Interview with Logan Perkins
of the organization Food For Maine’s Future
Local Economies and a Just Food System
Logan Perkins: I’m here as a delegate from the National Family Farm Coalition. I work with a small nonprofit called Food For Maine’s Future and I work part-time as a farm and food policy coordinator for them. I’ve also worked as a farmworker on about eight different family farms around the state of Maine for the last six years.
In Motion Magazine: And do you come from a farming family?
Logan Perkins: I did grow up on a farm and my father runs a small farm in upstate New York. But he’s also a lawyer, so he has a dual identity, also.
In Motion Magazine: Where do you live in Maine?
Logan Perkins: I live in central Maine. It’s pretty close to Augusta, the capital.
In Motion Magazine: In a suburb or a rural area?
Logan Perkins: Oh, very rural. Most of Maine is very rural.
In Motion Magazine: Can you say a bit more about what Food For Maine’s Future does?
Logan Perkins: Our mission is to build a just, secure, sustainable, and democratic food system for Maine. To that end we do a variety of things. I’ve been mostly involved in the last couple of years in looking at farm and food policy in the state. We spent the last few years primarily focused on GMO policy, genetically-engineered organisms. We are now shifting our policy approach more into looking at what are some of the policy barriers to developing a strong local-food economy. Where are there places where there is a regulatory burden placed on small producers that’s preventing them from accessing markets or meeting demand for their products in their communities.
In Motion Magazine: So, your members, do they include small producers?
Logan Perkins: Absolutely, yes.
In Motion Magazine: All of them?
Logan Perkins: Yes. Although one of the things that is really clear being at this conference is that what we think of as a small producer is maybe not such a small producer in many other parts of the world. But all of our members are family farmers and small producers.
In Motion Magazine: Can you name some of the communities they are in?
Logan Perkins: I can tell you a little bit about our board of directors. Maybe that is a good representative sample. (One example is that) on our board we have a young woman, she is 28. She is a mother of an 18-month-old and she and her partner and their child have a small family farm. They are doing vegetable production. It’s an all-horse-powered farm that’s in a rural part of the state, a little town called Troy, in the central part of the state. They are marketing at farmers’ markets and through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). They are also doing some value-added products, like kim-chee and sauerkraut. They are totally diversified with eggs and vegetables, right now, though eventually they will also do beef.
In Motion Magazine: How did your organization get involved in Via Campesina, or was it through the NFFC?
Logan Perkins: Through the NFFC. My organization is a member of the National Family Farm Coalition and the NFFC is a member of La Via Campesina.
In Motion Magazine: Why do you see that connection as being important?
Logan Perkins: The focus on food sovereignty is exactly what we are trying to do in Maine with Food for Maine’s Future. As I said, our mission is to build a just, secure, sustainable and democratic food system. That basically translates into food sovereignty. A food system where the people have a say over the production and distribution of their food is a just food system. That’s food sovereignty. A food system where people have enough food to eat and the distribution of that food is equalized, that’s a secure food system. A food system where the food is not subject to the whims of the international market and the prices are not subject to the whims of the international market, that’s also a secure food system.
A sustainable food system and the emphasis on agroecological production or on organic production, or on small-scale naturally-produced ingredients and products, is a really important part of a food sovereignty concept because it implies that we can meet our own needs for production, that we are not reliant on inputs from chemical companies or seed companies, or whatever. That we are working in a closed-loop system. That’s a piece of what food sovereignty means.
And the democratic piece is also important to us. That people, within their local communities, have a say over how their food system works and how their local economy works. That people’s voices are actually represented and heard. It is clear to me, working at a state policy level, and it translates up through the Family Farm Coalition at the national policy level, and it translates up again through La Via Campesina at an international level, that family farmer’s voices, campesino’s voices, and peasant’s voices are not heard in policy-making rooms and by policy makers. It’s a fundamentally undemocratic system that we have in place right now because the voices of those most effected by farm and food policy are not being heard.
In Motion Magazine: How does that involve people on a very local level? Does it increase their involvement in the community?
Logan Perkins: I think every community has to answer the how for themselves, and different things are going to work in different communities. In Maine, one of the concepts we are working on right now is local food policy councils. We are trying to promote to people in the U.S. on a county by county model, getting together and looking at their local food economy and saying, “What are we succeeding at and where are there opportunities? Where are there holes in our food economy and how can we fill those holes? How can we rebuild our local food infrastructure and our local food economy in a way that is democratic and implies localized control with people having access to the resources they need at the local level.”
In Motion Magazine: Do you see that expanding into other aspects of local control -- like people running their communities?
Logan Perkins: Absolutely.
