Urban Farm Hootenanny

Second Annual Hootnanny at the Urban Farm

What a lovely day we had yesterday, the first day of October, the kind of blue-sky day that reminds me that I need to get outside way more often. We started out at the farmers market, where we ran into many of our dancing friends, who were also out shopping for local or organic produce. I had been bemoaning the end of summer (no more corn on the cob, cantaloupe, tomatoes, peaches), but I have to admit that the fall crops (sweet potatoes, butternut squash, apples) have their place, too, and I was happy to see lettuce and spinach back now that the days are cooler.

Next we drove to the city’s mulch site at Capen Park and ran into another friend, who was dropping off some tree trimmings. It was a busy place, with quite a few people dropping off yard waste of all kinds (brush, tree trimmings, rotted fire wood, and one truck load of watermelon rinds).  After we loaded up the truck with mulch, we also picked up a few tree limbs to take home and cut into firewood.

Then we went to the second annual urban farm hootenanny, where we enjoyed the bright sky and the sunshine,  listened to live music, visited with friends, checked out the silent auction items, admired the crops, and enjoyed some city-slicker bbq chicken, grilled sweet potatoes, grilled butternut squash, mixed greens, apple crisp, and wine, all from local producers. Days like this make me realize how blessed I am.

Organic Food: Safer, Friendlier, Better?

This is the title of Chapter 2 in a great little book we picked up from our local public library called How the Government Got in Your Backyard: Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth About Environmental Policies. I told myself I was not going to get into politics in my blog, but truth is, I think about politics a lot and am fascinated by power struggles and wild differences of opinion. I also happen to subscribe to the belief that the personal is political, so there you go. After spending a week with my dad recently and wondering every minute how we could have ended up so far apart politically while at the same time holding such basic core values in common (e.g., independence, self-governance, fiscal responsibility, stewardship, and an abiding appreciation for “nature”), I especially appreciate this book for its head-on, scientific, nonpartisan approach to some of the biggest environmental issues we face.

The authors are Jeff Gillman, an associate professor in the Department of Horticultural Science at the University of Minnesota, and Eric Heberlig, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. They do an excellent job presenting the complexities surrounding key environmental issues; each chapter focuses on a single issue—organic food, pesticides, fertilizers, alternative energy, genetic engineering, plant patents, invasive plants, legal and illegal plants, local restrictions, global warming—all issues I am deeply interested in but do not know enough about. Each chapter includes essential scientific information about the issue, relevant governmental policies and policy options, ratings from left-wing and right-wing perspectives, plus the “bottom line.” The introductory sections also provide a clear overview of how science and political science interact, as the authors compare the contradictory roles of various players (politicians, scientists, lobbyists, the public), making it abundantly clear why it is so hard to get at the truth of these issues—not least because “politics is about making value judgments,” while “value judgments are outside the realm of science.” So policymakers are left having to decide what outcomes are desirable and at what cost, without the benefit of “hard science” to guide them, because science, which can be contested or modified with future study, does not offer The Truth, but often raises more questions. Add in the conflicting pressures from the public and the lobbyists, with their often narrowly defined self interests, and it is very difficult to know what is the right thing to do.

As I read the chapter on organic food, I found myself thinking in new ways about where I stand on the continuum between increased government regulations and letting producers do what they need to do to raise crops. Where the environment is concerned, I generally weigh in on the side of increased government regulations for the protection of people and the Earth, while my dad generally weighs in on the side of free market and entrepreneurs.  I generally distrust businesses that have profit as their primary motivation, while dad thinks bureaucrats put too many limits on business owners who need flexibility to respond to the market. We both mistrust large corporations, but I lean toward increased regulation to try to protect consumers, while he recommends lowering their taxes and getting the government off their backs so they could be more competitive in giving consumers what they want.

But I can see how the lines could get blurry. For example, I don’t want the city or the neighborhood association to tell me I can’t grow native perennials or vegetables in my front yard but must have a perfectly manicured and weed free (i.e., chemically treated) lawn, so in that instance I would be anti-regulation, I suppose.  As a gardener who tries to raise plants “as organically as possible” but who sometimes reaches for pesticides or fertilizers to solve particular problems, I can appreciate on a small scale how challenging it is to find a balance between philosophical ideals and practical applications. But I definitely want the label to tell me what is in that bottle of spray so I can make an informed decision before I use it. Even if the ingredients are labelled “natural” or “organic,” I prefer to know about any potential dangers they might pose to honeybees or other beneficial insects before I spray my grape vines. I also know that I am one of the lucky ones who can afford to pay a little more for organic and locally produced food, a luxury that many, many people do not have in today’s economy. Given all that, is it right to mandate numerous regulations that increase the overall cost of production and impose undue burdens on small producers, when we have no guarantee that organic methods are superior to conventional methods, or to restrict the ability of large producers to produce foods in the most cost-efficient ways possible?

