Anteus became stronger each time he was hurled to the ground’—and the real geographer faces wild Nature for the sake of knowledge, ‘even though it may on occasion mean taking risks, living dangerously’. Pastoral poets, contra geographers, are in a constant state of field tripping, wandering or hallucinating from the writing zone into the paddocks/fields/gorts et cetera, seeking an order of words to denote the relationship between wild (or the errant ‘wilderness’ that becomes a form of open ‘untamed’ farm) and farm per se, between nature and nurture, between power and surveillance, between eating and singing. This mediation serves the state well—it ensures that lines of supply are kept open and encrypted as topoi, as tropes of presence and the need to ‘defend’ that crucible of body and mind. The field trip from the city to the farm is entertainment that brings back information to reassure but also allow for adaptation and prescience. The field trip allows the pastoral state to be one step ahead and, arguably, poetry is its propaganda. It is an inherently patriarchal incursion that requires the farmed land to be reconstructed in field notes as a rebus of performative figures and textualising of the land. The next step in this is the poetic boustrophedon, but the irony is in the reading against the Euro-colonial light, right to left, left to right, the furrows turning against themselves, and yet the land marked. Ways out, from grinding the soil with disc plough on disc plough. Chemical ploughing—super-toxic farming (dream that rebus and find the words). Overseeding.

I have often walked vast farming areas alone, and still do. As a child, I always felt vulnerable to the sudden appearance of strangers, though usually only the farmers and their workers that I likely already knew were around. But in vast ‘emptiness’ scattered with occasional pockets of trees, there was always the prospect of a stranger emerging from the horizon and being able to see your retreat through a low field of grain, or down a firebreak, along a fence line, into a small stand of trees. I thought about this when out alone. The field seemed a haunted place because the cuts in the ground were always with you. The markers of earth-body that could be transferred to your own body. What are the politics of this, or will it only, for me, remain suggestion, the waking dream of connection rather than incursion? 

I began thinking about how I would look, walking the farmlands, to a viewer walking across the salty curves of the earth, and what we might yell at each other to ward each other off. I started yelling poems of farming out to mirages and blurs in the distance from early childhood. One time I had sunstroke. The visitor, always the visitor, looking for a place to hide amid places where the vegetation had been stripped away. One day I lay down in an almost dried-off crop of wheat and made a body impression. Then I felt so guilty I got sick trying to lift the broken stalks, raise the fallen heads back to the vertical. As I was saying to someone the other day, ‘Vertical Poetry’ travels the continents (viz. W. S. Merwin’s translations of Roberto Juarroz). It may be urban in its distribution, its location of publishing and sending out, maybe in its making, but its roots will always be non-urban. But it carries the colonial residues, even where what it reaches up to or into is not colonial. The poem as farm that feeds but doesn’t mark? I concrete poems so they vanish. I de-map ‘rural space’ that was once farm that was and will always be Ballardong Noongar land with usages not open to me. I denote the materials of being here in typewritten words on recycled paper. I scan it, and invalidate, and this is the end of any happiness where just acts might bring some happiness to those who have lost happiness. The wish-fulfilment of the pastoral dreaming is self-disgust. A pastoral restoration project? An advert without audience?

This article is from issue 4 of Arena. Read it in print and help to support independent media…!

When ‘Guru’ (Mum’s partner) was driven off the road and rolled the ute, the mower and whipper snipper were damaged and it affected grass-cutting across two zones. His body was damaged, and our ability to control our relationship with Jam Tree Gully (mower and whipper snipper wrecked—shire-enforced grass-cutting and fire-preparedness necessary) was damaged, too. He was the priority, of course, but we all discussed contingencies in retaining control. To protect the nature here from intrusion (if we don’t do it ourselves the shire will spray with herbicides, then fine us—the fine doesn’t matter, but the toxins do!). We cut dry grass, but always leave pockets of dry long grass for creatures (sustenance and/or habitat); we pattern safety. Rebus again. The damaged body bled on the damaged machinery, and a farming couple rescued Guru, his blood on the pasture they’d cultivated. 

Meanwhile, back where Mum and Guru are, under the ancient mountain of Walwaling with its stories as precise as any science (as Noongar Elder Len Collard points out regarding the deep science of Aboriginal ‘dreamtime’ stories), Guru is recuperating. The accident altered my poem-making. Always anti-pastoral and counter-pastoral, always a pastoral of bloodstain and accident and incursion, it also became a pastoral of allowing a space for personal compassion and adjusting to local situations and personal-specific needs. So the pastoral got more ‘anti’, but also more empathetic, I hope. Can that be the case for me? I think it must (be). I rarely sleep and when I dream I dream super-vividly. I unravel the codes as I write, looking out onto my tasks of rurality—not of THE FARM, but of vegetable gardening, firebreaks, tree planting, restorations.

Always the paradox, but a paradox disrupted. This ‘compassion’ is always there because I like people, even when I disagree with them, and even when they loathe me. Something inherent in life, I like. In The Silo: A Pastoral Symphony, almost twenty-five years ago now, in poem after poem I object to the rapacity and the damage wrought across the Western Australian wheat belt (so called, but I find the human qualities eternally interesting. The human quiddity. And I live—we live—always among people who it would seem mostly oppose what we ‘stand for’). That’s a fraught situation, but also one necessary to break up the dynamic of field tripping, of taking the plough disc back to town or city space to aestheticise, to connect with components of empire without direct culpability. But many farmers (not all) will clear vegetation from land and lament an increase in drought patterns. Suffering doesn’t become less no matter its cause, and compassion is necessary, but so is resistance to clearing and an ongoing intervention in the pastoral poem. Aboriginal poets I have read and heard do not write pastoral poems, even when they are writing of the pastoral—their declared identity and kinship contradict the totality of the machine of agriculturalism, its theft of country and claims of legitimacy in utility and agency, its claims that it feeds those who need to be fed (all of us, but the disenfranchised are the lightning rod for accusations of rural self-interest). 

