Keynote Shannon Hayes

Winter 2012-2013
Shannon Hayes talked about the division – and reuniting – of consumers and producers during her keynote speech at the Common Ground Country Fair. English photo.

Blending storytelling, farm humor and a knack for stirring up trouble, Shannon Hayes examines the history of consumerism in America, how it played out in the household, its effects on our food system and culture, and how we can recover our households, communities, ecosystem and country.

Hayes writes and farms with three generations of her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in West Fulton, N.Y., where she grew up. Her family, including her husband, Bob, and their two home-schooled children, raises all-natural grass-fed lamb, beef, pork and poultry.

Hayes is the author of Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lovers’ Companion for Enjoying Meat, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously; The Grassfed Gourmet; Farmer and the Grill and Radical Homemakers. Hayes and her husband started Left to Write Press to enable them to live in Schoharie County without having to sell out to corporate media.

Hayes’ essays and articles have appeared in myriad publications, including The New York Times, The Boston Review and Northeast Public Radio. She blogs for Yes! Magazine.

The crux of Hayes’ message in her 2012 keynote speech at the Common Ground Country Fair was that not long ago, producers and consumers were one and the same. Society’s separation into two groups – producers and consumers – has led to a consumerist society, and healing that split is key to a more ecological and meaningful life.

Hayes has seen the beginning of that healing in the groups she has addressed – at first producers wearing seed caps, jeans and steel-toed boots, “seeking a pathway around the ecological and spiritual dead end proffered by industrial agriculture” and learning to farm in harmony with nature.

Then the audience expanded to include “Amish and Mennonites, old dairy farmers, cowboys, hippies with nose rings and hipsters with dreadlocks … all seeking to grow nourishing food for their communities.”

Next mothers, journalists, foodies, homesteaders, citizen activists, homeschoolers … “basically, people who ate: consumers,” appeared.

Shannon Hayes with MOFGA’s Russell Libby. English photo.

History of the Split

The Industrial Revolution separated producers and consumers, said Hayes, and for 150 years or so both co-existed peacefully because, except for refrigerated rail cars transporting some goods across the country, most food was grown and consumed locally and regionally.

Then, 60 years ago, the agricultural industrial revolution hit the United States. Chemical companies that arose during WWII applied their technology to farming in order to stay in business.

“America decided that we could industrialize and modernize our farming system, and we could become so efficient that we could feed the world,” said Hayes.

Bigger specialized machinery, more petrochemicals, more food transportation and processing occurred – “and all these little farms that were serving their local regions began to shut down. The economies of scale didn’t work for them, and they simply couldn’t compete.”

Farms that could leverage the land and capital base got bigger but fewer in number “until consumers became 98 percent of the population, and producers made up less than 2 percent,” said Hayes.

“Industrialization worships efficiency,” Hayes continued, and efficiency meant dividing humans into knowledge workers – bosses who make the most money – and body workers – who are not supposed to use their intellect or be creative but should do their jobs, be thankful for the significantly smaller paychecks and stay quiet.

Industrialization requires that a culture relinquish some degree of self-sufficiency, said Hayes, in order to have more needs met. That can be good – until needs get confused with wants, “and we head down the slippery slope of consumerism.”

Before the Industrial Revolution, men and women worked together, with their minds and bodies, in the American household for their sustenance.

“John Adams wasn’t just a lawyer,” said Hayes. “He wasn’t just a president of the United States. He was a farmer. Like many men from that era, he worked with his mind and body to support the well-being of the household, which was the sphere of men AND women.”

With the Industrial Revolution’s factories, “men were the first to go away to work, leaving the women behind at home with a LOT of burdensome work,” said Hayes. This began the notion of “separate spheres” of men in the workplace, woman in the home. “We talk about this like it is a traditional idea, but it is actually a pretty new-fangled concept.”

