Agroecology — I’m grateful for Miguel Altieri. He is one of the main academic voices for agroecology but he has a humility and openness to really doing a reboot to the way things be, currently. He calls for a new paradigm that will get to the root (“aka “radical”) causes of the agricultural problems but will be transformative
His paradigm looks something like this: food sovereignty + agroecology + land reform.
He talks about being unable to truly farm in California’s prime agricultural regions is because most of us cannot afford the land. One reason I was willing to move to this high desert is that I knew that small homesteads with micro-scale family farms had existed here in the recent past. Recent past being the time of the European-American invasions…because while I personally believe there was indigenous horticulture happening along the Mojave River and various springs, ephemeral waterways, and seeps, in centuries past — before the resettlement in the Mojave Desert, indigenous people largely maintained a hunting and gathering system of subsistence.
This video is worth watching. It will only take four minutes of your time. He highlights that 3% of largest organic farmers control 65% of the market. This is the same old same old. It is the same model, the industrial, corporate model that we’ve been employing for the last two hundred years in this nation and exporting to other parts of the world, usually to the detriment of local ways of working with the land, sustainably.
Women in High Desert Agroecology
What I see in the Mojave Desert is different. Because it’s a marginal climate and difficult to work, the big farmers do not come here. Overhead is too high. For a few decades there were dairy farmers and ranchers (on BLM land) but they found more financially amenable circumstances a bit to the north. Moving the Mojave Desert dairy farming to even larger-scale Kern County dairy farming is one example of the change. So here we are, we few. Interestingly, in my work with and around local small-scale, organic food producers, I have found that the majority in the Mojave Desert are women.
Women are currently at the forefront of alternative agriculture in the United States and studies of gender and food-raising have indicated that traditional farmers include women as key participants. Worldwide women are profoundly involved in food production, particularly small-scale household gardening/farming. The well-studied, worldwide inclination for women to care for human–scale subsistence food production either in partnership with males or as sole proprietors of farms/ranches has been demonstrated in my own studies to extend to the southern Mojave Desert as well.
The 2007 farm census indicates that women as principal owners tend to have small- to mid-scale farms and that they are not getting rich by farming. A bit over 26% of the women principal operators continue to farm, while earning less than $2,500/year from their farming and possibly being among the majority of women operators who work off-farm. Perhaps this speaks to a strong draw of working with the land.
My own study of land use principles of local women farmers indicates they present an agroecological ideal for the southern Mojave Desert. The local water situation and the work necessary to amend initially unproductive soil agroecologically would most likely prohibit a large number of operations that are scaled much beyond 2.5 to 10 acres and likely would not allow for ecological farming on all of the land, if one considers the larger end of that acreage scale.
A Vision for Sustainable Food Systems in the Southern Mojave Desert
Perhaps eventually a mosaic of household gardens, plus small- and micro-scale farms, may coalesce throughout the southern Mojave Desert as local inhabitants decide to grow food locally for themselves and their neighbors. This actually may be the most sustainable picture for food systems in the southern Mojave Desert watershed: an interconnected series of micro-scale sustainable food producers. Looking at indigenous subsistence practices throughout the Mojave Desert, paying attention to ways that trade was conducted for unique highlands products leads to thoughts of a regional food system that does not eschew but engages in trade with other regions in California, the United States, and the world giving particular consideration to fair trade practices for all imported items.
Translating this to Rainshadow Farm
We need a new paradigm every growing season at Rainshadow Farm. Since I’ve been thinking about an income stream which I never had done before, not seriously anyway, I have to really get back in touch with the land. This has been my mantra for the last several decades as a farmer/gardener: Touch the land, know the land, let the land teach you.
I’ve done intensive urban gardening but never urban farming. I think intensive urban *farming* is the foodshed trend for the future in many population centers. Maybe I’ll find myself more involved in that kind of work over the next several years, not sure. But as long as I am able to hold onto this bit of land, I have to reformulate my current thinking. Pramod Parajuli once told me when I was deeply discouraged that I needed a new pair of eyes to look over the land with me. Now I have several pairs, including my kids, current and former students, wise friends, and generous mentors.
I completely agree with Miguel Altieri saying that we have to come down from the idea, right down to the action. Get out of the Ivory Tower. Get onto the land. As my mentor Chet Bowers always used to say, “bring your wheels of theory down onto the ground at your farm.”
Next I want to talk about what kind of new paradigm I am leaning toward.