Cultivating a Coalition of Sustainable Farmers

by Kate Johnson

Published: 6/21/16, Last updated: 5/24/19

A Growing Culture (AGC) seeks to create a global coalition connecting farmers with the resources they need to contribute to an ecologically sound food system. By empowering local farmers to develop site-specific adaptations of sustainable agriculture principles that serve them, their soil, and their community, AGC will help cultivate a prosperous future by connecting a global community of growers and creating a culture where these growers can thrive. Here, Founder and Executive Director Loren Cardeli talks about the various challenges that farmers face, sustainable farming and the importance of coalition building.

What first sparked your interest in sustainable agriculture?

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, I must admit I was not introduced to agriculture at an early age. However, it didn’t take long to realize that the suburban lifestyle was not for me. In my early days, I was much of an outsider, constantly trying to fit into a world that didn’t provoke my passion or creativity. My large and dynamic family all effortlessly fit in wherever they were, something that seemed harder and harder for me as I grew older. Finally, with the help of my sister, I found a school in Vermont called The Putney School. Incorporating farming into the curriculum, Putney opened my eyes, enabling me to realize that there was more to agriculture than what I had previously been taught. I remember grey and lonely mornings heading to the barn to milk cows before school started. I would climb out of bed at 5:00 a.m. and plow through the deep, fluffy snow as the sun struggled to break through the clouds, and finally feel a hint of warmth as I shouldered my way between those amazing Brown Swiss cows. It was there – at the hilly, progressive Putney campus filled with the oddballs and environmentalists who also rejected their mostly suburban upbringings – that my interest in sustainable agriculture took root.

It was a fast love affair, fueled by brown Carrharts and plaid shirts. At Putney, you wore the farm as a badge of honor. Who cared about GPA or valedictorians when you tended the cows or cultivated the fields? This obsession grew as your hands callused and those brand-new pants wore in quickly. When the time came to apply to college the only school I considered was Warren Wilson College, another farm school. However, the classroom bored me and the desire to break away and adventure led me to defer college for a year, trading in the dorm rooms and libraries for a one-way ticket to Belize. Long story short, after meeting this smooth-talking, charismatic Belizean in a bar, I headed off into the jungle to experience what he called ‘Bush 101.’ It was there where he, the “elder,” and I lived completely off the grid for months, able to fully disconnect with few repercussions (with the exception of driving my mother crazy). I drank from the same stream in which I washed my clothes and bathed, often competing with the resident alligator.

And it was here, in the bush of Belize, that I experienced one of the most life changing events of my life thus far. One day I headed to a neighboring farm – which was close to an hour and a half away by foot – looking to purchase some chickens for dinner. As I was negotiating with a villager, I heard screaming. Running over to see what the commotion was about, I saw a man, a young father around 29 or 30 years old. That man was weeping, holding his son’s limp body in his arms. I remember this vividly: it was the first instance during my time in the bush that I felt alone and isolated. I had learned the son died from drinking pesticides out of an unmarked bottle. I wanted to shout, scream at the top of my lungs, but – being an outsider – it felt like there was no one to share my emotions with. The more I thought about this tragedy, the more I realized that the market, with its often hidden tolls, had forced this community to adopt an agricultural model completely foreign to their environment, culture and history. Industrial agriculture, a model dependent on foreign seeds, petrochemicals and export crops, had effectively changed this community. No longer was traditional and local knowledge being built upon, expanded and protected. It was at this moment when I decided to work to promote a sustainable agricultural model, one shaped by the very people working the land, one where the wealth of knowledge of farmers from Indigenous and local communities is celebrated.

In your experience, what are some of the challenges that farmers face in terms of adopting ecologically sound farming practices?