As such, farmers will always be ‘our farmers’ in the nation state’s propaganda, its harvest- and slaughter-driven raison d’être. In Poetics of Relation (1997) Édouard Glissant notes: ‘[t]he empire is the absolute manifestation of totality. The thought of empire is selective: what it brings to the universal is not the quantity of totality that has been realized but a quality that it represents as the Whole’. 

The Australian version/construction of the ‘Western farm’ is contemplated as a Whole, even when it is in financial or psychological distress, even when it has been dry for years or scorched by fire events, or the farming people have suffered loss or illness and can’t farm and keep the books balanced, are in debt to banks, rely on subsidies and so forth, it remains across the various land titles ‘Whole’ as a concept. The farm is protected, not those who serve the idea of farm—though too often those serving the farm are caught up in the national and empire myth of farm and serve its purposes, frequently to their own detriment. The agri-corporations, the larger, wealthier landholders—well, it is in their interests to perpetuate the myth of the farm and its wholeness, and of the pastoral vision of cooperative rivalry. ‘Primary’ (industry) is core to this propaganda. The advertising.

So, fraught in all utterances, and the poem has to draw on this and find a way of shifting the song so the empire can have no totality in any form, and will eventually break down. So the pastoral poetry I seek to write is one of land returning to a different functionality and relationship with people, with respect for and in dialogue with knowledge of land grown over vast periods of time. The new poem needs to be very very old in its listening.

The pastoral is inherently connected with an agriculturalism of progress, even if this is traditionally an inversion of progress or even performatively ‘anti-progress’—to retain a Golden Age, to keep things as they always were…but, in the country houses, profit will always be the foremost concern, and profit comes with ‘progress’ and the truth of pastoral exploitation resides in this paradox: the mechanisation of the means of producing food. As such, in text, it becomes a ‘magic roundabout’ that sends spokes and tracks out into ambiguities of literary expression (from memoir to the ‘Aga saga’ to documenting the tithing starvation of the rural subaltern and other puzzlings of inequality in literary depictions of land–food production relationships—so often the more sensitivity that is shown to this plight in conjunction with multinational profiteering publishing houses the more exploitative and ultimately callous it is). Further ambiguities are issues of temporariness in terms of change even at the level of the genetics of, say, grain, the per se in terms of military and constabulary occupation of and policy about broader swathes of territory, and a ‘vector overlay’ in three-D without digitalisation through commercial-government-military satellite mapping. Terrain, terraforming, poem, casting poems in lines, in mnemonics. The sundial losing its shadow, its refuge, all day long.

We now have a literary as well as ontic endgame and mass extinction.  Some people are gradually easing/merging this into/with a fantastical ‘Doggerland’ fiction-desiring for a hunter-gatherer Euro purity of presence2 that can remap according to earlier catastrophic climate-change events. They are vaguely seeking to normalise matters through archaeological retrieval of evidence of the continuance and persistence of humans—a new survivalism that is not denial but neither does it accept the personal need for dramatic change. Literature, especially fiction, occupies this position, as do distracting sciences of ‘evidence’ as justifications of our contemporary condition as intrinsic to the ‘natural’ arc of human ‘development’. Pastoral, even in its negating and challenging-status-quo variations, can easily fall into the resist-but-ultimately-comply mode if awareness isn’t omnipresent. 

Pastoral has always been a vehicle par excellence for satirising social manners, class and wealth/leisure/comfort, but usually with affectionate bite (and that is arguably its failing), but Romanticism dragged it steadfastly into a ‘high art’ (for all its apparent openness to ordinariness and the idiomatic) of elegy, of lament for the loss not only of a ‘Golden Age’ but of the possibility of intactness. Consider Paul Alpers’ claims, ventured in What is Pastoral? (1996): ‘The satiric potentialities of pastoral are commonplace—to the extent that in some accounts, satire is not simply an aspect or potential use of pastoral, but its main motive. And the extraordinary emphasis on the Golden Age in modern accounts of pastoral—far beyond what is justified by ancient or even Renaissance writers—is due to critics’ accepting a structure of relationships which makes the elegy, in Schiller’s sense, a definitive manifestation of the impulse at the heart of this kind of poetry’. Actually, Rosanna Warren (see Spatial Relations, Volume 2—Dialogue with Rosanna Warren) long claimed that pastoral included an awareness of rural problematics, which it does—but for me, never enough. I seek to lift pastoral ‘beyond’ satire and elegy into record-keeping and witness. The question becomes how we talk about that positioning, and how that becomes (necessary) heteroglossia with the poem. Which naturally charts a course that takes one back to forms of eclogue.

The writing of an against-pastoral is an issue of location. All locations of farming have been subscribed to nation-state and corporate power structures, so often by acts of dispossession. The pushing of land to produce more food for the necessity of ‘feeding mouths’ is one thing, but to ramp up to ‘value-add’, to profit to feed a small number of people’s leisure and empowerment, is the corruption of locality and locale out of rapacity and greed. This exploitation of the body is the male field tripping, the geographising of the earth via a persistent and resilient patriarchy. In her essay ‘Toward a Politics of Location’ (1986), poet and radical feminist Adrienne Rich writes: ‘[b]egin, though, not with a continent or a country or a house, but the geography closest in—the body. Here at least I know I exist, that living human individual whom the young Marx called “the first premise of all human history”. But it was not as a Marxist that I turned to this place, back from philosophy and literature and science and theology in which I had looked for myself in vain. It was as a radical feminist’. And in the eclogue, the unifying voice of the poet (traditionally serving the expectations of the privileged, not the ‘workers’) controls the singers/herders’ voices and the voice of the song competition’s ‘judge’. The herders and the ‘goddess’ serve the poet’s purpose of celebrating the privileged, who will inevitably seek to profit from the land of the pastoral. In reconfiguring pastoral, radical retakes of positioning of gender and identity in constructs of land per text are essential. This exists in the work of Canadian poet Lisa Robertson and American poet Juliana Spahr, and many others, but it also needs to happen on the level of how we all (as consumers of text) re-inscribe our presence of consuming locality and how we commune about it. Maybe the pastoral poem has validity in this.

