Farm intern Maya Binyam ‘15 on what her Ethiopian father taught her about what it means to depend on the land:
Boston is a cold city. In the winter months a biting humidity saturates the air, threatening to freeze car locks and the tips of hair. The sunlight is static, even in the summer, and reflects but never warms.
In this landscape of fractured water and light, my father attempted to make a home. He cranked up the heat and filled the rooms of our house with things he knew would never survive outside—dainty potted basil plants, an ugly bulb too big for its pot. He was proud of this thing he had created for us—this warm oasis—because it meant we were no longer affected by Boston’s characteristically sporadic temperature declines, its unexpected noreasters. We were comfortable.
After a few months he stopped watering the plants. The leaves wilted and eventually turned brittle, but this was something to be proud of. We had begun cultivating things outside of the home, things more important than plants. We were going somewhere.
“It turns out that fertiliser can be as deadly as a pesticide.”
That phrase— not even a whole sentence— is slipped quietly into this little piece about new technology that will help weed and thin lettuce beds on massive conventional farms in California’s Central Valley. The machine in question has found a way to put fertilizer’s deadly strength to good use, its makers claim: by spreading it directly on unwanted plants, it first kills competition and then provides nutrients to the surrounding survivors.
It seems to me, though, that this idea raises a number of questions relevant to the state of agriculture as a whole; for starters, why are we putting poisonously strong chemicals onto our food and our land? Issues with fertilizer runoff are numerous and well-documented, including everything from tainting groundwater to creating massive dead zones along nearby coastlines; soils managed with chemical fertilizers have been proven to fare very poorly under conditions of drought and flood (the coming effects of climate change, which is caused at least in part by manufacturing chemical fertilizer and then using fossil-fueled machines to spread it). A system that insists on a fertility source that is in every way toxic can’t possible be in very good shape.
There is also a larger question, though, raised by the notion that we need technology to do this work in the first place. The current system is inefficient because “labourers, who tend to be paid per acre, not per hour, have little incentive to pay close attention to what they pull from the ground, often leading to unnecessary waste.” The modern tendency is to view jobs like this one as irredeemably menial, and so to compensate them minimally (if at all) and try to tech them out of existence. For a country in the middle of an employment crisis, this seems like a shortsighted way of thinking about things. What if we took manual labor seriously, protecting workers and paying them a fair wage, making it possible for them to take real pride in their jobs? Agriculture is tough work but it’s absolutely crucial, and there’s no reason to continue to treat it as if it were an expendable process.
This is not to say that technology is inherently evil, or that we shouldn’t be modernizing and mechanizing at all— it’s only to suggest a more comprehensive way of thinking about where technology and agriculture meet might benefit workers in the field as well as the land they tend. Especially given this report that increasing wages for food workers, which includes field hands, would only cost the rest of us a dime a day.
Looking for follow up from last week’s New York Times Magazine food issue? Look no further: here’s Mark Bittman, talking about his experiences in the Central Valley on LA’s KCRW.
Resistance is Fertile: Queering Farms, Farmers, and the American Homestead
As an American Studies major, I have quite a bit of liberty to create a unique program of study out of my time at Yale. While the past two years have been great—taking classes in everything from U.S. constitutional analysis, to gay and lesbian history, to how the dinosaurs came to be—I’ve now formally embarked on a path all my own.
This past summer, I interned at the Yale Farm and found that I Ioved agriculture in the truest, dirt-under-my-nails-and-sun-on-my-shoulders kind of way. At the same time, I’m super queer. While I was farming, reading about farms, and talking to farmers, I realized that there didn’t seem to be that much space in agriculture for queer folk, especially when talking about small family farms and homesteads and the reinvigoration of American foodways and culture. I made it my mission, then, to find that space where my own queerness and love of farms and food could have a healthy co-existence (marriage is so passé). That’s why this semester I undertook an independent study, “Queer Farms, Queer Homesteading.”
Firstly, I wanted to figure out what the small family farm really means. As much as big-shots like Wendell Berry romanticize it, what does the homestead look like historically? In searching for an answer, I went all the way back to pre-colonization and saw what various food, gender, and sexual dynamics looked like before Europeans ever stepped foot in North America. From there, I worked my way through early settlements, teasing out just how central family roles (and gender relations) were to social/religious life, and how settlers from New Haven to the golden West Coast physically, spiritually, culturally, and cognitively dominated the landscape and native peoples, imposing particular land ethics and enforcing prescribed gender/sexual relations.
This history is far from uniform, linear, or bloodless, but it did provide us, living in a post-1950s world, with a good amount to fantasize and romanticize about, often serving religious, political, and nationalist purposes.
The fun (that is, queer) part has been seeing just how transgressive some folks are. What is queer about farming and homesteading isn’t that there happen to be gay and lesbian farmers (even if they are as “fabulous” as the Beekman Boys), but that there are people who actively resist the language and practice of heteronormativity and homonormativity. Heteronormativity is the belief that heterosexuality is the only “normal” sexuality, and that all aspects of life (and the way we talk about it) center around that state of “normalcy.” Think about “family,” “marriage,” “love,” and “healthy relationships,” and all the expectations those entail, as well as the images they conjure. Homonormativity is the belief that queer relationships are best when they are “normal” like those of the heterosexual ideal (between two people, monogamous, with children, sanitized, de-politicized, de-sexualized, etc.). I want to know about those folks that queer (as a verb) farming by doing things outside of the box—unafraid and against assumptions of “normal” farm or “home” life.
There are lots of places to look. One of the most interesting examples I found was a group of queer men who live on communes in the middle of Tennessee, have an egalitarian family and work structure, and dress in drag for daily chores and pagan ceremonies alike. One of the guys who lives there even wrote a book on fermentation that is now a bible among the homesteaders; in this way, Sandy Katz is subtly queering the whole new foods movement with his expressed queerness and occasionally overt campiness (i.e., a discussion of trans folk next to a recipe for kefir). Or there is the example in Rebecca Gould’s book of a straight couple that resists gender normativity at every turn, creating a homestead where all constructions of gender, sexuality, and desire can exist independent of work performed. Or how about the guy directing a movie about queer farms, actively trying to infuse into the new foods movement the voices of those folks whom talk of “tradition” has often left voiceless.
The topic—queer farmers and homesteaders—may seem to come from out of left field. Or maybe it seems like I’m being overly academic and making arguments about things that aren’t important. Well, in the current political climate where discussion of queers is limited to their service in the military or right to marry, consider how those queers that happen to be farming or creating a home that’s self-sufficient are marginalized by a discourse that assumes they want to serve in the military rather than grow food, or assumes all they want from the government is a marriage license rather than, say, support to buy hoop houses and new seedlings. Even in the “progressive” foods movement, consider how every time we idealize and fetishize the “small family farm,” we are invoking a whole slew of images and meanings that effectively erases and deems unsavory folks that have alternative families, or don’t have families at all.
Queer theory and agriculture aren’t unrelated. In fact, this study has given me a whole new way of considering how my daily food choices can either contribute to or transgress a culture and society that assume our Thanksgiving yams were grown by a straight guy.
Cody Hooks is a junior American Studies major in Trumbull College. He was a 2011 Lazarus Summer Intern on the Yale Farm. To read more about his academic investigation of queer farming, check out his blog at http://codybuffalo.tumblr.com/