On Politics, Vegetables and Community Supported Agriculture
(An edited version of this article was first published by the Montague Reporter on March 1st, 2005.)
by Danny Botkin,
Laughing Dog Farm, Gill, Massachusetts, March 2005
"...I have come to see growing, cooking, processing and sharing superb quality food as the last, best way to care for and nurture the planet - as well as those I love. To me, nutritious, wholesome, sustainably-raised food has become a metaphor for everything worth saving."
Many say the world is ruled by money, some say oil; now others are talking about the coming “Water Wars”, as global aquifers become stretched, depleted, polluted and lost… Myself, I tend to see food as the common denominator, the great, and illuminating mega-issue that links us all in the global community. Think about it, when all talk of economics, war, politics, terrorism and ethnic difference is said and done, food is left standing as the last and most hopeful thing between us…
I was raised to believe "vegetables" were beets from a tin can or cooked-to-mush broccoli smeared with just enough margarine and salt to allow swallowing - obligatory side dishes to rotating cuts of meat and potatoes. It wasn’t till taking a year off from college and hitch-hiking around the west at age 19 that a new appreciation for fresh food was born. I recall a night in ‘75 I was brought home wet and exhausted by some sympathetic hippies, somewhere in northern California -- and served a steaming, savory bowl of just-picked, mixed garden greens -- and beets! -- served over “brown” rice with some dark, spicy (miso?) sauce -- by a generous earth momma and her mirthful tribe. I must have been real hungry - not starving – but, the kind of hungry you get living months from a backpack. I was struck dumb on the spot by the incredible flavors in that bowl and smitten, perhaps forever. I’ve spent the last 28 years finding out what naturally grown, unbelievably fresh vegetables can taste like.
Ultimately the passion for gourmet-quality food inspired me to develop two+ acres of raised beds by my home in Gill and then to share some of its harvest through a neighborhood CSA. Who’d a thunk it? A kid from Long Island who grew up eating pizza, spaghetti and hot dogs now grows (and eats!) nine varieties of heirloom beets: red, white, candy-striped, even golden – and an ancient, Italian broccoli which appears to have invented fractal geometry!
But luscious, fresh veggies are only one of the valuable “products” of sustainable farming. There is also a psychic and spiritual dimension to organic agriculture that shouldn’t be underestimated or ridiculed. Nature is always the best antidote to troubling world events and going into my greenhouse in late winter to begin mixing soil and seeding flats is one of the most healing things I know. Could we resolve global traumas one germ-plasm at a time? I cannot say for certain, but I would suggest this experience for anyone tormented by the horror of current affairs. No, I’m not advocating people drop out and seclude themselves in the woods. Rather, I would claim that gardening is not merely a practical way to address neighborhood nutrition and health. It can actually be life-rejuvenating on a cellular level; a viable path to soul retrieval.
On the other hand, contemplating the typical fast food, packaged, sugary, fatty, processed diet that most American kids consume today is enough to make a grown man weep. No wonder eating disorders have become a national epidemic. But telling people to eat better without changing the system that feeds us all won’t influence the problem. We must also champion the knowledge and pioneer the means by which everyday folks can access real food.
When I became a parent in ’97, the impulse to have and eat only good, healthy food intensified, once again. Faced with the perceived, looming crisis of “Y2K”, just to be on the safe side, I bought a milk goat and sealed away buckets of basic grains, garden seeds and other non-perishables. When the computer glitch turned out to be a laughable, non-event, some of us who’d prepared felt foolish and wondered what to do with all those beans and wheat - and that loud gas generator. However, when you think about it, those who were inspired by the Y2K “bug” to look anew at local and regional food issues were really only 20 months off in their dire predictions.
September 11th triggered a new wave of interest in examining the security of our food. However, in truth, the vulnerability of our (industrial) food system expressed so bluntly by recently outgoing Food and Drug administrator Thommy Thomson, is only partly due to the specter of “terrorism”. Research also shows our (mass produced) food remains may also be at risk from potentially dangerous pesticide residues, heavy metals, untested GMO’s and yet undiscovered prions, among other things.