I think the biggest challenge is that society has turned its back on farmers. Don’t get me wrong, today you have farmers – young and old alike – being celebrated at local farmers’ markets. But what we have is a system, once led by the very farmers it was dependent on, now helmed by corporations, with their biased research and their entrenched academic institutions. These corporations have led a charge against farmers. And, unknowingly and unintentionally, simply by the nature of the disconnect between people and the farmers who grow their food, society has joined the ranks. Whether in India, where a majority of the people are farmers, or in the United States where farmers aren’t even listed on the census, culturally, many consider farmers as unintelligent, unfortunate and stuck. This is the biggest tragedy. The ones we all depend on for our most basic survival need, the pillars of rural economies, the stewards of land, these very individuals are marginalized. A farmer once told me, “Farming isn’t rocket science, but a rocket scientist couldn’t do it.” I love that quotation, because, for me, it sums up the brilliance of farmers. It’s a special and unique skill set, a Jack or Jill of all trades, one that requires the combination of art and hard work, intellect and sweat. Farmers are toilers in the fields and pursuers of erudition.

Even today in the sustainable agriculture movement we have celebrity chefs, journalists and scientists ringing the bells, while farmers are left out. You have The New York Times conference on how to feed the world, yet farmers — the very people who feed us — are absent from the discussion. Imagine the kind of consequences this results in! We must respect farmers. All over the world farmers are innovating in unbelievable ways. They are solving the greatest challenge of our time, and that is how to feed a growing population on a finite planet. Moreover, they are doing this with innovations that are culturally appropriate, inclusive of gender and good for the environment. We must support and recognize farmers as innovators, guardians, educators and leaders. Imagine the potential of the world’s farmers if we simply and modestly stood at their side and supported them in transforming the face of agriculture.

Can you tell me more about the three pillars of your mission — information exchange, outreach and advocacy — and how these pillars work in synergy to connect small farmers with the resources they need?

I am in no way declaring that AGC has it figured out, or defining a panacea approach to solving the food crisis. But for us and the mission we are focusing on, these three pillars offer a holistic approach to supporting farmers to change the broken food system.

The first pillar, information exchange, focuses on the digital platform we are currently building entitled the Library for Food Sovereignty (LFS). The idea for this platform is to document, collect, protect and disseminate farmers’ knowledge from around the world. Imagine the endless potential of a global platform that connects farmers and farmer groups around the world, highlighting and showcasing farmer knowledge and research. This is a place for farmers to share their ideas, their innovations, the problems they face and their solutions. It’s a platform to connect those who otherwise would be separated by geographic, cultural, and language barriers. By connecting these farmers, the Library becomes a place for collective knowledge, a place for farmers to learn from and build upon the innovations of others. The Library is also a place for the rest of the world to admire and recognize the expansive wealth of knowledge that agrarians hold. We believe that knowledge is best spread from farmer to farmer, and this pillar is designed to do just that.

Next is outreach. For AGC, outreach means on-the-ground support for farmers and farmer groups. This often takes the form of sponsoring and assisting their research and ideas. It also involves supporting innovation fairs, farmer trainings, farmer research and, of course, documentation of the lessons learned. The best ideas for the future of agriculture are coming from farmers and their communities. As we work to fix our broken food system, it is essential that we all declare our trust and faith in the ones actually growing our food. Developing intimate connections with farmers and providing them the support they ask for and need is the best way AGC can show solidarity with and belief in the world’s farmers.

The need for the advocacy pillar stems from the great chicken or egg debate. What comes first, farmers innovating, or societies supporting farmers as innovators? At AGC, this pillar is designed to reach the non-agrarians. We are producing videos, social media campaigns, brochures, a new interactive website and more, all geared to challenging the way we view the world’s farmers. Because changing our food system starts with changing the way the world views farmers. We want to gather support for a cause deeper than organic or local food, one that trusts and supports farmer knowledge. One that recognizes farming as a civil service and farmers as the very scientists and innovators we depend on.

You embarked on quite the global journey to learn more about the role of agrarians across cultures. What were your biggest takeaways, and how have you incorporated your experiences into your work at A Growing Culture?

There is a great book called Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H. King. For anyone who hasn’t read it, I encourage you to. It tells the tale of an epic journey, one that inspired my own quest for indigenous and local techniques of agroecology around the world. King tried to ring the warning bells at the turn of the 20th century that agriculture was going the wrong way, that, instead of the damaging industrial models we were setting up, we had to look to the methods that had produced food for centuries without degrading the land. I took King’s message to heart and have since traveled to over 30 countries, visiting countless farmers and farms along the way.

