Who’s Your Farmer?
In recent years, you may have noticed bumper stickers asking “Who’s Your Farmer?” Over the last few months, I have been a farmer. Last January, I faced a final push of completing my dissertation that would keep me anchored to my desk and indoors. Longing for summer, the outdoors, and working with my hands, I applied to work at Hutchins Farm, a local organic farm. Besides my romantic notions of spending a summer farming, I pursued work on the farm out of a growing passion to explore the ethics of our food system. I wanted to do more than read Michael Pollan or Marion Nestle. In good feminist fashion, I sought out experiential knowledge of what it might take to produce food ethically and sustainably.
Much of our food system is controlled by industrial agriculture–an enormous industry wielding sizable economic and political power. Technological advances in (petroleum-based) fertilizers, food processing, and food transportation has enabled global exchanges of food as a commodity. Not only does this global system of industrial agricultural transform what we eat on a daily basis, it has also created a great distance between those eating food and those growing the food. The “Who’s Your Farmer?” campaign is part of an effort to promote not only smaller, local farms but also to generate awareness of the connection between food producer and consumer.
As a consumer, my desire to purchase local and/or organic food has been largely rooted in environmental concerns as well as my own health. Making the move from knowing my local farmer to being a local farmer has brought into greater focus the persons who produce food. Working as a farmer, I became very, very dirty. As I repeatedly failed to scrub all remnants of dirt from my chapped hands, I would often think of Anne McClintock’s analysis in Imperial Leather of the Victorian fetish with soap and efforts to hide labor and dirt. Such attempts to hide labor—the impact of working with one’s hands—reinforced intersecting hierarchies of class, gender, and race. As a farmer, not only the dirt but also the labor of those working in the dirt became more visible.
Fortunately, I worked on a certified organic farm without toxic chemicals in the dirt on my hands, in my lungs, or tracked into my home that I share with my partner and child. Yet, many farm workers do routinely face dangerous exposure to pesticides. Erasing all traces of dirt from the sanitized shelves of U.S. grocery stores hides the labor, risks, and damage incurred by farm workers. It is in this sense that asking “Who’s Your Farmer?” becomes an ethical challenge to connect the food on our plates with issues of worker justice. Not only are many farm workers exposed to dangerous chemicals, they are also poorly paid, often exempt from overtime, and frequently not given benefits such as health insurance.
Admittedly, I began my summer on the farm with more than a few romantic notions about farming. While there were certainly days of great pleasure working with soil, plants, and a community of people, there was also dehydrating heat, aching muscles, and irritation with co-workers. So when a (clean) woman at an urban farmer’s market sighed and told me that I had a great life as a farmer, I simply smiled. U.S.-European culture is full of examples that romanticize farm workers and our agrarian roots. While not forgetting the beauty or importance of the natural environment, we must justly account for the labor of those who produce the food in our discussions of eating ethically.
As so many religious traditions incorporate rituals of food into their practices of faith, feminist studies in religion would do well to engage issues of ethically eating and farmworker justice as well. For example, in the book Saving Paradise, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker describe the early Christian Eucharist as a shared feast that began by a ritual prayer of thanksgiving before calling down the presence of God to sanctify the food. In this way, Brock and Parker argue, “The Eucharist enacted a way of perceiving the whole created world that recognized it as filled with the Spirit of God.” (145) My hope is that the presence of God is seen not only in the food or in the natural environment in which food grows, but also within the lives of those who work to produce, process, and serve our food.
On this Labor Day weekend as we feast, I urge us all to remember those who have labored to bring us the food.