Home / Economics / Agrarian / Distributism and the Local Organic Food Movement

 

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.

 

About the author: Kevin Ford

 

Kevin Ford is married to his wife Mary, and they have two young daughters. He and his family currently reside on their farm in southern Kansas. Kevin is a full-time organic farmer with a degree in Theology from Benedictine College, and he actively promotes the Catholic Land Movement and the benefits of rural life for Catholic family and culture.

 

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13 Comments

  1. My wife and I are budding farmers who moved to farm country with our children about two years ago. We’re beginning with the things that are easiest, particularly in our region: eggs and greens.

    The major obstacle that we face in our attempt to feed ourselves and others (aside from our own ineptitude) is that we can’t possibly sell our products for what they’re really worth. For us to pay off the investments we’ve made in modest structures and relatively inexpensive equipment, cover our feed costs, and make a modest income we would have to charge prices that people aren’t willing to pay.

    Until the government stops subsidizing corporate farming and removes much of the unnecessary administrative and regulatory obstacles to startup farmers like us, we’ll have to be content working our tails off just to break even. Essentially we’re providing people food at or even slightly below cost out of the goodness of our hearts, or more accurately because it’s the only way we could ever get rid of our products!

  2. Kevin, timely and fascinating article. I especially like how you describe what updates would be needed for our time and place to the Catholic Land movement ideals.

    Also, a friend referred me to this article which, if true, indicates Russia is ahead of us on the new agrarian movement: http://thesobornost.org/2012/11/russias-ecology/

  3. Hi There,

    I understand the difficulties in selling products for what they are worth. We have encountered this when selling at market next to a giant vegetable farm that hauls in cheap produce from Calif. and Tex. There stuff looked beautiful and was it ever cheap. Now, what I have done is build a group of faithful farm supporters. We’ve done this through a CSA, where we can get a just price for our products. Education is key. Recommend food documentaries, Joel Saltin books, websites with good food information to people. Get the word out any way possible. Also, check into restaurants that source food locally. They are few, but they can be found if you search them out. A chep knows real food even if the populace does not.

    You are right that the subsidies need to go away, but that is an unlikely scenario. In the meantime we have to find buyers who understand good food. These are found in the city, not in farm country. We are as rural as you can possibly get. Just look up St. Leo, KS and see if it comes up on a map. It might, but our customers are an hour and 15 min. away in Wichita. Pure and simply it will be many decades before good food finds its way into farm country. Most farmers in farm country are producing low quality, high sprayed, conventional mono-crops. These same farmers are part of a system that they don’t know how to get out of. They don’t eat their own food so they don’t understand a culture of food. I’d say find the nearest city, set up a farmer’s market booth and advertise for a CSA. Start small, charge a just price, and produce good food. More customers will follow using this scenario. Feel free to email me privately if you’d like to talk more about CSA’s and selling products at reasonable prices.

    Kevin
    fordkevint@gmail.com

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  5. The term organic, when used in contrast to GMO, is a misnomer. Foods that we think of as natural are not natural. Crops in the pre-human natural state would not be enough to sustain even a portion of our population. We have adapted our food so that we can sustain our population. Broccoli, for example, was engineered by putting radioactive rocks on plants. Now we use more specific techniques by modifying a single gene. There is no evil in this.

    Additionally, some think organic and healthier are synonymous, which is not always the case. Animals raised in open, healthy conditions do produce healthier meats — but e. coli, for example, is very common in “organic” crops that are grown in animal manure used in absence of non-organic practices.

    I think this site would well do focus on the ideas of capital & labor, keeping them united, which is the idea of distributionism — and not on the distractions of scientific advances of food production, which can work in a distribustionist society just as well as in a capitalistic or socialist society.

  6. Hi Matt,

    While some of what you say is certainly true in that we have developed crops over time to feed the population, it is simply not true that genetically manipulating the DNA strains of certain plants in such a way as to harm the entire structure is natural. It is one thing to cross-tomatoes to form a hybrid tomato plant. It is a whole new thing altogether to splice a tomato with a mackerel or a corn plant with an herbicide. This simply does not happen in nature. Now, scientific evidence is beginning to mount that such manipulation does indeed drastically change the make-up of the plant and can cause severe reactions in those that eat it. It also is being seen that GMO crops are simply not an answer to the need to feed the world. The weeds outsmart our science and our agriculture becomes ever more entrenched in this altogether new form of chemical warfare.

    The large chemicalized farming of today has led to the destruction of agrarian culture and family farming. This site is all about distributism and returning to the working man the means of production. This includes farmers. Monsanto and Dupont have no intention of returning the means of production to the farmer. They want total and complete control of food and agriculture, and through their patenting of seeds they are slowly gaining it. They don’t care about feeding the world, they care about profit and power.

