A Farm Organizer Visits Fish Country: An Alaska Journal, Part III

Severine Von Tscharner Fleming

According to agclassroom.org, Alaska's coastal areas range in temperature from 60.6F to 28.9F, while the inland areas average is more extreme from 72F to -1.5F. Average January temperatures range from -8F in Barrow to 37F in Valdez. Average July temperatures range from 44F in Barrow to 72F in Fairbanks.

Edi­tor’s note: Sev­er­ine Von Tscharn­er Flem­ing was invit­ed to Alas­ka to study the com­mons and speak to young peo­ple on behalf of the Alas­ka Marine Con­ser­va­tion Coun­cil and the Alas­ka Food Pol­i­cy Coun­cil. Part three of her three part report con­tin­ues here. (Read An Alas­ka Jour­nal Part I or Part II)

Here are a few of the con­found­ing fac­tors I learned about while in Alas­ka, all of which are log­i­cal, but large­ly not under­stood by the land-man­ag­ing com­mu­ni­ty of which I am a part.

  • The fish­ery is a com­mons. The right to fish is usu­al­ly assigned by the region­al depart­ment of marine resources in the form of a per­mit that is issued based on marine biol­o­gy sci­ence aimed at pre­serv­ing the fish stocks. Increas­ing­ly though, the quo­ta or right to fish” is pri­vate­ly owned, and increas­es in prices occur as they do with farm­land, hous­ing and rare man­u­fac­tur­ing equip­ment. This pro­vokes con­sol­i­da­tion, foreign/​absentee own­er­ship and a loss of liveli­hoods for small­er play­ers. Sim­i­lar­ly, the val­ue of the boats them­selves go up and down with the price of the fish on the com­mod­i­ty market.
  • Prof­it is a crap shoot. Fish­er peo­ple do not set the price of their fish. They sell their har­vest to can­ner­ies, who give them pink slips of paper that get redeemed after the sea­son is over, at a price set by the can­ner­ies and world market.
  • It’s a vol­ume game, which makes chang­ing sys­tems quite hard. Because they are fish­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands or even a mil­lion pounds of fish in a 4‑month sea­son, the young fish­er­men I met do not feel they can get into direct sales at that kind of vol­ume. Those who try are quite over­whelmed by infra­struc­ture costs. Mean­while, there’s a glut of canned salmon in the mar­ket­place, alleged­ly dri­ving the price down­wards from $1.50 last year to $0.50 per-pound this year. We’re har­vest­ing a mas­sive quan­ti­ty, only to find it (like oil at the moment) doesn’t have a buy­er. Alas­ka recent­ly scored a coup by get­ting the USDA’s school lunch pro­gram to start buy­ing com­mod­i­ty salmon, a mod­est price-sup­port effort.
  • Dif­fer­ent fish­eries have dif­fer­ent sys­tems — dif­fer­ent kinds of hooks, nets, trails, trolls, purs­es pots and seines. Each boat has a dif­fer­ent method of entrap­ping the fish whether it’s using hydraulics, bouys, drains, door-flaps or lead weights. Some fish­eries are more destruc­tive than oth­ers, most­ly because the way they fish doesn’t just kill the tar­get species, but kills non tar­get’” or by catch” at great vol­umes. This is espe­cial­ly destruc­tive in the case of juve­nile fish — valu­able fod­der fish that sup­port the high­er-ups. Many of the drag­ging nets frag­ment and destroy the fish habi­tat, sea-bot­tom cor­rals, sen­ti­ments and under­wa­ter topog­ra­phy that guide migrat­ing fish. These under­wa­ter struc­tures also hold worms and sponges and oth­er ocean-floor flora.
  • Dif­fer­ent parts of the fish­ery har­bor antag­o­nism for one anoth­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly those work­ing at dif­fer­ent scales. Large indus­tri­al fish­ing boats catch mas­sive loads with their trawls and often their by catch” is larg­er than the per­mit­ted catch for small­er boats. These boats are more eco­nom­i­cal­ly effi­cient” mean­ing they catch more fish per dol­lar invest­ed in labor, diesel and ice. The trou­ble is that they also tend to accel­er­ate the rate, vol­ume and range of catch in an effort to use their equip­ment to the max­i­mum. Expe­ri­ence has shown that these mas­sive boats will run a resource right down to the nub­bins, far faster than the fish­eries’ man­agers can track and pre­vent it.
  • Farmed fish are CAFO fish. Despite high hopes, tech­no-opti­mism, mas­sive pub­lic invest­ment and a rhetoric of feed the world” in case after case it is shown that fish-farm­ing only pol­lutes a degrad­ed coastal ecosys­tem. It can­not replace or restore the nat­ur­al wealth already plun­dered, and indeed its pro­duc­tion is based on over-har­vest of fod­der fish that are turned into fish food, as well as indus­tri­al­ly pro­duced soy-bean meal, pes­ti­cides, lice-icides, and oth­er chem­i­cals that dis­rupt sur­round­ing shell­fish and aquat­ic life. Author and for­mer fish­er­man Paul Molyneaux’s book, Swim­ming in Cir­cles, is the best source I’ve found on this top­ic, and it’s crit­i­cal that food-sys­tem lit­er­ate con­sumers and farm­ers alike tune in to the details of farmed fish, and use our spoke­man­ship to cau­tion eaters with­in our sphere of influence.
What can young agrar­i­ans learn from these fish­eries issues?