There’s a poem by Vénus Khoury-Ghata written out of experience of war-zone Lebanon in which the pastoral implodes into a reformulation of gender and nurturing stereotypes in the face of catastrophe and survival—a de-pastoral of survival against brute reality in a conflict zone. In ‘L’automne précéda l’été’, she writes:

L’automne précéda l’été d’un jour

des jardiniers vigilants coupèrent plus tôt que prévu les cils humides de

la passiflore

et los horloges tricotèrent des nuits plus étroites

How things keep on in such circumstances relies on resetting and persistence. Not the same, and adapting. But to forget how we got to crisis, and to not try to prevent the damage, is criminal. Pastoral has the ultimate responsibility because it has safe-distanced itself from the damage as much as it is ironised, lamented or celebrated. It should never be merely an entertainment. There is no dream of a pastoral, but the pastoral is infused with dreams of ‘us’ and ‘them’—the readers and the actors we expect to do the doing.

It is hard to write while hard physical labouring, but is it hard to think about writing sitting in the air-conditioned header with stereo following the ley lines of a GPS around the paddock? The farmer-poet is the farmer who knows what’s best for the land because they ‘love the land’, allegedly, even though it is stolen land (in Australia). Do we elide David Campbell’s poems of rurality and Virgil’s war-land-grant ‘farming’, do we take the pastoral lease out of the work of Judith Wright, or are these intrinsic to each other across the timing and spacing of global rural capital, for all their different ‘takes’ on it? Do we offset these imperialisms and (in Wright’s case especially) anti-imperialisms with the active voice of singers of and on the land in an array of agriculture-nature elisions, wherein THE FARM does not represent THE FARM but acts of co-existence in which food is one part of growth and being? I think so, and I think so as pantheist and anarchist, as pacifist and vegan, as a believer in rights of self-determination, in the rebus being understood by the layperson and the dream being interactive but respectful. Maybe this is the spiritual-locality respect integral to International Regionalism. To withdraw from Western pastoralism, see, for example the perspective of rural India captured on the PARI website, and particularly the enactments of rural resistance to encroachment as exemplified in these words by Rajkishor Sunani, a Dalit poet, singer and activist from Karlagaon village, around 110 kilometres from the Vedanta alumina refinery in Kalahandi district: ‘From my childhood, I have been a rebel. I protest against injustice’, he says. ‘I joined the movement [against bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri hills] in 2002–03. I wrote songs to make people aware, and I travelled from village to village to spread the message of the movement’. For me, peace and environmental activism and a justice of cultural and spiritual belief are the drivers of an activism of rectification. 

But in the dream of farm as giving space, ‘the farmer’ requires the tools of a conventional poetics that elides and merges the ‘rural’ (colonial agriculturalism) with Nature, includes a dash and splash of self-deprecating humour (you know, as in how Australians like to ‘take the piss’, as the saying goes, through sometimes brutally satirical means…and out of themselves, too, as self-satirists…but not really!), and lots of national myth-making adapted as science fact embedded in literary-popular canonicity from a montage poem such as Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’, still wheeled out by right-wing media pundits denying climate change (and always misread and geographised as all-continent encompassing). As an aside, the paper referenced in a recent article by Chris Kenny entitled ‘Climate Alarmists Are Brazen Opportunists Preying on Misery’ cherry-picks history, has no understanding of frequency, change, effects of Industrial Revolution, et cetera, and lays claims to the dead and their opinions/responses/feelings in a patriotic fervour of now-ism. Pastoral needs to collapse in their hands when they try such tricks of the mob—the rural mob–ism of national militaristic agriculturalism. The nightmare of their pastoral dreaming!3—the desire to keep Euro-farm traditions alive in colonised spaces and mechanise, chemicalise and genetically modify to increase production and profit. A false claim to community via common purpose and common need. Not the cooperative interactions and the mutual aid envisaged (and witnessed) by Peter Kropotkin but a retreat into a pastoral nostalgia of nature punishing but them not punishing nature: the landowners; pastoral equation—the state–private balance of capitalism and colonialism.4

Dreaming for me is fraught. I counted the number of times I used ‘fraught’ in a recently completed ‘critical’ book and it was frightening. What does the word denote and connote at once? Is it beyond rebus? In one super-vivid dream eclogue, I was trying to argue that it was more ethical to work at a wheat-receival point than to clear land on which these crops are sewn. Why, asked my ‘rival’ singer? Because even within your own logic, productivity will increase by replanting trees, healing the land, cultivating less with higher yields in a healthier non-toxic environment. My rival laughed and sang me out of the picture. But I came back, and said the poem isn’t part of it: land returned to those dispossessed, land-restoration, cleaner air and soil, a pullback of tech and property, and THE FARM will become us all as pure connotation—a rebus of a vast mixture of forest and plains, of mountains and rivers…signing ‘distance’—far—followed by the letter M, which is the valley I am living on the edge of. The rival in the dream eclogue correctly said to me: that’s selfish and egotistical to use your geographical point of reference and interest as a universal signifier.

Thanks to Dan Disney and Sarah Bailey for copyedits.

Notes

1. Ebola is another concern for the Global North because the virus can spread out of designated areas of small agriculture and small and communal landholdings and can also impair supply of gathering and harvesting (cocoa) in ways directly damaging to Global North capital.

2. For a deeply disturbing bonding of archaeology and oil exploration, and with special attention to be given to the word ‘arguably’ in relation to the incontestable science that fossil-fuel usage is causing an exponential increase in human-induced global warming, see this apologia in a piece on abc.net.au, ‘Mammoths and Stone-Age Humans Once Roamed Doggerland, the Lost Land Submerged by the North Sea’: 

‘Professor Gaffney has mapped 43,000 square metres of seafloor terrain, using data supplied by oil and gas exploration companies. 

