It's Saturday morning and the line of BMWs and Smart cars idling for a parking space at Toronto's Brick Works Farmers Market snakes beyond the native plantings by the gate and onto the highway. Inside, under shelter of an ivy-covered former brick factory, Rosedale regulars, accessorized with straw market baskets, make the rounds of (local, organic and artisanal) farmers, smiling at bundles of glistening baby beets and clucking over earth-encrusted carrots as if they were adorable infants in a pram.
It is both too precious and a blissful utopian vision. A poultry supplier's chalkboard sign features a child's portrait of a chicken so charmingly accurate he must live on a farm. At nearby Evelyn's Crackers, the young proprietor offers that his wife makes the crackers herself from a family recipe and that they are named after their small daughter, Evelyn. In the queue for Brick Oven Amish Baking, many clutch wildflower bouquets (assembled onsite, $15 from Roseville Meadow farms) or sniff fresh-cut bunches of lavender from Niagara Lavender farm.
As at the many farmer's markets rising like wildflowers through concrete in urban centres across North America, enthusiasm runs high. My own tote spilling over with irresistibly crisp zucchini and dewy fresh basil, I bump into society stylista Ann Apor and her shopping columnist daughter Jane, who are chowing down on enormous sandwiches of (local, artisanal) Monforte goat cheese and (organic-fed, nitrate-free) bacon on Mennonite buns. "You have got to try this!" Apor enthuses. "It's the best thing I've ever eaten!"
Consider the new agrarians. From the Victorian farm-kitchen-themed Cowbell restaurant in Toronto (where we are cheerfully informed by our waiter that the animals featured on the menu "lived happy lives") to the rough-hewn chic of farm-tool flatware and farm-to-fork menus at parties and hot restaurants to this month's New York Times magazine's Style feature on the worn, calloused beauty of Women who Work the Land, there is a new and holistic Back to the Farm style movement in full swing - and it couldn't come at a more curious time.
History has observed romantic back-to-the-earth movements before, particularly in eras of tumultuous change, such as the Industrial Revolution (which wrought Utopian arts and crafts communities founded along the principles of Ruskin and Morris) or more recently in the 1970s, with the Whole Earth, hippie movement.
With the combined forces of globalization and urbanization at an all-time high, however, we have arguably never in human history been so detached from the local and the rural. Our everyday lives are dominated by the digital, the wireless, the commercially packaged and the virtual. And yet, perhaps as a result, we have never been so needful of that sense of connection with the earth that farming represents.
This nostalgia for what we feel we've lost is currently being expressed in every aspect of our lifestyles, from the green, organic slow food and locavore movements to the way we are decorating our homes (rustic and handmade), the clothes we are wearing (hemp, linen, granny and prospector looks), the music we're listening to (acoustic folk, as documented by Annie Leibowitz's photo spread on the new guitar heroes in Vanity Fair) and the books we are reading (farm memoirs and gardening how-tos).
Over rough-hewn dinner tables laden with fresh market fare, we debate the merits of "heritage" breeds of livestock and brag of buying shares in luxury pork. Spurred on by TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver, who champion "source" eating, we're growing heirloom lettuces on our roof decks and heritage tomatoes on our windowsills, driving this year's sales of old-time vegetable seeds to record levels.
For the cognoscenti, it is becoming as fashionable to flock to weekend workshops on beekeeping and cheese making as it has been to attend workshops on honey and cheese appreciation. In Oakland, Calif., a daughter of Berkeley activists, K. Ruby, who lives off a tiny vegetable garden and beehive wedged in between apartment buildings, has created the Institute of Urban Homesteading to share her tricks with like-minded others. In Toronto, the two hippest boutique hotels are host to farm-style initiatives: the Gladstone hosts seasonal Harvest Wednesday dinners, while the Drake is growing its own salad greens in an onsite "urban garden."
At the same time, a growing number of artists and activists such as novelist Barbara Kingsolver are (once again) fleeing the troubled city, taking up farming and then writing about their adventures (Kingsolver's best-selling Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life documents her family's struggle to live entirely off their own avails). Toronto writer and satirist Geoff Heinricks was ahead of the curve with his move to Ontario's Prince Edward County to found a winery 12 years ago, a back-to-the-land effort chronicled in his 2005 book A Fool and Forty Acres.
"You can go all Jungian about it and suggest that there is something out there in the collective unconscious or zeitgeist," says Heinricks. "But it's just becoming obvious for a number of reasons, from the fuel situation to the current global food shortage, that the 3,000-mile Caesar salad is unsustainable, both as a way to live and eat."
More fundamental is a general and widespread sense of insecurity. "From the latest economic news to the war on terror," he says, "we are clearly living in very tenuous times. People know now that their jobs, everything, could simply disappear."
For Heinricks, what the Back to the Farm movement feeds is a yearning for stability. "People are looking for roots," he says. Yet even he admits that "goat cheese won't save the world."
No, it won't, but the way that we have come to appreciate goat cheese has radically altered our conception of what the Farm is all about.
At the root of the movement is the New Age self-help idea of mindfulness. As former River CafÃƒ© chef and bestselling author Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall urges in his manifesto The River Cottage Meat Book, that awareness should include the animals we eat. "Have they lived well? Have they been fed on safe, appropriate foods? Have they been cared for by someone who respects them and enjoys their contact with them? Are you sure?" The only way to really know for certain is for us to get back in touch with production - the farm - itself. Which, for most of us not willing to chuck it all and go back to the land, transforms grocery shopping into a search for connection and meaningful experience.
What's odd is that, to satisfy this, the farm must become a boutique - ideally one expressing a back-to-nature authenticity and changing-the-world, one-goat-cheese-at-a-time intent.
Much as we can celebrate the victory of quality over quantity and artisanal over commercial, the raw truth is that the farm we so desperately want to get back to is one that never quite existed. As the hyper-stimulated consumers that we are, we won't let a beet just be a beet any more. It might have grown in the dirt, been fed by the sun and watered by the rain, but for us shoppers at the Brick Works, it's an emblem of now unattainable simplicity.
Back to the Soil - Or, From Tenement House to Farm Colony, Bradley Gilman (LC Page & Co, 1901, reprinted 2007)
Living the Good Life, Helen and Scott Nearing (1954)
The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, Wendell Berry (Sierra Club, 1977)
A Fool and 40 Acres, Geoff Heinricks (M&S, 2005)
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver and Steven L. Hopp (Kindle, 2007)
Plenty: One Man, One Woman and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon (Harmony, 2007)
Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should be Good, Clean & Fair, Carlo Patrini (Rizzoli, 2007) Farmer John's Cookbook: The Real Dirt on Vegetables, John Peterson (Gibbs Smith, 2006)
Amy Butler's Midwest Modern: A Fresh Design Spirit for the Modern Lifestyle, Amy Butler (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2007)
Farm Houses: The New Style, Neill Heath (Collins, 2006)
Urban Country Style, Nancy Gent, Elizabeth Betts Hickman (Gibbs Smith, 2007)
NEW AGRARIAN PLAYLIST
Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon, Devendra Banhart
New Moon, Elliott Smith
Sky Blue Sky, Wilco
The Shepherd's Dog, Iron and Wine
Till the Sun Turns Black, Ray Lamontagne