Revolute Farmers: Harvesting from the Margins

 

It is surprising how much farming can ignite one’s revolutionary flame. Before the last decade or so, words like “revolution” and “farming” were rarely used in the same sentence, let alone as complimentary forces. However, in the last few incendiary years in the political arena, farming has become a trade that has literally beaten its guns into plowshares and mounted an agrarian armada that people are beginning to pay attention to. In the heat of Moral Mondays in Raleigh, NC, and the various pieces of controversial legislature at the state and federal levels, it seems thoughts of and conversations on revolution are at a premium. Just last week the Duke Campus Farm crew, of which I am a proud member, had our own conversation about the atmosphere of American politics and the current state of agricultural revolution – a revolution in which the dirt we were standing on, and covered in, was invested. This conversation made me wonder: what, then, makes farming truly revolutionary?

First, a definition. “Revolute” is a helpful and interesting word as it pertains to farming. Not only can it mean “to incite or participate in revolution,” but it can also serve as a horticultural term which connotes “the tips or margins of leaves rolling back under or onto themselves.” Here, we can hold the image of the revolting farmer and the curling leaf together as the price of counter-culture farming that sometimes means the withering of the current business model and the loss of the security that comes along with revolutionary farming, so to speak. In this way, the revolting farm literally undergoes a sort of revolution in both instances of the word. And, as coincidental as it might seem, we cannot ignore the connection to the entire motif of farming: the life and death, the growth and curling, the jumping bounty of summer and the revolute withering of winter. Although some farmers are undergoing these growing pains as their farms enter a sort of revolution, these pains are necessary and are not an end to themselves.  More and more farming is turning in on itself, revoluting, pulling money and resources from big-production-driven operations and counter-investing itself into personal land connected to intimate stories of committed and morally concerned people. In some small way, that is what I envision the Duke Campus farm to be: a risk made by students with an insurrectionary backbone that has definitely had its hard times, but is now benefiting from the turn inward not just from big production agriculture, but ideological ideas about one’s connection to and working of the land. I want to call this type of farming “revolute farming.”

I want to play with this definition of revolute a little more so as to make it all the more pertinent to the agrarian reading at which I am grasping. As stated earlier, in its horticultural usage revolute can mean that the tips or margins of a leaf are rolling or curling back onto itself. Rearranged and read sociologically in connection with the horticulture usage, revolute can mean that those things at the margins and boundaries have begun to fold back under itself. So then, revolute farming is a lifestyle of farming that brings those and that which have been pushed or secluded to the margin back into the fold, enveloping the people and the practices that have been forgotten on the boundary back into the main vein.

We see can see a prime example of what I am trying to articulate in Americus, Georgia in the 1940’s at the hands of Clarence Jordan. A biblical scholar and a lifetime farmer, Jordan decided to take his 440 acre farm in southwest Georgia and make it into a revolutionary place where black and white people lived in community together, ate common meals, and received equal wages – one of the first places in America to such a thing. They called this revolute plot of land “Koinonia Farm,” koinonia simply meaning “community and fellowship.” Although local people hated Jordan for his farm – often sabotaging his crops, firing guns at his home at night, and bombing his roadside produce stand – Jordan endured and became one of the prominent leaders of the civil rights movement in Georgia. The farm still operates today. (Visit http://www.koinoniapartners.org for more info on the amazing life of Jordan, as well as the current life of the farm.)

Clarence Jordan

In the life and work of Clarence Jordan and the example of Koinonia Farm, we see a type of revolute action that pulls those people who are at the fringes of existence and places them firmly into the center of life. Jordan saw a society that was withering and could only survive by taken that which was pushed away and planting it back into the epicenter. What is most interesting, especially in connection with Duke Farm, is that Jordan could not envisioned true revolution without some sort of connection to the land; his uprising was one that could only take place by being embedded deeper into the soil around him, with those around him. Jordan may be the prime definition of what it means to be a revolute farmer.

I asked the question earlier about what it would take for farming to be truly revolutionary. Is it simply talking about the problems of our country in the field as me and the farm crew did, or is it much more? In his article, “Race and Revenge fantasies in Avatar, District 9 and Inglourious Basterds,” John Rieder gives us some useful thoughts on the popularity of movies and books concerning revolution in America, which speaks to revolutionary desire in all of us to rebel and combat the injustices of our world (with Avatar and District 9, we could also include Hunger Games, The Matrix, and The Dark Knight Rises, to name a few). However, Rieder argues that when we read these enflaming stories or watch these inciting films, it give us just enough shock to satiate our longing for change so that we, ultimately, do nothing to follow through on those revolutionary desires. Rieder writes:

Most Sci-Fi films, or popular films period, deal with revolution in a way that can be expected not only to exploit but also to manage or redirect the violent energies of the [revolutionary] fantasies and the volatile content of racial injustice. In the very act of raising and drawing upon the liberatory desires of popular violence and the aggressive demands for an end to racial injustice inherent in their content, the films will always find ways to deflect and redirect those desires . . . it does not operate to stir the flames of rebellion or rouse the audience’s political consciousness from its daydreams, but rather to cash in on those daydreams. (47)

In short, these types of media get us just fired up enough to do absolutely nothing; it allows us to talk about and visually experience revolution while also satiating our emotions for the actual inaction of such ideas.

I want to extend Rieder’s critique a step further and suggests this is exactly what is going on when we buy our groceries at Whole Foods or volunteer on a farm once a month – we do just enough to emotionally suppress our greater responsibility. The singular act of shopping at Whole Foods is not enough to satiate what it means to be revolutionary, and eating organic fails to encompass every bit of our moral obligation when it comes to being revolute farmers. Furthermore, growing your own food is still not enough. The goal of revolute farming is for the farming lifestyle to engulf every part of your being and to invade every minute and facet of your life. This means having dirt under your finger nails must go tending to those who are literally dirty and forgotten. This life involves that gleaning your harvest have some legitimate connection with those who are hungry. Revolute farming entails watching your plants fold back into themselves in the offseason as much as it means pulling in the marginalized from the boundaries of society into your community, or going to theirs; that our hands and faces stay different colors after we wash them off.

We can only strive to be better revolute farmers as much as we can only hope that our Moral Monday become moral Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays, and so on. What does it mean to practice revolutionary farming? – come to the farm and join us as we plant, harvest, and struggle to figure and live it out.

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