The added work for women at home led to such beneficial consumer goods as washing machines and electric or gas stoves, but to really make money, “the captains of industry needed Americans to take an interest in more than just a few durable goods. They needed to become consumers” – to buy rather than make and mend clothes; to buy patent medicines and chemical cleaners rather than use homemade products; to stop preserving garden produce and let food scientists working in the controlled factory environments make food so you don’t poison your family.

The American economy grew and Americans forgot how to tend gardens and livestock, how to sew, care for our elderly, teach our children.

“We simply had to trust that, in this new industrialized consumer culture, there would always be someone, somewhere, who could do it more efficiently and cheaper than we could do it for ourselves. All we needed to do was continue to earn a paycheck to buy whatever we needed and wanted.”

When Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963, she documented Housewife’s Syndrome – unfulfilled women suffering from nervous breakdowns, emotional disorder and chronic depression. In response, women entered the workforce.

“The idea,” said Hayes, “was that, by generating a second income, there’d be a greater balance of power in the household between men and women, and her self-esteem would improve because she’d be contributing to society in a meaningful way by having a job.”

That worked to some extent, except that women became “a workforce willing to do the same job for a fraction of the pay. We also drove up the cost of living. We also started getting fat” because “we outsourced the job of home cook to multinational food corporations” interested in profit, not nutrition.

In 1967, said Hayes, annual consumption of high fructose corn syrup was 0.03 pounds per person; by 2006, it was 58.2 pounds. Now one-third of U.S. kids and two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese.

Instead of the active entertainment of the past, “entertainment is a purchased commodity” on a flat screen or hand-held device, and “if we want our kids to get more exercise, we get them one of those Wii things.”

The Golden Age of Domesticity

The early colonists, said Hayes, initially completely reliant on Britain for survival, became independent as they “developed a local cuisine, craftspeople put down roots, we began to trade with each other. We were able to declare independence because we had the ability to BE INDEPENDENT.”

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, America entered “The Golden Age of Domesticity,” when the self-reliance of the American household was key to our success as our nation, said Hayes.

“The home was where democratic ideals would be instilled and nurtured. It was the foundation of our economic and social welfare, and therefore it was the foundation of our future stability as a nation.”

The Golden Age of Domesticity brought about abolition and suffrage. Hayes noted, “By 1860, the literacy rates of men and women were equal, girls had as much access to education as boys, family size was growing smaller and women were becoming more influential.”

This was one of the last eras in our nation’s history when the mind and the body worked together as one, said Hayes.

Severing that connection involved convincing Americans that producing for their own needs was drudgery, and then marketing back to them the things they used to produce – food, clothing, education, entertainment – at a profit. So the public toils in the factories and cubicles and won’t stir up trouble, “because they’ll believe that the only way to have a roof over their heads or food in their bellies is to go out and buy it with a paycheck. They only know how to be consumers.”

As a result of this “efficiency,” we’ve lost 70 percent of our world’s plant genetic diversity and we stand to lose 30 percent of our livestock genetic diversity, said Hayes. Seventy-five percent of the planet’s food supply comes from 12 plants and five animals, and six corporations control 98 percent of our world’s seed supply.

Three generations of Americans don’t know how to plant a garden, what foods are in season when, what various livestock eat. They want to collect their paycheck and not know about abuses of humans and livestock, environmental destruction or our rapid fossil fuel consumption.

Alternatively, when everyone produces, communities move toward self sufficiency, and we begin “to hold the power to stand firm and refuse to be complicit to the social and ecological rape being committed by the interests in power.” Nobody goes cold or hungry. Agricultural genetic diversity increases, and our risk of disease and famine decreases.

“We grow healthier because our mind and bodies are working together as one,” said Hayes. “Our democratic roots grow stronger, and this oligarchy in power that is calling all the shots begins to crumble for the same reason that we won the War for Independence. Because we no longer need them.”

To those who say we needn’t produce our own food, that America has one of the safest food supplies in the world, Hayes notes the 2010 FDA recall of half a billion eggs from supermarkets – “enough eggs to feed breakfast to every man, woman and child in this country.” She reminds them that in 40 years our health care expenditures have increased more than 20-fold, and that between 1999 and 2006, the CDC estimated that 45 percent of American adults were suffering from chronic health problems.