Whereas gardening and micro-farming has been, in the past, a pleasant, tasty and philosophically satisfying hobby, today I cannot not produce food for my family and friends. It isn’t that I expect or believe the worst. But 9/11 does again focus light on the lengthy and precarious supply chain required to bring most people’s food to supermarkets and stores. Understanding these various risks, I cannot, in good conscience, fail to grow quantities of seasonal, storable and nutritious foods for our and others’ annual needs. While some feel safer with a retirement account, a bit of gold in a vault, or a firearm in the cellar, myself, I want a cellar full of spuds and a larder full of heirloom seeds.
I also relish the immense privilege to raise my precious child entirely on fresh, wholesome, organic food. One might predict the generational pendulum to swing back, with the kid of the "veg-head" rebelling back to burgers, junk food and the like. However, we found that if you offer very young children unpressured access to a variety of fresh, quality veggies (both raw and cooked), they gobble them down with gusto. My now seven year old has routinely browsed our organic gardens like a hungry woodchuck, munching string beans, tomatoes, broccoli, tat-soi and asparagus – ever since the time of diapers!
I used to believe I could actually help foment "world peace" with my grandiose and idealistic endeavors - or at least positively influence society through citizen activism, politics and peaceful dissent. I still believe in the need to try. My family took time off and protested, marched and voted last year against Bush’s arrogant and ill-conceived, imperial war. We held banners for months over I-91, wrote letters, signed petitions, donated money, went to Washington, our van loaded with soulful comrades. But, in the end, when we failed to stop Shock and Awe, when we failed to re-defeat Dubya, failed even to hold Rummy accountable for Abu Graib and Guantanamo, (much less flattening Fallujah), when we failed so utterly as a society to rebuke the endless, bald-faced, cynical lies… my clan retreated to the only real sanctuary of sanity and peace: my warm kitchen -- for wound licking, yes – but also hot cookies and goats milk!
Micro-agriculture: A sustainable solution to food insecurity...
Today, the bigger picture food equation is changed by the ability for backyarders, urban-dwellers and other small timers, (using bio-dynamics, raised beds, composting and other intensive methods…) to grow substantive - in fact amazing -quantities of high-value, diverse and nutritious food crops on limited or minimal acreage. This fact stands in interesting juxtaposition to the so-called “Green Revolution”, which laid claim to the bold idea that petroleum based fertilizers, agricultural mechanization and super-yielding hybrids would "eradicate hunger in our time". But the geniuses that brought us this idea didn’t accurately calculate the cost of poisoned, depleted soil, chemical dependency and endlessly imported fossil fuel. And really, what good has it done for the world’s hungry that Monsanto can record astonishing yields of (Roundup ReadyTM) soybeans in the American heartland?
In light of this colossal failure, "backyard" or "urban" food farming emerges as, in fact, not trivial, not a fad, a trend or a joke – but a hopeful piece of an integrated, sustainable, global food provision system of the future. The real potential of “square inch” gardening techniques teaches us that, come what may, families, small neighborhoods as well as whole villages and towns, in all kinds of climates, can realistically work at producing their own food. In other words, it’s time to stop waiting for those on the top to safeguard our collective food security. Local, organic, micro-agriculture is a concrete, affordable and simple way that common people can start to fix the food security problem from the grass roots up.
The principles of intensive, organic food gardening aren't rocket science. When a society, Cuba for example, makes backyard agriculture a national policy, you see food producing micro-gardens sprouting in every barrio. Today, there are at least 400 neighborhood gardens in Havana alone, all organic, all with lines at the gates every morning and night. In progressive-minded North American cities like Seattle and Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere, we also see community gardening initiatives and urban food production becoming part of the status quo. And all around America we see hopeful, new, “farm-to-school”, cafeteria initiatives as local educators and public health officials attempt to improve poor eating habits and address obesity.