Today, fossil fuels have arguably played a big role in the current period of global warming, so there’s an irony about these resources contributing to finding out more about the last great melt.’

3. While I was not thinking specifically of Bob Hodge’s and Vijay Mishra’s Dark Side of the Dream in writing this, I guess the spokes of the magic circle are all-reaching.

4. See, as a subtextual interest (and I am not validating all said in this piece by citing it!): ‘Kropotkin, Self-valorization and the Crisis of Marxism’. (It carries this introductory note: ‘This paper was written for and presented to the Conference on Pyotr Alexeevich Kropotkin organized by the Russian Academy of Science on the 150th anniversary of his birth. The conference was held in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Dimitrov on December 8–14, 1992. It was the first such conference to be held on Russian soil since the Revolution in 1917. Published in Anarchist Studies, edited by Thomas V. Cahill, Department of Politics, Lancaster University, Lancaster, United Kingdom, February 24, 1993’). 

The piece says: 

‘Where the economists (and later the sociologists of work) celebrated the efficacy and productivity of specialization in production, Kropotkin showed how that very productivity was based not on competition but on the interlinked efforts of only formally divided workers. 

When, for example, he turned his attention to the relationship between the urbanization of industry and the relative neglect of agricultural production, he did not merely attack the former and lament the later or evoke nostalgic pastoral images of the past. Instead, he sought out and explored situations where this ecologically and socially crippling specialization was already being overcome, as in the culture maraichere around Paris—where the wastes of the city were being reunited with the soil to the benefit of all. Such living examples, he argued, were manifestations of the counter-tendency of a cooperative interdependence and constituted at least one way forward in this domain.’

Works Cited

Paul Alpers, What is Pastoral?, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams,en.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=The_Interpretation_of_Dreams/Chapter_6&oldid=3954821

ÉdouardGlissant, Poetics of Relation (trans. Betsy Wing), Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2019.

Vénus Khoury-Ghata, ‘L’Automne précéda l’été’, https://www.babelmatrix.org/works/fr/Khoury-Ghata,_V%C3%A9nus-1937/L%E2%....

John Kinsella, ‘per se’, received by Russell West-Pavlov, 26 September, 2018.

Adrienne Rich, ‘Notes Toward a Politics of Location’, Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985, London: Virago Press, 1986, pp. 210–31.

Gillian Rose, Feminism & Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge, London: Polity Press, 1993.

Michael Slezak and Penny Timms, ‘Mutants or Miracles?’ ABC News, 15 March 2020, www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-14/genetically-modified-cows-no-horns-in-australia/12018078?nw=0.

Also from Arena no. 4:

Reimagining Rural Relationships

Lauren Rickards and Melinda Hinkson, December 2020

A post-COVID, post-neoliberal ordering of these relationships needs a new shared imagination.

Reimagining Regional Relationships

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/11/2020 - 4:27pm in

Detachment

Melbourne’s second lockdown and the enforced separation of the city’s residents from those of regional Victoria and the rest of the world has proven a sobering time in which to reflect upon a complex relationship. Across Melbourne, lockdown has delivered a collective jolt to the senses, a striking realisation of how deeply integral mobility is, in its myriad forms, to our taken-for-granted sense of the rhythm and texture and stimulations of day-to-day life. 

For many of us our new physical immobility has been accompanied and enabled by a proliferation of digital connections. Whether for work, family or recreation, we have turned to digital technologies to keep us linked to ‘the world’, downloading and uploading content, communicating in groups small and large, observing and participating in events. While offering thin lines of connection, being ensconced in a Zoom box within an urban box within a quiet city hour after hour can be deeply disorienting. Like watching a film in the dark on a plane, only to pull the headphones off and hear nothing but a wall of white noise and see nothing but motionless shadowy figures around you, to live in lockdown Melbourne is to feel untethered from reality. Instead of the spatial mobility and digital disconnection experienced on a flight, it is spatial immobility and an overabundance of digital connection that now leave us with a sense of floating in space, disembedded from the Earth.

In both cases this sense of physical detachment is a dangerous mirage. It is a denial of the destructive physical processes underlying plane travel and digital systems, and it shores up the foundational phantasy of hypermodern capitalism: the figure of the human being as autonomous and disembodied, and the world as the mere ‘plastic modelling clay’ of capitalism, as Frédéric Neyrat puts it.1 More than the mere separation of humans from nature, today this vision imagines humans as ‘residing off-planet, outside the Earth, without any kind of vital relation with the ecosphere, detached and separated as far away as possible from the Earth object to be reformatted’.2 Lewis Mumford diagnosed the emergence of this imaginary in the 1960s:

Our age is passing from the primeval state of man [sic] marked by his invention of tools and weapons and for the purpose of achieving mastery over the forces of nature, to a radically different condition, in which he will have not only conquered nature, but detached himself as far as possible from the organic habitat.3  

Mumford was writing in the midst of the ‘space race’ that quite literally sought to sustain humans ‘off-planet’. It was a period of intensive research and development that delivered not only the airborne capsules needed for space travel but much of the computing, satellites and ICT that now enable our global digital connectivity and help sustain the belief that we can transcend geographical and natural constraints.

Mobile food

Many of us know that such a belief is ridiculous, notwithstanding the new force it has been given by the Silicon Valley space race accelerating in 2020. When offline, living in lockdown Melbourne has been a jolting reminder of how grounded and emplaced we are. Local parks have never been more popular, and many people seem to have directed their new spare time towards gardening, adding to what feels like a particularly spectacular spring, with blossoms and new growth in all directions. Home cooking has also had a resurgence, directing attention to what we eat and our households’ and bodies’ reliance on constant inflows of food. For some this has included sourcing food from new backyard ventures, whether vegetables, or eggs from some of the many chickens that have recently populated the suburbs. Some were lucky enough to have farmers markets still operating within their allowed 5-kilometre travel radius and were able to have their turn processing around stands of produce, walking the periphery of peri-urban Melbourne in miniature.  

