'Foodopoly:' Exposing the Handful of Corporations That Control Our Food System From Seed to Dinner Plate09/02/2013 15:06
In 1963 my dad bought a ramshackle farm with rich but extremely rocky soil in the rural Bull Run Mountains of Virginia, forty miles southwest of Washington, D.C. Today it is on the verge of suburbia.
He grew up in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, rode the rails, and eventually, in his late fifties, found his way “back to the land.” So we moved to what was then a very rural landscape -- a place culturally a world away from the nation's capital and physically linked only indirectly by two-lane roads. Our old farmhouse, with a mile-long rutted driveway accessible only by fourwheel drive, was off another dirt road and had no electricity or plumbing. Eventually my dad did manage to get the local rural electricity co-op to put in poles and hook up power, but he never did get around to installing indoor plumbing.
He was an unusual man -- a religious iconoclast and an organic gardener at a time when few people knew the term. He was considered a crank and a hobby farmer, if you can call it that, growing a few vegetables and keeping bees. His wild-blossom honey was the only vaguely successful part of his farming venture. My dad, who died in 1991 at the age of eighty-one, would be shocked now to see both his farm and the massive development around it.
Today the hundred acres of mostly wooded land is bordered by a megamansion subdivision on one side and an expensive “gated community” a mile away as the crow flies. Thousands of town houses and new subdivisions have cropped up where once there were fields dotted with cows. This has brought on the box stores, including Walmart and fast food joints-blights on the once bucolic rural landscape. A major highway, I-66, recently engineered to be either six or eight lanes depending on the location, means we can zip into the nation's capital during the rare times that commuters are not clogging the road.
Since 1997, my husband has run the farm as a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, feeding five hundred families each season with subscription vegetables grown using organic practices. It's a successful family business that suits my activist husband, who taught high school and college and worked for public interest organizations, but who really prefers the challenge of farming without chemicals. It works financially, because we own the land outright, and because we live near a major metropolitan area where urban and suburban residents are seeking greater authenticity in the food they eat. They want their children to see where food comes from and to learn that chickens enjoy living together in a pasture. We often joke that for most people the CSA is more about having a farm to visit than the vegetables.
As a healthy-food advocate, I feel privileged to have grown up a rural person and to have had the real-life experience of pulling weeds, squishing potato bugs, canning vegetables, gutting a chicken, baking bread, and chopping wood for the cookstove. As a teenager I felt deprived, but as an adult I am grateful to know where food comes from and how much work it takes to produce it. My family is also extremely lucky that my dad bought almost worthless land in the 1960s that today is located near a major metropolitan area populated by a largely affluent and educated population. But most farmers, or people aspiring to be farmers, aren't so lucky. Fortunately, farmers' markets and similar venues help capture the excitement and nostalgia for farming, and for a simpler and healthier lifestyle, and they are delightful for the customers and can be profitable for farmers.