First, nei­ther mar­kets nor state-reg­u­la­tions are ade­quate dri­vers of stew­ard­ship. We know this from look­ing over the fence on our pub­lic lands. Bet­ter care of wild and semi-domes­ti­cat­ed land­scapes can take place only where stake­hold­ers with­in a water­shed take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the health of their ter­ri­to­ry, and adapt their stock­ing rates and cat­tle move­ment to the health of the land. This is hap­pen­ing in some places.

Sec­ond, in the urban Unit­ed States, the food com­mons” may be less glam­orous­ly wild, but we can still use the water­shed to ori­ent our­selves. Land, even pri­vate prop­er­ty lands with­in the peri-urban zones, form a resource com­mons for the water­shed and food­shed of the city. Recent flood­ing in the Mid­west helps make this trag­i­cal­ly visual.

Our Peri-urban and sub­ur­ban lands have tremen­dous infra­struc­ture” impact on the ecol­o­gy of the urban envi­ron­ment, for drainage and water-infil­tra­tion espe­cial­ly. Already the state (through tax pol­i­cy and agri­cul­ture assess­ment) gives incen­tives to pre­serve open space. The next step may be rec­og­niz­ing that this land can serve the com­mon-goal of food secu­ri­ty. This land, even small parcels, back­yards, urban lots and slices of for­mer-farms, could and should be made avail­able for food production.

In more pros­per­ous (coastal and scenic) parts of our coun­try, this is hap­pen­ing thru non-state actors, such as land trusts and com­mu­ni­ty land trusts, which use state-tax incen­tives and pri­vate deductible dona­tions to con­serve open space and remove the right to devel­op.” This is not hap­pen­ing as much in our prime agri­cul­tur­al areas, nor are the restraints to devel­op­ment result­ing in land afford­able for farm­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly ones just start­ing out.

What’s clear is that the scale, scope and speed of cli­mate de-sta­bi­liza­tion will con­tin­ue to wreak hav­oc with­in our agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem. Many parts of our agri­cul­tur­al land­scape are major­i­ty com­mod­i­ty-based, spe­cial­ized, indus­tri­al­ized and focused on export. Oth­er regions are more diverse, more self-sup­port­ing — with water­shed as well as food­shed ben­e­fits. As the weath­er-pat­terns con­tin­ue to shift and fluc­tu­ate, my pre­dic­tion is that some regions will suf­fer far more as a result.

Cit­i­zen action and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing gives us the chance to artic­u­late a dif­fer­ent path­way with­in our own water­shed and food shed; to treat our own head­wa­ters and food­lands with the respect and stew­ard­ship man­date that the Alaskans know so well. Like the Sus­tain­able Fish­eries Trust, which focus­es so much on new-entrant and local­ly based fish­er­peo­ple, to the exclu­sion of fore­gin com­pa­nies, sub-con­trac­tors and com­mod­i­ty export mod­els, I believe we can devel­op mod­els that suit com­mu­ni­ty food secu­ri­ty needs.