For many Melburnians though, lockdown has led to an unprecedented reliance on their local supermarket. Today a ‘local’ supermarket is something of an oxymoron, referring merely to a nearby branch of one of a small number of interlinked global corporations, most likely Coles or Woolworths, which together account for approximately 70 per cent of Australian supermarket sales. Once a genuinely local shop in Melbourne, Coles is now part of Coles Group, selling not just groceries and liquor but petrol and financial products, and is owned primarily by UK-based bank HSBC, Australia’s largest company Wesfarmers (which trades in chemicals, fertilisers, coal mining, and industrial and safety products as well as retail), and US-based JP Morgan, the world’s largest financier of fossil fuels. Woolworths similarly began as a local shop in Sydney but is now part of the Woolworths group that also owns most of Australia’s liquor and hotel businesses, including the Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group, which operates more than 12,000 poker machines. Like Coles, Woolworths is majority-owned by HSBC and JP Morgan. Woolworths has enjoyed record sales during lockdown. Yet in the midst of the turmoil of the pandemic, the company was forced to compensate staff for $90 million in underpaid wages. It also quietly announced the redundancies of 1350 warehouse workers, who will be replaced with robots. 

Here, in the knotted bowels of the corporate world, we see once again the phantasy of disconnection. In such spaces, food appears on balance sheets as one commodity among others, its intimate relationship with particular ecosystems and human bodies peeled off and hidden from view. We, meanwhile, enter our local store and encounter a pricing system that magnetically draws us to products—two-dollar two-litre containers of milk, for example—with complete detachment from how such pricing comes about and its devastating consequences for dairy farmers. Just like the minerals and coal that are physically imbricated throughout food chains, food is now thoroughly financialised. 

Involved in this financialisation are what Jennifer Clapp calls two types of ‘distancing’. The first is the increasing number of actors involved in ‘adding value to’ (that is, extracting profit from) food chains, making many of them so long as to be virtually untraceable and unplaceable.4 As Jane Dixon notes, major supermarkets disembed local food economies through their global supply sourcing.5 Second, financialisation operates by separating food into material and nutritional components, abstracting them as commodities and reconfiguring them into ‘bundles of resources’ to be traded on derivatives markets.The result is that, as Marc Edelman writes, ‘the lion’s share of the vast wealth that rural zones produce…has accrued to shareholders in corporations and financial institutions headquartered in a handful of distant, economically dynamic urban centers’.6 

Wheat is a case in point. One of Australia’s major export crops, wheat exists in the world not only as a plant, a seed or even a material such as flour, but as ‘futures’ and other fictions traded on the Chicago Stock Exchange by financial actors with little interest in or concern about its value as food. As Lesley Head and colleagues describe in their analysis of Australian wheat in the global food system, besides existing as a genetic code, pharmaceutical filler and land use, wheat features as an information flow. ‘We could track flows of virtual wheat as currency traded through different markets. It flowed across computer screens in various symbolic ways—on graphs, in recipes, in mixtures of stock feed’.7 Wheat’s spaces thus stretch far beyond the rural ‘wheat belts’ of northwestern Victoria or southern Western Australia, and even beyond the trade routes, warehouses, feed lots and factories that feed off it, to encompass complex webs of digital abstractions and financial value, including information feeds flowing through computers and smart devices in home offices across Melbourne. The result is that while wheat has many points of connection in the world—indeed one of the most extensive fingerprints of any commodity—its real connections, its roots and soil and the intricate human dance involved in cultivating it, are hidden from view as it is blended into the plastic modelling clay of capitalism. 

For us kneading sourdough in lockdown Melbourne in an increasingly half-hearted effort to remain grounded and sane, it is worth appreciating the hypermobile, fragmented and capitalised world that our flour is part of. At the same time, bread is a quintessential staple—an age-old icon of reliable sustenance. As Justin Clemens wrote in Arena no. 3 in relation to the pandemic, even as funding has been turned off for everything the Coalition does not like: ‘it’s still the case that bread and circuses must never stop—especially not now in the end times, when so many people are forcibly locked down or otherwise holed up’. His point was about the Herculean effort devoted to ensuring that the circus of the AFL football season continued at all costs. But it turns out that we cannot take the more mundane matter of bread for granted. This was underlined during the early days of the pandemic, when people were stocking up on goods like well-trained preppers and Melbourne ran out of bread flour. On this and numerous other items, the logistics models that underpin supermarkets’ just-in-time supply chains failed to anticipate consumers’ emotional responses to the pandemic and the resultant surge in demand, despite their continuous flows of information from expensive NASA satellite-enabled smart technologies. These breaks in supply chains quickly led to confronting scenes of empty supermarket shelves, strengthening people’s suspicion that we could not trust existing systems to keep us fed and well. ‘Next we’ll be queuing for cabbages!’ we feared.

That bread flour in particular was missing from the shelves arguably said more about the pace of flour mills than the availability of wheat. As a highly preservable product, wheat is an exemplary foodstuff in the modern food system, highly amenable to the sort of purification, dehydration and long-term preservation that contemporary food technologies now regularly perform. Spin-offs from NASA’s ‘space food systems’, these technologies are used by corporations around the world not to provision shuttle crews but to process, preserve, package and deliver ingestible substances for non-astronauts. This includes the increasing use of controlled-environment technologies such as Airocide to purify air and stabilise temperatures in order to slow deterioration and eliminate pests and pathogens, including viruses. The resultant physical stability of the substances—what Bruno Latour might term ‘immutable mobiles’—immunises them against their surrounds, enables standardisation and deliberate decomposition, and provides a blank surface on which any financial value can be projected. It also implicates a wide range of other actors as food circulates through the global food system in capsules, encased in oil-based plastic as well as containers and hulls, all of which makes its arrival at any destination an achievement of the fossil-fuel and steel industries as much as the food industry. COVID-19 is amplifying this focus on prophylactic security, scaling the enclosures from food parcels to buildings, cities and nations.

