Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Want Sustainable? Try a Family

I'd picked up a couple books from the library about growing vegetables and small scale farming -- something to go with my enjoyment of growing a vegetable garden this year. One that I've mostly enjoyed is It's a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life by Keith Stewart, a New Yorker who at forty sold off most of his retirement investments to buy an 88 acre farm three hours north of the city and grow organic produce, which he sells in the New York farmers' markets.

The book consists of essays which Steward wrote over the period from 2002 to 2005 about the last twenty years he's spent running this farm. The parts about farming and a city dweller taking to the rural life I've enjoyed, but as you'd expect with someone who grows organic produce as a matter of principle (I suppose ours is at least mostly organic, but that's a matter of practicality and cheapness) on the occasions when he goes off about culture and politics he does so in a way that I have little sympathy for.

I paused to read a chapter before heading off to work this morning, and was annoyed (though not surprised) to run into a side bar in which he bemoaned the "over population" of the world, and wished that his species would stop taking up an unfair share of the globe.

This is ironic, because one of the worries he expresses elsewhere is what will happen to his farm when he becomes too old to work it. He's already in his early sixties, and he and his wife decided never to have children (something which he makes a point of mentioning elsewhere he has no regrets about.) However the 88 acres he works have gone up in real estate value from the 200k he paid for them to over 800k in the last twenty years. If someone bought the land for that price, they wouldn't be able to pay off the mortgage with the money generated from farming. The only option would be to develop it.

He discusses, in a chapter on making sure that the small farming lifestyle doesn't disappear, his desire for the state to buy up development easements on small farms like his, so that future buyers could only keep it as it is, and could not purchase development rights. That's a big, expensive, state imposed solution to the problem. But there's also a much simpler one: Historically, farms have not been the provenance of modern DINKs, they've been kept by families. And the value of the land doesn't matter as much if its simply passed down from parents to children.

For someone so concerned about "sustainable" agriculture, the idea that the most sustainable social and economic unit in existence is the family seems to have eluded him.

Note from MrsDarwin: As I noted last year, if only people knew what caused population growth!


Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

I want to call this Paul's Law: "If you want your values to survive into the future, there is no substitute for fertility."

Jim Janknegt said...

I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in which she chronicles her family's attempt to be locovare for a year by mostly growing their own food. It is a good read . She had her whole family involved, her husband and two daughters. One thing for sure, it was an enormous amount of work. But she makes a good point that we do all of these modern things to save time which we fritter away when we could be spending our time doing some authentic food raising,

Jennifer F. said...

Great point. I wonder if people will ever learn that government programs can never replace the family.

Kate said...

I think that a more family oriented society would be good for sustainibility on all sorts of levels. Take publicly traded corporations. There is constant pressure on CEO's to increase short term profit to appease investors and board members. In theory at least, family businesses should perform better long term since there is a motivation to keep the business viable for ones children, even if it means making less profit in the meantime.

Patrick said...

And the value of the land doesn't matter as much if its simply passed down from parents to children.

This presumes the absence of estate tax, which isn't a given. It comes back after 2010 unless Congress extends the Bush tax cuts.

Darwin said...

I think that family farms where the family lives on the farm are generally excepted from this, but yes.