Great change for the good often comes slowly. It creeps up through the cracks in a broken system, and begins to take the place of its previous forms. Slowly, public opinion, public actions, and individual sentiments begin to be formed in a new way. This is exactly what is happening in America today.
The Local Organic Food Movement, which advocates local, clean, non-adulterated, sustainable food, is making inroads into society. Small to medium-sized farms are producing good quality, intensely tasteful, sustainable, organic, clean food for local populations of people. Herein we see community being formed around food, which is one of the only things that all people share in common. We all eat. The Local Organic Food Movement is one of the clearest and most successful examples of Distributism in the last century. There are thousands of farms committed to staying reasonably-sized, assisting others into the system of farming, and feeding people locally. I believe if Chesterton were alive today, he would be ecstatic with such developments, and the awakening of the populace to the reality that most of the food in the supermarkets, or big box stores as he called them, is simply not fit for consumption as food. Through the Local Organic Food Movement we are seeing a shift in agricultural and economic farming practices, which are nearly identical to the principles expounded in Catholic Social Teaching and by the Distributist writers.
What began as a fight against the corporate establishment by the hippies and back to the landers of the 60’s has slowly evolved into an integrated movement that for the most part has abandoned the less savory aspects of the hippy revolt, and yet have kept the ideal of using nature as a guide in farming. Now many of the voices promoting a return to a sane agriculture also speak with a conviction they receive from the Christian tradition of stewardship of Creation. Yet, even those who do not share the Christian faith have allied with those that do to bring forth an agricultural alternative to the corporate chemical agriculture that has dominated since the World War II era. Voices such as Joel Salatin, Eliot Coleman, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Will Allen have taken the local organic food movement to the common people, and they have exposed the lies of the chemical establishment. Films such as Food, Inc., Fresh, King Corn, Genetic Roulette, and The Future of Food have awoken many to the fact that much of what is available in the seemingly unprecedented selection of the supermarket are really just reconfigurations of corn and soy, or things that were fed using corn and soy. This food typically won’t rot, and thus, while one can eat it, one really shouldn’t. What we are seeing is an awakening of food consciousness in the general populace that wasn’t there a decade ago. This awakening is making the voice of small, local-based farmers heard, and their voice is getting louder.
We no longer live in the early Twentieth century. In the time of Chesterton, the world’s population had just reached two billion. In only eighty years we have more than tripled that mark, while at the same time the number of farmers has steadily decreased. This now goes with another unprecedented change. The number of acres being farmed in the world recently began to decrease. So now we have fewer farmers and fewer acres being farmed. With less acreage to farm, we need to farm as efficiently and productively as possible, and research is now showing that sustainable farming on a small to medium scale is the most productive, especially in adverse weather conditions, such as drought. In our current system of what has been dubbed “Agribusiness” with ever-growing fields of corn and soybeans and little else, instead of having food that is an authentic manifestation of culture, we have nearly inedible, highly processed food that is making people sicker each and every day. New statistics come out daily of the increased rates in more than a dozen degenerative diseases that are increasingly being linked to food and its adulteration through massive processing, improper growing, genetic modification, unceasing pesticide use, and the list goes on and on. In addition, studies have found that genetically modified foods typically do not stand up as well to adverse weather conditions as naturally bred, non-GMO crops do.
The Distributist agricultural moment is at hand if only we would become more aware of it. The agricultural monoliths of Agribusiness like Monsanto and Cargill will not be dethroned through litigation; they will be dethroned through social consciousness and decision making about food.
The Local Organic Food Movement is making inroads. Farmer’s Markets, CSA’s, and restaurants serving locally sourced food are beginning to pop up throughout the United States. We need to do our part to support these small establishments.
Why Food? Food is the motor for life. Without food we very quickly waste away, and without good food our health and quality of life deteriorate. Food is also a uniting factor between different people. Many faiths are united by food. Whether it is the Eucharist for Catholics, the Passover and dietary laws for Jews, or dietary laws for Muslims, we find food as a central factor in faith. Food is also something that all people on earth have in common. Everyone must eat, and therefore everyone has an interest in food. Not everyone is interested in cars, sports, or the latest movie, but everyone is interested in having food on their plate come dinner time.
