Teaching Food Literacy
Permaculture and Backyard Farming
by Daniel Botkin, February, 2010
Laughing Dog Farm, Gill, MA
Food is one of those universal necessities which has the unique potential to unite us across nationality, race and class. No matter our politics or world view, all of us need real, life-giving sustenance. This shared relationship with food underscores our shared humanity the world over, and in a real sense, transcends all politics and ideology.
However, notwithstanding all the latest buzz, a vast percentage of our citizenry remains largely estranged from their food, whether due to poverty, ignorance, addiction or convenience. The average American still cannot tell what exactly he's eating or where it came from, much less how it's produced, stored, transported, cooked or processed. Nevermind Michelle Obama's White House garden, as a culture, we're still suffering from collective "food illiteracy". But history requires us to change that in all haste. Making comprehensive "food literacy" a universal cultural norm isn't just the right thing, the fair and democratic thing to do, it ultimately can help raise our collective food security and can also strenthen and refocus the (desperately needed) healthcare overhaul.
Plus, REAL food tastes so blessed good!
2009 was a terrific year for local food and for citizen-powered food initiatives across America…The Pioneer Valley also remains a veritable hotbed of food activism and micro-agriculture, with fledgling farms, CSA’s and farmers markets in every county. Add to that, the growing national discussion of "food" and "food policy" as more citizens connect the dots between energy, health and the previously unacknowledged “footprint” of “industrial” food. And, of course, there is the First Lady's lovely teaching garden which has spurred important focus on nutrition, child health, obesity and backyard growing.
All this translates into a "perfect storm" of opportunity for food activism, small farmers and locavores, everywhere. But there’s a tendency for the food reform movement to grow faddish, to become co-opted, commodified, or just to stall out, like so many failed diets. Some well-meaning consumers may believe that buying local, eschewing CAFO meat, or joining a CSA is the final solution. As a nation still of large(ly) non-farmers and heavy consumers, we need to go much further. Frankly, we also need nearly every citizen, of all persuasions, and specifically small children, to become food-literate. That is, everyone should be able to recognize, grow, store, process and cook real food. And yes, that is a tall order!
There’s an almost a “red state/blue state” cultural chasm between those who're newly or already "food literate" and those who still merely line up to buy and eat the stuff… There are galaxies of separation between those who, for instance, know how to grow, store and process potatoes, and those who, at 40 cents a pound, would see little need or value – (…and besides, wouldn’t know where to begin!) But we cannot succeed in our larger goal of “a truly healthy and sustainable food system” unless and until we shift our collective consciousness, bridge the chasm and resolve our cultural estrangement from our food.
We could begin by exposing and rebutting some of those pernicious myths about our nation's food, myths like:
"All food is equal…"
"Science and technology will solve our food problem(s)..."
"The food industry has our best interest at heart..."
"Hunger is inevitable; there just isn’t enough for all…"
Proponents of corporate agriculture still reflexively impugn the relevance of organic and sustainable systems, claiming such methods could never dent the problem of hunger worldwide. However this analysis (classically) fails to consider the cumulative potential effect of the small, mindful steps of millions of motivated individuals, families and communities, the power of dripping water vs. the gushing cannon, the power of "permaculture" (or permanent, regenerative agriculture) over the monoculture, factory model.
Today, as humanity attempts to wake up to multiple simultaneously inconvenient truths, like peak oil, soil loss and climate change, it's become clear, that is exactly what we do need: millions of innovative, new, citizen farmers, micro-producers, backyard alchemists, mycologists, shepherds, butchers, kitchen gardeners and the like... in every neighborhood, rural, suburban and urban -- to sanely and incrementally augment our problem-riddled, factory food supply.
In the past, a real “farmer” was identifiable as one who plowed and planted substantive acreage. Nowadays, the "small farm" and "permaculture” movements have radically expanded the parameters of what we might call “farming” and who we might call a “farmer”. Today, many smaller operations are using biologically-intensive methods, out-of-the-box design innovations, alternative and niche "crops" as well as countless other value-adding, micro-enterprises in order to try to remain viable during tough times. Some are succeeding, but many are not.
