People like us: farmers, police, Bitterrooters

A farm laborer in Albania shows me how he replaces sage plants to keep his perennial herb garden healthy.

Rather than spending most of my days in Turkey and Albania galavanting and celebrating with small farmers, I hate to admit, but I spent an enormous amount of time waiting, just stuck. Like farming, I have to improvise a lot on these sustainability certification trips. For example, when I tried to enter Albania, I was literally detained by the police. Something went horribly wrong with my passport, the lingering effects of some losing-and-replacement years ago, so I was stuck in police custody for four or five hours while I enlisted a small army of people to help try and sort my record straight: Mary, Interpool, and the US Embassy. It took so long that I persuaded the police officer charged with making sure I'd didn't try to make a run, out to a coffee bar. During the hours we waited, huddling with small cups of espresso like young chickens under a heat lamp, we talked farming and politics. I heard a lot about people have given up hope: years of farming that don't pay and uncertain markets. Mary and I know a lot about that, and I shared images of our life on my phone.  As often happens, I come away with a sense of greater solidarity.

And in Turkey, when I was working with small apple farmers, who were drying them in high mountain villages, I needed to put aside my favorite job-- of hiking farm to farm and getting to know the farming practices of farmers, to hunkering down in the the villages, around coal burning stoves, and drinking cup after cup of tea, to discuss problems with global prices and lack of farming equipment. Sometimes the hardest parts of farming are not the growing.  

My time in Turkey was one of the worst trips I've had: with the food politics so intense and the balance of small farmer power so seemingly at odds with everything that Mary and I hold dear about why we farm,  I was forced to start asking hard questions in one village: why people felt so defeated, disempowered. At one point, with goosebumps on my neck, I carefully asked if people around me had been threatened by some of the players. 

In some ways, the sustainable agriculture network, part of a large global group of NGOs and farmer organizations that I've been hired to work for, is a sham. Policies that are meant to promote small scale agriculture and farms don't often require long term investments and farms and trust building processes that global agricultural business are willing to make. So, while I get to hear about real successes, and there's always something to bring back to our farm in Montana, there are real setbacks: farmers I know that will never get the training they need, farmers that never get fair, living wage prices for their work, and worse, farmers that feel alone, lost because they can't get access to adequate startup capital, a market, land, or because of labor costs, they just can't manage their farm how they envision. Mary and I know a lot about that, partly because we've felt the same things.

On my trips to check in on practices, I see myself in the role of the other: the small marginalized farmer, someone who is familiar with all the challenges of building a business, and sometimes just feeling heard.

For all these reasons, Mary and I are still at work. While I'm away, I'm happy to report that no police showed up to the farm, even to inquire about the time I threatened this summer to blockade one of our neighbor's hired spray trucks. Mary just kept harvesting. I'm back on building tasks, many this year, and we are already deep into our planning process for next season. We will get the last batch of our soil samples, all 14 of them, off in the mail, to help us figure out how we are doing with some of those preparations.

It's been a tough season for us, and but we've had some good end of the season serious wins: 1. the farmstore, still open and stocked; 2.)our new hoophouse, still packed with greens and surprises; 3.) and, you members. Our members are our favorite people in our world. We will expand on the Feedbag program this year and our weekly vegetable subscritpions kept us going. Part of our big vision for next year, is being able to feed more families, regardless of income. Not only is this our vision for a thriving local healthy food culture, but we see it as a way for our small business to contribute to the economics of families, growing and struggling. 

In many ways, Mary and I are just like you. We've learned to see some of ourselves in all of you, both near and far. I like to think it's because you've made me such a strong farmer and person, over the past year that I was able to stand up, as a proud farmer and citizen back in Turkey, talk about what is right and come back to the Bitterroot stronger and more resolute than ever - the belief that farming permeates life; the belief that it's our communities, and commitments to one another that are our strongest allies.