In con­clu­sion

Fish­er­peo­ple all come into port to sell their fish, or sell direct­ly to the can­ner­ies — these har­bor com­mu­ni­ties have the feel of log­ging towns and car­ry many of the ver­nac­u­lar aspects of extrac­tion economies. My mod­est pro­pos­al to the young fish­er­men was: get your­selves a club­house, a set of reg­u­lar fes­ti­vals, a lit­er­ary space and a more eas­i­ly com­pre­hendible com­mit­ment to eco­log­i­cal stew­ard­ship. As GM farmed salmon comes online, you’re going to have to do a stel­lar job of artic­u­lat­ing to the pub­lic why they should pay more to sup­port fish-hunt­ing in the wild, the glam­our of rus­tic indi­vid­u­als haul­ing nets in the cold water feels like only the start. What about cit­i­zen sci­ence? What about inter-gen­er­a­tional part­ner­ship? What about com­mu­ni­ty own­er­ship? What about coop­er­a­tive dis­tri­b­u­tion? Could some of these add to the argu­ment as well as the rich­ness for the enter­ing fish­er peo­ple? Could an empha­sis on team-build­ing help with recruit­ment, reten­tion and eco­nom­ic via­bil­i­ty for this sec­tor? I think yes.

This is the time for us to learn from each oth­er — across the shore­line — to fuse our his­to­ries and holis­tic goals, and cre­ative­ly man­age a sys­tem healthy enough to sus­tain life. As young agrar­i­ans come to com­pre­hend the pol­i­tics of fish­eries and fish­er peo­ple, we can become more adept at gov­er­nance ques­tions and logis­tics ques­tions. Land farm­ers are only just enter­ing the new era of land-com­mon­ing, just start­ing the work of restor­ing and repair­ing dam­age to our arid com­mon lands.

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The impulse of Alas­ka Marine Con­ser­va­tion Coun­cil and the Alas­ka Food Pol­i­cy Coun­cil to engage an agrar­i­an activist like me was a good one. As over­worked and under­paid as the organ­ic agri­cul­ture move­ment is, we do have an incred­i­ble cul­tur­al infra­struc­ture. Every region in the Unit­ed States has its local food groups, its movers and shak­ers, com­mu­ni­ty potlucks and Grange halls. We have a pow­er­ful, shared cul­ture and rou­tine gath­er­ings — win­ter con­fer­ences, seed and scion exchanges, breed­ers-meet­ings, agro-forestry mon­i­tor­ing com­mu­ni­ties, protests, mix­ers, barn dances and inspi­ra­tional speak­ers. We are very involved with the group process and col­lab­o­ra­tive sell­ing: Look how many of us sell direct at a farm­ers mar­ket or thru a CSA.

As keep­ers of genet­ic food com­mons, and the evolv­ing prac­tices of land-care, our sub-cul­ture of organ­ic agri­cul­ture holds a vocal and open cri­tique of fac­to­ry farm­ing, genet­ic engi­neer­ing, and indus­tri­al meth­ods and scale, as well as the labor prac­tices and eco­log­i­cal con­se­quences of these sys­tems. Seems like the sus­tain­able fish­eries” peeps are sim­i­lar­ly posi­tion­ing them­selves — per­haps a bit behind agri­cul­ture, but catch­ing up!

Of course, the agri­cul­tur­al cul­tur­al milieu is a result of our par­tic­u­lar his­to­ry as a com­mu­ni­ty of set­tlers, then yeo­man, then pet­ty cap­i­tal­ists, then play­ers in a glob­al food sys­tem, then increas­ing­ly as coor­di­na­tors of a local econ­o­my. Our lin­eage of coor­di­na­tion in agri­cul­ture arose in con­fronting not deple­tion of a wild resource, but con­cen­tra­tion, con­trol, monop­oly, price-pres­sure and manip­u­la­tion by exter­nal mar­ket forces. The coun­ter­cul­ture of organ­ic farm­ing, the youth cul­ture of Green­horns, the pop­ulist cul­ture of the Grange, the par­i­ty cul­ture of the farm cri­sis — each of these episodes has fur­ther crys­tal­ized a view of how to opti­mize human rela­tions and stew­ard­ship of our land economy.

