April 24, 2011

A Seed Catalog Must-Read on Food, Farming and Socialism

It's early spring planting time up at Dody's in the Northwest corner of Connecticut and we've been putting in lettuces, radishes, peas, carrots and on and on, and piling some lovely aged manure from Jay's cows around the garlic which went in last October and is now about 8" tall. It's work, serious work, and it demands serious experience and skills (which I am do not, unfortunately, yet possess).

Late winter/early spring is also time for seed catalogs, which farmers and gardeners flip through until they are dogeared. They are written to appeal to the senses. Johnny's Selected Seeds of Winslow, ME, has lovingly photographed vegetables that literally make the mouth water.

Fedco, also Maine-based, prints theirs, all 138 pages of it, on newsprint and eschews photographs ("We assume, however, that you will want to spend your money for high quality seeds rather than high quality pictures..."). However, their verbal descriptions are equally sensuous: delicious, firm, luscious, young, tender, deep, yielding, juicy, thick, hard, long, sweet, wild, musky, slender, creamy, &c.

But I digress. Never mind the appeal to the senses. These catalogs have some crucial lessons for revolutionaries and socialists. Our small forces are concentrated in urban areas, our organizing efforts in workplaces, on campuses, inside communities of color, among immigrants in cities and the denser 'burbs, and, alas, within a too-often inward facing left. As Dody often and forcefully reminds me, we are dangerously blind to--or worse, dismissive of--a critical component of any serious effort to create revolutionary change in this country, the folks in rural communities across the US.

Let's take the two companies mentioned above. For starters, Johnny's proudly bills itself as a employee-owned enterprise. Fedco is equally emphatic about being a cooperative. Both are relentless opponents of the soil-depleting, petroleum-dependent, antibiotic-reliant, gene-patenting monster that is capitalist agribusiness and both are part of the burgeoning, yeasty movement toward organic, sustainable, locally-based farming and eating.

Organic Growers Supply is a part of the Fedco enterprise focused on providing farmers and gardeners with non-cropseed inputs--ground cover seed, tools, irrigation systems, fertilizer, books. David Shipman, OGS coordinator, opens their section of this spring's Fedco catalog with a five paragraph introduction that I wish I could make required reading for 2011.

Life is a communal activity. Mycorrhizae in the soil entwine with the roots of plants bringing water and minerals to the plants and being fed in return. The insects and worms in the soil break matter down, releasing nutrients for all to use. Bacteria and fungi colonize the roots and leaves of plants and protect them from disease, all the while feeding themselves and thriving. Far from being a competition where every winner means that someone else has lost, the world of the soil embodies the ideal of a mutual-benefit society. But perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into how nature works when trying to understand people. It often leads to some pretty far-fetched theories. However, I can’t resist comparing the “nature red in tooth and claw” outlook of social Darwinism, which seems to be making a resurgence, with the advances in discoveries about soil-web ecology and the role that cooperation plays in biology and botany.

A list of the 400 richest people in America was released recently showing that those few people controlled 1.4 trillion dollars. In a time of 10% unemployment and rising poverty, their wealth grew by 8% last year. These same people are fighting to retain the outrageous tax breaks they got during the Bush years, using their surrogates and lackeys on Fox News and in the Tea Party movement to vilify and smear President Obama. The furor over the Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, the ravings that global warming is a hoax, that marriage is under assault, phony issue after phony issue, all trotted out to distract us from the reality that our lives and prosperity are being sacrificed to increase the already obscene and pointless wealth of the few.

It’s time to take our country back. Our roots are planted in our communities and to be nourished we must provide nourishment to others, not junk food and junk politics. People are angry because they are frustrated and hungry. When we are frustrated we often act irrationally (see Tea Party, above). We use junk ideas and junk food to try to make ourselves feel better. People need real nourishment, both mental and physical. Our communities and farms can provide it.

So what do we do? Provide food: food for thought. When people want to send all the undocumented workers back say, “OK, but you’d better start a garden, because nobody will be picking vegetables in California.” Point out that when the processing plants that hire undocumented workers get closed down, people better start producing more local meat and poultry because there won’t be any meat in the grocery stores. Provide real food as well. Expand your garden, start that farm you’ve dreamed about, plant another community garden, organize a farmers market. Don’t sling mud, hand out heirloom tomatoes. Instead of Twinkies and Kool-Aid, cider and whole grain bread.

Socialism has become a dirty word, but Marx’s “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” seems like common sense to me. Building the soil and building a just and sustainable society take time, patience and a willingness to work together for the benefit of all. We took a long time to dig the hole we’re in, but let’s fill it with the compost of good ideas and right living even if it takes a while to get back to level ground.
A few points on this piece. First, let me just stipulate that I find Shipman's concessions to anti-immigrant sentiment pretty dicey, to put it politely. That said, he takes a broad argument to a sharp conclusion in a very short space, and does so in language far clearer and more accessible than that found in too many left publications.

Another reason for the editors of the Monthly Proletarian Vanguard or whatever to eat their hearts out: Fedco mails out many tens of thousands of copies of their catalog, and sharing (at least four people have perused Dody's copy) plus visits to their website push their readership well into the six figures.

Finally, dear FotM reader, while this is likely news to you, it has not escaped the attention of the forces of darkness and ignorance. Several right wing blogs have comment threads with titles like "Fedco seed company promotes Marxism" full of foam-flecked denunciations and calls for boycott.

Think maybe we should be spreading this useful message ourselves?

1 comment:

bsimpich said...


I loved your thoughts on being up in
northwest Connecticut. A good balance with that wonderful neighborhood you live in NYC during my all too short visit with you.Maybe see you in Freedom Square on October 6?

Bill Simpich