Harnessing Real-World Experience
for Transformative Change
By Anthony Flaccavento
University Press of Kentucky 2016
The art of distilling labyrinthine public policy into digestible, utilitarian information is not a facile one. The challenge heightens when an author also attempts to address comprehensive global history, provide thoughtful economic analysis, and maintain readability that allows readers to survive past the first hundred pages after a long day of work. In Building a Healthy Economy From the Bottom Up: Harnessing Real-World Experience for Transformative Change, Anthony Flaccavento masters all of the above, and exceptionally.
Flaccavento’s résumé is both broad and credible. Farming, food, and health issues were brought to the forefront during his 20-plus years as a small-scale, commercial organic farmer in southwest Virginia. During those years, Flaccavento also conducted experiments in central Appalachia in arenas from forestry and wood products to place-based economic development, affordable housing, and more, in attempts to define and refine his conception of a “bottom-up” economy. In 2012, Flaccavento ran for Congress in Virginia’s 9th district, was unopposed for the Democratic nomination but lost in November. Moreover, he is currently working with “national-level progressive economic and political organizations to elevate the issues and concerns of working people, practitioners, and rural communities.”
Beginning with a quick, yet thoughtful foreword from Bill McKibben, the book acknowledges the fundamental truths of the earth: “There is more than enough to be depressed about on our planet—if you gave me an hour, I’d still be listing bullet points when the clock ran out,” McKibben writes. However, he notes that what Flaccavento does truly well is not only to identify the depressing things about the economy, public policy, and the perceived futility of change but also to find and elucidate the good: “It’s a moment for connections, and it strikes me that that’s what these wonderful stories that Flaccavento is telling have in common. There’s every reason to despair, but there’s also reason enough to hope that some alternative exists.”
In some ways, the book is just that: A collection of short stories. It isn’t titled as one, but Flaccavento’s chapters weave in stories of local communities and people undergoing economic and systemic movement: “At their core, all of the transitions share this central characteristic: They are emerging from the bottom up, from small groups of people, local communities, and innovative businesses and organizations.”
Flaccavento begins with a tremendously useful and concise economic history, assessment of current economic thinking and practice, and analysis of myths that underlie our fundamental beliefs about the economy. Beginning with Adam Smith and working into today’s economic landscape, the book reads like an economics primer for those who need to brush up on their classical training in Marx, Ricardo, and Smith. For Flaccavento, it is impossible to understand the obstacles our systems face without understanding the economy they exist within. Above all, it is crucial to recognize the power that individual citizens hold in changing those systems: “The economy is really a mix of many economies, beginning with what we do at home and in our communities. It is not an inscrutable or immutable force that cannot be changed by ordinary people like you and me—unless we let it be so.” Once we release the idea that our food systems, and our economy are somehow driven by natural laws that steer it in ways that are “both inevitable and ultimately, good for us,” change can occur.
In each of the following sections, Flaccavento identifies a community working to change, shares a story from his own personal life, or reviews an anecdote from his experiences in Appalachia. What the book does particularly well is to write these tales into the narrative, but then structure related public policy analysis into brief and digestible sections. Clear headings and tight organization make the reading experience enjoyable as he traces the transitions that must be made in order to allow the economy to stop solving policy issues from the top down, and instead, let the economy function from the bottom up: The community becomes the heart and soul of the economy.
Each section concludes with a helpful bibliography and suggestions for further reading, suggesting that this book is not meant to be the one and only manual of its kind on this topic. Rather, it is meant to begin the conversation from the bottom up, enabling readers to take the rest of their search for information into their own hands. After all, change is up to us.
