Fantasy Farming

So I was reading The Smithsonian today and came across this article, “Bringing the Farm to Your Backyard,” which is a somewhat tone-deaf account of a new market segment in planned suburban developments, Development Supported Agriculture (DSA). It basically encapsulates everything that is clueless about most Whole Foods Nation thinking about “sustainable” agriculture.

The concept is intriguing. A particular housing development will incorporate some substantial working farm into its master plan, and residents will have some access to the produce and may be able to do some small scale kitchen garden style planting for themselves. They do not automatically get garden allotments, though depending on the development they may be able to purchase use of a plot; this is also not a community garden such as you might find sponsored by a school, a church or a civic group. The farm is commercial, though it will probably be at least in part organic, and it is intended to be a financial asset to the developers first and foremost. The original model is, in fact, a golf course community:

Now, residential developments are catching on to the trend—not only because consumer demand is there, but also because in many cases, DSAs require less of an investment than other green space communities—for instance, communities planned around golf courses. Some 16,000 golf communities have been built in the past few decades because “[developers] figured out they could charge a lot premium [of] anywhere from 15 to 25 percent,” says Ed McMahon, the Charles E. Fraser chair on sustainable development and environmental policy at the D.C.-based Urban Land Institute. “But ironically what we have come to learn over time is the vast majority of buyers in a golf course development actually don’t play golf.”

“What does it cost to leave the open space alone in the first place? Almost nothing,” says McMahon. “A light bulb went off in the mind of savvy developers who said ‘Jeez, I can build a golf course development without the golf course.’ So that led to designing communities around other green-space amenities such as a farm.”

Through DSA agreements, the developing company provides the infrastructure for the farm, which costs about one-fifth of what it takes to build a golf course and significantly less to maintain. In return, the designated farmer sells farm products to residents and the community.

The residents of the featured housing development, Willowsford, don’t get any break on their vegetable purchases from the farm. In fact, the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box will cost them more than comparable organic produce purchased at a local grocery store. The development is not for lower income people. Homes start at well over $500K and go into the millions. It is a lifestyle purchase, just as some other wealthy household might buy on the golf course, or get a view condo in a swanky new residential tower, or live in some other slightly theme-park feeling development catering to people of a certain class.

What this isn’t is sustainable agriculture. It is a niche market where the farm is underwritten by a wealthy enclave who can pay inflated prices for markers of social superiority. This isn’t getting fruits and vegetables to the communities that don’t have easy access to such things. It isn’t making organic farming, or even small scale farming, more efficient and thus more affordable. If anything, the locally grown produce inflates local prices.

How about some business improvement funds for inner-city neighborhoods’ green grocers so they can improve their facilities, get better, more reliable supplies of food, and have less waste because of improved food handling? How about a truly local farmers market in a place like City Heights, where the market is open every day, sells produce from local, community garden plots, and doesn’t just cater to the well-heeled buying over-priced produce from a handful of large scale farms that are 10, 15 or 20 miles away from the neighborhood? How about more and better managed community gardens (allotments) in so-called food deserts so that people can grow stuff for themselves (organic or not)? How about redevelopment of inner-city neighborhoods that builds in farm spaces that will sell to the local community at reasonable prices? You know, low enough that someone on a median income in my area could actually afford to buy it. Or how about not abandoning the lower reaches of the food chain because you have the bucks to buy yourself a fantasy of farm fresh produce?

In short, it is more privatization of food privilege, with a hefty dose of nostalgia for a rural farm life that simply never existed. The reason people left farming over the last century was because they wanted the bright lights of the big city, relief from the loneliness and impoverishment of rural existence, more energy and anonymity in the surrounding culture, no more cow shit, no more dangerous farm equipment, no more arbitrary interference and conservative  moralism from the local “community”.

In many areas of the nation, it was flight from racial oppression in white-dominated rural communities, often after having one’s lands stripped away by unscrupulous local white elites. The rural social and political landscape is not a pretty one, and the oppressor is more likely to be the local elites than Monsanto. Nostalgia for a clean and pure farming past is not easily extricable from nostalgia for a racially stratified society.

So, it’s an intriguing idea for making suburban life less sterile, but at the cost of creating yet another class-restricted food enclave subsidizing their own consumption patterns.


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Posted in Culture, Economics, Food

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