Blain Snipstal on "Battling plantation agriculture today"

October 27, 2022 TABLEdebates.org Season 2 Episode 9
Blain Snipstal on "Battling plantation agriculture today"
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Blain Snipstal on "Battling plantation agriculture today"
Oct 27, 2022 Season 2 Episode 9

Blain Snipstal, former youth advocate for La Via Campesina, has thought a lot about power. We talk about how Blain sees the legacy of the plantation model of agriculture still lingering today; how the dialogues and exchanges between peasant farmers can uncover a deep analysis of the food system; and he shares from his many experiences as a farmer, an activist, and an organizer. We also touch on the power of collaborating across grassroots movements and whose knowledge counts in food debates.

For more info and resources, please visit: https://tabledebates.org/podcast/episode32

Show Notes Transcript

Blain Snipstal, former youth advocate for La Via Campesina, has thought a lot about power. We talk about how Blain sees the legacy of the plantation model of agriculture still lingering today; how the dialogues and exchanges between peasant farmers can uncover a deep analysis of the food system; and he shares from his many experiences as a farmer, an activist, and an organizer. We also touch on the power of collaborating across grassroots movements and whose knowledge counts in food debates.

For more info and resources, please visit: https://tabledebates.org/podcast/episode32

Matthew 0:05

Welcome to Feed a food systems podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Matthew Kessler

Samara 0:12

And I’m Samara Brock and we’re back with our power in the food system series. We’ll be releasing episodes every other week until the end of the year.

Matthew 0:19

Today we speak with former La Via Campesina Youth Advocate Blain Snipstal.

Blain 0:24

In this battle, in this historic battle, between the plantation of model of agriculture, and small scale or smallholder agriculture, you know, humanity finds itself in the middle. And, and this battle is waged based upon ideas and values. 

Matthew 0:41

Blain Snipstal spoke to us from Brandywine, Maryland, which is about an hour south of Washington DC, in the mid-atlantic region of North America.

Blain  00:49

The Mid Atlantic is pretty heavily forested mostly like suburban growth and development. Predominantly, the ruralscape is dotted by farms still. Maryland is interesting because the Mid Atlantic, the Chesapeake Bay region, is the second lungs of the western hemisphere, behind the Amazon.

Samara 1:10

Blain has co-managed the Black Dirt farm collective, growing food on the ancestral land of Harriet Tubman in Eastern Maryland. And worked with La Via Campesina, an international Peasants' Movement with over 200 million people across 80 countries. They campaign and work towards just and equitable farm and food systems, advocating for food sovereignty - the rights for small scale farmers and those working on farms to self-determine their future.

We asked him what is keeping him busy these days?


Blain  1:34

I am a human chauffeur to a three year old. That's the vast majority, just and, yeah, we got a whole family here. In terms of my work, my paid work in the world. I’m a construction worker, timber framer, natural builder, part of a Construction Co Op called earthbound building. And so we spend the vast majority of our time building structures for farms, mostly small scale, sustainable ag farms and community groups and rural homeowners and the like. And then I'm also still a peasant at heart. So we have ourselves a little kitchen garden. It's actually named after our daughter Junipers garden as the name of it, and I, my partner is an herbalist and a healer and so so the farms like half are medicinal herbs and half like vegetables. So I don't do nearly as much direct production farming as I had in the past. But I still try to be as simple and grounded to the earth as I have been.


Matthew 2:48

Blain Snipstal is a deep thinker, which you’ll hear as he navigates each of the topics in our conversation. We talk about how Blain sees the legacy of the plantation model of agriculture still lingering today; how the dialogues and exchanges between peasant farmers can uncover a deep analysis of the food system; and he shares from his many experiences as a farmer, an activist, and an organizer.  Blain points out that his worldviews are informed by his own experiences, which is something that really resonates with us here at TABLE.

Blain  3:17

And I should say that, like I'm, I'm by no means an expert in much of anything beyond just like, trying to like not cause harm in this world as I move through it. But you know, so and I very much like him a believer of like experience as the basis of knowledge. So like, my understanding is based upon my personal lived experience and my family's history and the knowledge that I've gained from those meeting each other.

Samara 3:42

If you have comments or areas that you or agree or disagree with, we’d love to hear from you. You can write us on our discussion board, through social media or email us: podcast@tabledebates.org.

