Agrarian Sparks in the Winter Dark

As Earth tilts on her axis away from the Sun and toward the inky depths of winter’s night sky, darkness is personified in a host of grim reports on the state of our environment, including imminent “drastic climate changes” explicitly foretold by the top scientists  gathered for a Climate Summit in Cancun, Mexico.

For those who monitor developments on the land and with our food, the darkness fairly gushes from the latest report from the UNs Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

In November the FAO warned that world food price increases are “dangerously close” to crisis level. This level was last attained in 2008 — a year when prices peaked as a consequence of unstable climate, crops being used for biofuels, and raw financial speculation for profit. In the gnawing aftermath of that upward spike in prices came increasing dearness and scarcity of food staples, then political instability, and finally food riots in over a dozen nations. Darkness.

Just now, according to the latest FAO report, the broad global index that they employ to measure food prices has risen to 197 points and is accelerating upward. This mark is stumbling close to an index value of 200 points, which was the point at which the food riots erupted two years ago.

A catalog of suffusing darkness could well go on and on. Yet amidst this darkness — indeed framed by the darkness — are sparks of light that draw my attention and fill me with a positive passion. For the sake of that passion, with this blog post I cast to the cyberwaves a handful of 21st Century agrarian sparks to flash in the winter dark. May they convey warmth and inspiration.

An international conference on agrarian themes just concluded in Poland, having attracted participants from India, Russia, England, Wales, Canada, Holland, Sweden and Germany.  Together they issued a resounding 21st Century Manifesto for Food & Farming. In part, the manifesto reads:

“As we approach the second decade of the 21st century, it is becoming abundantly clear that an entirely new vision, understanding and implementation is required in order for agriculture to truly serve its original purpose of feeding humanity (all peoples) with good quality, affordable and mostly local foods in ways that do not harm the environment…”

As of November, the FAO is defining a new basis for cooperation and dialogue with the world’s indigenous populations.  FAO’s newly adopted Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples aims to provide guidance to the agency’s various technical units and encourage staff to engage more systematically with indigenous peoples and their organizations.

This policy will facilitate the exchange of ideas ranging from land tenure issues, sustainable management of natural resources, conservation of traditional wisdom, and diversity of traditional food systems. Many indigenous peoples live in symbiotic harmony with the environment. They also often have specialized knowledge about nature’s resources and diversity, wisdom sorely needed by the world at large.

Small-scale farmers, including many indigenous peoples, will have a forum and a mega-march in Mexico City this week, organized by La Via Campesina. The organization is  an international alliance of  of peasants, small- and medium-sized producers, landless, rural women, indigenous people, rural youth and agricultural workers. Their mission is to defend the basic interests of the people. They are an autonomous, pluralist and multicultural movement, independent of any political, economic, or other type of affiliation.

On December 2, not far from the luxury beach hotels of Cancun, Mexico where diplomats, multinational corporations and academics are convening for the climate summit, La Via Campesina will establish a huge international encampment of peasants, indigenous peoples and allies in with thousands of people from all over the world. At the camp, to articulate an alternative view of what is happening to our land, our farms, our water, and our citizens, a “Global Forum for the Earth and for the People” will take place December 4-10.

Lawyer Thomas Linzey gave an insight-laden talk on farm and food democracy at the most recent Bioneers conference.  In his talk, available for viewing at this link on Youtube, he makes crucial observations about how corporations have come to have greater rights and power than human beings and human communities. He tells the story of how rural communities in Pennsylvania, faced with the prospect of intrusive corporations bullying their way to define what agriculture is and does, acted  “to replace corporate minority decision making with community self-government.”

Linzey is Executive Director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit, public interest law firm providing legal services to communities facing threats to their local environment, agriculture, economy, and quality of life.  Their mission is to build sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature.

Citizens need to take responsibility for their food, Linzey argues, and cannot relinquish food sovereignty to remote corporations with profit at the top of their priority list, rather than citizen well being.

Thousands of initiatives have sprung up across the land in North America and elsewhere around the world. To document this, under agreement with, I have begun work on a greatly expanded second edition of The Call of the Land: An Agrarian Primer for the 21st Century.

This book can be an important part of the agrarian renewal currently under way, as it shows how the hundreds upon hundreds of emerging agrarian initiatives across the land can be joined with clean, sustainable high-tech solutions. Since the release of the first edition of The Call of the Land in 2009, dozens upon dozens of new agrarian initiatives have come forward in the older, large cities such as Milwaukee, New York, Detroit, St. Louis and Chicago, as well as in America’s suburbs and in our agricultural heartland. I am weaving descriptions of these initiatives into the chapters of the second edition to give readers even more positive pathways toward food security, economic stability, and environmental renewal — pathways that range from community gardens to urban farming, farm-to-school programs, edible rooftops, neighborhood seed banks, to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and more.

The darkness of December is the ideal time to set an agrarian course for clean, sustainable food. Winter Solstice impends, and it is always a turning point of significant consequence. I endeavored to explore this theme in a 2002 essay — The Winter Festival: A Mystery Thinly Veiled. But in the specific matter of agrarian sparks, the key point can be made in a few lines.

Annually at this festival point of Winter Solstice the celestial rhythm of Earth and Sun come momentarily to pause and then begin again. Consciously or unconsciously, at this time we set an inner pattern to guide what we will weave in the outer world through another solar cycle. We dream the dreams that will flower in another season. How much more powerful if we know we are dreaming. If we do not wakefully intend, we are vulnerable to being subconsciously compelled.

In the old agrarian wisdom it was understood that farmers may beneficially walk their fields on the nights from Christmas Eve until Epiphany on January 6, imagining and picturing the crops that will grow in the season ahead; every person has the opportunity to capture the living vision anew – to gaze outward at the star sparks in the ink-black womb of the sky, and to be filled with their burgeoning radiance. No matter our vocation — farmer, programmer, mechanic, cook — we may behold the night dark mirror of sky, and the star sparks embedded therein. From this comes a holy fire to the soul.

The Winter Festival is a mystery renewed every year, a spiritual event happening again and again. Those who are awake in this season, those who pause in their breath along with the Earth Mother may themselves become conscious of the dreams they pursue, and consequently find that insight is deeper and clearer.

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