Of Farms and Fables combines the efforts of professional and non-professional artists by engaging artists in farm work and farm workers in storytelling and acting. The result will be an original performance in October of 2011 which will engage performers and audience in dialogue about local agriculture, farming, and the future of small family farms in Maine.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Real plow, pencil plow (Cory)

My connection to the farming world is very different than it was five months ago at the end of our work exchange. During the work exchange it was physical, it was experiential, visceral; it was personal and interpersonal, it was tangible, it was about particular stories and memories and opinions. It was this farmer and that intern and this potato beetle and that cow and this CSA member and that hot sweaty day of tossing hay or misty morning weeding.

Maybe it is a strange order of things, but I started -- through the work exchange -- with the effort to understand the smaller elements of the picture; and it's now that the work exchange is over, in stepping back from that tangible experience and from Maine and from the United States, that I am for the first time really trying to get a sense of the picture as a whole. Reading articles. Listening to radio programs. Checking out documentation on every website from MOFGA's to the FDA's.

It is overwhelming.

It is a big picture. BIG. It's over a year ago that I first started talking with Jennie about working on this project and it has been a year of being constantly surprised by how much I didn't know about the issues of food production and processing and consumption, and land use and preservation, in the United States; and how much there always is, still, to learn. It is a puzzle. It is a very complicated puzzle. And it's possible we bought it from Goodwill and don't even know whether all of the pieces are there at all, or maybe some pieces of another puzzle are mixed in. Seems like every time I turn around, there is a new can of worms to open.

A Partial Listing of Opened Worm Cans
  1. The Big Guys vs. the Little Guys (GAP certification, farm subsidies, federal price of milk) -- how government ends up getting skewed towards making things easier for big industrial farmers, exactly the guys who don't need the help of, say, subsidies
  2. Environmental issues: carbon footprint of food transported from one side of the country to the other, animals bred for their meat consuming massive amounts of grain
  3. Is the "slow food movement" or the "local food movement" classist? Affordability vs. health vs. capacity to feed everybody vs. people just wanting to eat what they want to eat, damn it...
  4. Health issues: is it healthier to eat organic? How can we avoid major food-related health scares related to food production/processing (that GAP certification thing is tied up in this)? Does the subtherapeutic use of antibiotics do more harm than good?
  5. Community: is the American community deteriorating? What are the negative effects of globalism (I know, getting SUPER big picture here) and how can community-building, buying locally, and creating locally fight those negative effects?
  6. Land use: small farmers often can't compete with certain buyers who are able to pay much higher prices for land; how do we even things out? What are the benefits and drawbacks of land easements?
There are more. There will always be more. Point is, this stuff wasn't even close to being on my radar a year ago. And what put it on? This farm. That farmer.

It's hard to be away from those individual farms and farmers, far away, quite far, working on a play for them. Distance lends perspective, but drama is in the details. The big picture isn't theater. Theater is pink crocs, memories of an old barn, a cow dodging a rope halter, hustling to get CSA shares ready, chatting with an old blind woman in floral print on the farmstand bus.

I don't know what the context of this quote is, but I'm sure you can see why it speaks to me: "Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field."

Dwight D. Eisenhower wasn't writing a play, but I can read a wealth of encouragements and cautions in what he says. At the heart of it is an exhortation not to simplify, not to forget what it's like to be much closer -- to be there.

One way that theater can be a vital part of the conversation about the future of farming: It can help people be there. Remove that distance. Help us remember there's a woman behind that head of lettuce, a man behind that gallon of milk. That a farm is more than the tangible consumables it produces -- it is a part of the delicate and endangered ecosystem of the American community.