Matthew  03:55

We're talking to a lot of different guests. And they all think about power differently. Some of them use it in their everyday language, some of them never use it at all, and we’re asking them to reflect on it. But I think for you this is not a new topic. How do you think about power?

Blain  04:15

Yeah, that's a tricky one. The predominant way I think about power is in terms of one's ability to exercise, like their personal autonomy to move into the world. And that's like on a very like, hyper individual level. But then there's systems of power. And then there's power dynamics, which like, I feel like power dynamics in the context of like social dynamics is a really sophisticated way of just saying like, human disagreements. Far too often, our systems of power have been constructed by a particular set of values and ideas, and cultural backdrops that really only benefit the individuals that created said power systems. And even the word power systems, or systems of power is a little bit of a misnomer because conflated in the concept of power even for myself, but more broadly, as people talk about it, there's this conflation of power and force. And that there's this notion that without force power can't be real.

And so the question then becomes how do you make power real in a grassroots or liberatory context, that is the absence of the threat of force, right. And that's how most of us come to know what power is like, even from our parents. It's like, oh, we know our parents have a certain power over us, because they can exert a certain level of force to say, oh, you can't do this thing. Or actually, if you do this thing, there's going to be these consequences. And on one end, it's helpful for us to learn limitations. But on the other hand, it also sets this early on this precedent of our individual relationships to power that then, you know, are replicated throughout society in different ways and forms.

Matthew  6:03

You mentioned Blain that the people in power can shape a system that benefits them. And I wonder if you can apply that or reflect on that in the context of the food system in North America? and bring in a little bit of history to that, because I think there's multiple understandings of history.

Blain  6:22

And, yeah, to your the latter point of your comment there. Yeah, there's, there's a war over a war over history right now, that's taking place in this country. And it's been a it's been a long war, or a long battle, if you will. But now, it's, it's been, it's been heightened for a variety of reasons.

And, yeah, so the context of power and the relation of like how our food system has developed in this country, and in this country, like most other countries, but particularly here, you cannot talk about the development of our food system, without also talking about the development of the country itself. Because one is the precedent to the other. And one can't exist without the other.

Samara 7:03

This question of where do we draw the boundaries of the food system has come up with several of our past guests. For Blain, it’s entangled not only with the present day economic system, but also with complicated histories .

Blaine 7:17

And even then, you still can't talk about the development of the food system and the history of power relations in our food system in our country without also then talking about the the trajectory of European colonization, stemming from the long 15th century of the 1400s. That many of the conquests and and battles that were waged in Europe and North Africa and the Middle East, during the 1400s, was largely determined around who had access to trade routes. And the aristocracy or the various ruling classes in Europe, wanting to have access literally, to better food, and better linen, and better commerce choices. And those three driving forces of the aristocracy, particularly in England, Portugal, and France - was largely in part the driving force behind many excursions into Africa. Or into Can- what we now call Canada, and then eventually into the US and then the West Indies or the Caribbean. And that's something that I think that gets glossed over, you know, like, why do people go to war and it’s like, well, they don't just go to war just for the sake of fighting. There' usually very clear reasons and some of those not so clear reasons that are masked behind. Oh, Europeans looking for more than land and expansion actually comes down to food preference by the ruling class, access to China, to have access to silver. And then to increase trade routes.

Matthew 8:48

And how does Blain see the history of North America wrapped up in today’s food system?

Blain 8:53

The food system that we now consider a food system today has a long standing history of sort of, of occupation, domination and exploitation of both people, land and the waters that surround them. The earliest food system that this continent had right was shepherded by the indigenous peoples, the multi-million numbers of peoples that inhabited this landmass that we now call United States or North America, Canada, and Mexico. And there was a very vibrant food system in place that was a unique combination, a geographical combination, a specific combination of, of nomadicy, of hunter-gathering, and then crop cultivation. And this was both present both here in the Americas and also in Africa. And so as the slave trade was happening, and as the eradication or the genocide of the indigenous people was taking place, the broader question that needs to be solved was one, how we're going to make money, and then two, how we're going to feed the people that are going to make that money. And so in the case of the South, in particular, the plantation economy was that solution, the initial indentured servants were Irish. But that lasted for a very short amount of time in comparison to the nearly 400 years of chattal slavery of African folks. And there were some predominant tenants of the development of this, what I call the plantation model of agriculture, which is the same model of agriculture we have today. But there are some basic tenants of as it was getting developed that we still see present today.  

