On the Local, the Sacred, and One Farmer’s Choice

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Michelle Peters-Jones)

Every Earth Day I ask myself what I can do to make the world I live in a little bit better. Whether it is turning out the lights for an hour, or doing our best to live a sustainable life, every one of us can take those small steps which all add up to so much more.

One of the things I have been doing recently is aiming to source a lot of my food locally, and support my local farmers. This piece is about a farmer I admire a lot, and his philosophy on preserving land for future generations, and making sure that we leave behind a healthy world for our children.

I grew up in India, and eating local was not choice but necessity. We never questioned where our food came from, because, most of the time, we knew where it came from. We knew the vegetables we ate came from the local market, or from the fruit and vegetable co-operative. The fish was directly from the docks, and the meat was, more often than not, from my aunt’s farm a few kilometers down the road from where we lived. Mum grew a lot of vegetables, and we had a dozen fruit trees in our orchard. We pressed and sold our own coconut oil, and I still remember vividly being sent out to snip whatever herbs my mother needed from the garden.

In short, we ate local, before it was even a “concept.” It was a way of life. It still is, in most parts of India, and while the metropolitan cities have embraced hypermarkets and the imported food that comes with them, the heart of India is still local.

Local Food, Local Lives

Is local the new “sacred”? This is the provocative question asked by sociologist Mervyn Horgan in his thoughtful analysis of the movement against development and to protect agricultural land in Nova Scotia. Horgan’s article focuses on the story of four farmers in rural Nova Scotia, who submitted an application to rezone their land for development. This led to an outcry against development – with the intention of keeping the farmland rural – the protest being led by the group No Farms, No Food, who worked collectively and overturned the rezoning of the land. Horgan argues that by invoking the “sacred” aspect of local, No Farms, No Food successfully mounted a campaign that not just reverses political decisions, but also “turns the world around.”

In the last few years, I’ve been thinking about “local” and questioning assumptions I hold about what local is and how it fits into my life and food habits. These articles spurred me to write this piece on local farmer John Schneider of Gold Forest Grains. John’s story is familiar – local, organic farmer tries to make a living by standing by his principles and hoping that we do the same.

(Image credit: John Schneider)

There is no doubting that the words local and organic are trendy. But what does this mean for the people who farm organically? I wanted to talk to a person who has made being local and organic part of his life in an unassuming way – not because it is cool or popular or “what we should be doing” – but because of his longstanding belief that we need to look after the land for future generations.

I first met John Schneider when he was a guest at a cooking class. I’d heard a lot about him already, but I was still struck by his passionate articulation of his chosen ethos of organic, heritage farming and local food. John is a sixth-generation farmer and zealous about changing the way food is grown and produced and how people eat. His father owned a conventional farm, where he grew up, mostly feeling like farming was “just a job, like any other.” However, he ended up buying his own farm in his mid-30s. He credits his determination to go organic to his father – who ended up working with chemicals and subsequently passed away – and his wife, Cindy, who is involved with the organic movement and nutrition.

I meet John, big, bluff, and very farmer-like, at our local farmer’s market. We chat often. He occasionally looks tired, a result of his 5 a.m. starts traveling to the city, but his eyes are bright and smile wide, as he gesticulates and chats animatedly to locals and visitors who throng the market. For John, local goes hand in hand with sustainable. “I want to leave a positive footprint on this world – a large one. But first I have to get rid of every bit of my negative footprint, go down to zero, and then start again,” he emphasizes.

I ask John about his children. Does he want them to run the farm after him? He shrugs. “My children have the freedom to do what they want to do with their lives. I can’t ask them to follow the path I’ve chosen, but I do hope at some point, they feel the call of the land and come back to the farm.” I mention Horgan’s farmers to John. He listens to the story, and tells me he understands what they are going through as well. But for him, his philosophy on organic farming, and farming in general, is non-negotiable. He has a few more years to go, and as he puts it, “I do organic because it is the right thing to do – the right thing for me to do – not because it is trendy or a fast-growing agricultural sector.”

I’ll be honest. It doesn’t help when people pressure you to follow the current status quo of the local as sacred, so there is no way we should, in any way, demonize farmers and people who choose an alternative way. John and I never did find out what happened to those farmers once the rezoning application was overturned, but John’s farm is still there, and if he has his way, it will continue to be there for a long time. For John, local is truly sacred. Giving back to the land, preserving heirloom and heritage wheat, making sure we preserve a better world for future generations – this, indeed, is his religion.

For John, every day is Earth Day, as he strives to keep his farm going, through rain and shine, so his legacy to his children, and to the world, is a healthier planet.

A version of this post was first published on The Tiffin Box titled, Is Local the New Sacred?