Food, and therefore farming, makes the ideal platform for the distributist economic model. It was, I believe, for this reason that the original Distributists manifested their economic prerogatives through what would become known as the Catholic Land Movement. Returning people to the land would provide a basis for small holdings, small economics, and sanity in all aspects of life. These families and individuals could begin by providing for themselves, and then sell the excess. It is my belief, though, that in our own times we must tweak this policy somewhat. While I believe that the family on the land should provide first for themselves, it has also become necessary to answer that all-consuming question of our times: how shall we feed the world? Ought we to leave this to the giant monoculture, land destroying, oil consuming farms, or ought we to jump in, get our hands dirty, and feed as many people as we can from the land we’re given? It is not enough for us to merely feed our own family as farmers, but we must also do what we can to provide food to those who have none.
Why local? Local food just makes sense. Joel Salatin, owner and operator of Polyface Farm of much recent fame, has stated that local must be the first step in the real food movement. Local comes before organic, before sustainable, before no-till or low till. It comes before everything else, because local brings accountability. Local food builds community and gives food a face. When a consumer gets to shake the farmer’s hand after every transaction there is a relationship of trust being built there, and the consumer wants to trust the farmer. This relationship will lead to questions about how the food was raised, and so this accountability will lead to a sustainable, healthy way of growing food. The very nature of local food demands it. This local element echoes the principle of subsidiarity where the smallest possible entity does a certain thing. If ten small to medium-sized farms can do the job better (meaning in a healthier and authentically productive manner) then these farms should do the job rather than one giant farm, which merely looks efficient. Subsidiarity (not to be confused with “subsidies”) helps us to keep food local, sustainable, and healthy. Farmers who know their land, crops, and animals intimately can take better care of them than science can with millions of tons of antibiotics, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals. The Distributist ideal of the small farm allows us to see the productiveness of farming in terms of personal and environmental health rather than merely in bushels and dollar signs.
Why organic? Many farmers who have promoted the organic movement have become a bit disenchanted as many organic businesses and farms have sold out to the global conglomerates. Many gave up their integrity for the dollar signs they originally set out to fight against. With the introduction of the USDA Certified Organic program came a backlash against the program that from the beginning had to deal with those who sought to water down organic standards. Thus many farmers have shied from the program in favor of their own integrity being the certification for the food they grow. This is why local comes first. The personal relationship between consumer and farmer acts as a guarantee that the food they are eating was really raised in a healthy manner. As mentioned above, real food is not cheap. The cheap pre-processed foods in the store only seem cheap, but as you take into account the massive toll on the health of both individuals and the environment, it no longer seems so cheap. Your local farmer isn’t likely receiving any government subsidies. His food costs in dollars the true cost of food, but the effect on your body and the environment will be one that is beneficial rather than detrimental. One of our great duties as stewards of creation is to farm in a way that respects nature’s patterns. These are patterns God built right into creation, and ones that we can disobey only with great harm to ourselves and the land.
The Local Organic Food Movement could be a very powerful vehicle for promoting the ideas and ideals of Distributism. The tide is turning in favor of local, healthy produced food, and people are staring in the face of a very anemic economy. The roots of America are in the soil, and the original vision of America’s founding fathers was highly agrarian. With the right support, a few Catholic small to medium-sized farmers could make a dramatic difference in this overall movement. There are many good men and women who are farming in ways that respect God’s designs and follow nature’s patterns. For young men like me who have jumped into this movement head first and struggle to keep afoot, we need all the help we can get. It is especially nice when that hand is a Catholic one who sees and promotes common ideals.
I’ve been farming full time for two years, and I now have a good grasp of what I’m doing, but we need people to support the ideals of returning to the land in whatever way they can. It is my hope and dream to one day have a large training farm from which we can not only feed others, but also train others in farming and grow the Distributist movement organically.