The immutability of foodstuffs such as flour contrasts with the highly mutable and ‘recalcitrant’ character of wheat and the myriad other living things we grow to consume. Plant growth is a delicate undertaking. How seeds or seedlings react to the particular patterning of temperature, UV, atmospheric chemistry, rain, soil qualities and organisms in their immediate environment is difficult to completely control. They quite literally have a life of their own. Satellite-enabled environmental sensing and automated technologies do their best to create lab-like conditions, but there is always an element of chance. The resultant uncertainty calls for probabilistic thinkingand turns farming into an increasingly digitised form, crafted from flows of information and advice as much as seeds and soil. Farmers spend more and more time in offices glued to screens not dissimilar to those captivating the attention of the many urban actors integral to modern agricultural information ecologies trying to choreograph their production activities to the syncopated rhythms of international currencies, commodity markets, futures markets, energy and water prices, interest rates, brokers’ bets and seasonal forecasts. 

Among the uncertainties they have to deal with are those increasingly generated by the certainty of climate change. Rains no longer arrive on schedule or deliver as expected over winter. They often come in a rush over summer in destructive downpours, feeding weeds and groundwater more than crops, or cruelly catching the latter late in the season, on the cusp of harvest, when they have absorbed every investment and effort but are sitting vulnerable in the paddock, yet to offer a return. Temperatures are shifting and sparking across the calendar, rushing plants to bud and flower too early, throwing them under clear skies into the fridge of sudden winter frost, then thrusting them into the oven of a heatwave, often so quickly and locally that such events do not register in the information flows of urban media. Then there are the pests, whether considered by a farmer to be every organism other than the commodified species or a short list of specific tricksters that need to be carefully negotiated. 

Climate change is warping ecological relations as species respond individually and move across the landscape where they can, creating new problem ecologies and undermining the ‘ecological services’ our farming systems rely on, such as those of pest predation and pollination. In the northwestern Victorian wheat belt, the prevalent pest, the bird-cherry oat aphid, is likely to be negatively affected by climate change, migrating southward and disappearing off the coast of Victoria. Yet this depends in part on how stressed its host crop plants are by new climatic and other pressures. These include the yellow dwarf virus that the aphid carries, which is likely to quickly increase in higher temperatures as plants host the aphid earlier in the season and allow it to spread further.8 At the same time, climate change is beginning to affect the aphids’ predators, including migratory birds, whose numbers will likely fall as rainfall declines, depending on how soil moisture and vegetation respond to less rain.9 On farms, the result may be an increased turn to chemical pesticides, which are also sensitive to temperature, rain and wind and may prove unreliable allies in a changing climate.

As it turns out, pesticides are also sensitive to another virus—COVID-19. Among the pandemic’s innumerable impacts on the world has been the disruption of glyphosate production in China. Glyphosate is the key active ingredient of Roundup—the ‘miracle’ chemical that corporate behemoth Bayer is now being sued for by cancer-afflicted farmers—and its sudden inaccessibility ‘crippled’ farmers in Australia in the early days of the pandemic as they prepared to seize the autumnal climatic window when grain seeds are positioned to take root in their sanitised pockets of soil. Adding to the disruption were similar problems in flows of synthetic fertiliser from China. Among these fertilisers were not only those reliant on phosphate and potassium mines in Russia, Brazil, India and Canada but also those based on atmospheric nitrogen—an emissions-intensive chemical transformation devised by the father of chemical warfare, Fritz Haber. What the Germans call ‘brot aus luft’—making ‘bread from air’—the invention of nitrogenous fertiliser is a ‘miracle’ long hailed as proof of humans’ ability to overcome nature’s limits with technology.10 By disrupting the apparent ability to make bread from air—that is, by disrupting the long chains of intensive physical processes underpinning wheat production—COVID-19 exposed the global industrial complex into which Australian agriculture not only feeds commodified goods but also feeds off, in an attempt to control the lively mutability of production. 

Pushing against centrifugal forces

But this is not simply a story of COVID disruption. These are some of the ways in which agricultural production is embroiled in techno-capitalism’s globalised processes, processes that in turn connect rural communities to those of us stuck in the metropole. With the burgeoning of industrial-scale agriculture, many rural areas have become sites of extraction—‘sacrifice zones’, in the words of anthropologist Marc Edelman—where profit-making growth is the main game and wealth is generated and exported elsewhere in a model originating from early colonial days. Today Canadian superannuation funds are the single largest investor in Australian agriculture, though they still do not rival the United Kingdom, China or the United States in terms of foreign ownership of Australian farmland and water.

Technologised, neoliberal transformations in agriculture don’t just result in the mass exportation of food and economic wealth; they also lead to significant reductions in the number of people employed in agricultural work. While the populations of larger rural towns continue to grow steadily, the shifting nature of employment in these areas is telling: for example, in Mildura—regional centre of one of Victoria’s prime food bowls—between 2001 and 2016 there was a 50-per-cent reduction in the number of people directly employed in agricultural work and a simultaneous 84-per-cent increase in the number employed in ‘human services’. In a recent public talk,11 Mildura businessman and community leader Ross Lake painted a devastating picture of the disassociation, distress and fragmentation associated with the intergenerational stripping away of local controls over water, land and productive labour. While people live in rural places, they are increasingly likely to work in ways that result in their being as disconnected from the land and from each other as those who reside in metropolitan cities. 

Paradoxically, it is this same technologically enabled disconnection that fuels the latest COVID-driven imaginary of a mass exodus from the capital-city ‘bunker’ for a better ‘work–life balance’ in regional Australia. Work-from-home employees are now ‘liberated’ from the need to attend physical workplaces and thus look to ‘capitalise’ on cheaper real estate as well as an imagined simpler life in the country, a life free of the deadening weekday hours of commuter gridlock. What they may encounter in their rural retreat, however, are not just the wonders of internet connection. At least for those escaping Melbourne, there may be a familiar sense of being encased in white noise, not simply because of their underdeveloped local relationships but because Australia’s news and policy are so city-centric, leaving many outside the enclosures of capital cities feeling as left out as those in lockdown Melbourne. Also familiar will be the food on offer, given that an increasing proportion is supplied by the long arms of Coles and Woolworths. Known for ingesting its competition, Woolworths is now trying to purchase rural food supplier PFD, which would not only homogenise consumer choices but cut off a market for the small rural producers PFD currently supports, producers that try to resist the prevailing treatment of food as a mere widget of the capitalist economy. 