In Motion Magazine: Do you see it happening?
Logan Perkins: I think that some of the organizations that we partner with in Maine are working on that type of thing. One of our partners, and one of our board members, works with an organization whose job is local economic development that is community-driven. They do a lot of work polling the community, outreaching within the community, saying, “What are your visions for economic development in this community?” They are doing a fabulous job enacting the vision of that community.
One of the things that they are doing is pulling together local farmers to work together. They have bought shared grain-harvesting equipment through a grant, so that they have expanded the capacity of the local-food economy by uniting farmers around cooperative ownership of equipment, and those kinds of things.
In Motion Magazine: Do you see the idea of cooperative ownership expanding? Is that feasible?
Logan Perkins: It is definitely something that people are working on. I think that in the U.S. it is really challenging because we have such an individualist culture. We are taught from day one that we have to take care of ourselves and we have to have our own this and our own that. Our own car and our own house. I think cooperative ownership is challenging at a cultural level in the U.S., but I do see, in Maine, a lot of attempts being made at that. I think we will probably struggle with it for a while. But certainly my hope is that we can re-learn how to share things like that.
In Motion Magazine: Is there a relationship between what is going on in Troy and Maputo?
Logan Perkins: Yes. The farmers that I gave as an example, my friends and my board member who is in Troy, share so many of the same struggles. I have just participated in the youth conference, the youth assembly here, and it is incredible the parallels that youth face around the world. One of the largest is access to land, access to good farm land.
I think that the structures around that are different in different places. But, for example in the U.S., we see a lot of farmland preservation work happening, using tools like conservation easements, and the purchase of development rights on farm land to keep the price of it at a level that is supposed to be reasonable for farmers. Often it is still out of reach on a farmer’s salary. So, we see situations where farmers have to work two jobs in order to be able to pay to buy farm land.
Then, they are not actually farmers. Their energy is distributed over too many things. So, we don’t see the productivity and the economic success that those farms are capable of because the farmers themselves and the labor has to be spread out. It is a self-reinforcing cycle.
(Anyway,) It was so inspiring to hear from youth all over the world that they face similar struggles. Clearly, there are different tools in places in the Global South and in other places around the world and different structures, but youth all over the world are saying that, “We want to be farmers and there is no land for us.”
That piece alone is incredible and then I think that the other thing that is incredible to me is this movement I see in the U.S. towards small-scale farming which I think is starting to gain momentum through the local foods movement.
A lot of attention has been paid to the local foods movement in the U.S. through the big names like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. But what we are talking about really, and especially in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, is a return to peasant-based agriculture. For us in the U.S. to look around the world and see that those peasant-based agricultural systems exist around the world, where we have mostly lost ours in the U.S.. There are models for us to look at as we move back towards that.
But also (we can) look at the ways that U.S. policy, especially agricultural policy, (as well as) international trade policy, and financial policy, and economic policy has impacted and in many cases seriously injured peasant agriculture in other parts of the world. For us to understand what the imperialist implications of U.S. policy are on peasant agriculture in other countries. To say the struggle that we face in the U.S. to rebuild a local food economy, to re-build a peasant agriculture system is a struggle that is directly linked to the struggles of peasants all over the world to maintain their way of life in the face of international global capitalism.
In Motion Magazine: Do you think that we could undo the harm that is land concentration in the U.S.?
Logan Perkins: I hope and maybe that hope is not rooted in a rational analysis.
In Motion Magazine: But, you were talking about some projects for access to land. That is a step in the right direction?
Logan Perkins: Yes. I think that in the U.S. a huge challenge, in terms of access to land, is about that farmers age out of farming. There used to be in place, when we had an intact family farm-based agriculture system, there used to be family structures in place for those farms to be passed on. For the elders to then have a place in the family structure and in the farm structure where they still had a role to play. Where they had the care that they needed. Where they had the community and family surrounding them as they aged and as they needed changing levels of care. That system was intact.
You didn’t need to sell your farm to have money to retire on. Now the pattern we see in the U.S. is that because farmers don’t earn a decent living they don’t have retirement savings. They don’t have healthcare benefits. They are land rich and money poor. When it is time for them to retire, when they are ready to not have to work on the farm any more, the only exit option for them is to sell their farm at the price that it is valued at on the market.
Real estate prices are incredibly high in Maine, and I imagine in much of the U.S. There is so much development pressure in Maine, especially from second homes, and leisure activities, and tourism. The pressure on that quaint, rural land base is incredibly high and the tax evaluations are incredibly high. So, when that farmer goes to sell that land, they have to ask high market value for it in order to have what they need to retire.
