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The Farmer as Cultural Worker

January 7, 2015

Originally printed in the Three Sisters Community Farm newsletter.

By Jeff Schreiber

IMG_1610 (1280x960)Farmers are, perhaps foremost, workers in the sphere of the economy. They turn the stuff of nature into goods which meet people’s material needs. They run farm businesses. In their work they are economical and efficient; the inefficient farmer won’t last long.

But the farmer can also be, if they choose, a craftsman or artist. He or she then becomes a worker in the cultural sphere. In this sphere one works out of the needs of one’s own soul, out of a sense of their own unique individuality, morality, and creativity. This is the inner impulse that brings many to farming in the first place — an unexplained calling arises in someone, a desire to work with and co-create with the natural world, or to fix what is a broken but fundamental part of society.

Increasingly, there is the feeling that the products of cultural workers — different from the products of economic workers — should be free, that a price tag on an expression of soul is somehow incongruent. So, a musician like Amanda Palmer (who believes all music should be “unlocked… shared and spread”) offers her musical creations free for the taking. She also asks those who feel compelled for monetary help so she can meet her needs and go on making music. When she asked for $100,000 of help for a new album and tour in 2012 on Kickstarter, her supporters raised 12 times that amount.

In so far as they are cultural workers, farmers are, I think, free to ask for such support as well. But crowdfunding sites can conceal the most important role of the cultural worker: in exchange for freedom to create, the artist must listen to and address in their work the needs of soul of the community as a whole. This is the great responsibility of cultural workers. The best of them can grasp the needs of a time and place and create expressions that touch us deeply on a collective level.

So, what are the cultural needs of our time that farms and farmers can address? Each farm community is different, but there are still some general trends: the fancy webpage, the smiling farm family on the package. Most people are not satisfied by such greenwashing. They crave the real. They want a direct connection — an actual relationship — with the farmers and the farm from where their food comes. A small, community-based farm can offer those relationships, and through them some of the anxieties of modern eaters can be addressed: Am I, in my food choices, complicit in environmental harm? Am I a supporter of unjust farm labor practices? Is this food safe for my children? The very notion of food consumerism — passive, unconscious and soul-deadening — can be changed on a farm that strives to meet the cultural needs of its supporters into something active and alive. Together, on a farm, people can move from mere consumers to creators, working together to create something positive, relevant, and enduring in their community.

There’s been much handwringing of late about the economic status of small farmers. The solution from most is to increase one’s focus on the economic and material: get more efficient, make more profit. But what happens if the farmer becomes, foremost, a worker in the sphere of culture? What if, in getting the culture right, the economy rights itself?

Farmers Jeff Schreiber and Kelly Kiefer met while working at Wellspring, a Milwaukee-area farm-based educational organization. In 2011 they started Three Sisters Community Farm on Kelly’s family’s land in Campbellsport, Wisconsin, a community-oriented farm serving the greater Milwaukee area. Through their community supported agriculture (CSA) program, farmers’ markets, and other direct-to-consumer sales, they meet the needs of those who seek quality, organically-grown food, and a connection with the source of this food, while also treading lightly on the earth and providing for themselves a quality and balanced lifestyle.

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