Saturday, 05 December 2015 04:37

Letters from a Conservative Farmer - The Land of Cockaigne

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Letters from a Conservative Farmer - The Land of Cockaigne

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Brewer's Dictionary defines it as "an imaginary land of idleness and luxury," and a 13th century French poem claims "the houses were made of barley sugar cakes, the streets were paved with pastry, and the shops supplied goods for nothing." An American folk version is the Big Rock Candy Mountain. In time the name came to mean a sort of Cloud Cuckooland where irresponsible nonsense reigns, and I think of it today when I listen to the public discourse here.

I live in the Champlain valley on the edge of the Adirondacks, an area of small towns in the countryside, just across the lake from Vermont. The nonsense does not emanate from local ignorance, but from the presence of yuppies. Wherever they are thick on the ground, as in Vermont or the next town - which became a target for yuppie colonization from Vermont twenty years ago, perhaps because it is a pretty, old-fashioned New England town, and is also a terminus for the ferry from Vermont - then the culture, the climate of opinion, becomes an absurd collection of defunct ideas and leftist ideology. Bear in mind that ideology is supremely important to yuppies, what the moral sense is to ordinary people.

To illustrate what I'm talking about, consider a very successful farm in the town called a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where patrons pay a yearly sum and get in return vegetables, dairy products, eggs, and some meat. CSAs are a yuppie phenomenon, but they are also a form of market gardening, an ancient way of doing just what its name declares: the retail selling of garden products. In America in my lifetime, going back to the 1930s, the classic form was, and is, a stand beside the road on land belonging to the farm where the produce is grown on a plot cultivated by a family member, often a youngster. It was only a very small part of the farm's business. Sometimes an adult, usually retired, who was an especially good gardener would cultivate a piece of land just for a market garden. Then there were men (very rarely women) who grew vegetables but supplemented them with produce bought wholesale at a city market, or they might travel southwards to buy early produce, as I bought ripe tomatoes last July from a market gardener who had bought them from a grower a hundred miles south. I have known many market gardeners, but only one, perhaps two, made their entire living from it: it was too uncertain and the returns too meager.

One of the initial impulses behind the formation of CSAs was to remedy meager returns by bringing customers into the production process. In the beginning, customers cultivated crops in the communal garden, or they helped the gardener with his crops, and here we meet a potent yuppie concept, community. This does not mean, as it usually does, a heterogeneous group of people living in the same place - to yuppies it means the like-minded. Yuppies always maintain rigid caste distinctions, avoiding places, shops, or activities involving ordinary people. Here they have their bakery, their library branch, their public hall, and even their health center. From the start CSAs were, from the demand side, their creation.

But why get involved in vegetable production? This is another legacy from the 1960s when the fad of reputedly healthy eating of vegetables emerged from what had been regarded as quacky "health food" stores in the 1940s, united with a later myth of the sins of commercial food production and distribution. Big Agribiz joins Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Box Stores, and Big Whatever in the yuppie pantheon of evil. Thus the origins and ideological appeal of CSAs.

Of course, they quickly evolved away from customer involvement: how many yuppies really wanted to do that sort of labor? And by that time the more astute entrepreneurs understood their customers. So the prices are high, choice is restricted, and quality is uneven, but ideology dictates the exchange: the goods are "organi" and they come from a small, local farm. Patrons think they're eating healthily at the same time as they're defying big bad commercial agriculture as well as supermarkets. Quality, choice, and price are considerations in ordinary commercial transactions, but not when one is buying ideological satisfaction. Of course, the ideas are empty husks. There is no such thing as "organic" farming. Confusion abounds. Some think "organic" means production without chemicals, an absurd idea because chemicals are in and of everything, and others think it means food produced without man-made chemicals, but there is no difference between man-made chemicals and those occurring naturally in the environment. And the most exhaustive tests have failed to find any difference between things grown organically and any other way. When they buy from a CSA, yuppies are bolstering their self-esteem.

The symbolic renunciation of commercial agriculture, a big yuppie theme these days, is also devoid of substance. American farmers are the most highly skilled workers in the world. That they brutally exploit livestock and ruthlessly despoil the land are stupid, vicious lies that no amount of logic seems to refute. How do you make a profit from unhappy animals and ruined land? Behind this is another defunct yuppie idea: that primitive technology is better - more wholesome, more "human," more uplifting - than sophisticated modern methods. So much is made of workhorses at the CSA, but no real work is regularly done with them - it's just part of the clever pose. Yuppies also vehemently condemn genetically modified plants.

Of the four CSAs in the area, the one just described is the only one that makes a profit because it was first on the ground, it has a favorable location, and the entrepreneur thoroughly understands his customer. The others, and this is typical of yuppie enterprises, are bankrolled by indulgent parents, but they also make their contribution to the fog of defunct ideas. It was recently reported of one CSA that when the owner turned his pigs into a field to work up the land, as pigs will do, he was not plowing with a tractor, so was not contributing to global warming, a bit of news that rated as ecstatic paragraph in the local paper.

So far, I have described phenomena at an analytical distance, but it is also possible to experience the stupefying effect of defunct ideas directly, as I did recently. One speaker was an "organic" dairy farmer, the other a "green" contractor who builds energy-efficient homes. The conversation began with an allusion to global warming when they both agreed that bad storms were a sign of it (in the global warming literature, everything is a sign of it, signaling that it is an unfalsifiable hypothesis, hence absurd. See Karl Popper). They went on to agree that Vermont's only nuclear power plant had to be closed. The farmer had appeared in a TV ad against it. Of course, electric rates would go up, maybe by thirty percent, which would be a Good Thing because then people would really want green homes. And then solar power wouldn't seem so expensive. At the moment, of course, only tax credits made it viable. And so on.

I listened to that incredible foolishness, and that's when I thought of the Land of Cockaigne.

In the next issue: Versed in Country Things. *

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