By Joslyn Sullivan
The New Perennials Project is foundationally rooted in regenerative food systems. American industrial agriculture is destructive to land, contributes to GHG emissions that further climate change, pollute ecosystems and neighborhoods, and exploit workers. Just like any environmental issue, the large scale industrial production of our food perpetuates a capitalist agenda of amassing wealth in the hands of the privileged few through the extraction of resources and labor from the deprived other. Leah Penniman, founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black, puts it plainly when she states: “Racism is built into the DNA of the United States’ food system”. The practice and search for ‘good food’ requires more than an analysis of ecological impact and nutrient contents. The impact of food on people, workers, communities, and cultures all mark its regenerative and/or destructive quality.
Here in Vermont, in the Champlain Valley hub of NPP, I would like to call attention to the regenerative potential of the dairy industry. Famous Vermont companies like Cabot Cheese and Ben & Jerry’s are highly dependent on the estimated 1500 migrant workers that sustain the dairy industry in the state. The dairy farms have been growing in size and shrinking in numbers, meaning that the quaint Vermont family farm no longer remains and has been overrun by large scale productions that rely on cheap labor. These farms, which are overwhelmingly owned and run by white Vermonters, subject migrant workers to 12-hour work days, weeks without days off, pay rates under Vermont minimum wage, and life on the farm without adequate heat, bedding, or private housing. The list could go on to describe the uncomfortable, unsafe, and degrading working conditions faced by farmworkers. Further, many migrant workers are undocumented and therefore struggle to get a drivers license or other job prospects, confining them to the premises of the farms they work on and the work conditions they face. Police and immigration control target latinx people in public, some of whom are detained or even deported, and many migrant workers choose to stay constantly on the farms out of fear of running into the police.
NPP uses the metaphor of perennial polycultures to model how ecosystems prosper even in harsh conditions and withstand drastic changes. The strong roots of perennial plants and the diverse intercropping of polycultures are what produces this stability and strength. I think that there are two ways that this metaphor can be applied to create regenerative change and practice concerning the issue of racism and hardship faced by migrant dairy workers in Vermont. Perhaps most obviously, our Vermont community is strongest when all the pieces that make it up are healthy and blooming. Capitalism and colonialism brainwashes us into thinking that competition and domination equate success and stability. However the opposite is true, as we can see in lush ecosystems that bloom heavily through the synergy of all plants. As cliche as it sounds, remember the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “When it’s better for everyone, it’s better for everyone.”
Secondly, and I think more important for the expansion of what NPP can and should mean, is that the metaphor of perennial polystructures also models the rooted, diversified, and emergent system of actions that need to be taken to create regenerative change. The actions that are required must happen across personal, relational, community-centered, structural, economic, political, and legislative lines. Morally supporting the fact that migrant workers deserve better treatment and proper pay is one species, or one root, that will influence the growth of other root structures that call you to rally at protests, vote for legislatures that share your beliefs, and put economic pressure on companies like Ben & Jerry’s to comply with migrant activists’ demands within the dairy industry. The strength of movements and the emergent quality of change develops with this perennial-minded way of working and taking action in your community. When we grow in many ways towards a shared goal, that work can take flight. With that said, I will finish with an announcement about an upcoming demonstration happening in Burlington on February 18th. No Mas Polimigra BTV will be hosting a rally to fight against police collaboration with ICE in Vermont, fighting for justice and protection of migrants living and working in our green mountain state. Support your community by having conversations with your friends and acquaintances about these issues and of showing up to actions like these.
Sources and Readings:
Rachel Slocum - Whiteness, Space and Alternative Food Practices (link)
Julie Guthman - Bringing Good Food to Others: Investigating the Subjects of Alternative Food Practice (link)
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