The Common Good
September-October 1995

Extended Family

by Carey Burkett | September-October 1995

In large part because of my grandmother's North Dakota farm stories, I spent the first 30 years of my life wishing I lived on a farm so I could bake pies, make soap, churn butter...

In large part because of my grandmother's North Dakota farm stories, I spent the first 30 years of my life wishing I lived on a farm so I could bake pies, make soap, churn butter, can peaches, build furniture, stuff sausages. I wanted to be outdoors all day. I wanted to watch the moon wax and wane, and live the seasons as they changed.

At the age of 31, I finally did move to a farm, but soon discovered that to be a farmer you had to, well, farm. As in work hard. All that other stuff was a sidelight. Fortunately, the work has turned out to be as satisfying as the lifestyle.

When people ask why I farm, I usually say it's because I like to cook. But it's also because I and my husband, Steve, want to live simply, and to have so much fun doing it that others might perhaps be tempted to turn off their own televisions and air conditioners. We like being a part of the current experiment in trying to grow more of America's food without poisonous chemicals, and we choose vegetables in particular because there is a strong market for them right now. Through grace and luck, despite quite a few fire ant bites, we've been able to make a living farming in Texas.

From a business standpoint, we can make the most money by spending our time on the farm growing and letting wholesalers do the selling. So twice a week we drive a truckload to a warehouse in Austin, 90 miles from our farm. Felix helps us unload. John gets on the telephone and sells for us. Semi driver Steve fights the city traffic to deliver to stores. Produce managers David, Nathan, Jeff, and Christy stock shelves and answer people's questions (like "Where did this come from?") and even cut samples for customers to taste. Peggy saves boxes for us to pick up later.

Sometimes it seems the alternative community spends a lot of energy criticizing big food corporations. But from our little vista on the world, the food chain seems more like an extended family, with everyone trying to do the best job they can. I would like to think that even in the big picture of America's food supply there is no "us vs. them." Just us.

Conventional chemical farmers are not the enemy. The CEO of Safeway is not the enemy. The California produce industry is not the enemy. Trucks, airplanes, and refrigerator train cars are not the enemy. Instead of jousting at distant windmills, we should each look at our own complicity in the problems caused by big food corporations.

STEVE AND I believe the use of fossil fuel contributes to air and water pollution, but we still drive 180 miles twice a week to deliver produce. That's a bit embarrassing. We raise crops without the use of chemical fertilizers or insecticides, but if we drive our gas-guzzling tractor back and forth across the fields to kill weeds, have we really helped the Earth in the big scheme of things? We try to compensate by riding our bicycles for nearby errands and taking public transportation for vacations.

Making right choices is a constant struggle. I'm not saying it's easy for anybody. But it is important.

Buying your vegetables from a local farmer at a Saturday market is a good thing to do, for instance. But if you then drive a car to work five other days of the week when you could take a bus, have you helped your bio-region? (Trucks hauling tons of produce thousands of miles is a grave use of fossil fuel, but it's vastly more efficient than people driving individual cars to work everyday.)

It's good to buy a locally raised chicken instead of one raised by a big, distant, poultry company. And it's just as important to support your locally owned neighborhood grocery or bakery or shoe repair shop.

The beauty of America's capitalist economy is that we all do have a say in how things turn out; we vote with our dollars and with our choices, everyday.

Supporting locally owned businesses and farms not only helps build a more complex, diverse, sustainable society, it also makes for a much more interesting shopping trip!

CAREY BURKETT, former assistant to the editor at Sojourners, is now an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.

 

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