Such distanced, distinctively cultured ways of relating to rural places have a long tail. In 1946, Australian children’s author, farmer and environmentalist Elyne Mitchell made a rousing and impassioned plea for a national reimagination. In her book Soil and Civilization,12 Mitchell presciently tracks the disconnection of people from the earth via the growth of urban populations, industrialised agriculture, standardised education, the expansion of technologised communications and governance, and growing dependence on foreign trade for food. At the heart of her argument is the idea that soil fertility and health is foundational and symbiotically connected to the creativity and health of a people—a binding spiritual connection that Australia destroyed at colonisation. In its place we have built an industrial society hell-bent on exploiting the land, giving rise to erosion, desertification, dust bowls and people who are alienated and emptied out. 

Mitchell’s critique draws attention to the contingencies of energy flows—environmental, biological, electrical and spiritual—that should be symbiotically fused; a set of interlinked creative forces that we have fragmented and enabled to drain away. These ideas find passionate and practical force in the work of a new generation of farmers, activists and environmental writers, including American Wendell Berry, who writes of the need for human communities to exert ‘a kind of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place’. Berry’s appeal to ‘the work of local culture’ is a plea to refuse the impoverished and toxic returns that flow to the country as a result of power being located in commercial centres, ‘which have drawn irresistibly into themselves both the products of the countryside and the people and talents of the country communities’. Berry echoes Mitchell’s warning that this is no simple opposition of city and country but rather an interpenetration of processes and orientations such that ‘country people more and more live like city people, and so connive in their own ruin’. 13 

Local cultures

Whether we approach these dilemmas through the ecological prism of soil or the social-philosophical idea of the common good, as Jane Goodall does in The Politics of the Common Good: Dispossession in Australia, the message is the same: without the cultivation of attention to and care for the specific conditions of the places in which we live and work we are destined to live a rootless life, regardless of where we live. Rootlessness in this sense is not a matter of mobility so much as attitude, understanding, commitment. It is an attitude that infuses too many of the policies that shape rural places, penned as they are by city-based or at least urbanised authors reliant on but intellectually disconnected from the realities of rural life.

To begin to explore what the ‘work of local culture’ might look like in any place in the present is not to overlook existing local cultures—especially Indigenous cultures, which have been battered by these processes the longest—nor is it to altogether dismiss globalisation. It is to spark a debate about the first principles and values we have lost sight of, or sold off, and that need to be brought back to the centre of shared concern. Australian society has been described as suffering selective amnesia as well as ‘settler innocence’.14 The former applies to those countless instances of governments wilfully bulldozing or selling off places of community value and heritage for the sake of corporate interest, in a bewildering kind of second-wave, self-colonising violence. 

To disentangle, make sense of and push back against these hollowing-out processes is also to ask what kinds of relationships need to be prioritised to foster flourishing regions. A first lead might be taken from those Aboriginal activists, fire ecologists and custodians of country working against the forces of prolonged drought, the confounding and sometimes competing layers of commercial governance of water and land, and the myriad effects of accelerating climate change. These activists have been moved to decentre the politics of Aboriginal land ownership in favour of a more urgent need to cultivate a new, collectively shared love and responsibility for country. In so doing, they do not diminish the specific forms of Indigenous association and relatedness; rather, they call for shared rejection of capital-organised attitudes to land, water, places, species, environments.15  

Berry identifies loss of memory as a crucial element of the erosion of local culture. ‘When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know each other. How can they know each other if they have forgotten or have never learned each other’s stories?’16 In settler-colonial nations like Australia, memory and storytelling are highly contested ground, integrally connected with the workings of power and legitimacy. The prospect of an enriched coexistence turns upon the possibility of a differently figured exchange of stories, memories and traditions. On this we must look first to Aboriginal communities, but also to the post–Second World War generations of migrants who brought with them distinctive traditions of working and honouring the land, drawing upon them as anchors and inspiration as they made new homes, families, businesses and communities, in cities and rural towns. 

For decades rural producers have relied on itinerant backpackers and fly-in, fly-out Pacific workers for seasonal work, including the harvesting and packing of fruit and vegetables. Pacific labourers bring with them specialist skills that Australian farmers value, including bodily familiarity, confidence and pleasure in working with the produce of the earth derived from their own customary practices of land cultivation. For these labourers, among our closest regional neighbours, seasonal stints in Australia offer rare opportunities to accumulate savings that, once remitted home, can be life transforming. But the closure of state and international borders has triggered a shortfall of as many as 26,000 workers needed to harvest Australian crops in coming months if the produce is not to be left to rot. Industry lobbyists are calling for exceptional travel permits to enable the continuing movement of Pacific labour migrants between their home countries and Australia. Domestically, the Morrison government is promising relocation payments to welfare recipients willing to move to areas where seasonal labour is needed. 

If earlier attempts to lure unemployed city residents to the bush have failed, why should this campaign be any different? Young city folk don’t readily see country-based work as an option. Nor do many young rural folk, who frequently grow up with the implicit message that personal ‘success’ involves getting an education and job in the city.17 Their consequent out migration strengthens the gravitational pull of the city on society and weighs against anyone without even family ties heading off to the country for work. 

