The practice of agriculture relies upon a tremendous amount of knowledge, skill, and hard work. It is also uniquely subject to pressures from outside of the farmer’s immediate control. ‘Beyond the Field’ is a series of posts that examines the many outside factors that can play a determining role in the success of a farm business.
No farm is an island. As any farmer who has ever struggled to find a market can tell you, having an engaged, educated community is crucial for sales. During our current groundswell of public interest in local food, this might seem like a problem that will resolve itself. Virginia Kasinki, the Director of Community-Based Programs at a nonprofit called Glynwood, is not so sure. She runs Keep Farming, a program designed to build community engagement around agriculture and promote local economies. While acknowledging the importance of public interest in ‘buying local,’ Kasinki explained that farmers still have big problems due to a much longer trend of development pressure, the de-emphasis of farming as the engine of local economies, and a critical depletion of agricultural service industries in rural areas. These problems require community engagement beyond just switching to organic, or shopping at a local farmer’s market.
When entering a new town with Keep Farming, Kasinki often encounters schisms between farmers and their local communities. Farmers feel antagonized by the pressure of development and underrepresented by local officials. Worse, they often feel alienated from farmers in their regions who specialize in different modes of production. This fragmented view of the system leads farmers and community members to miss crucial connections through which agriculture influences regional economies.
Agricultural businesses must be considered as a network, Kasinki explained, “there is a ripple effect through the community when one service is lost.” For example, when a large horse farm goes out of business, the region might lose the population density of livestock to keep a large animal veterinarian in business, and a small-scale diversified farm with a small herd would no longer have access to care. Or, if a large conventional grower goes out of business, it is possible that supportive services like mechanics or distributors would move out of the area as well. In this light, it is important for regional producers to acknowledge their interconnectedness, even if their philosophies or growing practices are different from one another. The suburbanization of farmland is a net loss for growers of any persuasion.
One of the first steps a community takes when they become involved in Keep Farming is to form a Community Agricultural Partnership (CAP). This partnership is comprised of farmers, food organizations, residents, and elected officials and encourages solutions from all populations. Currently, the Berkshires region of New York state is undergoing one of the most comprehensive Keep Farming programs to date. Luke Pryjma is the CAP point person in the town of Great Barrington, one of five regional subgroups. He and his fiancée have been farming for two seasons in the region, and have been part of the Keep Farming programming there for a year and a half. This experience has helped him recognize the importance of shared agricultural values in the community.
“Originally, I was less willing to allow everyone into the movement. I was more ‘us vs. them,’” Pryjma explained of his disposition towards the large-scale, conventional growers in Great Barrington. But since getting to know the networks of farmers more closely, his opinions have shifted. His goals and the goals of Keep Farming in the region are about getting clean, healthy food to as many people as possible. Describing the most recent CAP meeting, Pryjma says he was pleased with the mix of farmers, residents, restaurant owners, and food activists in the room. “They were into it, and participating. It was good just getting people to spend an hour and a half of their week on agriculture.”
A culture of interdependence—with the community and amongst farmers themselves—is an essential element in the conversation about reinvesting in farm economies. Beyond the skills and know how required to run a farm business, success is also subject to our ability to be active community members. In addition to spearheading Great Barrington’s CAP for Keep Farming, Pryjma is also volunteering for the Great Barrington Agricultural Commission and for the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). His advice to young and beginning farmers is to do the same by volunteering for community organizations that care about the same issues that they do.
Whether by hosting a potluck for fellow farmers or attending a community board meeting, it is important to take a step back from our own stresses and to consider the community as a whole, interconnected network. Forging connections with other community members and groups will help you see how this network functions. It will also help everyone better understand the needs of the rest. Prioritizing local communities means that everyone must carve time from their busy schedules, farmers and residents alike, and just be willing to come to the table. An interconnected farm community depends on it.