Growing values in the local food movement

Alex Smith of Rise Up Farms, photo courtesy of Grant Beachy and Edible Michiana

Photo courtesy of Grant Beachy and Edible Michiana

I’m the small figure in the green hat, working bent over in the field as trucks rush by on the neighboring highway. This is my first season as farmer at Rise Up, an organic vegetable farm in Elkhart, IN. The work is hard, but it’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I plant seedlings, I pull weeds. Slowly the crops grow. Slowly I coax healthy food for people out of the ground. But as much as I enjoy the work, and despite my firmly held belief that my work is important, I sometimes feel dwarfed by the powers that be, embodied by those trucks roaring by on the highway.

My occasional feelings of smallness seem to come from a clash of values systems. The farm embodies values that are important to me — resilience, renewal, sustenance, and the sometimes chaotic diversity of life. My love of these things drew me in to farming, and it’s what keeps me going. But when you look at the farm through the lens of a more conventional value system, I realize that it doesn’t look so great. The farm is not an engine of economic growth; our goal this year was just to break even. Farmer isn’t on the list of “professional” careers (i.e. doctor, lawyer, professor), and lacks the social cachet that those careers carry. When you ask young people what they want to be when they grow up, only a small number will say they want to be farmers, though that number is certainly on the rise. I’m not immune to these considerations of wealth and status, and sometimes they make me doubt what would otherwise be a happy career choice. What if the mainstream folks have it right, and I’m wasting my effort?

Alex Smith harvests carrots

Values aren’t something we can pick up and set down as we choose; they seem to have a life of their own. I have often felt pulled in two directions — on one hand toward values that feel intuitively right to me, and on the other toward the values I was raised with. In my family, education and knowledge were the measures of achievement, and life was lived in the world of ideas. It was a great environment, but for me there was something missing. I found what I had been looking for when I interned at Eaters’ Guild Farm in Bangor Michigan just out of college. Finally I discovered a kind of work that produced tangible results, and also promoted values such as respect for life and connection to place. I knew from that time forward that farming was what I wanted to do. It took me quite a while to shift away from the patterns I was raised with, though. After six years and two stints in grad school, I finally managed to convince myself that it was OK to go for a career in farming.

Alex Smith of Rise Up Farms

So, for those of us who believe that small, sustainable farms are the right way to go, what is the antidote to the conventional value systems that have no place for small farms? Lets go back to the small green-hatted figure working bent over in the field. Let’s say that instead of working alone, I am with a couple of other people. Perhaps they are work share members in our CSA, who exchange a few hours of labor for a box of fresh vegetables each week. We chat about whatever comes to mind — gardening lore, world events, movies we’ve seen — or simply work together in comfortable silence. Either way, the highway next door seems to vanish. Simply by sharing my work with others, I find that the work is validated, and the fact that some people might see it as backwards or naïve no longer bothers me.

There have been many calls for farmers and eaters to unite in a local food movement — to combat environmental wrongs, build healthy communities, support local economies, and for many other reasons. I would add one more reason to the list. Farmers and eaters of food must come together to grow a strong set of shared values. As we build the movement, it will matter less and less that our chosen path doesn’t meet up to outside standards of success. By looking to one another, we can find our own value in the work we do and know that we are part of something important.

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*Special thanks to Grant Beachy and Edible Michiana for use of two photos from a shoot for the fall 2014 issue of Edible Michiana, where Alex was featured on page 30 – 31. Check out the gorgeous work of Grant Beachy Photo on Facebook and consider booking him for your next event, business portraits, weddings, etc. Follow Edible Michiana on Facebook and for all the latest and greatest local food news!


Alex Smith of Rise Up Farms in Elkhart, IN, Photo courtesy of Grant Beachy and Edible Michiana

Photo courtesy of Grant Beachy and Edible Michiana

Alex Smith

I met Alex Smith this spring when Dan and I visited Rise Up Farms in Elkhart where we participated in our first CSA program. Alex manages the flow of the entire farming operation and CSA program. Every week I’d waltz up to the table where he passed out colorful veggies and fail to announce my identity, leaving Alex guessing at my name. By the end of the season we had each other’s names right and were discussing cooking, beer and writing. Before Rise Up, Alex worked for small-scale organic farms in Bloomington, IN and Bangor, MI. During the winter he teaches Biology at Ivy Tech Community College and preps and plans for the next growing season. Alex lives in Elkhart with his wife Katherine and most enjoys writing, cooking, and being with people.