Category — Features
What can we do with Crooked Possibilities?
Luca McLean talks to Crooked Vege Ōtaki about getting back to the basics.
One of the rare things our diverse humanity has in common is that we are storytelling animals, and these stories can become powerful apparatus by which we live our lives. In the words of Cherokee writer Thomas King, ‘the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.’ Many of these myths weave invisibly through the fabric of our daily lives, directing our thinking and swaying our opinions. However, occasionally, these tales become perceivable to us, usually when someone asks: why? Why do we take certain things for granted? Why do we act in these particular ways? Why does it have to be like this? The simple yet complex answer to this question is that it doesn’t. The late anthropologist David Graeber famously wrote in The Utopia of Rules, ‘the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.’ Jonathan Mines and Tae Luke-Hurley, with the creation of Crooked Vege Ōtaki, are asking some of these questions, and by doing so, they are making visible certain aspects of our food system that we have taken for granted and are imagining and acting upon what we could be doing differently.
I had the opportunity to speak to Jon recently about this fledgling venture whilst he and Tae were busy planting their spring crops. Jon is a young market gardener who got into farming through his politics. He started in film, trying to figure out how to get paid to be an activist filmmaker. However, he struggled to make it work and felt increasingly burnt out. As a friend of Sheldon Levet (from KaiCycle at the time) he became interested in permaculture and began WWOOF-ing while working at cafes. During these years, Jon realised that food is at the intersection of most of our converging crises - climate, global economics, and human equity. Food is a necessity, and, in Jon’s words, ‘who has access to what kind of food is deeply political.’ Driven by the politics of food, Jon quickly realised that he also liked growing it; in fact, it is the only job he has enjoyed doing every day. Instead of returning to uni or exploring a desk-based profession, he wanted to be in action and do something really direct. Like most of the population, he did not feel empowered to make change nationally, but with his hands in the soil at a local level, he believed he might feel his actions reverberate to the people around him. ‘The people who we feel most need access to good high quality food, can’t [access it],’ says Jon, ‘what can we do on a local scale?... What can we do in a community?’
‘who has access to what kind of food is deeply political.’
Amongst a growing number of small-scale farms in Aotearoa New Zealand, what makes Crooked Vege Ōtaki unique is their attempt to spearhead a new model for food provisioning. A pay-what-you-can CSA (community-supported agriculture) vegetable bag, working with its members and other local groups to subsidise a number of these bags, thus increasing the accessibility of nutritious organic vegetables in their community. A CSA system typically involves a customer subscribing for a season of weekly vegetables, which people either pay upfront at the beginning of the season, or weekly. In the case of Crooked Vege Ōtaki, they will suggest what they believe to be a fair price point, but the customer can choose to pay more or less depending on their financial means. Jon believes that ecologically sound growing techniques are necessary ‘if we wish to perpetuate our species.’ However, to paraphrase former La Via Campesina Youth Advocate Blain Snipstal, sustainable growing methods without politics are just a technology. The fruits of these sustainable practices have to be made available to everyone. ‘You can’t just do it for an elite few,’ Jon asserted. Whether or not the Crooked Vege experiment in food accessibility “succeeds,” by acting upon its possibility, they are making an important statement which calls into question the current normality: small alternative farmers should be able to obtain a living wage and do so while being accessible to everybody in their community. This assertion makes us wonder, “Why isn’t that a current possibility?”
small alternative farmers should be able to obtain a living wage and do so while being accessible to everybody in their community.
Multiple barriers exist, preventing more people from growing in agroecological, regenerative and organic ways and eaters from accessing the resulting produce. As Jon highlighted, ‘there’s a lot of people who would like to be choosing food that’s doing better by planet and by people… the current political economic paradigm just doesn’t really give many people those options.’ Some key impediments include our reliance on fossil energy, how Pākehā perceive land, and our position within global commodity markets. Firstly, in Jon’s eyes, New Zealand’s current food system is entropic. For him, the overarching issue is how much energy it requires to produce food. Relying heavily on fuel, fertiliser, herbicides, and pesticides has various consequences: when their price increases, so does our food; fossil energy undermines our planet’s health; and, in New Zealand, we often procure it in unethical ways. Jon provides the example of us relying on fertilisers from contested territories in the Western Sahara - and being one of the only countries that accepts phosphate from this source. The irony is that to justify these consequences, ‘the dairy industry will talk about feeding people,’ Jon says, ‘but most of that is getting dried to put in corn flakes. We’re not feeding people good shit, we’re padding out their lollies!’
