Fantastic Farming, Fallow Furloughs

Aryeh Canter is currently at the Summer Kollel at Kayam Farm, spending his mornings working at their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program and his afternoons learning about Jewish Agricultural laws. Here are some of his thoughts…

So after an amazing and bountiful weekend, I left Montreal (and Canada) and headed south for Reistertown, Maryland. My journey started with a Greyhound bus which lead me to NYC where I was then greeted by another bus. The Megabus took me from NYC to White Marsh, Maryland. Then (and most excitingly) I was picked up by a car fuelled by veggie-oil which finally took me to the farm! This was exciting in two ways; one – vegetable fuelled cars are awesome! and two – because I was thinking about ways of  getting SSMU (Student Society at McGill University) to encourage an Engineer to build one for student groups to use. The guy who was running this car seemed to think this was a genius idea, and encouraged me to pursue it.

In the car ride we had a very interesting conversation about the role of profit in the environmental movement (and more specifically the Jewish food movement). His hypothesis was essentially that the movements were still in their adolescence: relatively radical, constantly struggling to stay afloat with the help of various ‘sugar mamas’. He believed that in order for it to ultimately succeed (and be wholly sustainable) the idea of profit would need to shift from a dirty word to become the normal, respectable, standard – even in environmental circles. I think I agree with him but am not entirely sure. I feel that needing to sustain yourself is probably a good idea in the sustainability movement, but I have my doubts about conventional economics.What do you guys think? (comment below to start the conversation!)

I arrived on the beautiful Kayam farm at the Pearlstone retreat center and immediately hopped into the learning of the day. Each week is divided into a different theme based on Jewish agriculture laws. This week we are learning about Shmita. The basic idea is that every 7 years (similar to every 7 days i.e. Shabbat) we are supposed to allow the land to lie fallow by not planting, harvesting, or working the land. All land becomes owner-less for that year, and fruits or random vegetables that do grow are permissible to eat, but when people go out into the field to collect, they are only allowed to collect food for their immediate consumption. This idea is super-radical.

Essentially it forces the entire society to begin storing and preparing as they approach the seventh year. The society puts its trust in G-d (or whatever you might like to call the power that helps sustain life) to make sure enough fruits grow and that the food that is prepared/stored lasts through the sabbatical year. Consider the eighth year too- if you are unable to plant anything for the entirety until the fall of the seventh year (on the Hebrew calendar) the following winter will surely be very difficult to survive. It is important to note that these laws (cancellation of debt and fallow fields) only apply to the Jewish people living in the land of Israel.

Rav Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz author of the Keli Yakar (living from 1550-1619 in Prague) commenting on Devarim 31:12 writes,
“The year of Shmita… promotes a sense of fellowship and peach through the suspension of cultivation, even for the needy of your people, for one is not allowed to exercise over any of the seventh year produce the right of private ownership. And this is undoubtedly a primary factor in promoting peace since most dissension originated from the attitude of ‘mine is mine’, and the other claiming ‘it is all mine’. But in the seventh year all are equal, and this is the real essence of peace.”

Another extraordinary thing that happens at the end of the Shmita year is that all loans are forgiven. This to me is the most radical implication of the Shmita law. Essentially, the idea is that in any given 7 year period you might have a good harvest and have more then you need, or you might have a bad harvest and you can not reach your needs, but regardless of this you should not have to go into debt for a prolonged amount of time. The Rabbis go into some detail about how certain loans (ones that supplement someone past basic necessities) do not get forgotten after the seventh year. However both this rule and the rule concerning fallow lands have been loop-holed (is that a verb?) because of the difficulty for our society to abide by these radical laws. This is very similar to the idea of the Sabbath. If you only starting to think about the upcoming Sabbath on Friday afternoon then it will surely be very difficult to have everything prepared in time. But if all week you are getting ready, then when the day finally comes one is ready for the special intention of the day.

The origin of the loop-hole concerning the cancellation of debt was brought about by Hillel. The issue with this law is that the rich would stop providing loans in the fifth and sixth years of the cycle, out of fear that only a few years later their debts would not be paid back, and there money would be gone. It is sad (but I guess understand-able?) that this had to happen. The land based laws were not loop-holed until the late 1800′s during the first wave of Zionism which brought people back to the land of Israel. The problem arose because farmers were dying from not having enough food for the seventh year. This was done by a Heter Mechira (literally ‘leniency of sale’) which allows Jews to sell their land to non-Jews during the seventh year so that the land is no longer technically ‘owned by Jews’ and thus is not required to lie fallow for the seventh year. Creative solutions?…

There are many interesting things going on here. For instance, what does it mean to ‘own’ a piece of land? Is it the ability to benefit from it? Is it the act of living on it? How has ownership been transferred to another person if the Jewish farmers are still farming the land during the seventh year? Can land be Jewish? Can you own natural resources? A river? A Forest?

Wow! This has been a really long blog post. Yasher Koach to those who have made it this far, I still have a lot to say (amazing group dynamics, beautiful starry nights, the beauty of being woken up by chirping birds in the morning, awesome late night convos about Jewish identity, goat milking and, cheese making.

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