“We want to gather support for a cause deeper than organic or local food, one that trusts and supports farmer knowledge. One that recognizes farming as a civil service and farmers as the very scientists and innovators we depend on.”

The biggest takeaway has to be that farmers are the most brilliant people in the world. From the mountains of Nepal, to the jungles of Belize, to the deserts of Egypt, I have seen farmers innovating in unbelievable ways, techniques that could transform the agricultural industry. A few examples: The Bedouins in Egypt taste desert rocks in order to determine the mineral content, from which they can determine the best rocks to use as fertilizer for different trees. An Indian couple created soil on an abandoned pebble mine in less than one growing season and have since been growing the most amazing set of vegetables and root crops without ever using any inputs. Buddhist monks have created agricultural models based on their observation of the intricate relationships between plants and animals. A Vietnamese pig farmer inoculates his bedding with microorganisms, creating a living bed that not only absorbs pig waste but breaks it down as well. African herders in the Rift Valley can predict weather patterns using knowledge and techniques that have been passed down for generations. The list goes on. These are the knowledge systems that we have to dig into and work with. This knowledge has been built by communities with their spiritual and intimate connection to the land. This is the true face of agriculture, one of a healthy community fostering a regenerative ecological landscape.

How might fostering a global coalition of ecological farmers influence and inspire the sustainable food system at large?

This is the time when I critique every science teacher who ever taught the story of Isaac Newton sitting under a tree, with an apple hitting his head, and then poof … he discovered gravity. What a tragedy to suggest to our youth that great ideas come from independent thoughts in isolated minds. Innovation and knowledge are collective. Newton was inspired by thousands of people dead and living, and it’s a shame we remember him by this misleading story. Instead, we should remember Newton by his quote, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” This is how knowledge works: the ideas of one spark new ideas within others. This collective innovation process has to be brought to the field of agriculture, to the very ones already innovating every day without any recognition:  peasants, farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists and all others around the world growing food.

Agrarians are the largest working force in the world. Whether we want to use the metaphor of the fingers turning to a fist, or the cords turning into a rope, as with everything, there is strength in numbers. If the world’s farmers could band together, they would be capable of igniting a paradigm shift, combatting the most critical issues of our time. Poverty, gender equality and climate change can all be addressed through ecological agriculture. I believe in farmers more than anything else, that together farmers can lead a movement to change our agricultural system.

Look at the great work of organizations like La Via Campesina (LVC), an organization whose membership is something like 300 million worldwide. Those are peasants and farmers. LVC has been a voice for the voiceless, for the marginalized communities, and has supported them in rallying against oppressive policy and trade. Now imagine that same population working together — and joining forces with even more individuals and communities — to create a true climate resilient agriculture, one that is constantly adapting and evolving. These models are created by the very social and communal structures which work together. These models are the opposite of Big Ag’s one-size-fits-all approach. We have a choice ahead: when it comes to growing our food, who do you trust? The billions of farmers around the world, tied to the very production and community it depends on, or the handful of transnational corporations looking for ways to increase profits and control of the very source of life we all depend on?

What are some ways in which you envision A Growing Culture’s work expanding and evolving?

I see more and more farmers and farmer groups actively sharing their innovations. I see a digital library that has over a hundred farmer-designed models of composting, gathered from Canada to Cambodia, and that’s just one of a host of methods and tools and ideas farmers are sharing with each other. I see a knowledge base that supports bottom-up trends of development and rejects the top-down mentality as a derivative of the industrial agricultural complex. I see us maturing to campaign for farmer involvement in agricultural policy and decision-making. I see an organization raising funds to support farmer-led initiatives and research, a company that humbly says I stand with you. I stand with farmers.

Stay up to date with the latest from AGC!

Facebook: A Growing Culture
Twitter: @agcconnect
Instagram: @agrowingculture

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