“You can’t tell me that chronic illness at those levels has nothing to do with the cheap food supply,” said Hayes.

“Some folks still buy into the ideals of the Green Revolution, and they believe America needs to grow enough food to feed the world. But how much of the world’s resources are being taken up to feed America’s hunger for out-of-season produce, or (ok, I’m guilty of this) coffee or tea, or new fall fashions or electronic geegaws that get updated every year? If Americans began taking care of their needs, how many resources would be freed up worldwide for other folks to take care of their needs?”

To those who fear that working with the body is a form of drudgery, that moving away from a consumerist lifestyle will make them unhappy, “I think I have good news,” said Hayes. “I’m guessing we’ve about hit rock bottom in the unhappiness department. There is now between 10 and 20 times as much depression as there was 50 years ago, and it’s starting younger. It used to set in around 29.5 years of age, and now we’re seeing it start around 14 or 15. Today the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that one out of every four American adults is suffering from a chronic diagnosable mental disorder.”

To those who say this is pie in the sky, that we’re not “all walking around with a few extra hundred thousand dollars in our back pockets that we can just slap down on some land and become happy farmers,” Hayes responds, “Well heck no!” She cites the New York City nonprofit group Sunworks, which says 14,000 acres of unshaded rooftop exist in New York city alone – enough area, if cultivated, to feed the entire city.

She notes that the 40 million acres of American lawn “makes turf grass our largest irrigated crop! Can you imagine how many turkeys and chickens and zucchinis and tomatoes and backyard pigs those lawns could produce?”

Produce More and Eliminate Waste

Hayes said that Sap Bush Hollow Farm has been known to see frost 11 months of the year, making it a good place to produce grassfed meat – which led to her latest book, Long Way on a Little: An Earth Lovers’ Companion for Enjoying Meats, Pinching Pennies and Living Deliciously. The premise of the book, said Hayes, is that meat can be produced and consumed responsibly, ecologically and without prohibitive expense. Using all parts of the animal is key, and to write the book, “I had to become proficient at working with that 20 to 30 percent that goes to waste,” said Hayes. In addition to creating recipes for various organ meats and other commonly unused parts of animals, Hayes said that bones, for example, can be made into buttons, needles, crochet hooks and other useful things.

Produce more than you consume, said Hayes: Make or repair tools, machinery or equipment, craft toys, weave or sew, write, create and/or perform art or literature or news “so that our communities are not reliant on multimedia corporations for their cultural needs.”

When you produce more than you consume, “your ecological footprint gets smaller, and your cost of living goes down… your community’s self sufficiency increases in these coming times of fossil fuel scarcity and climate insecurity.”

Best of all, said Hayes, creating is fun. Artisans at the Common Ground Fair are “pretty cheery folks. They have meaningful relationships, socially significant and fun work, and they’re having a good time.”

As world resources, job opportunities and security in light of climate change decrease, “maybe we’re finally having all the trappings of this material, consumerist culture stripped away, freeing us so that we can push forward to become a truly beautiful society. Maybe human beings are finally going to become a beneficent species on this planet!”

Hayes suggested that when people leave Common Ground, they “take any new information you’ve learned, and start to make that simple shift: Consume less. Produce more.

“It may have to be something simple at first. Maybe you’ll just have to start with hanging your laundry on a wooden rack, rather than tossing it in the dryer. But things will move from there. Pretty soon you’ll be making your own Christmas presents; setting up a beehive in your backyard, starting a city garden plot, or getting chickens. It snowballs, and before you know it, you’ll be making that shift. And as you do, I think that you’ll discover that your despair melts away, and it is replaced by hope.

“And unlike fossil fuels, hope is a renewable resource. The more we indulge it through our daily actions, the more it grows within us, and empowers us to reach out to others, enabling all hearts to grow.”

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