But there’s hardly time for each newly conceived small farm and niche farmer to make every mistake and reinvent the wheel. Unfortunately many well-meaning foodies and backyard growers who yearn to produce (more of) their sustenance have been stymied by a lack of practical knowledge, basic resources and mentorship. Many first-year gardens and gardeners were devastated by the ultra-rainy 2009 weather. In the absence of timely success, many newbies will simply give up.
Recall that it was only one generation ago that “farming the land” was widely viewed as less desirable, “peasant” work. Young people studied, sacrificed, matriculated, specialized -- even entered the armed forces, sometimes – all in order to avoid a hardscrabble life on the farm. Today, we are witnessing a new revival of and reverence for human-scaled agriculture. The small "family farm" is cool again, and it's a good thing. Because a lot more of us are going to be doing it in the future!
Permaculture embodies a set of principles encouraging integrated and sustainable energy use, food production, land stewardship and human habitation. Permaculture teaches collaboration across the disciplines, multi-functionality, the balance of depletion and regeneration, as well as concurrently caring for diverse habitats and species – including, but not exclusively, people! The principles of permaculture are being increasingly applied to designing and operating productive food gardens and small farms. Some believe these same principles could also be instrumental in designing a truly sustainable planet.
Permaculture draws together traditional, earth wisdom with contemporary hard science and the practice of intelligent design in order to feed, house and warm ourselves more efficiently, more gracefully, while simultaneously improving the health, fertility and potential of the land we inhabit.
Permaculture challenges us to think about land use that serves multiple functions at once. A vacant lot becomes not merely a recreational space, but an edible landscape, a water catchment zone, as well as a sanctuary for birds and animals. A fence is not just a fence, but a trellis, a windbreak, a habitat, and a summer drying rack.
In permaculture, everything is recycled, nothing is wasted. And permaculture teaches us that “a little goes a long way”, that a little can quite often be “enough”.
Permaculture-influenced food farming emphasizes the importance of integrated, long-term solutions over reactive “band-aids” and random interventions. For example, it challenges growers to eschew tillage (which tends to compact and deplete soil) and instead to loosen, build and enrich our soils over time by applying successive layers of “sheet” mulch, compost and "green manure".
Permaculture teaches us to address pests and disease, not with poison, but rather by systematically strengthening the crops themselves, through intensive cultural practices, (fertility, minerals, pH, etc.) to the point where pests actually cease to bother them! Commercial growers will echo the claim that such "biological" methods aren't realistic for serious production agriculture. But the commitment to find out has long been lacking. It's been far too easy to reach for the Roundup!
Permaculture thinking challenges us to keep our productive, nutrient-dense farms and gardens going all year round, even in chilly New England. This means harnessing the power of perennials, of storage crops, and of cold-hardy greens kept alive in unheated winter hoophouses.
But there’s a catch. Remaking our lives and neighborhoods with “permaculturally” inspired homes, gardens and energy systems isn’t a magic bullet. It is rather merely a tiny part of the Bigger Process of remaking our planet, that will require time, energy, visionary commitment... And it will require working together with people of all world views and persuasions. Creating a truly viable "permaculture of people", we've noticed, has proven to be the toughest nut of all!
History teaches us that human beings often require a shock or crisis to change deeply-rooted beliefs and habits, no matter how dysfunctional or problematic they (the beliefs) may be. These are strange and hungry times we are living -- and no one is immune from the strangeness. Peak Oil and the “transition” it brings may compel radical changes in our lifestyles, but there is already plenty we can do now to strengthen our local, regional and global food resilience.
The lost arts of growing, fermenting, storing, processing, cooking… and eating REAL food constitute the basis of true "health care" and must be restored in all haste to all families, and indeed to the greater bank of common, cultural information, not merely left to hippies, foodies and survivalists. We as a people must return “food literacy”as a universal, higher value, common to all. We must re-call, re-tool, and re-teach essential food knowledge and skills to all our citizens, especially the children -- no matter what history holds. And it's critical that all these new, niche-growers, locavores, foodies and wannabe backyard farmers have the best knowledge, seeds and support for short and long term success.
Laughing Dog Farm