Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop-- Ovid.
It’s Labor Day weekend, which many of us associate with the last days of summer. A week or so ago I was asked to write something to be cross-posted on my blog and on my friend Deb’s business’s website—Roast House. I have been thinking ever since on what I would write about (she told me I could write on anything I thought was important and bore repeating—I told her that was maybe a dangerous thing to say to a philosopher!).
But it is Labor Day weekend and as I walked around the Spokane Farmer’s Market this morning it struck me that for these farmers, Monday was probably not a day off, not a holiday. I am a professor and have spent most of my life in academic institutions in one way or another, so Labor Day really feels like the end of summer, since it is the beginning of the academic year. But we are still in the height of bounty of the agricultural season—the fruits and veggies of high summer are coming into their best and yet we start to see that which is good of fall—the winter squash and pumpkins, apples, potatoes and storing onions. There is likely a lot of work to do on farms on Monday.
Labor Day in the US started over 100 years ago as a sort of day of thanks to those who work hard in the US, who by their labor were reaching out for the American Dream and achieving for the nation prosperity and strength. (For an interesting history check out http://www.dol.gov/opa/aboutdol/laborday.htm). As those things are challenged by tough economic times, it serves as a good reminder that there are many who have labored hard in this country for generations and some who have just newly arrived and farming is an entry into the American Dream for them. Agricultural labor has changed a lot in the US in the 100-plus years since the beginning of Labor Day, and agricultural labor has been almost wholly overlooked when we think about the holiday. It seems to have more to do with organized and industrial labor.
But I won’t overlook this agricultural labor. Nor the labor in other countries that provide me with things I need and want. Worker’s rights are often a third or fourth thought for people who are concerned with local sustainable food, but for me it is high on the list. I want to know, as much as I can, that the food I eat was grown in a way that was good for the earth and good for who grew it. Buying fair trade or relationship coffee, as I do from Roast House, is one way of doing that. Buying from farmers I have gotten to know, is another. Asking questions and learning about what I eat, where it is from, and who is selling it are others. Knowledge really is power, as trite as it might be to say it.
As I am asked, pretty frequently now, “what’s one thing you would recommend doing about food?” I find myself thinking about Alice Waters collection of essays from a special edition of The Nation (see http://www.thenation.com/issue/september-11-2006) a few years back called “One Thing To Do About Food” in which she had food writers, activists, and scholars write short pieces describing what they would do. I think in particular about Wendell Berry’s piece in that collection, not so much for the content he offered (although it was great), but for saying that he’d have to say two things. I am afraid I have even a third thing to say: know your values, know your food, put your values to work.
A lot of our everyday values can have a food aspect. That the labor that helped bring food to my table isn’t taking a break on Monday, whether here in America or abroad. Agricultural labor is hard work, especially when done in a sustainable way with fewer industrial and mechanical inputs. In being part of the sustainable food movement in America and here in Spokane in particular I have gotten to know really great people who care for others and the earth, who think and work hard, who feel sad when there is an injury or death on a farm, who worry about the weather and what it will do to the crops and the livestock, who rejoice at the harvest and laugh with one another. That’s what I am remembering this Labor Day Weekend.