Why You Should Know Your Farmer (by Brian Hohmeier)
Why You Should Know Your Farmer
It should be uncontroversial to say that much of the world is and is becoming increasingly urbanized. This is even a separate assertion than to say that the world is becoming urban, turning in form from productive land to urban centers. While this is also true to some extent, I draw on the distinction provided by Bruce J. Malina. Through World War II the United States had developed from a rural into an urban society, that is, ‘one in which a significant proportion of the population lives and works in urban centers, following an agenda quite different from rural society yet in somewhat tandem rhythms.’ Rural and urban interests each compete for adoption into national policy while each sphere is more or less led by their own particular agenda. In distinction from this, an urbanized society is one in which both rural and urban sectors are dominated by policies set by urban interests. Here rural space has lost its sovereignty; even the farmer looks to the city. Urban culture has pervaded into the countryside, whether most would admit it, naturalizing agrarian families into the metropolis, where the land is forgotten even as we tread it.
The isolation of city from the productive sector is sufficiently regrettable in itself. Food arrives in the store, we purchase the food with ‘value’ itself by way of credit and currency, and we eat the food as much as months later. The name on the food is Oroweat or Lays or Dole, and while we might know which few regions it may have come from–most likely several ingredients each from different places before preparation and packaging somewhere else entirely–or can do a bit of research, the path from earth to table is ultimately lost to the obscurity of the peripheral. It is without origin, bastardized, and if we do not know where it came from, we do not know truly what it is. The name on the packaging alerts us to the new reality of produce reclaimed as product. It is no longer what it was, where it came from, whom it came from, what labor produced it, but a new thing entirely apart from all of this. It a thing ‘made,’ in the truest sense, by Groupo Bimbo, Frito Lay, Dole. When we eat, then, we are challenged in our ability to imagine the farmer or the labor or land who collaborated to it forth, for they are alienated from the product. If we do imagine, it will be through logos and advertisements of fictional orange groves and illustrated ranchers, with no connection to reality other than the constructed reality of ‘product.’ Our food’s value can then only be monetary or proportional to our desire for it, since its value in labor and ontology is lost through the process of the economic machinery. This is not a critique particular to capitalism, for under any economy in which the consumer does not know the farmer of her food, or at least a surrogate farmer through which to understand her food, will this be the case. Under such a system, the average person can have no realistic understanding of what food truly ‘is’ as a production of labor and, more importantly, of divine participation.
Rural households in a larger urbanized society can hardly be spoken of differently. While commendable exceptions exist, and thus I generalize with light footfalls, tragically the country is as alienated from its food as the city. By and large, wheat farmers will purchase sliced bread at the market and, perhaps less arguably, potato farmers will buy chips from the very company to which they are contracted. Here, I think, the tragedy of the system is best seen in the confusion of exchange and valuation that makes food without origin beyond those named on contracts. Either the farmer is eating chips made from his own potatoes but cannot ever be sure of it, or else he might be through great irony eating chips made from potatoes imported from another state, even another part of the country, so that he can enjoy them on acres of potatoes. He no longer has any part of his food; it belongs to Frito Lay. While farmers will necessarily have a greater sense for the process of cultivation, the source of food, the experience is still marked by disconnect. Consumption of bread purchased at market, absent a relationship with the wheat farmer—and for that matter baker—will be consumption of food with abstracted origin and abstracted value.
In an urbanized society, where this is normative, it should be difficult for this to sound otherwise than romantic and emotivist. Since our priorities follow the interests of urban life without regard to the rural—since we are no longer urban but urbanized—it makes little difference to the majority whether we know the origin of our food, whether we should know its farmers. The urbanized fact of food is that it is bought by the monetary value of our labor, or whatever labor to which we have legal claim, and that it has utility for our urban life. Our urban life demands maximal utility, born in efficiency, and therefore whatever is given higher market value than the utility we would receive from it is food without value for us. We will choose something else, based upon its relationship of cost to utility. The question here, as is I believe the ethical issue, is one of value. Why should an abstracted market value be less sufficient than a labor- and ontologically based value? In the first place, the latter value has logical priority. It is a truer value because it is truer to what food ‘is’; it is the value that it is ‘in’ food rather than attributed to it. Moreover, labor- and ontologically based value has a capacity for theology that is alienated from a market valuation. Part of the labor and origin ‘in’ the food is divine, a fact obscured through disconnect, and both labor and origin are themselves inherently theological. In forgetting these convictions, Christians forget their particular identity as a people.