How to Live Richly Without Wealth
on the New Garden Farm
By Gene Logsdon
Chelsea Green Publishing 2017
Gene Logsdon’s book is titled Letter to a Young Farmer, and there can be no doubt that his essays fulfill their titular promise. However, as with many subject-specific books, there is much to be gleaned for any reader regardless of profession. As a love letter to small-scale farming, Logsdon’s stories run the gamut from personal anecdote to philosophical meditation. Grandfatherly tips on saving money while traveling mingle with analyses of the ripening “rurban” (rural/urban) culture and, moreover, what the purpose of our lives actually is. The dexterity with which he transitions from comedic story to sharp economic or philosophic analysis is astonishing, and provides the book with an energy and control often missing in modern books of disjointed, fragmented essays.
Logsdon’s thesis is clear: For farmers of any shape and size, the agrarian decentralization movement makes it more possible than at any other time in the past century to live happily, healthfully, and prosperously in their chosen profession. The American novelist and environmental activist Wendell Berry’s invaluable foreword calls attention to the nature of Logsdon’s reflection: “Letter to a Young Farmer is Gene Logsdon’s valedictory statement, written during what he knew was his final illness, finished at virtually the last minute of his working life.” The book caps an extraordinarily long and productive career, in which Logsdon celebrated and fought for a group that he termed The Contrary Farmers of America: “By the testimony of this book, they are contrary to getting ‘big’ at any cost, to buying everything new and expensive that is recommended by experts, to dissolute economic and social behavior, to the fanatical pursuit of ‘more’ and ‘better,’ and to farming as territorial aggression or surface mining.”
Money is at the heart of this book. Though the title does not showcase the narrative thread that binds it together, Logsdon’s writing makes it clear that living “richly” is a very personal, and a very meaningful, concept. Occasionally, he muses on an underlying nostalgia for a world without dollars and cents: “Surely it is possible to live life free from the shackles of paper money growth. At least occasionally free.” For Logsdon, utopia comes on the form of farming for pleasure and for modesty, allowing the connection with the earth to literally and figuratively outweigh the modern mansion, a life of travel and exploration, and the possessions that connote our modern conception of success.
The book begins with a crucial underlying precept: American farmers are difficult to categorize in a way that other professions are not. Urban farmers are not cattle farmers, dairy farmers in Ohio are not big-business chicken farmers, and rooftop gardens are not million-acre facilities for genetically modified crops. Farmers are not necessarily bound by interest, political affinity, religion, or gender. The one common denominator that all farmers must have in common is far more simple: “Bullheadedness is the common denominator of successful farmers. To succeed, it first helps to be stubborn to a fault.”
Essays address not only the character of a farmer, but blend imperative suggestions to young farmers with historical farming narratives and Logsdon’s personal experiences during a long life. Specific information on how, precisely, one can decide whether to raise sheep is followed by advice on how to travel sensibly (and for farmers, preferably rarely). Logsdon analyzes the advantages and disadvantages of small-scale farming by comically musing upon the identity of a cattle barn as a pseudo cow spa. He discusses how to acquire wild food and “attractive landscape plants” without spending any money. Most advice relies upon the relatively small budget of a relatively small farmer, and offers tips and tricks gleaned from the lives of Logsdon and his wife, Carol.
Finally, Logsdon concludes by extolling “rural simplicity,” noting that the true fruits of his life have been those that cannot be quantified into dollars: “First of all, time is not money, time is life. And I love my life. I love it so much that I made a decision to pursue it even though it meant that we would not have much money to spend on stuff we didn’t need. Second, I don’t know how to put a true monetary value on this milk, cream, butter, cottage cheese, and all the baked and cooked foods that include these dairy products in their recipes because my kind taste so much better than the store-bought kind.”
Logsdon’s diction isn’t elevated, and he shifts between tones and modes in the blink of an eye. However, the reading experience is akin to listening to your grandfather write the sum of his knowledge about life, relationships, love, and happiness, albeit with an unusually comfortable and philosophic spin. Young farmers will learn all they need to know about electric fences and finding love and marriage with a “New Age Farm Partner,” but any human will learn what they need to know about what makes a life, what makes a really good life. Logsdon tells the reader what they know in their hearts, but can be reminded of regularly: That the world, and the earth, and good food, and good relationships will provide more happiness and sustenance than any mansion ever can.
