CAN WE CHANGE THE WORLD BY GROWING VEGETABLES?

by Olivia Hanks

Our grandparents might have been rather nonplussed to hear growing your own food described as a radical act, but in a society that views people chiefly as consumers, any step towards self-sufficiency is pretty subversive.

In France, where citizens generally attach more importance to food and its origins than in the UK, the last few years have seen an explosion in the number of small-scale organic food producers: in 2015, an average of 200 new organic farms sprang up every month.

Morgan Ody is one of those producers, although her farm in southern Brittany has been up and running since 2012. The project was born in 2008, when Morgan was part of a group of activists who set up Reclaim the Fields, a network of people supporting small-scale production and alternatives to capitalist agriculture. She was already working for the peasant movement Via Campesina in Brussels, but had become disillusioned with a world of international summits dominated by multinationals.

“I found that life hard to cope with, because it always consisted essentially of protesting against things, acts of resistance, and I felt I was using up my reserves of energy,” Morgan explains.

“In contrast, the peasant farmers I knew were also part of that struggle, but they had something that gave them energy, and that was their day-to-day life, their connection with plants, animals, the local community. The energy and happiness they got from that gave them strength for the fight, and that’s what I wanted.”

the peasant farmers I knew were also part of that struggle, but they had something that gave them energy

Members of Reclaim the Fields decided to start projects working the land in their various communities. “It was very much a collective thing, it wasn’t just ‘right, I’m off to start my farm’ – we said together we are going to do it, become peasant farmers, build collective structures, and it’s through those structures that we’re going to shake up society.”

Morgan now grows a wide variety of vegetables and herbs on a hectare of land in her tiny village – just enough to earn her official recognition as a maraîchère, a market gardener. Less land than that, and you don’t have the right to sell your produce or access social security.

Louise Charles Morgan with tomatoes.JPG

It’s just one of the ways in which the system is weighted against small producers. Yet they continue to multiply – and Brittany seems to be something of a hotspot. Why?

“I believe very strongly that small-scale farming is not a solitary activity,” says Morgan. “It requires networks, mutual support, and I think Brittany fits that picture well. The culture here is still very strong, with a real sense of solidarity. In my village, everyone does rural-type work; several of us grow potatoes, so I borrow the machine for earthing up from my elderly neighbours, and in return I earth up their potatoes as well. There are lots of day-to-day exchanges like that, and that’s an incredibly precious thing.”

Morgan sells much of her produce to a local consumer organisation which supports local producers. Its members buy around 40 weekly family-sized boxes of vegetables. In addition, she has a stall at a weekly market and has recently begun selling salad to a bakery for the sandwiches sold there. My brother and I spent two weeks living and working with Morgan at ‘La Ferme des Mangetout’, and her work is clearly a source of pride and happiness to her. She appears to have found something of the balance so many activists seek: to live your principles daily while remaining part of a wider movement – and without a trace of preachiness.

She appears to have found something of the balance so many activists seek: to live your principles daily while remaining part of a wider movement

I did detect a hint of restlessness, though; at one point, she talked about the idea of finding someone to take over so she could take a sabbatical, perhaps in Indonesia, where she has previously lived and done research. I suspect the mere thought of a comfort zone makes her reach for the next challenge. So is she still convinced that we can change the world by acting locally?

“In 2008, 2009, I really thought this was the revolution, this was how we were going to change things. Then you quickly realise that farming does give you energy, but it’s also a lot of tiring work. You don’t necessarily have time to go and do your activist thing afterwards. There is a contradiction between being an activist and being a peasant farmer. What I am sure of is that in terms of happiness, it works. In terms of changing the world, I’m less sure than I was.”

we are against the growing insecurity of work

In spite of the constraints imposed by her work, Morgan has not abandoned her activism. She is an active member of La Confédération Paysanne, a union for those who run or work on small farms, which works “not just to defend its members, but also to bring about social change. So it’s not just about wanting higher prices… for example, we’ve been campaigning against the new labour laws, even though we’re not directly affected, because we are against the growing insecurity of work generally.”

She is also involved in the huge protest against the airport planned for Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes. The power of this movement – which has occupied the site since 2009 – comes, she says, from its depth and diversity.

“It’s an alliance between a profound radicalism, people who are prepared to break machinery, break windows, and generally engage in direct action, and a wider movement of citizens supporting them, so they’re not completely isolated. Because if it’s just a few people trying to, I don’t know, switch off a coal power station, they end up in prison and it’s all over. But if you have a wider group of people behind them saying actually, we support this because it’s defending something important, then it gets interesting.”

This belief in links and networks comes through everywhere in Morgan’s views and in her work. She wrote in an article for Via Campesina in 2013 that capitalism, going back all the way to the enclosure of the commons, is about separation: it “breaks the bonds […] between human beings and what we now call ‘resources’ or ‘nature’ […] but also the bonds between us as humans, the bonds we have with knowledge and technical skill, and finally our relationship to ourselves.” Peasant farmers are part of a resistance, because their work is based on sharing and creating, rather than appropriation and exploitation.

Despite the growing number of organic farmers in France, it is not at all clear that this resistance can withstand the onslaught from agribusiness. I am curious to know how Morgan feels about the future of French farming. Is she optimistic?

farms with 1,000 cows, 100,000 chickens, they’re not even farms any more, they’re factories

“I think there are two diverging types of agriculture. They are already very distinct, but the distance between them is growing. On the one hand you’ve got massive, industrial, intensive farming – farms with 1,000 cows, 100,000 chickens, they’re not even farms any more, they’re factories – and on the other hand there are very small organic farms that sell direct to the consumer, like mine. It’s not a very positive thing, because the medium-size family farms are disappearing, the farms that produced food for everyone without having a catastrophic impact on the environment. The risk is that only a minority of rich or well-educated people have access to good quality food, and the majority only get to eat the industrial factory food.”

During our fortnight of harvesting and eating fabulous organic vegetables, Morgan gave up her bedroom to my brother and me, and slept in a caravan by a river five minutes’ walk away. We once expressed embarrassment about this, to which Morgan answered that she enjoyed the morning walk up to the house, “a gradual return to the real world”. “This is the real world?” my brother replied, amused. We discussed it later and agreed that perhaps it was. Getting your hands in the soil and growing food for yourself certainly feels real – a lot more real than the consumer capitalism that dominates most of our lives and breaks our bonds with the land and each other. And perhaps just knowing that is part of the resistance, too.

Header image via http://arcdirector.blogspot.co.uk/

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