Samara 10:31

Blain suggests the plantation model of agriculture was built on 4 pillars that are foundation of the food system we see today,

1)         the dispossession and forced resettlement of native Americans and Africans;

2)         the exploitation of enslaved Africans;

3)         the widespread use of monocultures;

4)         and the use of racism and white supremacy to create stratification

These are described in his paper called ‘Repeasantization, agroecology, and the tactics of food sovereignty’ which we’ll link to in the show notes.

Blain 11:04

The relations between conventional agriculture or plantation agriculture, and the mechanisms of the state will always be strong and vibrant. Because this precedent was set in the 1500s. And it's been replicated all the time, up until where we find ourselves today. 

Matthew 11:21

We began this question by asking how Blain sees the people in power have historically shaped a system that benefits them.  He points out that it goes beyond economics and politics. He talks about how culture is made.

Blain 11:33

The other sort of key relation of power is the value proposition. And so by that, what I mean is that wasn't just the conversion of people into property, into slaves, and then the land into commodity into something that can be bought and sold.

There's also this imposition of a particular value system, a system of reality, that has to be then constructed, and then supported by various social institutions in society, for it to even progress. And so the earlier days was they used religion, right. Religion was the main tool by which the ruling class in this country were able to basically normalize violence, normalize the system of slavery and the plantation agriculture. And as the relevance or dominance of religious superiority on values began to transition, as society evolved over the last couple hundred years in this country, you saw that become more norms, and then laws. And now it's just normalized, in terms of the way in which labor is viewed. A particular type of labor is viewed in the case of agriculture. And then this broad disconnect between the means and places of production, and the places of consumption, there's an entire disconnect between the two of them. And it's a necessary disconnect. I would like to believe that if everybody knew the terrors of the conventional system of agriculture, there might, in fact, be less support of it. Very much to what we saw of the abolition movement, leading up to the Civil War.  And so this value proposition, this battle for the idea of, in this case, how food can be produced, how land can be used, and to whose benefit has always been, has been a core tenet of this sort of plantation model of agriculture, and the relations of power that that exist within it.

Samara  13:30

The question that springs immediately lead to mind is, you know, you have this value proposition you're talking about is a core tenant of this plantation system. So how do you shift that? Do you shift the value system? Or do you shift the logistics and mechanics of that plantation system? If you were going to set about transforming the North American food system - what would you tackle first?

Blain  13:54

Yeah, that's tough. Yeah, so within my experience within La Via Campesina, there's a tenant to the way in which people engage with each other during trainings, and it's called a formación, or direct translation in English is ideological formation. And the reason why there's a really strong emphasis on that is because it's based upon the idea that the individual, the human is a product of our social conditions.

Matthew 14:40

You can check out our show notes to learn more about La Via Campensian’s approach to education and training.

Blain 14:45

So in order to have a different set of social conditions that are more human, more sane, and more based in nature, fundamentally, we need a different way of being. And so the question then becomes, well, how do you construct that way of being which is getting to your question, and, and, in my experience, and the experience within the groups I've been a part of, there's a really direct emphasis on what we call social transformation is moments to question the assumptions of the individual and the group that are involved in any part of agriculture, but in this case, sustainable agriculture. And then the next set is to support the conditions to allow agroecology or sustainable agriculture to thrive, that, in fact, there's more small scale producers and grassroots actors and the like than there are conventional producers. And what the dominant society would like us to believe in this country, let alone around the world. And so for me, my analysis and participation has always been how do we bolster the base of individuals and community groups that are already headed in the direction of where we need to go?

Matthew 15:48

Quick fact check: there are many more small scale producers in the world than large scale producers. But that doesn’t say anything about how much they contribute to global food security, or their respective on farm yields, or their impacts biodiversity. If you’d like to get into the weeds of those debates, you can listen to our episode with Vincent Ricciardi.

