Edible Economics

When Edible Vineyard made its debut a few years back, I admired the design and the photographs but after an issue or two I got the distinct impression that it was trying to sell me something.

It was. It was trying to sell me an upscale version of Martha’s Vineyard, close cousin to the “Theme Park Farming” I blogged about last month. “Our Food, Our Stories, Our Community” it says in the top right corner of the cover. Warning, warning, warning! When first-person singulars start speaking in “we,” they’re usually trying to put something over on me, you, and everybody who isn’t them.

It’s called “the illusion of inclusion.” Confronted with their exclusionary practices, the gatekeepers say “Mea culpa, mea culpa” and start admitting some of the previously excluded through the gates. Progress is being made, everyone’s happy (or at least willing to keep their minds open), the rattling of the bars diminishes.

Until it turns out that the inclusion is limited, and conditional. Access is still controlled by the gatekeepers; it’s just that they’re letting a few more outsiders through the gates. Often these erstwhile outsiders, knowing who’s buttering their bread, start tsk-tsking at their brothers and sisters on the outside: “We made it, so you can too — if only you try harder, if only you stop being a victim.

The illusion of inclusion is a powerful strategy. It’s devilishly effective. Listen to five minutes’ worth of electoral campaign propaganda. The admeisters employ it because it works.

Edible Vineyard and other exponents of theme park farming (including the Island-Grown Initiative, which was started by the editor of Edible Vineyard) are selling us inclusion in a place that looks like, and indeed is called, Martha’s Vineyard. Farming! Living local! What could be more Vineyard than that?

The catch is that if you need to make a living on Martha’s Vineyard, farming is pretty much out of the question. So working people are de facto excluded by the illusion — and that includes many people who grew up here, whose parents grew up here, whose families have lived and worked here for generations. Would this ever be acknowledged in the pages of Edible Vineyard? I doubted it.

I was wrong.

I picked up the current issue of EV because its cover cracked me up:

If the secret to humor is surprise, here’s proof. What I expect from EV is page after page of nauseatingly healthy green stuff. I laughed out loud. I picked up the magazine. And I don’t even like doughnuts. (Laura Silber’s story about Pavlovas and especially Elizabeth Cecil’s photographs are the best food porn I’ve seen in a long time.)

What really grabbed me, though, was Emily Palmer’s “A Farmer Leaves the Land.” Emily Palmer is less than half my age. For the last several years she’s been a professional organic farmer. She’s done well, “managing more acreage, more sales, and more staff than ever before,” she writes. Her customers were happy. But she’s leaving farming, and she’s leaving farming because she’s done the math. To be sustainable, her farm needs to grow — but there’s nowhere to grow to. And she’s tired of being poor.

“Short of outright purchase of large property to the tune of millions of dollars,” she writes, “a mortgage that can never be repaid via farm income, new farmers on the Vineyard are not able to access property that has the potential to become a commercial working farm.”

She’s nailed it. Andrew Woodruff’s long-established community-supported agriculture (CSA) program at Thimble Farm was saved at the 11th hour by an influx of big money from very rich people. Earlier this year, experienced flower farmer Krishana Collins was awarded a long-term lease on the former Tea Lane Farm in Chilmark, now publicly owned. Another young farmer is able to lease 10 acres thanks to a promise requested by the late Craig Kingsbury and kept by his daughter Kristy. We’ll have enough farms to keep the theme park going, especially if a few millionaires show up who fancy farming, but sustainable? self-sufficient? I don’t think so.

At the beginning of her story, Ms. Palmer writes  that she fears “we are often having the wrong conversation.” At the end she urges island residents to “look around at the skilled and committed young people who are trying and failing to become professional farmers, and start having the right conversation.”

Are there any people around to have this conversation with? Working Vineyarders who’ve been here a while can do the math: absent a rich uncle or a big tract of land and the wherewithal to pay taxes on it, they aren’t encouraging their kids to take up farming. And the inclusion illusionists aren’t all that interested in anyone who has to work for a living.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to Edible Economics

  1. Emily Palmer says:

    Hi Susanna-

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    To Jan and Tom, I would like to encourage you to think about the numbers more critically. There is a huge difference between making some income, and making enough money that there’s a living wage in it. If you are a field management rock star and are making $20k an acre in revenue, what percentage of that is your salary, after all of your expenses? What do you think is a living wage on Martha’s Vineyard? Generating just under 40k on two acres, I worked like a dog, and took home 9k. That is NOT a living. It’s not even close, especially here.

    Having a strong market is great, and we do, but it’s no secret that greens, tomatoes and flowers have the highest margins, and there’s already a bunch of established growers paddling in that kiddie pool. The holes in the market (tree fruit, winter csa, etc) require long term access to space that new growers don’t have. You see very quickly what the game looks like.

    I’m not asking that we frame the issue negatively, or despairingly, but I think it’s critical that we call a spade a spade, and speak of it honestly. The problem is a resource gap. Hard work, intelligence, perseverance, all those things are essential, but so is access to resources.

    best,

    Emily

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  2. tompostpile says:

    You may have heard the old joke about the farmer who won the lottery? When asked what he’d do with his new millions, he said he figured he’d just keep farming until it was gone.

    Who told me that story? Everett Whiting, farmer, of West Tisbury.

    Farming on a small scale requires extraordinary skill, good luck, the right location, and unbelievable amounts of work. Unbelievable amounts of work over years and years. In a society that places little value on farm labor, and in a society whose farming model is exploiting low-wage labor on an industrial scale, the deck is stacked against “small”.

    My contemporaries, Jim and Debbie Athearn, have followed the above formula, and in a mere forty years of literally “betting the farm” every year, have turned a 4×8 sheet of plywood into Morning Glory Farm. The Farm was not at first their only way of making a living. In the early years of the farm, during the winter, Jim often had to take on paid work at other trades. Even now, the Farm is not yet “free and clear”, and is now trying to make it through one of the more perilous times in the life of a farm…that of passing from one generation to the next.

    Here on MV, big tracts of land are not imperative for success at farming. (For the starting farmer, choosing to grow crops like sweet corn, or pumpkins, that have a low per-acre return is economic suicide.) As difficult as farming is here, the island does have one of the most important ingredients for small farm success. That ingredient is the presence of a retail market within travelling distance.

    Farming is a hard-work, high risk occupation at which many have failed.

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  3. Jan Pogue says:

    Maybe you should talk to a few farmers before you decide they can’t make a living here.

    Like

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