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Kirschenmann speaks at Sustainable Farm meeting (03/15/2006)
by Edgar Hansgen

The highlight of the Southeast Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association's Annual meeting was a presentation by Dr. Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center at Iowa State University. Most of us found it inspiring, for Fred never seems to surrender hope. When he moved from teaching in higher education to take over his father's farm he was seen by his academic colleagues as a taking a step backward, a step toward failure. The folks in his hometown also thought he was back because he had failed.

But Fred pointed out that he is hopeful about the future. He pointed out three reasons that he is hopeful. The first had to do our small towns, even though they may seem stale or crumbling. Most of us in that room, he suggested, came from a Christian background, and that one of the things Christians believe is that salvation comes from unlikely places - in a barn where teen-aged parents living in poverty were having their first child. So, for Fred, change is most apt to come from the fringes, from failed communities, not from centers of power. "The greatest potential for change is not from Washington, D.C., or from our land grant universities, but from our small communities."

Fred cited a survey of South Dakota, Minnesota, and western Wisconsin that sought to determine what people thought of their small towns. The most frequently used metaphor was, "This town is dead," and the residents left were simply waiting for a funeral. The other common image was "The town was dying and hoping that a big factory would move in and breathe new life into the place."

"We need to change our view of our towns," Kirschenmann urged. "We need to see them as centers of hope. Change won't come from the centers of power because they are already set and comfortable and they don't want things to change. The new paradigm for the future comes from here - and we are all a part of that."

Further, he reminded us, "We need to keep telling ourselves that one or two can make a difference. We don't have to have everyone on board to change the direction of the food business, for example." We all worry about globalization, but Fred pointed out that a Canadian philosopher studied great movements and discovered that they only last about 40 years. After that it takes force to sustain them. The Russian experiment lasted a little longer, but that was because they used the army. Globalization really got started in about 1970. Its time is about up. Across the world it is now being forced on people, a sign that its time is already waning.

"Why," Fred asked, "have our rural communities fallen into disrepair?" He believes that "If you are going to have a healthy local economy, you have to have local capital." Adam Smith assumed local capital; without it, his formulations would not work. If the capital lay outside the community the communities then became colonies for production. "We put all our labor into our raw materials which are then shipped elsewhere. We then have to turn around and import those same value-added raw materials."

It doesn't have to be that way, he said and told about a young man at a conference saying that his success was "not just about my farm; this is about our community." When asked how that was so, he said that the community had gotten together and decided they would always give advantage to our local community. They would pay more per unit, but would create a more prosperous community.

A second reason Fred gave for his hope was that even financial institutions are now saying that we have to shift from wealth concentration to wealth expansion. Even if the capital is in the small community, but is limited to a few people, the economy will not be a healthy one. So he sees a movement to resist capital accumulation that will grow and merge with the healthier aspects of our small towns and create a new and hopeful force for change right here at home. We can produce more value on our farms and expand wealth across a broader spectrum of the society.

A third sign of hope for Kirschenmann lies in how change happens. We have greater power to change things than we may realize. "It's easier to change policies rather than to change institutions," he claimed. So we don't want to give up on changing Washington, D.C., but we don't want to put too much effort there either. Instead we want to "When we think of policy, we think of D.C. But policy at the local is maybe more important." Fred Cited Mendacino County in California. They got together and banned GMO crops from the county. This kind of local policy change is beginning to happen all around us. Another county offered property tax breaks to those who were willing to shift from conventional to organic farming. We "need to look at what we have the power to do, and use some imagination and innovation," Fred said.

One sign that this local control is working is because it is seen as dangerous by those from outside the community who want to continue to treat the community as a colony for raising massive numbers of hogs or beef or dairy cattle. The assault on local jurisdiction has already begun in Iowa, Fred said, and those of us in Minnesota recognized the issue because it is happening here too.  

 

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