We had taken hands and formed a circle around an earthen bowl of corn kernels, marvelous kernels with every color under the rainbow.  One by one, those of us in the circle, including children, spoke words directed toward the bowl before us: our hopes and blessings for the season.   Then, we each took a handful and began planting the lines of corn into the field.

This is not a dream of what rural life once was, but a living memory of an experience I have had being part of the Granja Comunitaria Valle Pintado, where a group of families, supporting “members” of the farm, have been involved in constructing a project that hopes to renovate agriculture.  One of the members had spoken in that circle about how the corn is like us, how it needs many plants together for productive pollination, much like our efforts are enriched and fruitful when we are able work together for our common well-being.  

This was a memory of a gathering day, like many on-farm themed days we have during the growing season, when the supporting members of the farm gather at Valle Pintado to take part in activities that correspond to the season.  Usually we share a meal together with the families who have come to the farm’s community kitchen, and perhaps stroll together through the gardens.  I, being the farmer responsible for carrying out the production on this farm, walk the families through, explaining to them challenges I might be facing, unexpected frosts that might have damaged our crops, or projects I am proud of like showing them some of the successes of propagating heirloom tomatoes of different colors and shapes… everyone licks their lips, knowing that the day those tomatoes ripen it will arrive in their weekly harvest share boxes.

The day to day work on the farm is carried out by myself and a group of volunteers that come from all places and walks of life, who in exchange for room and board work to serve our organic farming efforts.  Together we produce for the member families that support both financially and ethically how we cultivate the land.  The families provide up front capital for our production, providing liquidity even before the season begins, entrusting that we carry out the work out of a deep respect for the land.  We all depend on farming for our food, whether we are farmers or not, and this is a way that non-farmers can shoulder the often times risky and burdening work of the farmer on whom they depend.  Once vegetables are harvestable, the members are entitled to a weekly harvest box, where we harvest the vegetables available and divide them between the boxes that then go to town to a centralized pick up point where the supporting families can get their freshly-picked vegetables.

The project exemplifies our efforts to carry out a model called “Agricultura Asociativa” that we believe could provide much needed renewal for the diverse, small farm everywhere.  Small farms are an endangered entity in these times of growing agribusiness.  The expansion of factory-style industrial agriculture has forged the way for a tremendous desarraigo of rural communities.   Their advance has come at social and environmental costs whose scope is too wide to address in this note.  I think it is better worth these words to honor the small farms, where diversity is celebrated both in the social and ecological sense.

Yet small farms themselves need a makeover if they are going to make sense and be competitive with the advancement of these monstrous farms.  Somewhere along the way they met challenges in the advance of industrialism because farming was converted into yet another industry, when in fact it is not.  In other industries, production is a calculable closed loop, where given a fixed means one can produce a fixed product.  But farming has been unjustly restrained within the parameters of industry because in fact it is embedded in nature and cannot produce such a calculable output.  Whats-more, given the intensive land and capital needs to begin a farming operation, most small farmers would find themselves plagued by debts and mortgages and cannot afford the risks of farming.

Often times I believe that modern consumerism has taught us that we are passive players in creating the realities we desire.  A hidden, powerful message however of the industrial era is that we can call realities into being by putting our money where we believe.  So if we buy a tomato on the shelf of the supermarket and we are not concerned about how it was grown or who grew it, we are favoring the production of tomatoes that will be inconsiderate of the land and the workers who produced it.  Agricultura Asociativa is about challenging the classic identity of the “consumer-producer” relationship.  Those who join an associative farm are not “consumers” in the classic sense; they are “members” because they are active participants in creating the ethical societies they believe in.  If we are talking about the importance of food sovereignty, is there nothing more important than knowing the source of your food?  Of knowing that you are sustaining the welfare of a farmer?

The establishment of small associative farms around urbanized areas is a promising alternative to the imposition of agribusiness for democratic communities that determine their own destinies.  It offers fresh, healthy food for the population and localized support for the ailing profession of farmers of ecologically diverse farms.  Sustaining diverse farms is fundamental for forging resilient communities; small farms maintain the ability to buffer dramatic changes in climate or sudden outbreaks of pests or plagues that would otherwise wipe out extensions dedicated to a single crop like industrial-style monocropping.  While an unusually cool, wet year, for example, might wipe out a crop of garlic, other crops like lettuce proliferate – there is never too much of a loss.

Finally, the renovation of community-based agriculture offers the opportunity for the renewal of regional cultural identity.  Community interest in agriculture links people to the transformation of nature through the seasons as we live it through the farm entity, the opportunity to gather, whether it be to honor the harvest of the season of abundance, or plant our hopes as the planting season begins.  Gathering together at times that are significant for a community helps us to identify and reaffirm with what is important to us and what is unique to our region.

The corn we were planting that spring at Granja Valle Pintado was a variety of mountain corn, resistant to the cold, offering a valuable food source for a region that can’t grow many other kinds of corn.  It is a variety I have saved seed from for nearly a decade.  Each time I select the corn I will save seed from I think of the long line of ancestors who also did the same to create the corn I greet today, and I reflect that my decisions today selecting the corn will be passed down to future generations.  Corns like these are continually being threatened by the advance of transgenic corn, which has been developed for machine and chemical agriculture.  Our corn is made up of many colors, like the social and ecological diversity we embrace on our community farm, and the hope we plant for future generations of self-determining societies.

— Alex Edleson, Granjero Comunitario, July 2011

Visit the website at www.granjavallepintado.org