Secondly, land prices in New Zealand are exceedingly high, a reality most of us struggle to navigate daily. A vast literature links the cost of land to Pākehā’s perception of it as our country’s “asset.” The parable of land as a commodity has been centuries in the making. The enclosure movement, colonisation, and the early enlightenment transformed the land from a place of dwelling and communal living into private “property.” Karl Polanyi - in The Great Transformation - and Silvia Federici - in Re-enchanting the World - go into extensive detail about this process. They speak of how the fence became a powerful tool of exclusion, enclosing areas and making them inaccessible to those who previously lived there. Significantly, since the early 15th century, the enclosure movement has not stopped. Through colonial land reform - which in New Zealand expressed itself as the New Zealand Land Court and the Native Land Act - the enclosures have expanded across the globe, converting traditional land holdings into private and alienable property. This story has a lasting impact on people today. Jon points out that ‘land in New Zealand is so hard to access for a young person who’s not either… gifted land by their parents, or without having worked a really high paying career for 10 or 20 years and coming to it in their 30’s or 40’s.’ Until we move away from treating land as an asset with a financial value we seek to inflate endlessly, it will increasingly become out of reach for the majority of our population and concentrate into fewer and fewer hands.
Thirdly, our cultural relationship with the land as a commodity is a particularly harsh barrier for alternative farmers. Because food, which is the good that farmers produce, is generally valued as “cheap” in our society. The work of Raj Patel and Jason Moore - A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things - and Eric Holt-Giménez - Can We Feed the World Without Destroying It? - illustrates how unequal power relationships between the Global North and South “cheapens” the price of both labour and goods. For example, the colonial commodification of land in the Global South pushes people out of their homes and into unfair labour arrangements where they are paid very little. Their cheap labour is combined with cheap fossil energy and high environmental degradation to produce food with severe social and ecological externalities not factored into the product’s final price. Alternative farmers in Aotearoa New Zealand then have to be competitive with this “cheapened” food. In turn, this cheapened food enables the suppression of wages at home, leaving a very small market for those seeking to grow food like Crooked Vege Ōtaki.
In a country with very high land prices and proportionally low food prices, it is nearly impossible to make it work - especially in a way that feeds everyone in the community. Many - perhaps most - growers wish for their food to be accessible to all, yet they must charge a price that compensates them for their labour, infrastructure, and energy - which often pushes their produce beyond the means of most. Essentially, we will not be able to feed everyone in our community (including our farmers) unless we collectively challenge socio-economic issues of equality, land access, and globalised markets. We cannot separate ‘the food system’ from the economic system it underpins. Eaters and growers in Aotearoa and abroad must be compensated appropriately for their work. As Jon mentioned, it can be disempowering to try and make change nationally, even more so when many of the issues greatly surpass our island’s borders! Crooked Vege Ōtaki’s pay-what-you-can model brings attention to these systemic issues by being honest about who can afford their offering but ultimately focuses on creating possibilities which break with what we take for granted at an interpersonal and local level.
In the words of E. F. Schumacher - Small is Beautiful - humans tend to ‘become conscious of only the visible and to forget the invisible things that are making the visible possible.’ Jon and Tae at Crooked Vege Ōtaki, with their pay-what-you-can CSA, are forging the path for more accessible food, bringing attention to some of these systemic barriers that have largely vanished from sight. In Jon’s words, it is an issue of ‘How do people get paid enough to live a respectful life?’ To which I would add, how do we foster a society where our aiding of others is met not with punishment but abundance? With these propositions in mind, the question becomes, what would it take to reach that point as a society? From Jon’s perspective, it starts with fostering food provisioning systems built on mutual aid. ‘That’s obviously a dream, right?’ said Jon, ‘that you build a community around a farm that has—within the people around it, and the farmers—different circles of mutual aid happening, or different cycles of mutual aid happening.’ By building interpersonal relationships, people can understand where their food comes from, what it costs to support their farmer’s livelihood, and give a little extra to support those struggling in their community. Ultimately, what Crooked Vege Ōtaki wishes to proliferate from the garden rows of small growers across Aotearoa New Zealand is a relationship-driven food system based on reciprocity and mutualism, where small farms everywhere feed the people around them nutritious and ecologically sound kai. Jon expressed frustration at the idea that their vision might be considered radical. Good kai for everybody ‘should be the basics. It should just be the absolute basis of any functional society.’
You can help support this kaupapa by donating to their crowdfunding campaign over at www.crookedvege.co.nz. However, there are many other ways to support them. If you know anyone in the area who is a capable builder or has secondhand infrastructure - such as polytunnels - that is really welcome. Furthermore, Jon says to “go find your local,” those people in your community trying to do their best for their environment and community. You can check Village Agrarian’s directory for CSA’s in your area - https://www.villageagrarians.org/csa-directory.
Luca McLean is a Master’s of Anthropology student at the University of Auckland researching the aspirations and motivations of alternative farmers in Aotearoa and the various cultural and economic impediments they face to realise these dreams.