Blain 16:08

I'm not opposed to or nor do I think it's unnecessary to work in sort of the scaling up and the reformation of the current industrial system. Because I think it's a little foolish to think that like, “Oh, hey, yeah, it's gonna go away overnight, it looks like Well, no, actually, they've, they've worked really hard and enslaved many, many millions people to have this system.” So it's not just gonna go away over night. And so having a balanced approach that's based upon strategic alliances, between grassroots actors and ideas, and concepts, to then infuse that into individuals and institutions that are working within the broader conventional agricultural context to affect policies, and the allocation of resources in the industrial system towards things that are better. You know, and whether that is like more cover crops, a reduced allocation in subsidies of some crops, and then investment in subsidies of other crops.

Samara 17:08

Blain went on to discuss what he sees as the most important ways to intervene to create food system change.

Blain 17:17

You know, and the thing is, when you're dealing with farmers, it's really important to be clear that the battle is not against the individual who's farming. That's actually not the space where the battle is fought. The battle is to be waged within these broader systems of power in which individuals are being told, and then culture is being developed, to say, “Go this way versus this other way.” If we had it, if I had it my way, or if the groups that I was a part of had it their way, there would be, millions of small scale producers that are producing a variety of different products. Versus, you know, the consolidation into one or two major firms that produce now the vast majority of commodity products. But it's all parallel to an understanding of power in that, to transform our food system is part and parcel to a broader process to transform the society that we live in. Because part of the issue is that if society was built in part by this plantation model of agriculture, it's a fair theoretical assumption to make that a different form of agriculture could potentially help to build a different type of society. And to that effect, is why we need this very clear focus on the transformation of the individual and the collectives or groups who are involved in this process.

Matthew 18:36

This is worth repeating because it is central to Blain’s thesis.  He is suggesting that there is basically no boundary between how we farm and how we understand  and impact society. And if you truly adopt this way of thinking, transforming the food system depends on transforming one’s own paradigm. That’s how you get to:

Blain  18:56

“a different form of agriculture could potentially help to build a different type of society.” Because it's impossible to think of a new way of being based upon old ideas. It's very, we know, that's very hard to do. And so there has to be a space by which people can question their own existence and known assumptions, not to unground or uproot them, but so that there's actually an interrogation and a questioning and then perhaps, a suggesting of different ways of being. It's like, there's the adage I've used in the past is like, you can have a great sustainable ag producer, farmer. And they can be the meanest, sexist, racist, unkind individual. And so the question you then have to ask, well, they're producing food really well in this nice system. But there's, they still hold the social constructs that are at the root of our, of our real issue, you know, this real human issue. And the broader analysis in that vein is that in a white supremacist and patriarchal society, violence is culture. Violence is normalized in in every facet of our life, whether it's emotional violence, violence against nature, violence against women. Intellectual violence is like across the board. And this isn't something that's just unique to the context of the US, like we're talking like human life here. So the broader question, how do we support the development of this new person? This person that is steeped in the conditions we find ourselves in now, but also has the capacity and the willingness and the courage to dream and then try to live into that dream, or a different world of a different way of being. In the context of smallholder agriculture, there's a strong emphasis on that, because everyone has to eat. And we know that the way we produce food is so integrated to the way societies function, 

Matthew  20:57

You mentioned that it's, it's not the farmer itself,  but it's a broader structure. I wonder if you can speak to who do you see as these culture makers, these norm setters, the ones who are upholding the plantation model of agriculture?

Blain  21:15

Right? I mean, in today's sense, it's the top of the triangle. It's the multinational corporations, their lobbying interests, the cronies that are in federal offices that get massive amounts of money to support their interests. Those are the individuals. And then though there are organizations and institutions that do not control the narrative, but they certainly do have an overwhelmingly strong influence on shaping that said narrative. And then more importantly, the resources that come from it. And there's been a lot of campaigns over the years, you know, La Via Campesina really got its fervor in the 90s, from taking on the the World Trade Organization, right. And then eventually having the vision to then put out food sovereignty as like a comprehensive policy proposal, both domestically to nation states, but internationally on a global scale. And that was born out of this process of having a very clear target of like, yes, the WTO is the institution in that moment, that has to be stopped, because its influence on domestic territory, regardless of nation state boundaries is dramatically affecting the lives of billions of people around the planet. And that was part of the impetus of La Via Campesina even coming into being. 

Matthew  22:38

You've been talking a bit about La Via Campesina’s vision. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about their view of power in relation to both land ownership and and what is their decision making process look like? Does it does it exist in this kind of hierarchy? Do they have a consensus building? What is their process towards coming to agreement? Or maybe maybe they don't come to agreement in the end? Because it's such a diverse group? Can you just give a little bit of insight into how that works?

