This blog post was written by Margaret Riche, our Hunter College Public Service Scholar.
This past Sunday I joined some of our country’s hardest workers in answering the clarion call to Occupy Wall Street for a “Farmers' March.” Organized by the OWS Food Justice working group and Food Democracy Now! (which just celebrated its third year), the event united farmers, community gardeners, advocates and occupiers in addressing the corporate stranglehold on our food system. The lively march and subsequent assembly in Liberty Plaza helped put names and faces to those victimized by the abuses of our food system, and helped foster important feelings of solidarity between the urban and rural communities present. There was a great feeling of hope among the spirited crowd.
The crowd gathered in La Plaza Cultural Community Garden, where fiddlers and drummers filled the air with music and colorful “I am the 99%” shirts hung from pine trees. Before marching, overall-clad farmers and seasoned activists sat side by side in the Alphabet City community garden to hear from those at the helm of the food justice fight. Jim Gerritsen, a farmer from Maine and president of the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, smiled as he addressed the crowd, admitting that this was his first time in New York City: “I had no good reason to come until today.” Gerritsen is leading the fight opposing corporate control and genetically engineered (GE) crops with his lawsuit against agri-business giant Monsanto, signed by 83 other plaintiffs. The suit, filed last winter, deals with the GE seed contamination. Historically, Monsanto and its powerful legal team have subjected small farmers to patent infringement litigation when Monsanto’s GE seeds blew onto their fields, contaminating non-GE crops. Now the farmers are fighting back with their own lawsuit, and theirs isn’t the only one. Coloradan rancher Mike Callicrate also addressed the crowd and told us about his fight in the courtsas the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Tyson for violating anti-competition laws.
And food advocates are looking to address problems and create solutions outside the courts, as well. Many who marched through the East Village had brought their own signs, with original messages about our food system and how to fix it. “Prune the top 1%, Feed the Roots” one boldly declared. Another, very apropos for the march, declared “Urban-Rural Solidarity.” The popular rhetoric of the OWS movement was invoked with, “Family Farmers are the 99%” and “Occupy Farmland.” Another sign reminded us that “Civilization was built on agriculture, not a trading floor.”
I spoke to some fellow marchers to get a deeper sense of what brought us all together and everyone echoed a deep concern for our future, but also a great hope inspired by the occupy movement. Gigi Chew from getdirtynyc.org told me “The basis of life is to be able to sustain oneself.” As a self-described “permy” (or urban permaculture enthusiast), Chew maintains the dire importance of agriculture for city-dwellers, “Communities often feel they don’t have control over their lives and their choices. Strong community hands around farming helps the people to get their power back.” Tusha Yakovleva from the Hudson Valley Seed Library told me “Occupy links to all the broken systems and the food system is an incredible example.”
After marching through the East Village, we all gathered in the birthplace and home of OWS, Liberty Square (aka Zuccotti Park), for an assembly and seed swap. Decidedly sparser since the police raid a few weeks ago, the public park was outfitted with glittering Christmas lights and an energetic drum circle sounded in the near distance.
Jim Goodman, an organic dairy farmer from Wisconsin, did his first “mic check” on the people’s mic, where he called out his message, and we all echoed it back. “ We learned in the sixties” (“We learned in the sixties”) “that there comes a time” (“that there comes a time”) “when the machinery becomes so odious and sick” (“when the machinery becomes so odious and sick”) “that we must throw ourselves at it to make it stop!” His message was met by cheers and fingers twinkling upward in approval. He asked us to “let the world feed itself and let me feed you.” He recommended pushing our government to enact a financial transaction tax to address some of the financial games that are being played in congress and on Wall Street.
We were all gathered around a plot of dirt that Scott, a young man who had helped tend the flower beds in Liberty Plaza, told had once housed kale, rosemary, cabbage, mint and herbs. The garden had since been destroyed, but Scott was vigilant. “We found earthworms this big! This soil is fertile! Plant something and see what comes up in the spring. I say, lets grow everywhere and anywhere! ”
“Tear up your lawns and plant food!” Ann, a visiting farmer, suggested to suburban attendees. “Seeds are a gift from our ancestors!” she said, holding up a bag of seeds that she had brought from her mother’s ancestral village in Italy.
Joel Morton, an Iowa farmer associated with FarmAid, read from the OWS General Assembly Declaration, addressing the injustices perpetrated by the 1%, “They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.” He told us how “the 1% have forced families off of land and drained wealth and vitality from rural America through corporate greed and corporate control.” Looking out over the crowd of urban activists, rural farmers, “permys,” drifters and dreamers he declared, “Family farmers are a source of hope and grassroots groups and farmers across this country are making a better food system.”