Dawn in the high desert arrives cold. Venus rising, glowing like a campfire through a dip in the rounded hills, waning moon streaked with wispy clouds, Orion's belt and Makalii (Plieades) making their way west, as they do on Kauai, though here they are accompanied by a coyote's yelps and howls, rather than the clucking and crowing of chickens.
In an exchange of messages with a Kauai woman the other day she said all she knew of New Mexico, where I am, was what she'd seen on "Breaking Bad." Though I've never watched that show, I told her there are many similarities between New Mexico and Hawaii — economies based on tourism and military, vast income disparities, colonized indigenous populations (many of whom "lost" their land in the shuffle), rogue cops, rampant political cronyism, dwindling agriculture and brown people doing the dirty work.
The New Mexico police log is similarly filled with reports of drug-driven burglaries, domestic violence and substance abuse, though here as I walk I see tiny empty bottles of booze thrown in the bushes, instead of the mini zip-locks and Q-tips associated with meth use on Kauai.
The farmers' markets draw crowds of tourists and locals, as they do in Hawaii, and the produce sold there costs more than it does at Whole Foods. Still, people who can afford it seem happy to buy it as a way to support local farmers, none of whom display those ridiculous "gmo-free zone" signs in their booths, even the ones who grow organic.
The small farmers in New Mexico are struggling, as they are everywhere, a reality revealed in a recent New York Times opinion piece, "Don't let your children grow up to be farmers."
As the writer, a shellfish and seaweed farmer on Long Island Sound noted:
The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat. Ninety-one percent of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income. Health care, paying for our kids’ college, preparing for retirement? Not happening. With the overwhelming majority of American farmers operating at a loss — the median farm income was negative $1,453 in 2012 — farmers can barely keep the chickens fed and the lights on.
Others of us rely almost entirely on Department of Agriculture or foundation grants, not retail sales, to generate farm income. And young farmers, unable to afford land, are increasingly forced into neo-feudal relationships, working the fields of wealthy landowners.
Especially in urban areas, supporting your local farmer may actually mean buying produce from former hedge fund managers or tax lawyers who have quit the rat race to get some dirt under their fingernails. We call it hobby farming, where recreational “farms” are allowed to sell their products at the same farmers’ markets as commercial farms. It’s all about property taxes, not food production.
The food movement — led by celebrity chefs, advocacy journalists, students and NGOs — is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.
Doesn't matter if you're in New York, New Mexico or Hawaii, it's all playing out the same way: farmers struggling as non-farmers try to tell them how they should be practicing an occupation that few of us know anything about.
Is it any wonder that so many farmers silently scream when they hear the anti-GMO contingent in Hawaii keep perpetuating the fantasy that small farms, organic farms, self-sustaining farms, will take over the westside fields and feed the hungry masses — and all the tourists, too — once the nasty chemical companies are driven out?
That's just not gonna happen. Instead, golf courses, luxury homes and resorts will spring up in their place, all of them using significant quantities of pesticides to keep the bugs and weeds at bay.
I was happy to see Kauai mayoral candidate Dustin Barca finally admit, in The Garden Island: "I can’t just make the companies leave.”
His confession raises a very important question. If he can't actually stop the chem companies — and doesn't have a clue how county government functions — what possible value is he to the electorate?
Meanwhile, the mainland-based/funded special interest groups — Center for Food Safety, Hawaii SEED, Pesticide Action Network and Ceres Trust, none of which actually farm — continue to perpetuate the myth that it'll be all good if we let them seize control of agriculture in Hawaii.
In an excellent post entitled "Fear: The Deconstruction of Local Culture," Hawaii Farmers Daughter blogger Joni Kamiya-Rose noted:
These outside activists have even gone as far as trying to infiltrate our agricultural communities by bringing in their fellow Filipinos to try and split them apart. Here’s a flier that was posted around the internet to demonstrate this.
And I thought, gee, if Kauai is supposedly already “ground zero” for GMO, why would we be interested in taking “lessons from the front lines?” Shouldn't we be teaching them?
Yes, Kauai, and Hawaii, could be doing a lot more to feed itself and achieve food self-sufficiency, and no, I don't think anyone wants to see a lot of pesticides sprayed in the Islands, whether it's by agriculture, pest control, golf courses or citizens.
But agricultural reform is a complex issue, involving land costs and property taxes, pressures to use ag land for non-ag purposes, shipping expenses, competition, economies of scale, available labor, water systems, consumer tastes, limited local fertilizer sources, marketing and the overall high cost of living in the Islands. It's deceptive and counter-productive to try and reduce it to a simplistic question of pro- or anti-GMO, or even pro- or anti-chemical agriculture.
Meanwhile, the county has allocated $175,000 to defend Ordinance 960, its flawed pesticide/GMO regulatory law, and that's just the beginning. I'm willing to wager the island would've been a lot better off at the end of the day if that kala had been spent on agricultural initiatives, rather than legal fees. But then, that wouldn't have satisfied the agenda of mainland activists, high-end Realtors and the politicians — most notably Councilmen Gary Hooser and Tim Bynum — who serve them.
Never forget that's what this fight is really all about.
Oh, and if you're interested in Hawaii agriculture — as in the real producers, not just those who rhapsodize about it — check out the new publication, Farmers & Friends.