I have pretty strong political beliefs. And I know that I’m drawn to the idea of homesteading because of my larger worldviews on climate change, global equality issues, and corporate rule of global food systems. But I have never thought about my garden and compost pile as political statements in and of themselves.
This weekend, though, I came across Eliot Coleman’s article in Grist Magazine called “Small is Beautiful (And Radical)”, and I’m looking at my compost pile in a whole new way. Coleman is a bit of a cult hero in the world of small organic farming. He’s been at it for around 30 years, and he farms year-round in Maine. He pioneered the North American practice of using simple season extenders like cold frames and row covers, and he does most of his business in the winter, when few others are in the market. He has also been generous and supportive of organic farmers, including newbie ones, writing book after book that reveal techniques to make organic farming on small acreages (less than 5 acres) practical and profitable enough to be a sustainable living. He invents tools for small farmers who don’t need the big mechanized equipment that is sometimes all that is available. He’s an impressive, if sometimes controversial, thinker.
In this article, he writes, “The radical idea behind by organic agriculture is a change in focus. The new focus is on the quality of the crops grown and their suitability for human nutrition. That is a change from the more common focus on growing as much quantity as possible and using whatever chemical techniques contribute to increasing that quantity.”
This paradigm shift from quantity to quality does seem to me to be pretty radical, and one that strikes me regularly. I think that hoarding is a natural human instinct for survival–one like eating past feeling full that comes out of our reptilian brain–and I think humans do struggle to redefine value as a bargain. This is what McDonald’s recognized with the SuperSize concept–that we will pay a little more to get a lot more even if we don’t want or eat it. We have this drive that takes over because “value” = more for less.
Being able to redefine value as quality, and not being distracted by more for less is a radical act, especially in North American consumer culture. But I think this radical shift is one that requires a consciousness that is not desperate for survival, which means it is an especially difficult shift for those struggling with poverty. I think this is where the shift toward organic food is often seen as elitist; it does take a certain level of financial security–or perhaps psychological security–to be able to think about the ethics and quality of food instead of just the price.
But Coleman’s argument goes beyond this common debate. Later in the article, he writes:
“The small organic farm greatly discomforts the corporate/industrial mind because the small organic farm is one of the most relentlessly subversive forces on the planet. Over centuries both the communist and the capitalist systems have tried to destroy small farms because small farmers are a threat to the consolidation of absolute power. Thomas Jefferson said he didn’t think we could have democracy unless at least 20% of the population was self-supporting on small farms so they were independent enough to be able to tell an oppressive government to stuff it. It is very difficult to control people who can create products without purchasing inputs from the system, who can market their products directly thus avoiding the involvement of mercenary middlemen, who can butcher animals and preserve foods without reliance on industrial conglomerates, and who can’t be bullied because they can feed their own faces.”
This is the paragraph that stopped me in my tracks. I knew that gaining food self-sufficiency meant some freedom from consuming, and some protection in case of radical social emergency. But I had never thought about the political freedom that comes from having less to lose if I need to stand up for the causes I believe in. That as long as my land can not be taken away from me, if I can feed myself, I know I can survive indefinitely regardless of what happens in the world around me.
In theory, the most powerful position, I think, would be a deep understanding of the natural environment that allows you to eat directly from nature, rather than needing to farm at all. This is why learning about wild foods seems so important to me. But I’m also deeply concerned that climate change is challenging the stability of the wild food supply (we seem to be watching the salmon disappear before our eyes here on the Pacific coast), and that some human production is always going to be necessary.
This also demonstrates the political power of land ownership, or perhaps more accurately, the political power of not being displaceable from your land. I’ve thought a lot about the forcible displacement of First Nations peoples, especially in BC, and about how climate change will continue to cause massive population displacement and conflict because of it–as we’ve already seen in the Sudan. But for some reason, I’ve never thought about this as being a direct issue of being able to feed ourselves.
Coleman finishes the article by claiming that compost itself is the key to this political freedom. Compost is the magical substance that keeps the soil fertile, and homemade compost is always better than purchased stuff. Compost connects us to the power of the natural world and closes our home and farming food production loop by turning “waste” into “resource”. And did I mention that it’s free? And that anyone can do it (because no one really “does” it; it just happens)?
So here’s to the lowly compost pile and the secure food supply that it produces. And here’s to the guerilla gardeners all over the world who are producing food and compost on land they don’t own, and gaining the same freedom and independence from it.
And if you really want to see compost that blows your mind, check out Rob at One Straw: Be the Change, who’s not only producing radical compost, he’s using compost radically–including potentially to heat his home’s hot water and to produce methane for harvest. Amazing and inspiring!