Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?

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If you listen to the news these days, everyone is talking about jobs, jobs, jobs (the lack of them).  Although the unemployment rate is dropping, it’s still a pretty depressing picture for recent college grads (as well as anyone else just entering the workforce).  Students (and parents) are asking if the value of a college education is worth the cost. 

Good question!

I’m the academic adviser for students in our Sustainable Food and Farming program at the University of Massachusetts and I often get asked by parents – so will my kid get a job when they graduate?  My response is “maybe” – but if they graduate from UMass they will be prepared to create good work that is needed on the planet. This may not be the most satisfying answer for a parent – but in a rapidly changing world, its honest.

Getting a Job

There’s a difference between “getting a job” after graduation and creating good work.  We know that there are not enough jobs for everyone in the U.S. who wants to work today – but there is plenty of good work that MUST be done.  A graduating senior searching for a job may or may not find employment.  Those who graduate with a degree in Sustainable Food and Farming have had some luck searching these lists:

So, there are jobs in sustainable food and farming.  Interestingly, one of the options suggested in the blog post “Can’t find a job? Six alternatives” is working on a farm.  Some of our students in fact, do want to farm, but many are also interested in education, public policy, advocacy and community development related to food and farming.

But a “job” may not be the best choice for everyone!  In fact, many of the jobs we will be doing in ten years may not even exist today.  The world is changing fast.What job will I get after college?” is a self-limiting question.  A more important question (that is addressed in an article about “Jobs of the Future“) is “….how are we going to live?”  And especially, how are we going to live in a world in which the industrial food system is collapsing? Students in our program learn to see crisis as an opportunity for creating their own good work.

Creating Good Work

The great British economist, E.F. Schumacher, author of the classic text Small is Beautiful, wrote a lovely little book called Good Work about this topic.  According to Schumacher, good work needs to provide for three things.  It should:

1…provide a decent living (food, clothing, housing etc.).
2…enable the worker to use and perfect their native gifts.
3…allow the worker the opportunity to serve, collaborate and work with other people to free us from our inborn egocentricity.

Finding a job may serve the first need without addressing the other two.  When I ask my students if their parents are happy in their work, there is often a hesitation.  I often hear that “Dad seems okay and makes a good living – but you know he always wanted to …. (fill in the blank).

I’m sure many adults in the workforce are fulfilled by their work and challenged in a way that “frees them from their inborn egocentricity.”   But frankly, many are not.   We need good work to provide us with a reason for being and a sense of belonging if we want to be happy.

Robert Frost wrote in “Two Tramps at Mudtime”

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation…

Our dream should be to unite our avocation (that which we love) and our vocation (that which we do).  We should “love what we do and do what we love.”

While some students are trained for entry level jobs, students who want to learn to thrive in this new world learn how to learn.  They meet entrepreneurs who have followed their own dream and are busy creating new businesses, non-profit organizations, or are self-employed.  They are introduced to systems thinking, grant writing, and holistic decision-making.  They are awarded academic credit for apprenticeships or for gaining experience by “wwoofing” in  the U.S. and around the world.

This is not to deny the value of a job that “provides a decent living.”  But money is not enough.  Even during the Great Depression when the unemployment rate exceeded 25%, Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, stated in his 1933 presidential inaugural address:

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.  The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of …. profits.  These dark days… will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and others.”

To Minister to Ourselves and Others

I encourage students not to sell themselves short but to articulate and pursue their dream.  I encourage them to think about how they might be useful – to themselves and their families – but also to others and the planet.  I often share a hard hitting essay by Derrick Jensen titled Who Are You?, in which he quotes Carolyn Raffensperger, who advises us to ask what is the biggest and most important challenge we can address with our gifts and skills.  Like E.F. Schumacher, Carolyn recognizes that to be fulfilled and happy we must not only provide for our own living – we  must “minister to ourselves and others.

Good work will provide us with a living, allow us to perfect our gifts, and perhaps most importantly …good work will allow us to be useful to others and the planet.

There is much work to be done on a planet facing the “perfect storm” of climate change, peak oil and global economic crisis.  Business as usual is not enough.  We know that crisis creates opportunity for those willing to try something new.

At a time when the federal government seems intent on stimulating the economy by encouraging new industrial jobs – we need to learn how to create good work by focusing on what is really needed.  This will require creativity, sacrifice and the willingness to learn from our mistakes.  But what other choice do we have – really?

For Part II of this blog, see http://johngerber.world.edu/2015/01/06/future-work/

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See “Finding Good Work” for more links to work opportunities and internships.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming or earn a 15 credit Certificate from UMass.

Relocalize the food system to support democracy!

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I wrote in an earlier blog “the global food system will always favor large, financially efficient businesses which exploit people, undermine democracy, erode community, and degrade natural resources in order to maximize profits.” Another of my blogs claimed that for agriculture to be sustainable, we must relocalize our food production and distribution systems.  This resulted in lots of discussion, not all in agreement.