Who is Responsible For Our Food Security?
For anyone still under the illusion that government (in league with corporate food giants) has our best food safety and security interests in mind, just take a look at the issue of genetic modification of basic grains. This is most definitely NOT about taking care of the earth or feeding the hungry hordes... In America, production, distribution, research and development of (GMO) staple foods has been controlled by ever fewer and bigger corporate interests whose fundamental objective is simple: increased profit. We’ve seen these corporations exert undue pressure on the so-called regulatory agencies to accommodate their questionable products and marketing needs. We’ve seen an agricultural seed giant (Monasanto) bullying small farmers over bogus trademark infringements and consequently destroying bio-diversity and the age-old practice of native seed saving. We are each responsible, in a small way, for allowing this to happen. Part of the solution is for we the people to take back control over the production and consumption of food, whether by rejecting GMO foods, saving heirloom seeds, supporting local agriculture or joining a CSA. For those who don’t know, CSA’s are an alternative, local way to organize our collective food system. "CSA’s",
“…create a partnership between local farmers and nearby consumers, who become members or subscribers in support of the farm. In exchange for paying in advance, CSA members receive the freshest, healthiest produce throughout the season and keep money, jobs and farms in their own community.” ~ Liz Henderson, one time Pioneer Valley resident and CSA farmer, in her pioneering book, Sharing the Harvest.
CSA's are unique in that they personally link the grower and consumer without unnecessary intermediaries, pollution and cost. But a CSA is more than just a trendy way to purchase local, naturally grown produce. All over America (and Europe and elsewhere) these CSA “subscription farms” also serve a community-building function as locals share the bounty and help each other become less dependent on imported food. In Japan, where the movement may have started, the word for "CSA" literally means "food with the farmer's face on it".
Today, across North America, thousands of such CSA farms as well as community and urban gardening projects are providing substantive, alternative sources of fresh, naturally grown produce to local people -- people who presumably love good food and who are also happy not to pay for the advertising, haulage and wasteful packaging (much less for unlabeled GMO ingredients!). CSA's give recipient families not only superior, safe food at a fair price, but also a personal and meaningful connection with its source.
How does Subscribing to a CSA "Help the Earth"?
CSA subscribers understand that their membership directly supports sustainable growing practices and healthy land stewardship locally, while reducing the use of unrenewable fossil fuels and dangerous chemicals, both locally and worldwide. Food literate consumers understand that the true value of a CSA membership is reflected not simply by the equivalent market $ value of their weekly produce box, but also by the long term impact and importance of community agriculture, small farms and sustainable practices -- as compared with industrial farming methods.
This is not to say that CSA’s alone can solve the problems of global hunger and food security. However, the CSA movement is part of a hopeful and growing trend toward sustainable systems. CSA’s give well-intentioned consumers a tangible (and tasty!) context to plug in and do something - other than complain about the world while feeding the machine.
The Happy Valley has 14 active CSA programs ranging in size from over 600 shareholders, to a mere dozen. (For comparison, there are 12 CSA’s in the greater Washington D. C. region…) This richness reflects not only a progressive economic and social consciousness here but also the soaring demand for truly fresh, organic food throughout the marketplace. But, we shouldn’t stop at joining (or starting) a CSA. We must also spread the awareness, knowledge and tools of sustainable farming practices far and wide, neighborhood to neighborhood, the whole world over.
Because food is, of course, what can save us… if we let it. Think how you feel when you consume some delightfully delicious, fresh, native grub. Transcendent, peaceful, grateful, alive! Organic, locally-raised food, we are learning, embodies, in each turgid cell, an entire map of a just and sustainable economic system which, if embraced and applied on a grand scale, could go a long way toward feeding hungry people everywhere, and making us all happier to boot!
Laughing Dog Farm