One of the things that we need to do in order to redistribute land back to younger farmers in the U.S. is reestablish that family structure. Maybe it won’t be through blood families. Maybe there will be ideological families that form around it. Or families with political affinity. Or families with agricultural affinity that form to care for those farmers as they age off the farms, so that they don’t have to leave the farm and they don’t have to have $300,000 to retire on. So that that farm can then be passed on to a young farm family, or a young farmer, who doesn’t have to end up $300-, 400-, 500,000 in debt to start farming.
That is an unreasonable place to have to start farming as a young person. $300,000 in debt for your land. You will never get out of it. It is a recipe for disaster. It is a recipe for failure for young farmers to ask them to start $300,000 in debt.
In Motion Magazine: Are young people leaving rural areas?
Logan Perkins: Yes. Another thing we have been talking about at this conference is the concept of migration. In North America, we look at NAFTA and we talk about the massive migration. The injection of subsidized U.S. agricultural commodities into Mexico has undercut the price that Mexican campesinos are able to receive for their products in Mexico. They have been forced off of their land because they can no longer make a livelihood off their plots of corn and beans and other products in Mexico because of the flood of U.S. subsidized crops.
We see this massive migration from Mexico and from Central America flooding into the U.S., working as migrant workers, working as farm workers who still think of themselves as, and who still are, farmers. They have all those skills. They know how to be farmers. We see them picking crops, harvesting crops, tending fields in the U.S., filling a labor vacuum that’s created by a parallel migration as U.S. family farms collapse because they can’t compete because of the NAFTA structures.
Young people leave U.S. family farms and migrate from the rural areas to the urban areas. A labor vacuum is created which is being filled by the migration from the south into the U.S. and Canada. As the family farms collapse and go out of business, they get bought up by larger and larger industrial scale farms. Then, the labor vacuum is filled by the Mexican/Latino migrants.
The loss of that rural culture as the youths from the rural areas migrate into the urban areas is absolutely devastating. We are losing that knowledge and we are losing that skill and we are losing a way of life. There is a challenge, there, that once people move to an urban area and become urbanized and become consumerized in an urban area, it is very difficult to reverse that migration.
In Motion Magazine: Some of the speakers here are talking about moving away from a capital and market-based way of life to a more solidarity-based and cooperative way of life. Does that mean anything to you, day-to-day?
Logan Perkins: It absolutely has meaning for us in Maine and in the U.S., in general. I think we see that in the local foods movement. That, maybe, is the most vibrant example of that trend in the U.S., which is that I think we are seeing a return to local economies. Local economies by their very nature have social systems in place to prevent the level of exploitation and concentration of wealth that exists in the current global capitalist system. When we re-localize our economy, by its very nature we re-localize the distribution of wealth.
Another thing that we have to think about is breaking down the dichotomy of producers and consumers. It’s challenging because I don’t want to be put in a socialist box, but the gentleman who just spoke down there from Brazil (Joao Pedro Stedile of the MST) was offering an incredible critique of capitalism, and in the traditional Marxist critique, which is that when you become alienated from the product of your labor that’s a characteristic of capitalism.
What we need to do is to return to a system where the products of everyone’s labor are valued and exchanged and retain their value in that exchange, so that if I’m a food producer and I produce a surplus of food and you are a healthcare provider, that I have a surplus that I can share with you and exchange for the services that you can offer me. There is an equalization of the way we value each other’s labor and the way we value each other’s capacity to produce. There is no concentration of capital and -- he just said this, it is a phenomenal analysis -- capital is the product of our labor, that’s what capital is.
Capital is actually food. It’s the goods we produce. Capital is actually healthcare. Capital is actually education. If we can de-capitalize those things and return to a localized economy where those goods have meaning in our lives, where we can exchange freely those goods with each other, then we can return to a way of life that is characterized by abundance, and solidarity, and community, and cooperation, and not competition, and scarcity, and the concentration of wealth that we see in global capitalism.
In Motion Magazine: Do you see a role for youth?
Logan Perkins: In Via Campesina, the youth have a major role in providing an articulation of the future that we want. There is a well-established and widely agreed-upon critique of the current moment and there is a general understanding of what it is that we want. I think it is the role of the youth within Via Campesina to enact in our lives, and also in our work at home, examples and models of what that can look like on the ground -- like local economies, like re-distribution of land, agrarian reform.
