Why I Am Not Attending the Maine Food Summit

Our friend Bob St. Peter, farmer and co-founder of Food for Maine’s Future, wrote this open letter to participants of today’s Maine Food Summit. Bob farms with his wife and two young daughters on four rented acres in Sedgwick, Maine, and works with his community to support local farmers and food producers and help them be able to more easily feed their neighbors. In 2011, Sedgwick became the first of 10 Maine towns to pass a Local Food & Community Self-Governance Ordinance, sparking a movement across the U.S. to localize food policy decisions and protect traditional foodways. Bob’s perspective as a small family farmer, farmworker and community organizer is an important one, and we share his letter to spark conversation.

Dear Maine Food Summit Participants,

I will not be joining the conference today. I did, however, want to share with you the following list of needs that the Steering Committee would do well to prioritize. It comes from years of conversations with frustrated farmers and farmworkers  and my own experiences trying to do both. The list is just a start.

Wendell Berry wrote in Conserving Communities of the need for farmers to stop looking for help where we continually fail to find it. Sadly, in my decade of food work in Maine I have found little direct financial support for farmers, and about zero discussion of improving wages and conditions for farm workers. We won’t get where we wish continuing the centuries-old practice of devaluing farm work, pretending a generation of farmers and entrepreneurs can fix everything with low-interest loans. Or treating farm labor as an afterthought and separate from the “good food” movement.

Too many of us are struggling more than we should, so when I see the prospect of scarce resources going to another “strategy” process, my response is that we know the problems, it’s time to act. And resource the many trained, eager people ready to do the work of feeding Maine, ending hunger and poverty. Where is the financial support and security? We can’t have the shared reward of Maine’s bounty without sharing the risk it takes to produce it. We can’t have food security or food sovereignty without farm security.

A farmer once told me the idea of a “food system” was created by academics and non-profits for funding and job security. She said if farmers had what they needed to produce we would feed the State – because that’s what we do.

I am hopeful, but far from optimistic, that Maine’s farmers and farmworkers will truly get what we need from the Maine Food Strategy group. Time will tell.

List of Needs

  • Secure land and homes without oppressive mortgages
  • Democratic land trusts responsive to the needs of today’s farmers, their families, and low-income rural residents
  • Preferential purchasing (60-75% market share) from public schools and institutions
  • Student debt forgiveness in exchange for farm work or food service, particularly for people in need
  • Living wages for all farm jobs
  • Affordable, scale-appropriate equipment & technical assistance to support sustainable farming and food production practices
  • Reliable transportation
  • Anti-trust enforcement in dairy, seeds, poultry, beef, pork, retail grocery
  • Scale-appropriate regulation and local control of food policy
  • Local & regional processing and storage infrastructure
  • Health care, including preventative body care therapies
  • Child care
  • Democratic and transparent philanthropy accountable to the people it serves

Please feel free to share this list and encourage others to add to it.

Regards, Bob St.Peter Rough Road Farm Sedgwick, Maine

The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes from the Union By Wendell Berry

From the union of power and money From the union of power and secrecy, From the union of government and science, From the union of government and art, From the union of science and money, From the union of genius and war, From the union of outer space and inner vacuity, The Mad Farmer walks quietly away.

There is only one of him, but he goes. He returns to the small country he calls home, His own nation small enough to walk across. He goes shadowy into the local woods, And brightly into the local meadows and croplands. He goes to the care of neighbors, He goes into the care of neighbors. He goes to the potluck supper, a dish From each house for the hunger of every house. He goes into the quiet of early mornings Of days when he is not going anywhere.

Calling his neighbors together in to the sanctity Of their lives separate and together In the one life of the commonwealth and home, In their own nation small enough for a story Or song to travel across in an hour, he cries:

Come all ye conservatives and liberals Who want to conserve the good things and be free, Come away from the merchants of big answers, Whose hands are metalled with power; From the union of anywhere and everywhere By the purchase of everything from everybody at the lowest price And the sale of anything to anybody at the highest price; From the union of work and debt, work and despair; From the wage-slavery of the helplessly well-employed.

From the union of self-gratification and self-annihilation, Secede into the care for one another And for the good gifts of Heaven and Earth.

Come into the life of the body, the one body Granted to you in all the history of time. Come into the body’s economy, its daily work, And its replenishment at mealtimes and at night. Come into the body’s thanksgiving, when it knows And acknowledges itself a living soul. Come into the dance of the community, joined In a circle, hand in hand, the dance of the eternal Love of women and men for one another And of neighbors and friends for one another.

Always disappearing, always returning, Calling his neighbors to return, to think again Of the care of flocks and herds, of gardens And fields, of woodlots and forests and the uncut groves, Calling them separately and together, calling and calling, He goes forever toward the long restful evening And the croak of the night heron over the river at dark.

Copyright Wendell Berry

Siena Chrisman