    I’d also like to comment on the idea that organic produce is often tainted with e-coli. Are you familiar with why such manure might have e-coli, and especially the strain 0157. It is because we are unnaturally feeding grain (specifically corn) to animals that are made to eat grass. Once again, the science shows that e-coli is prevalent in feed lot situations where grain is fed to herbivores (specifically cattle). Often times, run off from these situations runs into streams and canals that are used for irrigation of vegetables (sometimes organic and sometimes not). This water contaminates the vegetables. The same goes for using manure from ruminants fed grain in large quantities. The likelihood of e coli is much higher in this manure. This is also why organic regulations require that six months pass from the time of manure spreading until planting, or that proper composting have occurred to kill any such bacteria. I believe it is imperative that this site and any site dedicated to distributism and local economics be aware of the enemy at the gates. In this case, for small-scale agriculture, the enemy is genetic modification, chemical agriculture, and bad science.

    Pax,
    Kevin

  7. But isn’t the food industry an “authentic representation” of the contemporary culture? We mass produce so many things that are bland, not as advertised, and . Think of mainstream schools with standards and testing, our strip shopping centers that are the same from town to town, the homogenization of ideas and interests brought about by television. What has happened to our food is but a sign of what has happened more broadly in the culture.

  8. Rob,

    Yes the food industry might very well be an authentic representation of modern culture, but can’t we work to change that? Everything is homogenized today. A McDonald’s burger is the same Everywhere. The food paradigm today indeed manifests a sick culture.

    Kevin

  9. Christopher William McAvoy

    What a fine article. I agree entirely with all that was stated within it. Everything said here I have heard before.

    In many areas agriculture is the most immediately obvious form of distributist economics that exists for one to become involved with. It is usually the industrial and “consumer services” that are have greatest need to adopt the co-operative/distributist/rochdale principles. It is there where few people know of an option to the unfair employment and income distribution typically occuring. In agriculture on the other hand, the co-operative concept has been well known and is always a more obvious option, even in spite of agri-business dominating food production in many regions.

    I’ve been buying lamb, pork, chicken, beef, eggs, milk, whole grains, spices, fruit – food of all sorts for many years. About half directly from farmers and farmers markets, the other half from a co-operative grocer who sources from them (4000 members strong). It has been an immensely rewarding experience.

    The time and effort it can take to cook food the traditional way “from scratch” can be a difficult transition to those who have built their lives around convenience. It can often require someone to dedicate much of their time to cooking and away from another job. While I am not adovcating vegetarianism outside of lent, if you focus your diet moreso on dried beans (don’t cook them in hard water with mineral deposits), legumes, milk, cheese and vegetables and away from large daily servings of meat, you could manage to live off local organic food for the same or lower price than that of the non-organic foods. You would than end up saving money but not time. That has been my strategy and it has been very successful.

    Shopping, cooking and raising a garden or livestock the traditional way especially works against a husband and work both working too much outside the home. I believe strongly that this is necessary to not have too many people working outside the home and for men and women to return to more of their traditional roles. The benefits are great, the children are happier, thus everyone in the society or family following this method will also tend to be happier.

    Yes, this method requires work, but it is very rewarding. The joy one can have in living in the wiser ways of the ancestors, the way humans have for most of their history is terrific. While we have made a few technological developments that are useful they can not change or take away from the basic elements that make us human.

    Cooking and growing, eating and shopping for food the old fashioned way – the time consuming way – is something that is timeless and will always be with us if we want to be healthy and happy as a society. There is no way to take shortcuts. We must accept it as a healthy chore and enjoy it as much as possible.

    Many other things in live are like this.
    The modernistic humanistic secular world always wants to give us shortcuts to have a “heaven on earth” where we worship ourselves.

    But indeed Christ the King teaches humanity that we our to worship God who made us and struggle in this world in preparation for the heavenly kingdom!

    Thank you for the great website.

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  12. How does this tie in with the so-called Agricultural Revolution, which, it is said, has kept millions in the world from starvation?

  13. Gary,

    I think that you have to cut beyond the idea that the so-called Agricultural Revolution has kept millions of people from starving. Firstly, millions of people around the world are still starving. Yet, that is really a problem of disribution and injustice rather than one of production methods. The Agricultural (read Chemical) revolution is truly a sham. The reason it took place was because America’s war machine had been built up so now they needed something to do with all these chemical plants….the answer became fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. The same molecules of the same chemicals could be re-arranged for agricultural use. Yet, at the same time there was a big push toward organic, natural agriculture (Read Plowman’s Folly by Edward Faulkner). Now, 60 years later the research is showing that organic agriculture can produce just as well as chemical without the burnt out fields and dead soil.

    Another note on the agricultural revolution is that while it was the way that we have fed the world, it also created a plethora of problems. For example: 70% of the grain we grow is grown for consumption by livestock, particularly cattle. Cattle are designed to eat grass, and feeding them grain actually kills them. This is why corn-fed beef is so soft textured (the meat is deteriorating). We feed this grain to cattle in massive CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) that are highly subsidized by the gov’t. These places are rank with disease as cattle stand leg deep in feces. In a healthy situation, cattle would be raised on grass, rotated to prevent disease, followed by birds (chickens) to eat fly larvae and spread manure, etc. This has many benefits such as disease prevention, soil building, no environmental waste problems. The agricultural revolution looks good on paper, but come see the burnt out soil on the plains that only grow crops because they have chemicals poured on them year after year. Eventually, we will have to either change to healthier methods of farming, or millions will starve to death because we have destroyed our soils.

    Kevin