I also think that one of the things that youth are doing well is finding gender balance and gender parity. It was much more balanced in the youth conference than it is in the full assembly. That’s a principle that Via Campesina has placed a lot of emphasis on and a lot of value. The youth are clearly leading the way in that. Women are well-respected and women’s voices are well-represented within the youth of La Via Campesina. I don’t see the same level of representation in the general assembly. Even that shifting socio-cultural model, as youth we have to step up and say, “Look, gender equality is critical to the future that we want. And we are enacting it at this level. From here out it’s going to be like this. We are not going to go back to this intensive patriarchal system. We are moving forward into a system of gender equality.” That’s one place within Via Campesina that I really see the youth succeeding and modeling the future that we want for the rest of the assembly.
In the U.S., in general, I think that we are so reform-oriented. For example, Obama is popular. He is an iconic figure, right now, galvanizing people around this concept of change. But what he really represents are miniscule changes in the status quo. He represents tiny reforms in the way that things are done -- which will have an important impact, absolutely, it would be better than what we currently have -- but it’s the role of us as young people to articulate a revolutionary vision. To articulate a vision of real change and of systemic transformation of the current system. To say that our representative democracy in the U.S. is entirely broken. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t represent the voices of the people. There has to be a systemic change in order for the U.S. to have a functioning democracy, and that change has to be rooted in local grassroots democracy and economy.
Global capitalism is not functioning. Local economies are the future and are the solution that youth have to offer the rest of the world. I think it is for us to enact those as models, but also to stand and say to the rest of the population, “Look this is not enough. Don’t go back to sleep if Obama wins the election in the U.S. because, guess what, this is not enough. This is not the change that we need. This is not agrarian reform. This is not the redistribution of land into the hands of small family farmers. This is not the end of global capitalism. This is a small, small change. It is good. It is a step in the right direction but we have so far to go.” And that is like a huge lesson for me as an American. We have so far to go towards social change compared to where people are in other countries, and the level of organizing, and the level of political consciousness that exists, and the capacity to enact social change.
In Motion Magazine: What makes you think there is a trend towards local economies in the U.S.?
Logan Perkins: I see it. I see it in Maine as being quite prolific.
In Motion Magazine: How do you define a local economy?
Logan Perkins: Our local organization has a broad organizational goal and it is 80/20 by 2020. We say, “80 percent of the food consumed in Maine produced in Maine, and 20 percent imported through fair trade practices by the year 2020.” That’s our broad goal. It is very ambitious. We have 12 years.
And that’s not even a very localized economy. That’s using the political boundaries of the state of Maine to define what is a local economy. I think that what I see within young people is a real return to ... I think many of my generation grew up in a cultural vacuum. We grew up in a monoculture of McDonald’s, and Wal-Mart, and the Gap, and so we find ourselves casting about for meaning in our lives. And I think that that increasingly is coming from the development of localized community-based interactions and economic exchanges. We are learning to assign meaning to cooperative economic relationships where there was no meaning for us before.
In some ways, in my life, personally, I can learn some of those lessons by talking with my grandparents. My grandparents have some of those lessons. The generation that is my grandparents, who grew up in the Great Depression, have some of that cultural memory of what those local economies were like, and how they worked, and how people cared for each other.
I think that it is a de-suburbanization thing that is happening among the youth. Some people say in the U.S. there is a trend, a second wave of back-to-the-land happening. In the late ’60s and early ’70s there was this back-to-the-land movement in the U.S. Some people are saying, “Well, now there is a second wave happening.” Since then, we have seen the migration of the youth, especially, from the rural areas to the urban areas and now we are seeing a reverse in that trend. It is just beginning. It is a little trickle. But I do think it is starting to happen. The local economies are coming up around it.
In Maine, we now have a grain mill. There is a farmer in my area who is now pressing sunflower seeds for sunflower oil, for cooking oil. There is an amazing amount of cheese being produced. Incredible artisan cheese being produced in the state of Maine. We are seeing butter being produced again.
Dairy is such a great example and one that is dear to my heart. We have just come through a time-period where for about twenty years all of the dairy in the state of Maine was processed by large corporate processors. It would leave a farm and get in a big refrigerator truck and go to a centralized plant, get pasteurized, get homogenized, get separated out into bottled-for-fluid milk, turned into cheese, butter, or sour cream, yogurt whatever, packaged up in its little plastic packaging, and shipped back to the grocery store, and then to the consumer.
There’s an amazing revolution happening in dairy production in Maine, right now, which is small-scale bottling of raw, unpasteurized milk, production of local cheeses, artisan cheeses, production of raw butter, and other dairy products too. Those products, instead of travelling from farm to transporter to processor to wholesaler to retail to consumer, they are now going from farm to consumer. That is an incredible localization of that economy.
By its nature, it is much more democratic and it is a much better distribution of wealth and resources because you are taking out that whole middle sector of the economy which is really not necessary, which really allows the concentration of wealth to exist.