The authors do a very good job of raising some of the questions that I generally avoid thinking about too deeply. For example, I happen to believe that growing organically is better for our health and better for our planet,  but is it then preferable to buy from a large-scale organic farm, even if they must use nonrenewable fossil fuels to ship their produce to my town, or is it better to buy from a small local farm, even if the farmer occasionally uses pesticides and fertilizers? If a local milk or meat producer avoids the use of hormones, treats her animals humanely, allows them plenty of time outside to graze, and does not put animal waste products or other questionable ingredients in their feed, but does occasionally treat them with antibiotics when they get sick, should the farm lose its credentialing as an organic producer? If a farmer returns from the weekly market with bushels of unsold turnips and lettuce and other produce, should he be allowed to feed it to his pigs at the end of the day, knowing it will go to waste before next Saturday’s market? Or should the state, in an attempt to protect people’s health, be allowed to define the unsold turnips as “garbage” and thus outlaw feeding it to animals that will be sold for meat? These are important but difficult questions that we all weigh in on every time we put food to mouth.

If you’re working on something you can complete in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.

After work we went to an inspiring lecture by Wes Jackson, founder and director of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and author of a new book called Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to the New Agriculture. The lecture was part of a series on food and society sponsored by the University Museum of Art and Archaeology. Before the lecture we attended a reception in the cast gallery, where a reproduction of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture towered over us as we talked to a couple of young organic farmers about the challenges they face as they work to bring about positive change in the way we grow our food and feed people in our community. We also talked to another young man who works at the St. Francis house, is taking a few courses in biochemistry “for fun,” and planning to start med school in the fall. He recognized us from Hallsville and was telling us what a wonderful time he had at the community square dance last month, his first time ever square dancing. We recognized several other people we knew from the contra dance group and from the local urban farm movement but by then it was time to walk across the street to Middlebush to hear the lecture. I had heard about Wes Jackson and the Land Institute but did not really know much about their work.

postcard illustration

Postcard design by Rose Friedman and Justin Lander based on a quote from Wendell Berry

Wes was a good speaker and quite funny at times but also dead serious about the problems facing agriculture, problems which can not be solved within the current paradigm but will require a huge shift in thinking, a synthesis of differing perspectives, such as could be achieved by merging the perspectives of evolutionary ecology and agriculture. He strongly believes that if we are to feed ourselves and learn to live within our means, we must move away from annual monoculture toward “herbaceous perennial seed-producing polyculture.” At the Land Institute, they are developing perennial grain species that can be grown in diverse arrangements. They have so far developed perennial wheat, wheatgrass, sorghum, sunflowers, and legumes that do not require replanting every year; production yields are promising. As explained in the brochure from the Land Institute, “perennial grain crops provide year-round cover, shield soil from wind, absorb moisture, slow surface runoff. Their year-round extensive root systems manage water and nutrients through weather extremes, while hosting microorganisms and invertebrates critical to healthy soil.” Annual crops, by contrast, require lots of cheap energy to prepare the fields, treat for pesticides, manufacture fertilize. For many of us who live in the flyover states, the short-sightedness of counting on biofuel to save us is painfully obvious. He unfurled a poster that stretched across the front of the lecture hall to show the dense root system of perennial wheat next to the shallow roots of an annual wheat plant. The root system of the perennial wheat was at least three times as long and many times thicker than the roots of the annual wheat.

Wes traced the source of our problems back through 10,000 years of extractive methods of agriculture that have dismantled Earth’s complex ecosystems, reducing biodiversity, depleting soils, polluting waters. He pointed out the problems with an economy that constantly pushes unlimited growth despite the reality of limited resources (which he referred to as petri-dish economics). He identified technological fundamentalism (the kind that claims technology will solve all our problems) as the most dangerous fundamentalism of all and defined hard-headed realists as those who “use a lot less information than what is available.” He mentioned his friend and ally Wendell Berry numerous times during the lecture and laid out their plans for a fifty-year farm bill with five-year farm bills as mileposts along the way. And lest we get discouraged by the enormity of the problems facing us, he pointed out that “if you’re working on something you can complete in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”