Two Takes on Food, Farms, and Community

On October 7th, the New York Times published two separate articles that explored the connection between food, farming and community. The two articles, published in two different sections of the paper (NY Region and Food & Wine), are interesting for the fundamental differences in the stories they tell.

Published in the NY Region section of the paper, “Sweat Equity Put to Use Within Sight of Wall St.” by Jim Dwyer profiles a small community farm project in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The article describes Red Hook this way:

Malcom Walker at the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn. Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times
Malcom Walker at the Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn. (Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times)

“Red Hook, an ancient finger of city waterfront that is lined with the husks of faded industry and old piers, sits two clear miles across New York Harbor from Wall Street. It is another galaxy.

There, on nearly three acres of asphalt that have been covered with 18 inches of topsoil, the Red Hook Community Farm operates in an economy that rises from the actual, not the imaginary: lettuce, spinach, chard, kale, collard greens, arugula, dandelion, radicchio, Chinese cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, beets, radishes, squash, cucumber, zucchini, and beans and herbs — oregano, sage, thyme, mint, six different basils.

The ground is worked by a squad of teenagers who come from across Brooklyn, in a program run by Added Value, a nonprofit organization. On Saturdays, they operate a farmers’ market, selling produce grown in Red Hook and on other local farms. Brooklyn restaurants buy from the farm.”

Dwyer focuses on the ways that the Red Hook Community Farm is teaching a generation of urban youth about a different kind of economy, one grounded in the possibilities of local food and community. Built on a bed of soil spread over an unused parking lot, this economy of vegetables runs directly counter to the economy of the streets that so many of these youth face on a daily basis and the economy of Wall Street across the bay. “More than 5,000 kids have visited with their classes. About 135 teenagers have steady after-school jobs, receiving monthly stipends that range from $125 to $400 — and plenty of free vegetables,” the author reports.

Through the hard collaborative labor of working the land, these students gain skills, earn money, and build community. One student told the reporter, “It’s more than a job. It’s my go-to place.”

In contrast, Marian Burros’ article “Uniting Around Food to Save an Ailing Town,” published in the Food & Wine section of the paper explores the varied efforts that residents in and around Hardwick, Vermont, have taken to renew their town. It becomes clear pretty quick that this is a very different story than that of the Red Hook Community Farm. Burros writes:

Pete Johnson and other farmers in northeast Vermont support one another’s efforts to stay viable. (Paul O. Boisvert for The New York Times)
Pete Johnson and other farmers in northeast Vermont support one another’s efforts to stay viable. (Paul O. Boisvert for The New York Times)

“With the fervor of Internet pioneers, young artisans and agricultural entrepreneurs are expanding aggressively, reaching out to investors and working together to create a collective strength never before seen in this seedbed of Yankee individualism […] These entrepreneurs, mostly well educated children of baby boomers who have added business acumen to the idealism of the area’s long established hippies and homesteaders, are in the right place at the right time.”

The article traces a unique collaborative spirit that has helped to connect a diverse range of social and agricultural entrepreneurs who are merging good business practices with positive community outcomes and breaking out of the traditional individualism and competition that so much of our American economy is premised on. Through productive partnerships between non-profits, colleges, and local businesses, the residents of Hardwick are finding new ways to leverage the shared strengths of a community. And the organizing theme behind all of these efforts is a renewed focus on local food.

For example: A local agricultural think tank and training facility researches agricultural best practices which are funded by an investors circle of local business men, such as the cheese-maker who partners with local tofu producers who help out the local community garden that provides veggies for the restaurants in town, where farmers meet to discuss other possible partnerships. The article paints a Utopian image of this Northern Vermont community, proposing that the residents here are finding new ways to live together and live on the earth.

The dramatically different characterizations of these two communities at first distracts from a few important connections these stories share. Both articles examine places described by the authors as “struggling.” Dwyer describes Red Hook as “lined with the husks of faded industry” while Burros opens her article with this portrait of Hardwick: “This town’s granite companies shut down years ago and even the rowdy bars and porno theater that once inspired the nickname ‘Little Chicago’ have gone.” Its main street is “dotted with vacant stores.”

However, Burros’ next line could easily fit in either article, “Residents of this hardscrabble community […] are reaching into its past to secure its future, betting on farming to make [it] the town that was saved by food.” Both articles are about places that have been suffering from a profound lack of community, and are finding that collaborative work focused on the production of local food and a local economy can begin to create new space for new kinds of community. That is, the combination of hard work together with others, focused on a common goal that serves something beyond yourself, presents a profound possibility for imagining and creating a new future.

I actually stumbled upon Burros’ article because a friend posted it on Facebook. In the comments section she wrote “What if the terrible economy caused a massive re-thinking of the previously largely unquestioned goal of individual competitive accumulation? This article describes capitalism, yes, but a cooperative version. And no, it’s not directly related to ‘the crisis,’ but I am reading it at a time when I’m daring to hope that the tanking of everyone’s retirement funds etc has the sliver of possibility of a chance for a collective reshaping of values.”

This, to me, lies at the heart of what I found most interesting and powerful about both of these articles – the potential for our shared labor — especially around food and farming — to reshape our values. This reminds me of the work Peter Forbes and the Center for Whole Communities is doing to shift the conservation movement from protecting the land, to fostering wholeness in land and people. In one of Forbes’ most recent essays he speaks directly to my friend’s comment above, and heralds the power of experience to reshape our values:

“Can we really change people’s behavior simply by demanding it? I don’t think so. I think we can change behavior only by inspiring that change; by offering people a taste of a positive alternative.

The economic, social and environmental structures we create for ourselves give us the social clues to be our better selves or our worse selves. And this is the extraordinary power of land conservation:to help create healthy people and whole communities. Conservation and restoration put into our everyday lives the social clues for how to live differently. Conservation can help us to be our better selves, and to foster a culture of respect, forbearance, tolerance and peace.

Land is soil, of course, but it is also soul. Relationship to land, therefore, is deeply connected to our sense of patriotism, citizenship, egalitarianism and fairness, and our sense of limits. The walk toward whole communities sees the conservation of land as a cultural act to sustain our democratic traditions, to help people become native to a place, to nurture respect and forbearance, independence, and the source of our sustenance.”

Forbes’ description of what this wholeness looks like stretches on for a few pages, but the first paragraph seems particularly apropos to the two articles in the New York Times. He writes, “To be whole again is to know what nourishes our families. It is to measure wealth not by the size of our bank accounts but by the stories we can tell about the places and people in our lives. To be whole again is to be proud to serve one another, to trust and be trusted, and to find the deep satisfactions of life that arise from diverse community.”

This is the piece that I felt was missing from both those articles. Constrained no doubt by the format of newspaper reporting and the emphasis on storytelling rather than analysis, both authors of the Times articles seems to be hinting at this power and potential, but neither went so far as to make that explicit.

You can download the rest of Forbes’ article here (PDF link), or explore more of his writing here.


  1. diana colbert says:

    thanks for connecting these two articles, Josh. I didn’t see the Red Hook one, and the similarities are fruitful. I love the Forbes excerpt.

    I hope your extensive networking capabilities can spread the idea of this crisis as an opportunity… could be a very exciting time. (am I naive? probably…)

  2. stewardshipstories says:

    It would really be a great thing if the economic crisis led to people having a greater attachment to their land and communities. Thanks for writing this.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s