Blain  23:10

Yeah, and I should say that there's some information that's really sensitive that I probably can't say. I mean, I'll share as much as I can. And also, I haven't been directly involved in La Via for a few years now. I mean, the organization SAFFON that I'm on the board of is a member. But it's been a number of years since I was like a youth coordinator for the region.

Matthew  23:33

And can you just share what SAFFON stands for?

Blain  23:36

SAFFON stands for the South Eastern African American Farmers Organic Network. And it's a network of Black organic farmers across the southeast. Yeah, there's a lot to unpack. But the starting place that is most formidable to me is this concept of of diálogo de saberes, which is the dialogue of knowledges. It’s this idea that through dialogue through exchange, no one group or persons knowledge is above or below anyone else's. But that, in fact, we can arrive in this space together and develop sort of a hybrid knowledge, if you will. A knowledge of the knowledges exchanging with each other. And that is La Via Campesina, you know, you'll have folks that sit around the table from around the world, different languages, different cultural beliefs, different worldviews, relationships to land, and so on and so forth. But yet, there are processes in place that allow for essentially consensus to take place, within and around the various like leadership levels. So live Via Campesina has territories, and each territory has a handful of countries within that said territory. And there's regional coordinators, there's quite an involved hierarchical power structure. It's hierarchical, because it covers space and geography, but not necessarily in terms of relations of power. There still is some hierarchy, but it's not in the sense that you would think of like, conventional hierarchical structure with like bosses and sub tiers and things like that. 

Samara  25:14

Blain went on to describe the dialogues that he sees as central to the learning that happens through La Via Campesina.

Blain  25:20

And so for me, my experience in La Via, the thing that I've cherished, the most are the debates. The debates are really where you could get a whole thesis level course, I would amount to a year of study in a few hours of just listening to just brilliant humble people having really profound analysis of the current conjecture, which is constantly changing. And, and that alone, can be just mind blowing, just to hear the perspective. And what people have to say. Because as I was saying, Before, there is such a by design, disconnect between the means and places of production, and then the places of consumption. And it's, it's by design. Because when you have that disconnect, you have a lack of eyes, and you have a lack of information that's been passed, and most importantly, you have a lack of understanding. And we all know like in the place of lack of understanding standing, ignorance can grow. And when there's a growth of ignorance, strategic messaging, and highly, highly successful, right. And so oftentimes, in these exchanges, it's literally an exchange of like, what's happening on the ground, you know, it's like people, it's, there's a big difference between saying, like, oh, Monsanto, and Cargill, are working with various corporations to purchase land in Africa versus like, talking to those farmers who were there when the truck showed up with people with papers saying, Actually, now we own this land that you've been on for 1000 years. And to hear those stories to know how they dealt with their organizing, for the sharing of their organizing strategy is immensely helpful. And you can't get that information other than the stories themselves. Then there's internal training, which is this formacion that I mentioned before, which is quite evolved. There's formation in the context of agroecology and food sovereignty but also in like, like radical peasant feminism. In the context of seeds and biodiversity, there's all these different themes and thematic areas that La Via works itself within internally. But for the most part, decisions tend to be made consensually or at least with majority vote.

Samara  27:35

So we wanted to talk to you a little bit about what the power of a movement is? Like what is the power that La Via Campesina has as an organization or as a movement that individual farmers wouldn't have on their own?

Blain  27:48

To the first point. You know, I should say that there's really a long history of farmer organizing in the States, and particularly in the US, and particularly in the south of the country. And farmer organizing, much like any other. I think, organizing by workers in this country is really based on very clear and static needs that those farmers or farm workers or harvesters might have. I mean, the power of La Via Campesina is in the exchanges, the farmer to farmer exchanges, which La Via Campesina if, if not anything else, it's the largest representation of the farmer to farmer methodology. Which is the idea that when farmers get together, there is technical, cultural and sort of social knowledge that's exchanged. And with the introduction of more sustainable farmer techniques, or more egalitarian, or just social norms and behaviors, that if there are a set of farmers who exemplify those particular attributes, they can become promoter farmers that spread those techniques, values and ideas to other farms. And it becomes this like multiplier effect. And that's the the oversimplification of the farmer to farmer methodology that the Americas, particularly in Nicaragua, during the Sandinista Revolution.