Farmers too express anxieties about the government’s proposed quick-fix labour programs and make clear that they won’t tolerate workers who don’t approach their crops with care. At the same time, poorly regulated work conditions can be onerous and exploitative. The hotter temperatures emerging out of the intersection of industrial capitalism with the atmosphere are making physical work in the agricultural sector especially difficult and demanding. In October a North Queensland farmer was fined following the death of a Belgian backpacker who collapsed as a result of heat stress while picking pumpkins. The agricultural industry has long been characterised by a largely dismissive attitude towards occupational health and safety, and bodily vulnerability to heat is often pooh-poohed as a sign of ‘non-Australian’ weakness, even as most of us increasingly exist in air-conditioned enclaves.18 

Temporarily moving large numbers of labourers into Australia’s agricultural production zones during a pandemic is a complex exercise, and only one more factor that leaves open the question of how to approach the deeper webs of dependencies and denials that characterise urban–rural relationships and the broader global patterns  the pandemic has helped to reveal. Mitchell again: 

Can we see a living relationship between the city worker and the mountains from which comes the water for living bodies and for electric power? There must be such breadth of vision, the understanding of fusion between all living things, and between life and the inanimate environment, if we wish to save this world-wide civilization by halting the forces of disintegration and re-creating it as a living unity.19 

As partly documented by Charles Massy in Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, a New Earth,20 thousands of small farmers and producers are already disentangling themselves from the disempowering relations that have captured agriculture and re-instating modes of production more re-productive and more re-generative of life, land and habitable futures for all of us. Neyrat advocates for such an ‘ecology of separation’, an approach that seeks to forge relationships that deny ‘Earth denial’ in order to ‘announce or propose another vision of the world…another configuration of existence’—one that reconnects to place and people.21 

Rebuilding regional life by prioritising its location, local cultures and crucial importance to urban existence would compel us to look with fresh eyes at the relationships that shape and constrain agricultural production, relationships between the residents of cities and the bush, relationships between white and black Australians and our Pacific neighbours. A post-COVID, post-neoliberal ordering of these relationships needs a new shared imagination to take us somewhere very different from where we find ourselves today, staring at digital wheat futures and unwrapping space-food in lockdown Melbourne.

Notes

1. Frédéric Neyrat, The Unconstructable Earth: An Ecology of Separation, translated by Drew Burk, New York: Fordham University Press, 2019, p. 19.

2. Neyrat, p. 5.

3. Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966, p. 3.

4. Jennifer Clapp, ‘Financialization, Distance and Global Food Politics’, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 41(5), 2014, p. 798.

5. Jane Dixon, ‘Supermarkets as New Food Authorities’, in David Burch and Geoffrey Lawrence (eds), Supermarkets and Agri-food Supply Chains: Transformations in the Production and Consumption of Foods, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2007, pp. 29–50.

6. Marc Edelman, ‘Hollowed Out Heartland, USA: How Capital Sacrificed Communities and Paved the Way for Authoritarian Populism’, Journal of Rural Studies, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2019.10.045.

7. Lesley Head, Jennifer Atchison and Alison Gates, Ingrained: A Human Bio-geography of Wheat, London: Ashgate Publishing, 2012, p. 131.

8. Sarina Macfayden, Garrick McDonald and Matthew Hill, ‘From Species Distributions to Climate Change Adaptation: Knowledge Gaps in Managing Invertebrate Pests in Broad-acre Grain Crops’, Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 253, 2018, pp 208–19; Hazel Parry, Sarina Macfadyen and Darren Kriticos, ‘The Geographical Distribution of Yellow Dwarf Viruses and Their Aphid Vectors in Australian Grasslands and Wheat’, Australasian Plant Pathology, 41, 2012, pp 375–87; Narelle Nancarrow, Fiona Constable, Kyla Finlay, Angela Freeman, Brendan Rodoni, Piotr Trebicki, Simone Vassiliadis, Alan Yen and Jo Luck, ‘The Effect of Elevated Temperature on Barley Yellow Dwarf Virus-PAV in Wheat’, Virus Research 186, 2014, pp 97–103; Piotr Trebicki, Narelle Nancarrow, Ellen Cole, Nilsa Bosque-Pérez, Fiona Constable, Angela Freeman, Brendan Rodoni, Alan Yen, Jo Luck and Glenn Fitzgerald, ‘Virus Disease in Wheat Predicted to Increase with a Changing Climate’, Global Change Biology, 21, 2015, pp 3511–19.

9. Ary Hoffmann, Andrew Weeks, Michael Nash, G. Peter Mangano and Paul Umina, ‘The Changing Status of Invertebrate Pests and the Future of Pest Management in the Australian Grains Industry’, Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture, 48, 2008, pp 1481–93.

10. Matt Huber, ‘Reinvigorating Class in Political Ecology: Nitrogen Capital and the Means of Degradation’, Geoforum 85, 2017, pp 345–52; https://www.bbc.com/news/business-38305504.

11. Ross Lake, ‘Food, Water, and Community’, public presentation at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies, December 2019; recording available at: https://ipcs.org.au/recording/food-water-and-community/

12. Elyne Mitchell, Soil and Civilization, Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1946.

13. Wendell Berry, ‘The Work of Local Culture’, available at: https://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/wendell-berry-the-wor...

14. John Hinkson, ‘The ‘Innocence’ of the Settler Imagination’, in Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson (eds), Coercive Reconciliation: Stabilise, Normalise, Exit Aboriginal Australia, Melbourne: Arena Publications, pp 287–94.

15. Yin Paradies, ‘Unsettling Truths: Modernity, (de-)coloniality and Indigenous Futures’, Postcolonial Studies, 23(4), available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13688790.2020.1809069

16. Berry.

17. David Farrugia, ‘The Mobility Imperative for Rural Youth: The Structural, Symbolic and Non-Representational Dimensions Rural Youth Mobilities’, Journal of Youth Studies, 19, 2016, pp. 836–51.

18. Lauren Rickards and Elspeth Oppermann, ‘Battling the Tropics to Settle a Nation: Negotiating Multiple Energies, Frontiers and Feedback Loops in Australia’, Energy Research & Social Science 41, 2018, pp 97–108.

19. Mitchell, p. 46.

20. Charles Massy, Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2017.

21. Neyrat, p. 183.