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All Food & Nature in Cities

Freedom Farmers by Monica White

The theme of Freedom Farmers was undoubtedly the power of collective ownership. While White describes three themes in unnecessarily academic language—commons as praxis, prefigurative politics, and economic autonomy—she successfully avoids getting lost in framing and theorizing. These themes are visible in each of her case studies: collectivizing systems of ownership/consumerism, creating “everyday utopias”, and economic autonomy (page 8). The book offers an illuminating history I had little prior knowledge of, tracing the resistance of African-Americans through gardening and farming from the times of slavery to modern Detroit urban gardening. The latter has received more focus in the years leading up to the book, with coverage of the Georgia Street Community Collective in Gary Hustwit’s documentary Urbanized and the standalone documentary Urban Roots in the early 2010s, among other press coverage.

Though I understand the narrative of empowerment the book presents of urban farming—a practice undoubtedly superior to children malnourished due to corporate grocery chain decision-making—it fails to look at the limits and failure cases of the concept. Having children engaged in continuous farming for subsistence prevents them from learning the skills to get higher-paying jobs over time. We don’t explore what insurance looks like, or backup plans for when crops fail; the book presents urban gardens as if they continuously bear fruit. While I appreciate the sharp focus on the ways individuals are organizing and taking action here, we don’t explore for more than a few sentences the structural forces that exclude these people from participating in the industrial food system today. In New Haven, a food desert both for affluent-but-carless Yale students/faculty and poor downtown residents, shuttered independent food newsroom The Counter covered how grocery stores intentionally create food deserts. Including this narrative would provide more explanation of why urban community farming makes sense.

The fall of collective ownership is the cause of the Hamlet Fire and the food deserts Freedom Farmers is responding to in the current age. But this story about the decades-old, bottom-up by-the-farmers-for-the-farmers movements to change the agricultural system provides a far more optimistic narrative, of victims’ self-empowerment, than the pervasive narrative of “cheap” in The Hamlet Fire. Now, it’s time for the vertically-integrated collective ownership models explored in the North Bolivar County / Freedom Farm to make their comeback.