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Integrating Research & Lifestyle: Appreciating the Complexity of Farmer Decision-Making & Sustainability through Farm Stays

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By Cory Belden - Posted on 06 January 2014

The uncle of a good friend of mine handed me a large stick at 8:30am on December 21st, as I sat with my cup of coffee and a copy of Kitschelt and Wilkinson’s (2007) Patrons, Policies, and Clientelism: Patterns of Democratic Accountability and Political Competition. “This is for you, to club your rabbits with.” It was a nice stick, heavy, the diameter perfectly suited to my palm; about as long as my fingers to my elbow outstretched, smooth, as if it had been sanded with fine paper. He carried on, describing how a perfect swing could instantly take out an unassuming bunny. My mind wandered – has this farmer, being a vegetarian, ever come close to hitting a rabbit? Doubtful.

The night before, I had made an off-handed comment about my interest in owning rabbits from domestic consumption. My friend, a colleague of mine, and I had been toying with the idea of starting home production and consumption of animal products – possibly chickens and maybe rabbits. Given our time and financial constraints as PhD students in the Political Science Department, cows and goats were probably not our realm of feasibility. I could probably slaughter chickens when their time came, even if I named them (I would), but maybe not cute downy bunnies. “That’s the trouble with being an omnivore,” Uncle Alfred commented. Indeed.

I have always found it problematic to eat meat and yet cringe at the thought of taking an animal’s life. A real conflict of heart and interest exists here – one that I intend to resolve in the next year by killing and consuming an animal, or by not following through and ceasing to eat meat. It is these kinds of considerations where human nature and moral positioning makes a point about our 21st century food systems and sustainability of ecological systems: if we were forced to personally raise and harvest everything we ingested, would we have steak or pork on our dinner plate every night?

I have had the privilege of spending time on three organic, sustainable farms in the last year: two in Italy and one in Massachusetts. I’ve learned a great deal about the sustainability and health benefits of slowness and intimate human engagement in food production. In Tuscany, I hand-labeled and hand-bottled Sangiovese and Chianti from the in-house cellar of ancient-methods winemaker. I picked grape leaves from the vines to let morning sunlight dry unwelcome dew. I learned that wine need not be made with sulfur, a preservative found in most wines – that the chemical distorts the taste of the wine, and that the many people who become red and blotchy after a glass of expensive (or cheap) red are actually experiencing an allergic reaction to sulfites. I was at this farm two to three days before harvest began. We visited the vineyards to test the residual sugar content in the grapes, which is done by means of a hydrometer and the winemaker’s taste buds. Within ten minutes of meandering through the vineyards, I learned that each grape – Merlot, Syrah, Sangiovese, Chianti – all taste distinctly different from one another, and that the grape tastes exactly like a bottle of recently corked, perfectly balanced wine. In that moment I came to understand that the mind-blowing flavor a good wine should come directly from the mind-blowing flavor of a well-grown and well-tendered grape, not from the additives (sulfites, tannins, and stabilizers) so often added to wines nowadays. This distinction is not obvious, nor made clear, to a busy and novice wine drinker selecting a bottle at the grocery store.

At the farm in Lake Como, I learned another set of parallel lessons about careful farming and thoughtful consumption. In Italy, it remains commonplace to source foodstuffs locally. Producers have small operations that extend to neighboring consumers they can rely on. Prices stay reasonable for this reason – slabs of prosciutto, cheese rounds eight inches in diameter and three inches in thickness, a case of organic wine – all for prices only slightly greater than what one would pay in the US for less than a quarter of these quantities, even if the product were local. The female farmer I stayed with ran her own agriturismo business on top of a mountain near Rezaggo (see photo above). She serves lunches and dinners with prix fixe five course menus – polenta, rigatoni, anchovies and peppers, salamis, candied figs, slow roasted beef, native lake fish, cheesecake– all elements sourced locally and organically. Though on top of a mountain, and without elegance, people come from far and wide to experience rustic cooking made with traditional recipe foundations and quality ingredients. After lunch, families are permitted to wander the farm and fields; children play with other families’ children, while adults take naps in lounge chairs on the patio or gaze at the magnificent mountains from the aged family home. After a slow meal sourced from slow ingredients, and a chance to interact with nature and quiet, customers leave satisfied. As an aside, even after a week of rich eating, I never felt bloated or lethargic: the quality of the food and the limited preservatives seem to have made the difference.

On the farm outside of Boston, Alfred waits to begin mowing his 70 acres of hay fields (the primary source of the farm’s income) until the nesting birds have raised their chicks and moved on from the tall grass. The fields are natural – Timothy, Orchard, Clover, and Alfalfa grasses integrated and growing together. The rest of the 400 acres in forested, and untouched, housing porcupines and elusive deer, coyotes and beavers. I was lucky enough to catch the first heavy snow of the season on my last trip out – not only did it leave ample room for shin-deep hikes in powdery snow, long and quiet walks in snowshoes, cross-country skiing across sleepy hay fields, and foggy walks in slush and saturated color, the snow left mountains of evidence we are so rarely exposed to: small tracks of snowy rabbit, squirrel, and chipmunk; the deep “v” track of a porcupine created by the girth of her quills, the wide print of the otter, the sharp claws of the fisher cat, the overlapping and widely variant hoof prints of deer – the tracks were everywhere, but the deer were nowhere to be seen. The forest and snow-covered meadows came alive in the seemingly lifeless winter. At once, I became aware of the many life forms I share the world with, despite my ignorance of their everyday nearness.

Whether I become an active farmer (and whether I choose to club rabbits) is still an open question. What is not an open question is the value of the information derived from experiences in nature and on small farms. Alongside better understanding my position as a human in ecological systems and gaining relaxation that only comes from spending time with The Silence (on The Silence, see Homeland (1969) by Hal Borland), I learn and can make better sense of the challenges that rural and constrained farmers face daily – challenges from policy impacts, consumer choice and ignorance, limited time, and from changes in climate. I can see why the farmer in Como does not advertise her restaurant and thereby increase her volatile income: she’s raising two young boys and caring for her elderly parents, and does not have time to serve additional clientele as a single mother. I hear the winemaker’s frustration with the price of micro-brewed beer (a new fad in Italy): the cost, time, and effort required to grow hops is significantly lower than that required to grow grapes, and the climate impacts on grapes are far more severe than those on hops. I sympathize with Alfred’s depression that stems from the fact that keeping the farm now requires a transition into logging – that the haying operation no longer makes ends meet given tax expenses. Protecting the forest from full development (i.e., selling it to developers) requires moving into forestry operations; woodlots are taxed at only 5 percent of what they would be as unused land, as opposed to a 20 percent tax liability for conservation and recreation and a 25 percent tax liability for agricultural uses like haying. For Alfred and his wife, the 20-25 percent tax rates are increasingly unaffordable. To prevent heavy human intervention requires disturbing the animals and trees he has spent a lifetime monitoring and adoring, and those so clearly present and active in the forests. Notably, current tax policies do not incentivize tree conservation and reward carbon sequestration.

Understanding the intricacies of farmer decision-making and how changes in policy and climate affect them enriches the data-driven research on the politics of distributive goods and rural, agricultural poverty. These intricacies are only exposed through personal experiences and regular interfaces with farmers and nature. I can only hope that 2014 brings more of these fruitful interfaces, for the sake of my sanity, for the sake of my research, and for the sake of improving the sustainability of farms, livelihoods, and food systems.