Several of the critics of my “strong relocalization” position focused on the efficiency and effectiveness of non-local food production and distribution systems from an economic and environmental perspective.  And I generally agreed with the criticism.  But sustainability must also include a strong commitment to social justice, and relocalization can support this critical goal by strengthening community and fostering democracy.

My thinking has been influenced by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel, who wrote in Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy “the moral fabric of community is unraveling around us.”  Sandel boldly states that today “the public philosophy by which we live cannot secure the liberty it promises, because it cannot inspire the sense of community and civic engagement that liberty requires.”

The loss of community which undermines democracy is the product of a worldview built on an individualistic understanding of the good life.   This understanding was born during a period of industrialization, fueled by seemingly inexhaustible petroleum supplies, and guided by a political theory that assumed continued economic growth is a moral imperative.

I”m not suggesting that EVERYTHING needs to be grown locally (bananas are difficult to grow in New England)  but rather that we need to move in the direction of relocalization.  And of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with the efficiency of regional, national and even global businesses if they are not exploitative. Rather than maximizing profits for the financial benefit of stockholders, even multi-nationals could optimize profits for a network of locally owned and managed small businesses.  This would provide the efficiency and effectiveness of a large organization while supporting a local economy and build community.

So, what’s the problem?

Rapid industrialization in the early 1900’s along with the railroads and national telegraph system was expected to connect the nation more closely than ever before.   However the connectivity created by industrialization and communication was based more on financial dependency than on a shared vision of a common national good.  Interconnectedness in corporations of ever-increasing size and power, is not the same as a sense of community which in fact, diminished rapidly during the first half of the 20th century. 

The progressives of the era were mixed on their response to rapid growth of business and subsequent loss of community.  Sandel wrote: “some sought to preserve self-government by decentralizing economic power and thus bringing it under democratic control. Others considered economic concentration irreversible and sought to control it by enlarging the capacity of national democratic institutions. Theodore Roosevelt sought to regulate big business, increase the power of the national government, and to build a shared vision through his new nationalism.”

Herbert Croly in The Promise of American Life stated that America needed a stronger central government so that people would feel more a part of a national community.  This political theory however, did not promote citizenship or democratic ideals but rather a utilitarian view of continued economic growth as the dominant shared American value.  Economists and political leaders believed that the primary goal for America was to promote a rapidly rising total output of goods and services and full employment.  While this goal is important to the economy, it was not sufficient in itself to prevent the demise of community and the decay of democracy. 

Where do we go from here?

It is surely difficult to imagine a return to a strong civic culture at a national level. Sandel wrote; “from Aristotle’s polis to Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, the civic conception of freedom found its home in small and bounded places, largely self-sufficient, inhabited by people whose conditions of life afforded the leisure, learning, and commonality to deliberate well about public concerns.” A national community is just too big to provide a sense of meaning and purpose that lasts.  We need to connect to something that feels more like a hometown.

People frustrated with national government need opportunities to participate in local institutions that allow more civic engagement in order to feel a sense of agency and control of their own lives.  Local government, colleges and community organizations can be instrumental in both building a local food system as well as providing individuals with a sense of meaning and purpose.  However according to Sandel, current efforts to relocalize the economy face the same “… predicament American politics faced in the early decades of the twentieth century. Then as now, new forms of commerce and communication spilled across familiar boundaries and created networks of interdependence among people in distant places. But the new interdependence did not carry with it a new sense of community.”

What railroads, telegraph wires and national markets were to a former time, satellite hookups, cyberspace, and global markets are to ours – instruments that link people without making them neighbors.  While we need local connections, communities cannot be strong in isolation and small businesses cannot survive without understanding global market forces.  We need a global network of local food and farms.

Relocalization must be global!

I’ve written previously about a proposal to create the Food Commons, a national network of integrated local food production, processing and distribution subsystems.  When we connect this idea with the global food movement called Food Sovereignty, we might begin to imagine a global Food Commons network with governance dispersed throughout rather than centralized in a corporate headquarters.  Sandel, writing about political governance, seems to support this idea, which I think can be applied to business as well.  He writes that only a management system; “…that disperses sovereignty both upward and downward can combine the power required to rival global market forces with the differentiation required of a public life that hopes to inspire the allegiance of its citizens.”

The purpose of the corporation is to generate profit for investors at all legal (and sometimes illegal) cost.  When economic power is concentrated in a few multi-national corporations, it not only erodes the other two sustainability objectives (environmental integrity and social justice) but creates a political situation that undermines democracy.

A network of locally-owned food businesses managed collectively would support vibrant communities, enhance democracy, and provide engaged customers with high quality food grown locally as well as from a distance.  I believe a global network of collectively managed and locally-owned food businesses has the best chance of being sustainable.

To move toward sustainability however, we must reverse the direction of industrialization (centralization, specialization and globalization).  We can do this by getting involved in local organizations and government, supporting local businesses, and encouraging public investment in community priorities.  

For agriculture to be sustainable and democratic, we must relocalize – globally!

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends and perhaps comment below.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please check out my web page Just Food Now.  And go here for more of my World.edu posts.