Gene Logsdon: Food Farming As Artistic Endeavor

The Contrary Farmer

Commercial print book publishers are viewing the future with gloom while paradoxically the number of new book titles published yearly grows by leaps and bounds— over two million last year if the statistics can be believed. I doubt anyone really knows the exact number as self-published books flood the marketplace. At the same time, agribusiness experts are raising red flags all over the Chicago Board of Trade about the possibility that industrial farming is heading into a troubling decade even while local food market agriculture goes booming right along.

I wonder if both books and food are being affected by the same social forces. What is happening with book authoring— and with other artistic endeavors— is easy enough to see. Electronics has made it relatively cheap to produce and reproduce books, songs and paintings. Literally millions of people are willing to produce and promulgate their own art even if it doesn’t earn them a cent. All it takes to publish a book now is around three thousand dollars and the writer’s time. The payoff or profit comes not in monetary sales but in personal satisfaction. And as more and more people now have the education and revelation to realize that they have artistic talent, an amazing amount of good art is being created almost everywhere.

Could the same thing be happening in food production? A growing number of food producers are “self-publishing their own books” so to speak, in their gardens or on their little farms. Some of them make a modest living at it; most do it for the satisfaction they derive from it. What they are practicing is home economy, not market economy. Food has the added advantage not true of the other arts. We can’t live without it. By producing one’s own, there’s real money savings involved.

The fly in the ointment of my food romanticist’s way of thinking is that producing food can be drudgery and hard work, something many people think they would rather pay someone else to do for them. I often think about what a social worker in Kentucky once told me. She noticed how so many of the out-of-work coal miner families that she was trying to help were on welfare and food stamps even though they had ample backyard space for gardens. She asked around. “Poor people plant gardens,” she was told. “We aren’t poor, just out of work.” The social worker started making available copies of upscale magazines full of articles about beautiful and bountiful gardens. Richer people gardened too. Richer people gardened most of all. Eventually she had whole neighborhoods providing much of their own food.

Attitude is nearly everything. For centuries, the economic model for farming was a market venture based on profit and loss. Cities kept growing in size so there was no lack of consumers, many of whom had experienced drudgery and hard work producing food for other people and they never wanted to see a hoe again. Farming went from hunting and gathering (now considered recreation) to growing food to sell with the people who did the work getting very little pay.

Now we have a different economic model for food. You grow your own to satisfy your artistic creativity and because it tastes better than the commercial stuff. And more and more, people who think they don’t have time to be creative this way are willing to buy the surplus for what it’s really worth.

How much of the world’s food is now produced this way?  How much of the world’s food could be produced this way? Wouldn’t it be awesome if at least half of the food consumed were grown outside the unforgiving jaws of commercial profit and loss and were viewed as creative art like all those zillions of books, songs and paintings out there? Perhaps society would then become convinced that most of the food we eat could be produced this way. Halleluiah.

But I know what would happen then. Governments would try to levy a tax on gardening.