Matthew 29:14

Blain explains that this farmer-to-farmer method can be more challenging in areas where there is a less strong agrarian community - where a smaller percentage of the population are farmers - like United States. Still, he sees real benefits to working this way.

Blain 29:28

The advantage of La Via, I think, over other organizations, or in relation to other organizations, is this exchange - is this idea that when we can gather together, we're not just gathering to talk about the core technical problems of being food producers. We're also discussing this kaleidoscope of dynamics, whether it's social dynamics or relationships to navigating, if you know, you have a various like state agency that's giving farmers in this particular area or an issue. But then also from an organizing standpoint, not all farmers are organizers. And there's no, you know, there's no other way to cut that. But however, every now and again, you are going to have farmers who when given the opportunity to do organizing thrive and excel at it, and may not have ever had the opportunity to be an organizer within the context of their community. And so in that case, there's a lot of sort of this farmer empowerment that one can gather. And then as a youth, it's really important just to have different experiences and diverse experiences to broaden your mindset, particularly coming from this country. And so for myself, that was a huge still to this day, like part of my personal life and how I can like see the world was having this experience within La Via Campesina.

Matthew 30:46

So besides widely propagating the farmer to farmer methodology across the world, Blain points out several other successes of Lia Via Campesina at a global and regional level.

Blain 30:55

And there's been many victories, I think, at its height, you know, you could say like, it helped to essentially debunk the WTO. You know, there was also like other social forces happening at that time, right?  You had all you know, the sort of the explosion of globalization, you had all these forces collide between like 94 NAFTA, and then 2006. And so it's about this almost 20 year period by which the social conditions were just right to sort of go out some of these really large international institutions, which Via was highly successful. But as the context evolved, these institutions also learned about their foes, which is us, and they got even smarter and a little bit more savvy on how they navigate their territories and try to get their agendas completed. And so since that time, La Via has at an international level has turned its head more towards focusing focusing on regional regional processes. So the development of hundreds of agroecology schools around the world, to train farmers in the farmer to farmer methodology, more sustainable production techniques or vitalizing, traditional farming techniques that already existed in their country pre the arrival of the conventional model of agriculture. And then there's been a variety of like political victories in various countries, particularly in Brazil. But I should stress that like La Via Campesina is a movement of movements. So it's not as, as one would conceive of like a nonprofit or typical NGO. You look at folks, like the ANAP in Cuba, which is the organization in Cuba and places in Africa or in India, the natural budget, or zero budget natural farming movement, which is like countless amounts, hundreds of millions of people, I mean, the scale of their country is quite different. And so the way in which all these local organizations or territorial organizations gain victories, totally varies, but La Via is sort of this conduit by which strategies can be shared, and information and experiences can be, garnered as a result.

Samara  33:07

So as you know, for this series, we're talking to people with a range of different opinions. And we have talked to people who have said, smallholding is not a viable life way that smallholder farmers - we shouldn't be supporting them, what we should be doing is supporting them to either get out of farming or scale up, have more land holdings. What would you say to something like that?

