Most of us are profoundly disconnected from food production—the lettuce, pickles, and ground beef we eat everyday arrive on conveyor belts of anonymity and abstraction. Out in the periphery of our awareness we hold vague notions of farming, massive industrial kitchens, trucks, and warehouses, but these are hazy images obscured within the faceless corporations that dominate our food markets.
Our world has not always been this way! These obstructions blocking our food-line-of-sight are discontinuous with our human cultural heritage. It’s such a historical anomaly that it should give us pause. When we consider our current arrangement, we can see that alienation from our food has far-reaching and destructive ramifications. Fear not though: there are simple ways to get back on course. A great place to start is by going to a farm.
So here’s my call to action: get off your computer and go visit a farm. So many farms, all over the country, welcome visitors on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Some of them offer U-Pick days when you can go and pick your own crops. To spend time on a farm and talk to a farmer is motivating and enriching, not to mention a really enjoyable way to spend a few hours.
Once upon a time, we humans were intimately involved with every part of the farming process, from planting seeds all the way to ladling veggie stews onto our supper plates. We knew what was going down—and coming up—how it was doing, and when we could eat it. This was true across nations, cultures, and historical epochs. Either you were a farmer, or you knew a farmer, or you had a direct line of sight to a farm every day, even if you lived in the center of a city.
Almost all societies have, and have had, agricultural themes and images woven into the cultural framework. So many major religious holidays have their origins in agricultural events like first harvests; and as Wendell Berry reminds us in The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, we even use agricultural metaphors like planting, tending, and recurring cycles of growth and decay in our cultural language. Agriculture provides the heart of our common rituals, our idioms, and the set of unspoken expectations we all have for life’s unfolding cycles.
Reality has splintered from our agri-cultural heritage. That, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. There are many progressive and life-enriching changes that are discontinuous with bad habits from our cultural past. Our connection to our food, however, was one of our best habits and we need to fight against its loss for a few fundamental reasons.
First, with more direct exposure to food production, food consumers make better decisions in the grocery aisle. It’s hard to judge which food is going to be best, when you don’t have first-hand knowledge of production to inform that decision. Imagine having first-hand exposure to real cheese production. If you had seen the equation of grass plus cow becoming milk becoming cheese—and saw that healthier grass made better cheese – would you be skeptical of Kraft Macaroni’s ‘cheese product’? More engagement with food production leads to better voluntary decisions across food categories.
Second, our exposure to food production makes the natural world, and the land in particular, feel more familiar. Agriculture is the fundamental way that we take part in the cycles of nature—not as observers, but as real participants. That sense of mutuality with nature is important for the environment and our own health, and we risk forgetting about it completely when agriculture lacks any daily presence in our awareness.
Third, as a culture we’re at risk—and we have been for a while—of becoming passive consumers while leaving production to abstract entities who have less and less of a stake in our health and happiness. When we know where our food comes from and how to make it, we demystify the entire production-consumption. That knowledge elevates us to become not just better consumers, but to see in ourselves the potential to be food producers.
When I visit a farm, it influences my food shopping decisions by slowing them down and making me more thoughtful about what I buy and put in my body. Farmers appreciate it too—farming is long days of hard work and can be emotionally taxing. Having a community of supporters is a boon to the spirit. Most farmers I speak to are eager to host more visitors on their farms, and almost all say that their best customers were “converted” during their first visit.
At my company, Good Eggs, we’re on a mission to grow and sustain local food systems worldwide. We’re helping people shop direct from local food systems, and in the process we’re building tools to help the farmers and food makers behind those systems. There are 13 people in our company today, and once every month we take a field-trip to a local farm to get a tour and meet the farmer. It’s an important part of our company culture, and every time we walk away from the farm having the same conversation: How can we work harder, smarter, better, to help that farmer? How can we help more people, like us, gain their own first-hand exposure to local food systems? We’re convinced it’s a way to help people eat better and be healthier and happier.
Go visit a farm, you’ll see what I mean.