Food value in origin and labor from a Christian perspective recognizes God as invested in the produce. Fruit of the land is foremost a gift from God. Many have been astute to call the first planter (Gen 2:8) and having planted the garden in Eden gave it over to the care of the humans he created afterward. That which He had created He shared with humanity both as blessing and as obligation, both of which are bound into the idea of gift, and as a product of His labor and expression of personality, His person went both into and with the gift. Yet this is not a single gifting but the initiation of an economy between God and humanity mediated through the land. Human obligation in response to the gift, “to serve and keep” and the land (Gen 2:15) persists through God’s continued life-giving activity in it, making fertile the soil, sending rain and sun, causing crops to spring forth, with or without human attention. The land and its produce were not given once over to humans but is a perpetual and active gift into which He is continually invested. A valuation that does not account for this is in a sense heretical and best views produce as less than it is.
The same is true in viewing food apart from the value of human labor invested in it. As God goes with the gift of his land and produce so too in the same gift economy does the farmer go with his produce. Outside of the context of relationship, however, this value cannot be recognized, and the produce is thus devalued. It is stripped both of its divinity and humanity, not of course as natures of it but as part of its being and worth. If, then, we receive such food devalued, that which we purchase abstractly and consume we do not receive as a gift but rather as a product and property. It belongs not to the economy of gift but rather is a legal object transferred from one party to another with the object of accumulation and consumption. It is either a refusal or a neglect to, but regardless a tragic failure to, participate in the divine economy of gift and so receive both God and neighbor in one of our most quotidian and intimate activities, eating. We are at risk of forgetting, then, not only that food are objects of such an economy but, worse, that we and our God are members of such an economy. In such a sense, we forget the identity of each. Urbanized, we no longer have connection to the land and its produce; we are no longer people of the land. Our God ceases also to be agrarian, Him who planted the garden in Eden. The wisdom of Jesus that the Lord “causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt. 5:45; an agricultural reference) will be reduced to an abstract, metaphorical truth, for He is no longer the giver of real gifts as such. As an extension, we are no longer the people of such a god but instead that of one in the vision of the deists, who has wound the watch of the land so to bear forth fruit by its nature but is separable from it. The issue of value thus becomes an issue of identity, of forgetting who our God is and who we are.
For us to pray thanksgiving over our meals without a relationship to the personal labor and the land inseparably bound into its essence is possible, but it is made difficult. We are at great risk of giving thanks for a product, an object of exchange and possession rather than a gift and so forgetting why we are thankful to a god who has been so removed from it. Our prayers, if not performed out of uncritical habit, will search widely before finding perhaps some gratitude for our ability to work and buy food, for our job, for the ability to eat and enjoy food, for the creation of the world and ourselves. Yet will we be thankful for the food itself, if we have lost the framework by which to understand it as a gift that binds us not only to God but also to His beloved, our neighbors? By knowing our farmers, by which I mean ideally having a literal relationship with them or at least knowing who they personally are so as to acknowledge our relationship to them, the value of food as a relational object toward a higher end is preserved. Our food may be received again, as it was from the first, as a gift from and as the initiation and perpetuation of an obligation to. Food so received is thus not only a means by which we have the opportunity to understand God and ourselves rightly, as of the land, but also a means by which we are increasingly bound in economic relationship with one another through the gifts of our labor and produce. In this perspective, we are not only grateful for the gift of food but also of our neighbor’s self and whatever opportunity we may have to return our selves to them in the reconciliation of God’s Kingdom come(ing). To know our farmer is thus to love our neighbor.
 Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. 3rd ed. (Louisville: Westminster, 2001), 81.
 Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 51. Also of note is the connection she draws between the manna narrative of Exodus and Genesis 1, drawing the conclusion, ‘Eating is a primary occasion for knowing the work of YHWH’ (74).
Brian Hohmeier is a theology and ethics student at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. He did not grow up along the solemn coast of Maine, the son of a librarian and a longshoreman. Neither has he been published in Tin Roof, Western Humanities Review or Jet. He has not been married to his lovely wife Saleema for two years, who is not expecting their first child. He also doesn’t blog.