Value’s steep price

Medlyn’s Farm, a fixture of my hometown of Branford, Connecticut, went on the market for $2,000,000 early October of 2020. A lightning rod for political opinion after some of its fields were damaged in flooding, the farm had struggled in recent years to turn a profit. But their fresh produce and eggs were coveted in the town—I and my wife would stop in on weekends when travel or leisure took us to Guilford, and we had opportunity to pass its stand. Customers paid in cash, depositing the money in a basket and taking change as appropriate. Nobody tended counter, nobody looked over one’s shoulder—transactions were carried out using the honor system.

The sale of Medlyn’s Farm marks the end of an era in Branford. One of the last farms to sustain itself using an old business model will be gone, and given climate change and its proximity to the ocean, it’s unlikely to continue in its current form. Whether developers purchase the land and turn it into condominiums or a subdivision, or the town finds a way to scrape together the money to return it to its natural state of coastal wetlands, or some enterprising entrepreneur decides it’s worth rescuing in its current form, Medlyn’s Farm, a family-run business, will likely disappear.

Even if it remains as a farm, there will be changes—the entrepreneur will change the price structure, and one will no longer be able to walk into a room alone, leave a $20 bill, and take 2 dozen fresh eggs and some greens and herbs. It will be necessary to interact with someone at a cash register. Books will need to be kept, money accounted for. Produce will become “merchandise,” with a code in the system for each type (4470: Broccoli. 4480: Cauliflower. 300: Egg, chicken, large).

Although I know that there are good reasons to permit the farm to return to its natural state (saltwater marsh)—ecological health, coastal resiliency—part of me feels sad to see another farm disappear from Connecticut’s landscape. Especially at a moment in human history characterized by a backlash against the type of conglomeration and globalization that has replaced smaller farms with industrial-size multi-national ranches, farms, and dairies—the kind one finds sold in places like Stop & Shop and Costco—the end of Medlyn’s Farm is a small tragedy. Branford, population 28,000, was never going to be supported by the handful of independent farms still growing corn and lettuce. But Branford and Connecticut are less resilient for the loss of Medlyn’s Farm, and those farms like it that have quietly gone out of business, been sold piecemeal, or been turned into homes sold for $350,000 or $500,000 to upwardly-mobile middle-class families looking to escape to the suburbs. To what end?

The New York Times Magazine At War section, too, is folding up. It will continue to exist in some form as a newsletter, but a promising place for veteran journalist and nonfiction voices to debut is gone, one of the casualties of a changing media business model. In similar news, “Task and Purpose” has been sold, and whether it continues its existence as a site dedicated to military journalism is similarly questionable—it had been championed steadily by its owner, Zach Iscol a veteran, and when ownership changes, content often does as well. The leaders of “The War Horse” have been furloughed due to expected donor funding not coming through in the pandemic. Stars and Stripes remains a political target subject to budget cuts, as do Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Liberty, two channels that often cover war and the military.

This isn’t something that a lot of people probably care about. “At War” aspired to be a publication that could be read by every New York Times reader, and I loved it, and many of my friends loved it, too. I published in it, years ago; it’s difficult to overstate how significant it is to be a young writer and get a New York Times byline. It’s everything, and “At War” didn’t limit its scope to writers who looked like me, they brought in as many stories as they had time and space for. “Task and Purpose” is somewhat niche, but fills an important role when it comes to reporting and commentary on veteran and military issues that would otherwise be “too far afield” for other publications—similar with “The War Horse.” “Stars and Stripes” does reporting on the military that other publications cannot or will not underwrite. And in spite of the distaste with which the left views VoA and RFERFL, in authoritarian countries they actually fill an important role. People read and watch VoA and RFERFL with enthusiasm and it offers pro-democracy dissidents a space to connect, intellectually and politically. So long as those are ideals that animate the U.S., one would think that those outlets would be funded and appreciated. And the value of media institutions covering the military, and veterans affairs—a combined 8-9% of the federal budget—would, one imagines, serve the national good, regardless of whether many readers found it interesting.

Medlyn’s Farm brings a kind of value to the community of Branford that obviously doesn’t stand up to the test of the free market—it can’t make enough money to be profitable (or sufficiently profitable), especially in the face of climate change. Similarly, journalistic coverage of the military and the veteran world are not sufficiently profitable, according to who determines sufficiency in this type of scenario—but they have value within the culture. Citizens “profit” by sharing in the experiences of military veterans and especially combat veterans (the choice to enter war being necessarily informed by those who have practiced it, those who have studied it, and those who have experienced it). Citizens also profit from a critical examination of the military itself—especially in our culture, civilian oversight of the military, combined with a tradition of military nonpartisanship, is one of the strongest guarantees against dictatorship.

But the utility of military or veteran focused writing and journalism, like the utility of a single farm, is not enough to outweigh whatever financial requirement that writing or farm is being asked to meet.

Once “value” is introduced to a discussion about a business or institution, you can be sure that what will actually be accomplished is the destruction of something important and vital. In the case of Medlyn’s Farm, the destruction means a small part of the fabric of my home community will be unraveled. I probably don’t agree politically with the Medlyn’s Farm owners, whose difficulties with climate change were weaponized by individuals who did not believe in “global warming” (and who have resisted efforts to adjust to what is now unarguably occurring). I do know that Medlyn’s Farm’s owners gave the town something more than a market at which to buy food grown locally. They gave us accountability, they were part of a history and a way of life that’s already essentially gone, and, moreover, is now being erased. They were part of a model that should be viable, not just because we want things to appear a certain way, but because to have things operate in a particular fashion means on a certain level that they are that way. Because a Medlyn’s Farm has value.

I’m going to miss Medlyn’s Farm. I’m going to miss the military journalism and veteran writing that doesn’t have a sufficient readership (small outfits like the Wrath-Bearing Tree, which I and some friends run based on a value proposition that does not depend on profitability, are doing fine). And I wonder if I will ever see a moment when responsible adults will be capable of seeing the wisdom of continuing a project for its own sake—evaluating the project on its merits—rather than because it is profitable to do so.

Published by fancypencilhand


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