New Readings and Old Lessons

The Editor Notes

Fifty years ago this April, after speaking out powerfully against racism, militarism, and extreme materialism, Martin Luther King was killed—yet his message still resounds.

Everyone Welcome? Personal Narratives about Race and Food Co-ops, by Jade Barker and Patricia Cumbie (previewed here in CG192), is now available in the CDS Consulting Co-op library: “We believe that now is a critical time to engage our cooperative community in important conversations about racism and oppression. Everyone Welcome? presents a variety of perspectives on what can be done to make food co-ops more racially inclusive. Fifteen cooperators from a variety of backgrounds—class, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation—talk about their introduction to co-ops and respond to two questions: How did food co-ops become so white, and what can be done to make food co-ops more racially inclusive?

“We think storytelling is an excellent medium for exploring these themes, and we invite you to use these narratives as a springboard for your own discussions about racial issues affecting your co-op and your community.” Everyone Welcome? is a free download at library.cdsconsulting.coop. 

Storytelling, of course, can both inspire and mislead. Widely shared stories about new farmers, for example, may cloud recognition of deeper trends, in which cheap commodities, soaring land prices, and policies supporting larger farmers have divided the rural population and concentrated land ownership. A March 20 article from The New Food Economy, by Nathan Rosenberg and Clay H. East, provides critical commentary on USDA (2012) data: “Sorry, Pretty Much Everyone: Young farmers are the least diverse—and smallest—group of farmers in the country” (newfoodeconomy.org).  

Others say there are more new farmer stories to share. The Rosenberg and East article provides a link to a vigorous dissent from Linley Dixon, a small farmer and a scientist on staff for the Cornucopia Institute (where Dixon’s March 26 online comment also appears). Dixon agrees that current policies favor large farms mostly owned by older white men, but she argues that the 2012 data misses more recent growth of young, minority, and female farmers.   

For more on farm trends, see the excellent summary of the 2017 USDA Farm Census, with much detail on ownership and size, from the USDA Economic Research Service: “Examining Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture,” by James M. MacDonald and Robert A. Hoppe, in the March online newsletter, Amber Waves: www.ers.usda.gov/amber-waves (also published online at In These Times on March 20.).

Urban farming, while small in scale, is spreading and has many benefits. But when its stories are told, questions of financial viability are often glossed over. Growing Power (Milwaukee), a prominent example of these ventures, closed abruptly last fall—bankrupt and the subject of lawsuits with claims against it totaling half a million dollars. The online good food network learned more about this distressing story in “Behind the Rise and Fall of Growing Power,” by Stephen Satterfield, which appeared on March 13 at civileats.com. 

Over its 25 years, Growing Power generated a great deal of positive education and organic production at its gardens, aquaponic hoop houses, and farmland, and it served to inspire other such ventures. However, despite substantial ongoing grant support, in its latter period the Growing Power operation was losing up to $2 million per year. 

In the aftermath, local food activists in Milwaukee are continuing some Growing Power work. But its former organic production, jobs, funding, good will, and collaborative education have now largely ended. The project appears to have suffered from: 

• founder’s syndrome—failure to effectively  share leadership;

• overshoot—lack of financial and strategic controls;

• weak board oversight—lack of due diligence in business governance.

Looking forward, food producers of all kinds face extreme weather and chaotic climate. In the face of grossly irresponsible behavior from corrupted national officeholders, states and municipalities are increasingly the vanguard of climate change action. Farming in particular is threatened, and a new publication from Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy summarizes by state the various climate adaptation measures and proposals related to agriculture. Find “From the Ground Up” at www.iatp.org to learn what is being done or what could be done in your state to prepare for climate change impacts. •

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