Blain  33:33

I just don't agree. And the thing about data and information, right is it can be construed to tell any story. So anyone can get information to combat my idea here. But where I have evolved over the years was gotten into farming and agriculture, in my teens, and was like, all, all farm, that was everything I was doing. And I loved it, I still love it. But what I began to realize was that the assault on rural life, as rural life being inherently dignified, and beautiful. It was an assault that targeted agriculture, but really targeted the social conditions that agriculture sits within. And once I came to that realization, my analysis became less around supporting people getting into agriculture and farming, and more around supporting people having viable rural livelihoods. And the reason I went in that direction is because very often agriculture is reduced to food production. But in fact, there are actually many dynamics to agriculture. In the lexicon of agriculture, the word itself. Culture is the biggest part of agriculture. And if you break that whole thing down, it basically means culture of the home or culture of the land. And so the question then becomes, how do you build a rural culture that can thrive and find financial livelihood within? And in our case for black folks and folks of color, there has been a concerted effort in this country to ensure that we couldn't do that. Right. And so once you go down that rabbit hole, you start to have the real realization that the issue is actually far more complex and dynamic than just making sure farmers are making sure there's the right markets for farmers, which is a really big picture. But I've seen plenty of farms go under not because of financial issues, but because of social dynamics. Because the people who are going to, in this country, who are going to feed the future are not the people that live in the countryside today. Right? The farmers are the future, the food producers of the future are going to come out of the cities. And so the question then becomes, what are the conditions in which those individuals, including the ones that are farming now can thrive, and how you define thriving. And obviously everyone defines thriving in a different way. But there are some core aspects that are translatable against probably throughout most people's definition of thriving - whether it's like communal life, some form of social activity, enjoyment of nature, and of course, like the economic side of being able to make a living to pay for your bills, and do all those things. And so to that effect, I don't actually like to get into the debates around farming is not viable. Because it's, it's a complex situation, and conversation, but also, it's an unequal starting place, that the very notion by itself. It's as if to say you had a sibling that born healthy, can do things on their own, left it on devices, then you had another sibling that was like, actually, like, given all the food, all the resources taken to all the places, and then you compare them 20 years later, and you say, Well, why don't you like this guy? And that's the that's, that's what's couched behind? Like, oh, well, small scale farmers not viable is like, Well, no, it's conventional agriculture has been supported by the state for 400 plus years, and it still is not actually able to do what it says it's trying to do. Meanwhile, this other sibling who was the predominant model of agriculture on Earth, has been stripped of resources, and still is producing a massive amount of food around the world. And a massive amount of food here in this country. And so, to even ask if one's vibe, if small scale agriculture viable is like, you can't answer that question without like taking a step back and given a full understanding, before you can even address the question. And so to folks who might say like, oh, well, you know, farming is not a viable thing. It's like, well, it's just not true. But if you're only looking at it through the lens of consumer capital, and the wage economy like, yeah, of course, you can make the argument that yeah, it's very difficult. You work 80 hours a week, 10 months a year, make $30,000? I know, plenty of people that do that. But they're doing that in the context of the vacuum of support. You know it's like, how do you have an equal conversation that conditions themselves are unequal?

Samara 38:15

Throughout our conversation, Blain made it clear that this is a line of questioning he is really familiar with.

Blain 38:22

It's a difficult one to answer because that's the narrative that people are gonna keep coming out, like, Oh, you don't make any money from farming? You know, like, even my own family, like, oh, we left farming all them years ago. Why are you going back? You know, and these things that you have to deal with, but I think part of that is important to have those conversations because it's the values proposition, right? It’s that, in this battle, in this historic battle, between the plantation model of agriculture, and small-scale or smallholder agriculture, you know, humanity finds itself in the middle. And this battle is waged based upon ideas and values.  

Matthew  39:00

We then asked Blain whose knowledge should count when it comes to future of the food system?

Blain  39:06

The people who work and I should be really specific, I don't mean the bosses that oversee the workers in the field, I mean, the workers who are in the field. Our food system, and the issues it faces or then creates and then faces. We're not, we're not at a shortage of solutions. I actually would argue that there is no new solution to this problem of our food system, the many problems that there have been hundreds 1000s, probably of solutions that have been proposed. In the last years, let alone the last couple 100 years since the resistance to plantation agriculture and slavery was happening. The issue is that it's not been fueled. These ideas and concepts aren't being fueled. Then I remember an elder in La Via once told me that the battle for the future of food will be won in the world of ideas. And so I've always taken that to bend that to mean that in literal terms, if the ideas and value propositions that La Via Campesina and similar small scale ag organizations and entities have, if those ideas were fueled, by both capital, non-capital resources, access to land and freedom from persecution of violence, we could in fact see a really aggressive transformation of our food systems.

And the fact of the matter is that the way our power structure is set up in this country, those who bear the brunt of the burden, and the affect or the result of the systems of power at play, carry the smallest amount of weight in decisions and inputs. And that's an unequal equation, you're always going to have the people who are impacted the least, and stand to benefit the least making the biggest decisions. And yeah, they might benefit a bunch by making money, but the folks who are literally in the fields, they stand to lose them the most, which is their lives, which is their cultures, their livelihoods, the future. And so if if those folks - the farmers and those folks, farmworkers, indigenous communities with sort of the rematriation process of getting ancestral lands, and so forth, if those communities were prioritizing both the values that they uphold and want to put forward, but also the very ideas that they have to see how those values can become real, if those were fueled properly, I think we potentially could see the needle move a tad.