When you have an exchange directly between a farmer and someone else in that community, who is maybe a baker, who is maybe a teacher, who is maybe a healthcare provider, who is maybe a welder, a weaver, there are so many opportunities for those exchanges to be based on the actual value of the product and the labor and the resources that went to into it. And to be exchanged not based on, “How many dollars is this worth?” but, “What of your life does this represent?” and “How can I exchange that with you equally in something that represents the same amount of my life, my life energy, my life hours, my life input into this product?”
In Motion Magazine: Do you think it is a coincidence or is there a direct connection between food production and local democracy?
Logan Perkins: I think it is food. I think it is the great uniter. Everyone eats. That’s something we talk about a lot. We all eat. Here’s a way to have shared experience and shared value. I think that it’s also an incredibly human act and it also lends itself incredibly well to human relationships.
You can look at it scientifically or you can look at it at the community level. But scientifically, there’s all these studies that say your body absorbs a higher percentage of the nutrition you eat if you eat it with other people. If you eat alone, your body just like “Blah! I can’t absorb that. It is bad for me.” If you eat in community with other people at a table, you absorb more of the nutrients from your food. You digest it better and you feel better and you are healthier.
Also, at this level of “Let’s come together around food”, there is a culture of potluck that is reviving in rural America right now, at least where I live. That concept of “Each bring something to share.” So there is great diversity. There’s the concept of contributing to the whole. The parts all come together to contribute to the whole. That, at its nature, it is fundamentally a democratic and cooperative process to have a potluck. The expectation is that everyone contribute and the expectation is that everyone receive benefit or gain from that. Food is being used not so deliberately right now, but it has the potential to be very deliberately used as a tool for democracy. I do think that is happening and I do see that inspiring people.
Another thing that happened in Maine is a local community got together. In New England, we still have this beautiful archaic tradition of having town meetings once a year. Everyone gets together in the town hall and they pass resolutions by open vote. It’s not a secret ballot. It’s an open vote, which is both good and bad. It has different implications. (Anyway,) a small town in Maine just passed a moratorium on planting genetically-modified organisms within the boundaries of that town that was an incredible democratic process to watch.
A lot of people in that town were really concerned about their capacity to save seed -- if their seed is contaminated with genetically-modified DNA. People are concerned about the health issues represented by genetically-modified foods. Coming together and talking with the farmers in their town who are growing GMOs and finding a solution that worked for everyone. Addressing, “What are your concerns. Well, here are our concerns.” Both parties being willing to compromise, and willing to talk, and willing to exchange ideas and perspectives to the end of creating change in the community that is mutually beneficial for everyone.
It was a beautiful process where there was this intensive negotiation and cooperation and communication and compromise that happened, and the end result is that we stand united as a community to say we are going to change this. It was an incredible lesson in democracy. Never mind the politics of GMOs. It was a beautiful, beautiful illustration of what is possible in real democracy.
In Motion Magazine: Henry Saragin, the general coordinator of Via Campesina, says that the organization is moving into a stage when local alliances are very important. And you mention the passage of the moratorium. Do you agree with the idea that this is important for Via Campesina?
Logan Perkins: Of course. I think it is important for every member organization to build alliances in their community with healthcare providers, with healthcare organizations, with schools. And that’s another thing that is happening in Maine right now.
There is a farm-to-school movement which is incredibly vibrant where local producers are banding together to access the markets in local schools, school lunches. Parents and teachers and students are banding together to say we need nutritious food in our school system. We need fresh local vegetables in our school lunches. We want the local farmers to provide that because it supports and enhances our local economy and because that’s what is best for the students and for the culture and success of the school as a whole. I think that those kinds of local alliances are incredibly important.
I also think it’s going to be a real challenge for La Via Campesina, in the context of the current financial crisis and the continued threat of global climate change, to evaluate the effectiveness of, the reasons for, and the importance of, organizing at an international level. To realize, to say that clearly there are incredible benefits to be had from this kind of international engagement. But we have to look at the cost/benefit analysis of that, to use a capitalist structure (laughs). I’m prone to this kind of thinking but, how much work do I have to do, what do I have to learn, how much do I have to accomplish, what do I have to achieve this week to offset the carbon imprint I made getting here?
Am I going to do enough to offset that, to compensate for that expense that the whole world is going to pay for, in an ecological sense, for us all coming together in an international context. What can we say a local level? How we can build local alliances that are going to compensate for the harm that we have done? First do no harm. Well, we’ve done harm, so, second, do more good than harm. That’s what we have to return to our communities and do -- more good than harm.
Published in In Motion Magazine April 14, 2009
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