A Farmer's Take on Ferguson

For rural people like myself, especially white rural people, few things could seem more distant, more foreign than the criminal justice system.
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My wife and I grow produce on our small organic farm, nestled among the mountains of Southwest Virginia. Much of what we grow is sold directly to people whom we see every Tuesday and Saturday at the Abingdon Farmers Market. That makes the simple sale of a head of cauliflower or a dozen ears of corn somehow different; subtly but profoundly different. When you farm, at least on a fairly small scale, you end up being quite involved with the plants at all stages of their existence. If being "quite involved" sounds a bit like relationship talk, well, it kind of is. You develop a love-hate feel about the whole undertaking, at once celebrating the miraculous process of soil fertility and food production while also hating the Harlequin bugs that are multiplying, quite literally by the thousands, on your broccoli. It is an ambivalence of feelings worthy of marriage or parenting. So when it comes to selling these fruits of your labor, you do so with delight, with relief and with a certain hope that your customers will somehow be "impacted." It's a ridiculous sort of aspiration, really. Yet when folks come back, week in and week out, with what might almost be called religious testimonials, the delusions of grandeur persist.

We sell the majority of what we grow in this "direct-to-consumer" fashion, though for most of the past 15 years we've also sold through a growers network to supermarkets, some as much as 350 miles away in places like Richmond, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Tens of thousands of pounds of produce that started out on our farm has undoubtedly ended up in the kitchens of hundreds of folks whom we'll never meet, never know. Our produce was part of a group brand of sorts, something like a miniature Organic Valley, so it wasn't entirely anonymous. We did our best to price what we sold such that ordinary folks would and could buy it, not just middle and upper income people. Some of the people buying our produce probably felt like they "knew their farmer." I certainly hope so. But the fact is, we don't know them, not in the least. We're not connected.

Which brings me to Ferguson, or more accurately, to my country and its profound and widespread problem with race, still, in 2014.

Our lives have become dramatically de-localized over the past two generations, not only in our food system, but in almost every aspect of how we live. Most of our economic transactions take place at a distance, beginning with the original maker of the thing sometimes right through to the on-line seller. Our homes are heated and cooled not by the materials we collect or even see, but by some inscrutable mix of coal miners, oil and gas workers, pipelines and utility companies, all of which are entirely out of sight for most Americans. Much of what we do for fun originates in distant places, contrived by unknown entities.

For rural people like myself, especially white rural people, few things could seem more distant, more foreign than the criminal justice system. By now many Americans know that Black people and folks of color are in prison in great numbers. But far too many of us don't know exactly why and assume, in some way, that it must be because they commit far more crimes, especially more violent crimes. Never mind the studies that show that Black youth and men are more than twice as likely to go to jail than their White counterparts for the same crime; or be arrested and charged before that; or to be stopped by police in the first place. The belief, however cloudy and unarticulated, persists among many Whites, perhaps more so in rural places: Black men are dangerous. Not all of them mind you, because we all know some who are quite nice. But for the most part.

If that's your starting point, the national epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men, while certainly unfortunate, seems understandable at some level. We'd like to see less of this of course, and we're sorry for the moms and dads left to grieve. But on a case by case basis, we still assume that cops are treating people fairly, equally, without malice or prejudice. Because they are, after all, dealing with some very dangerous people.

While the data is far from complete, we know that for the past decade, we've averaged more than one person per day killed by police, according to the FBI. From 2010 - 2012, a ProPublica investigation determined that Black teenagers, age 15 -19 were shot by police at more than twenty times the rate of White teenagers. And studies from Oakland and other cities indicate that such shooting victims are unarmed four times out of ten.

The general acceptance of this among Whites is nothing less than scandalous. Yet it's also a pretty predictable result of the deep and persistent fracturing, the "disconnections" that now characterize almost every part of our life. We buy tomatoes for $1.50 a pound, picked in the sweltering Florida heat by migrant workers earning a penny a pound; we light our homes with coal-fired electricity that came to be only with the leveling of a mountain; we bemoan three decades of stagnant wages while accepting the notion that unions have "out-lived their purpose." In all of this, we lay bare the fundamentally disconnected nature of our ever-more-"linked" world.

We have our own groups, some of them flesh and blood, more and more of the virtual sort. But those folks are us. From most everyone else, we're increasingly isolated, estranged. It may be that racism, of the most overt and virulent type has been given up by much of White America. Instead, we've substituted indifference towards extreme unfairness and violent injustice, an indifference borne out of a near total disconnect from people different from ourselves. A disconnect that enables complacency where horror, even outrage are called for.

Farmers sell food to people we'll never see or know. Even so we want them to not only enjoy it, but to feel a little bit connected to us and the land we work. In truth, we need people to feel those connections and to act on them, rather than just plugging along in an anonymous food system so willing to discard us. Why then do we tolerate a society and a criminal justice system so willing to discard others, including in all likelihood, some of our customers?

Among rural Americans, so deeply estranged from urban people of color, might it be then that farmers should be the ones to begin to rekindle these connections, not just for our own benefit, but in support of our neighbors in towns and cities? I don't have a plan for how to make this happen. But I suspect that it begins with a couple of simple recognitions: That our kids have made mistakes too, but so much less frequently with fatal results; and that farmers, more than most, understand the consequences of disconnection, anonymity and indifference.

Another farmer loses his land. Another Black kid shot dead on a city street. Two different worlds. Maybe that's the problem.

Anthony Flaccavento is an organic farmer and small business owner near Abingdon, Virginia. He is currently writing a book.

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