Because the fact of the matter is, that within the sixth great mass extinction that we know of on this planet, which what we're currently in, there's no going back. And so, the reality is, how does our relationship to resiliency sort of explode. As we move into the period ahead. Climate catastrophes which are, are really only catastrophes if they affect human life and the concept of humans right. But climatic events that will continue to transpire around the world are going to create really disastrous effects on human life but also on these systems of power. And so I think that it's, it's in the ruling classes actually best interest to find a way to like heed power, if any way possible because the potential for what could happen, as societies have to bear the brunt of both a climate catastrophe and social devastation could be actually far worse. Fr me, it's where I'm at in my life and the folks I work with and communities or groups I'm a part of, there's a really strong emphasis on scaling out the degree of resiliency that farmers and agricultural communities have resiliency to participate in the broader society, but also resiliency to participate, to be able to produce food as drought-like or severe weather conditions continued to take place, which they are only getting worse as the years roll along here.

Samara  43:18

We know you have to run. So we're just going to ask one more question. What you were just saying, sixth mass extinction, climate change, everything that we're up against, it would be great to hear from you, what makes you hopeful, what have you seen that inspires you? In terms of the kinds of transitions you want to see happen?

Blain  43:38

Yeah, my daughter inspires me. Because she can wake up each day, as if the previous day didn't happen, which I'm like, “Oh, if I had that power, that would be great.” You know, like her ability to, like, just forgive, you know, but beyond that, there has been like a, you know, maybe like 10, or 12 years ago, there's this big effort in the US around like food justice and food sovereignty was sort of still gestating. And the sort of the broad ethos of grassroots efforts at that time. Land was like central, but it wasn't like a broad crying call, right? It was more of like, oh, people are gonna get skills trained up, let's actually meet each other interact and build relationships, which there's always time and, and that's really important. Versus now, there has been this, for me this very clear shift of like, well actually, land is power. And without the capacity to make said land real, that power can't be actualized. And so not only are people and groups getting hip to this, and supporting various community efforts, like the group I'm a part - or of one of the groups and part of the black dirt farm collective. We just purchased 24 acres, and I hate using the word purchase. But that's the lexicon that I have, or the nomenclature that we have, and so, purchased 24 acres for our land base currently. And there's a variety of groups along these coasts that have been able to do that over the last decade. And that's been really inspiring, because these various land bases become beacons of inspiration, they can show us what's possible in a very, like small, hyper local scale. And then I've also been just inspired by sort of some of the social upheaval that's happened in the last handful of years in this country, because I'm a firm believer that uncomfort or being uncomfortable is the precedent to growth. And the point at which the vast majority of people no longer give a shit or see that there perhaps is not anything left to lose, other than the future that we're losing, means that there is at least more of an opportunity for this kind of conversation to take place for more of a support for small scale agriculture, and the various like, things that come from that. And then the other shift I've noticed is that more and more the farm and agricultural activity has been viewed as a place of institution building versus just an activity of, of economy or production. And that's been a big shift. And so that's been really inspiring to me and I'm here for it.  Our company earthbound building are often really trying to build up the infrastructure needed for these places to thrive and to exist and to do workshops, you know, when and how we can, and with farmers or with anybody, really. And yeah, so that, that gives me a continued hope, you know, in addition to like, my three year old daughter, just giving me hope too.

Matthew  47:30

Thanks so much Blain and I appreciated that you talked about, like, the need for discomfort in that we weren't just trying to wrap it up with like, oh, yeah, positive spin at the end all of this. Blain  47:40

Thanks for having me.  

Matthew  47:44

That wraps another episode of the Feed podcast. A big thank you to Blain Snipstal for joining us and to you for listening. There are lots of resources and links mentioned in the episode that you can check out on the website, tabledebates.org 

Samara  47:58

The best way to support the show is to rate and review us on Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen and to share your favorite episodes with your friends.
Matthew  48:06
You can stay up to date with all of TABLE’s activities and get the latest news about food systems sustainability by subscribing to our newsletter Fodder, found on our website - tabledebates.org
Samara 48:14
TABLE is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University.
Matthew  48:21
This episode was edited and mixed by Matthew Kessler. Music in this episode by Blue dot Sessions. Stay tuned for a new episode on power in a couple weeks.