We may still dress like lum­ber­jacks with sus­penders and mus­tach­es, but I’d argue a large and grow­ing farm sub­cul­ture has left the 1840s home­stead mind­set. This is borne out by the self-orga­niz­ing wiki approach to appro­pri­ate tech­nol­o­gy-shar­ing exem­pli­fied by FarmHack, col­lab­o­ra­tive data gath­er­ing in the man­age­ment of soil car­bon and glob­al vol­un­teer net­works such as WWOOF. These bring us much clos­er into prax­is with com­mons approach­es, and I’d argue that we have quite a num­ber of par­a­digm shifts ahead of us. First on my list is to not remain stuck in the 1840s and depart from the lim­it­ing notions of pri­vate property.”

We’re run­ning into new times, and as cli­mate pat­terns impact our land­scapes we’ll increas­ing­ly need new frame­works. Indeed, we should be pre­pared to enact these new sys­tems in times of cri­sis. The log­ic of state con­trol, based on “ sus­tain­able yield” of a com­plex and inscrutable sea — the log­ic of mar­ket-approach­es to car­bon seques­tra­tion and emis­sion, the log­ic of cap­i­tal­ist wealth — is oper­at­ing in an out­dat­ed (and extrac­tive) pat­tern with rules and assump­tions left over from the Enlightenment!

The prospects for a farm­land com­mons sits on the hori­zon for young agrar­i­ans, who dis­persed as we are nonethe­less in direct con­tact with both ecosys­tems and local com­mu­ni­ties. We’re in a per­fect posi­tion to inno­vate, to explore new sys­tems and agree­ments of land use, land gov­er­nance, land-own­er­ship, access, tran­si­tion and repair.

In a col­lab­o­ra­tive part­ner­ship with our cus­tomers, eaters and adja­cent move­ments we’re float­ing our lit­tle farm boats on a ter­res­tri­al land­scape shared by the entire human and non-human world. This project will go beyond cul­ture, logis­tics, gov­er­nance and cri­sis-man­age­ment. Prob­a­bly it will also require re-grow­ing a capac­i­ty for more spir­i­tu­al notions of our com­mon human­i­ty — dai­ly con­tact with the liv­ing forces of life itself. Good thing spring is right around the corner.

Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Fleming


Learn more about our vision for a farm­land com­mons at Agrar­i­an Trust.

For infor­ma­tion on com­mu­ni­ty fish­eries, or to inquire about get­ting access to large vol­umes of fish to your CSA/​local food out­let, please be in touch with North Atlantic Marine Alliance and Local Catch to learn about com­mu­ni­ty sup­port­ed fish­eries, vol­ume whole­sale options, and coastal coop­er­a­tives, and native-led lake-fish pro­duc­ers. Keep it real, keep it wild, eat wild fish.

Here are a few of my radio inter­views with fish­er peo­ple on Her­itage Radio Net­work.

The com­ing issue of New Farm­ers Almanac deals with issues of the com­mons, its gov­er­nance, and the increas­ing need to evolve bet­ter local and col­lab­o­ra­tive sys­tems, or as Eli­nor Ohrstrum would say: the poly-archy, and poly-cen­trism approach. This means many peo­ple work­ing not “ alone on the fron­tierr” but togeth­er, in inter-gen­er­a­tional, cross-sec­toral groups to solve for pat­terns, not just for individuals.

For infor­ma­tion on the young farm­ers move­ment, and our work on leg­is­la­tion for stu­dent loan for­give­ness check out Green­horns and the Nation­al Young Farm­ers Coali­tion. To find a farm job or appren­tice­ship, check out Good Food Jobs and the ATTRA sus­tain­able farm­ing net­work.

Sev­er­ine von Tscharn­er Flem­ing, a mem­ber of the Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times Board of Edi­tors, is the founder and direc­tor of Green­horns, a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion estab­lished in 2007 that pro­motes, sup­ports and recruits young farmers.
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