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Hope on the collective farm

By Nancy Myers The human future is up for grabs, a fifty-fifty proposition at best. I wonder if we are going to change our ways fast enough to make a difference?

I’ve been on the edges of activism long enough (30 years) to know the limits of scaring people into change. Some people scare well; others shut out the dire predictions, turn away. Personally, I fall somewhere in between. I scare well for a while and then I get paralyzed, overwhelmed. Nuclear weapons. Climate change. Chemical poisons. Overpopulation. If it isn’t one thing it’s another.

When I was on the staff of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—the magazine of the Doomsday Clock, which indicated the approaching midnight of nuclear holocaust--we used to joke about dire predictions: yet another article on “the end of the world as we know it.”

And yet, what do you do with the truth, which is that the way of life humans have developed over thousands of years is going to do us in? One thing or another, probably in combination, will very likely bring about “the end of the world as we know it.”

One thing I do know is that hope is at least as powerful a motivating factor as fear. Which is why we environmentalists often sugarcoat our doomsday message with “what you can do.” What you can do personally, without much effort, to make a difference. You can make a difference, we tell people, even though we know that individual efforts are paltry. Recycle. Boycott BPA. Buy a hybrid. Buy green school supplies.

Tiny drops in a huge bucket, even if everybody does it.

Holding out little bits of hope invites both naivete and cynicism. But I still do it because doing these things creates new practices, stirs new awareness, creates movement in the heart. Each act wakes us up a little.

And when you are trying new things, new ways, every now and then you get a glimpse of real hope, real possibility. Every now and then you get a glimpse of a livable human future.

I am getting those glimpses every week down on the collective farm, which is what I call our CSA, though few people get the joke. I have to explain both ends of it, which takes the punch away.

“CSA” stands for “community supported agriculture,” the kind of farm where you pay for a membership and usually pick up or get food delivered weekly through the season. “Collective farm” harks back to the old Soviet Union, where people worked together, for the greater good, on large farms owned by the state.

Our CSA is somewhere in between. It’s a working CSA—we don’t just pick up our food; my husband and I take turns working on the farm from 7 to 10 AM every Wednesday and we share the harvest of that day with 18 other members.

Something about the arrangement feels a little bit like (shudder) socialism. We don’t own the land ourselves—it belongs to Theri and her husband—nor do we have our own plots. It is highly organized. Each of us works in a special area (Vic and I are in “roots”), and Theri supervises us closely. Members help with planning and planting, but Theri makes the big decisions. This year, for example, she tripled the area dedicated to roots. That makes for a lot of onions, leeks, beets, radishes, turnips, and kohlrabi to weed. And eat.

But there we are, a motley crew of all ages and walks of life, with our hands in the dirt, learning how to grow our own food, replenish the earth that produces it, and build a lively, cooperative human community—all at the same time. These are skills we need if there is to be a sustainable human future.

The thing is, our time on the farm is fun. It feels good. The work and its rewards—the bushel basket overflowing with the weekly harvest—are both good and beautiful.

I am not naïve about farming. I grew up on a farm and I know it involves hard work and hardship. I picked so many beans as a kid that I thought I never wanted to see another beanstalk (and yet here I am, wowed by this week’s purple beans). My brothers very nearly went bankrupt before they sold the family farm in the 1980s (and yet here I am, helping with a fundraiser to supplement our modest membership fees).

What I know this time around is that setups like our collective farm are not only pleasant but urgently needed—now and in the future. Fortunately, this way of life transmits from generation to generation.

The other morning my co-laborer’s 11-year-old son sleepily began pushing the hoe around the leeks. I said, “Isaac, do you want to do something more fun?”

He brightened. “Like harvest?”

And together we pulled 60 of the fattest leeks to share with the crowd.