Thinking on Independence

Already I’ve heard the distant boom of fireworks in the evening, rumbling over the landscape from a nearby lake. Folks are preparing to celebrate our nation’s Independence Day and it has me thinking on the properties of independence, liberty, and freedom today—thoughts I felt worth sharing.

I’m not talking about a two-year-old’s understanding of independence, which is defiant and self-absorbed. Instead, I’m thinking on liberty in relation to system of oppression and control—even those quiet ones that run in the background that we might seldom notice—and how they relate to life on the farm (and for you) now.

One of the real rubs for the colonists was England’s system of managing trade between its frontiers and the homeland. Colonists were expected to extract and send home raw goods like timber, furs, and dried fish, while England then wanted to sell finished products like furniture, textiles, and tea (goods that were also heavily taxed) back to the colonists. People who worked in these finishing industries were forbidden to emigrate to the colonies, as was the transfer of knowledge of their skills across the pond. The situation kept colonists trapped in a financial losing game that meant they had to send ever more resources back to England to make ends meet.

Those who today work in commodity agriculture know this same rub, and we call it “sell wholesale, buy retail.” By nature, it will squeeze the producer financially and make them indebted to the system and unable to have the wiggle room to try new methods of practice. They too are chasing higher yields in the hope to make ends meet, and our environment and biodiversity is paying the price.

For the colonists who became Americans, the solution to this economic squeeze comprised a mix of saying no to the system and the smuggling of empowering solutions. Samuel Slater is an example, who in 1789 snuck across the Atlantic under a false name. He was a textile worker who meticulously memorized every piece of the then state-of-the-art mechanized loom, then began rebuilding them in America. This created a textile revolution in our young country, allowing us to state our independence from English textiles.

Slater’s story can offer a powerful example for us today as we continue to struggle with systems that keep us trapped and unempowered. It’s a model we live daily here on our farm as we embrace the full cycle of a process, rather than be a cog in the wheel of industry. In Slater’s day, wool and cotton were bundled raw and sold to England, which then transformed these raw goods into textiles and sold them back to the colonists and early Americans. After the textile revolution, that full cycle stayed home and we became independent of English price fixing. In our country today, you can see this on any commodity crop—from corn to milk to wool—and how many farms are again subject to that old system. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

You can pull a Slater on the system and work the whole process at home or in collaboration with a small group. This is known today as “value added” in the ag world. Instead of selling our milk in bulk, we transform it into delicious gelato and cheese at our Farmstead Creamery, direct to customers. Today’s form of what England was (what we now call “middle men”) is cut out of the system and denied power and influence over our farm’s choices. This cycle also repeats for the wool we produce, and the produce and meats, to the point where the equity market’s running prices for commodity goods aren’t even of interest to us. We aren’t playing that game anymore.

This is just looking at one aspect of fostering independence from systems of oppression and control on the farm. Regenerative practices that encourage biodiversity and permaculture can free us from the bondage of reliance on chemicals to prop up soil fertility and beat back pests. For more on how this process works as well as how regenerative agriculture can also reverse global climate change, please watch the documentary “Kiss the Ground” (available on Netflix). It’s worth your time!

Learning how to cook and process our own foods can liberate us from reliance on industrial food processing plants, which charm us with convenience but often strip out nutrition and infuse salt and preservatives that damage our health. Reclaiming food preparation not only decentralizes this vital process for human flourishing but also fosters relationship with our food and how it was grown. When the cycle becomes visible, we learn to care about it. When it remains hidden by industry, we learn to remain apathetic. Caring about a process and wishing to change it for the better is deeply linked with liberty and the lived expression of freedom.

You can participate and influence all of these aspects, even if you don’t have a farm. You can learn about how these processes work and reclaim food processing skills. You can choose to shop with small producers who have chosen to work the full cycle by value adding what they grow and raise. You can choose to support regenerative agriculture and food systems that create independence from chemically intense practices and help to heal our earth. None of this happens in a void.

Samuel Slater wouldn’t have made his dangerous smuggling trek across the Atlantic, if he had felt Americans would reject quality textiles made at home in favor of English imports. This Independence Day, think on how you can be part of the revolution to reclaim independence in our food system. See you down on the farm sometime.