The urban-rural food movement

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Just a few blocks from The Progressive’s offices, the Dane County Farmers’ Market-the biggest direct, local farmers’ market in the country-attracts thousands of shoppers every Saturday morning from April to November.

People flock to the Capitol Square to enjoy the sheer abundance of beautiful vegetables, flowers, meats, and cheeses, grab a cup of coffee, catch up with neighbors, stop by tables set up by various nonprofit groups, and chat with more than 160 area farmers who sell the highest quality produce grown on some of the richest farmland in the world.

This is the agricultural hub of an agricultural region. It is no coincidence that it is also the cradle of progressivism, a century-old vision of local democracy, stewardship of the land, and a way of life that treasures community.

Under a bright blue awning at the market you can stop and talk with the Carr family, of Pecatonica Valley Farm.

John and Mary Lee Carr, who worked the land in Iowa County, Wisconsin, for most of their adult lives, have passed down their farm to the next generation: their sons Wade and Todd and daughter-in-law Amy and their three grandchildren, who gather eggs, feed the pigs, and take care of the small operation themselves.

Over the years, the Carrs watched the rise of industrial-scale agriculture wipe out small farms and beautiful little towns all over the region.


“By banding together and fighting, we can just make it,” John Carr says. But the outlook is not good. The reason, he says, is simple: “We’ve been steamrolled by the twenty-four-row corn planter.”

Carr embraces the farmers’ market, the slow food movement and the urbanites who support local farms. “But you get away from the university town and you’re in the jaws of corporate marketing and corporate farming,” he says.

The destruction of small farms by corporate agriculture is a much more serious problem than just nostalgia for a quaint, old-fashioned way of life. It is a crisis of historic proportions, for urban and rural people alike.

“I see us becoming basically a landless society, much like the Middle Ages in Europe,” says Carr.

Rural Wisconsin is looking more and more like the feudal societies the Carrs’ immigrant ancestors fled when they came to the United States. Modern corporate farming has led to what Carr calls “the violent restructuring of local culture.”

It goes like this: “Folks are forced to go to Madison to work, and it’s handy for them to stop at the big box store on their way home. The community is just dead.”

Gone are the little stores and local gathering places in post-card pretty towns like Hollandale, where the Carrs lived for years.

And the problem is bigger than that. “Agriculture is the largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity,” according to the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Land Institute points out on its website. The institute points to a recent study by the Environmental Working Group in six Iowa townships that showed “disastrous average erosion rates exceeding too tons per acre annually.”

“As it can take from 500 to 1,000 years to build an inch of new topsoil, these losses simply cannot be allowed to continue,” the institute concludes.

Or, as Carr puts it, “It’s just a crime to observe the erosion taking place on our Iowa County soils.” Watching all that fertile topsoil wash downhill is “just a sin,” he says.

At seventy-five, Carr is old enough to have been involved in the great reconditioning of the land after the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, he adds. “We planted pine trees and wind breaks. That’s all been destroyed by the twenty-four-row corn planter.”

Wes Jackson, the visionary geneticist and environmental scientist, founded the nonprofit Land Institute in Kansas in the 1970s after he made the shocking discovery that the pace of topsoil erosion in the United States is as bad as it was during the Dust Bowl.

“Soil is more important than oil,” Jackson pointed out in a recent TED talk. Without oil, we can’t drive. But without soil, we can’t eat.

The Land Institute’s great innovation is a remedy for erosion in the form of perennial polyculture–a mixture of perennial plants that nourish the soil–unlike com and other massive monoculture crops that must be replanted every season, plowing up the land, burning up fossil fuels and dousing our waterways with toxic chemicals.

Perennials not only reduce erosion, they nourish the soil, sequester carbon, and, with their deep roots, can withstand the flooding and drought that accompany climate change.

Jackson and his colleagues are breeding a whole new type of plant–nutrient-rich grains they can grow perennially–that could become part of that urban diet Carr hopes might help save the small farm.

“As I see it, we rural people could stand a tremendous upgrade in our education on food,” says Carr. Urbanites who are interested in local food and sustainable agriculture could form a powerful bond with farmers.

“We are just controlled by the major processors for our raw materials,” he says. “We have no connection to the doughnuts at Kwik Trip. That’s all left out of our hands.”

It’s up to urban people to reach out, Carr says, so farmers can produce what they want. Rural people, too, are swept up in “zero-effort dinners picked up at the convenience store,” he says. “We need to rise above that.”

There is another key human value at stake in this conversation about food and the land: beauty.

Carr has helped support the idea that beautiful outdoor space is for everyone, by resisting the enormous pressure to sell to developers.

When he and Mary Lee graduated from college, they found a piece of farmland for sale in Sauk County. A breath-taking part of the state’s Driftless Area–untouched by glaciers in the last ice age-it had an enormous natural sandstone bridge. They bought the land, with the help of Mary’s parents, for $100 an acre. People visited from around the country, and the Carrs charged them twenty-five cents to admire the view.

Then one day, “a fellow from Milwaukee popped by,” says Carr. “He had plans to build a restaurant with a big rotating table or something right at the natural bridge.”

The Carrs were appalled. They refused to sell. This was during the height of the farm crisis, and family farms were going belly-up all around them. The rolling hills of Wisconsin were fast overtaken by a plague of beige ticky-tacky houses in new developments. The Carrs worked for years with the state’s Department of Natural Resources to help create the 530-acre Natural Bridge State Park.


“It’s there for everyone to enjoy,” Carr says. “And it hasn’t gotten a black eye with a restaurant with a rotating table.” University of Wisconsin scientists discovered a cave under the bridge used by native people 11,000 years ago.

Carr was also a founding member of the Wisconsin Rural Development Center with the late Tom Lamm.

During the farm crisis, Lamm asked Carr to travel the state delivering a speech drawing on Fighting Bob La Follette’s progressive vision for farmers and workers and small communities.

Since the demise of the Rural Development Center, “I don’t think there exists an organization to bring us all together anymore,” Carr says, “where urban and rural people could come together and create the world we’d like to see.” But the seeds are there.

Wes Jackson, in his TED talk, contrasts his “intellectual pessimism” with what he terms his “glandular optimism.” In the face of looming planetary disaster, he and his team of researchers at the Land Institute continue to do optimistic and innovative work.

In defense of optimism, he quotes the great poet, essayist, and author Wendell Berry: “A hard-headed realist is someone who uses a lot less information than what’s available.”

There is tremendous information available–not to mention beauty, community, and food–for the glandular optimists among us. Dig in!

Conniff, Ruth

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