How Humanity Will Feed Itself in Uncertain Times
By Michael Brownlee
North Atlantic Books 2016
The Local Food Revolution: How Humanity Will Feed Itself in Uncertain Times is not a perfect book. Indeed, the book features numerous moments of slight disorganization, questionable verbosity, and repetitive diction. There is no narrative build, culminating in a call-to-action, unless you count the calls-to-action that fall at the end of nearly every chapter. Brownlee’s prose wavers from clear, crisp scientific research into statements epitomized by the following: “This deep revolution appears to be guided and inspired by the angels of evolution (past and present, visible and invisible) who gently and often silently assist us as they serve a Higher Order seeking to emerge and manifest here, expressing itself through nearly 14 billion years of evolution’s unfolding in this universe …” Angels of evolution, indeed!
These caveats are merely meant to function as a forewarning, because this book is simply not an appropriate fit for every reader. However, and most importantly, for many readers, the tenor of Brownlee’s argument and immensely thoughtful, practical, and detailed roadmap for the creation of local foodsheds will outweigh any tricky literary movements. The overarching message, an urgent call for a food revolution via a parallel system of local production, remains tremendously useful for food-focused citizens. Despite the ubiquity of the idea, Brownlee gives it life through personal anecdotes and lessons learned from his own experiences attempting to transition Boulder, Colorado, to producing 25 percent of its food locally.
The cofounder of the nonprofit advocacy group Local Food Shift and cofounder of the eponymous magazine, Brownlee writes for “farmers and ranchers, community gardeners, aspiring food entrepreneurs, supply chain venturers, commercial food buyers, restaurateurs, investors, community food activists, nonprofit agencies, policy makers, or local government leaders.” The book is divided into eight parts, each of which address a concern that may interest one of the intended readers: the food history and context of the global food crisis, the relationship between climate change and food systems, and most importantly, field notes for the emergence of a foodshed. These field notes, found in Part 6, detail with immense granularity the steps and obstacles for a future food entrepreneur interested in launching food localization efforts. This section undoubtedly holds the most value and the most information in the book, but Brownlee develops his own story with pathos and intensity to provide authority when it comes to these field notes.
As a co-initiator of the Boulder Valley Relocalization project, Brownlee discusses the existential challenge that comes as a natural result of working on a problem so overwhelming and awe inspiring. Ultimately, this very fear led to the death of their first efforts: “The project seemed too overwhelming, too out of reach. We knew that the Boulder Valley Relocalization had utterly failed and would be no more.” So, the relocalization team changed their tactics and their approach, though continuing to fight against the industrial food system’s rhetoric of producing enough food to feed the world: “Indeed, the meme of ‘feeding the world’ is essentially an exploitive and manipulative marketing strategy. It is a mantra still mindlessly and ritually chanted by nearly everyone in the industrial food supply chain—an article of near religious faith.” Brownlee outlines and specifies the challenges in what he terms the “revolutionary experiment” of adjusting our nation’s structural systems to support more local food efforts. Moreover, he engages with the problems that would occur if food localization efforts were to actually succeed: As it stands, no city retains enough production capacity nearby to support the demand for local food. So, what next?
From farmers’ markets to CSA models, farm stands, neighborhood-supported agriculture operations, buying clubs, co-ops, virtual farmers markets and food hubs, farm-to-table dinners and agritourism, he concludes by offering options for people to partake in the “revolution” to whatever extent they see fit. Many readers and local food supporters may want to participate—they just don’t know how. Brownlee wants to alleviate that inactivity. Whether or not one is ready to become a “revolutionary,” Brownlee would argue that one simply must be something. Feeding ourselves in increasingly uncertain times is no longer something we can afford not to think about. ✜
Marguerite Happe is a writer, English teacher, and editor. Follow her on Instagram @margueritehappe.