I recently re-discovered a memoir on my bookshelf.  I was drawn to Gathering: A Memoir of a Seed Saver mostly because of the author’s roots. Diane Ott Whealy grew up in rural Iowa, and relates fond memories of its countryside and culture. The agrarian history of thriftiness and neighborliness is nostalgic and enchanting.  In Whealy’s childhood, as in many areas of the United States during that time, large gardens and livestock were maintained as a matter of necessity. Saving seed was commonplace and economical. The practice of saving seed exemplifies the more humble sense of economy felt during that time.

In The Unsettling of America Wendell Berry argues that modern economic thought is reflected in today’s homes. Whereas in Ott-Whealy and Berry’s youth the home was a place of production as well as consumption, the standard American home is only a site of consumption.  Consumption engages the economy of money, but disregards the economies of land and energy.  Homesteading communities engage in these more tactile economies every day, as they live with the results of their practices, gathering those seeds, promoting connectedness of process and product, use with replenishing.

A home-based agricultural economy trusts in and heeds the economy of the land.  Place matters to this economy. Weather and soil type and community all make a difference. This is especially true in seed saving, as varieties are shaped through selection to thrive in specific regions and climates. The modern American home instead has no response or ties to place.  It is only a symbol of status and leisure.

If Berry’s discussion of appropriate economy didn’t get me thinking about E.F. Schumacher, certainly this quote would have, “….as a society, we have abandoned any interest in the survival of anything small”.  When asked by a friend the best political action to fuel revolutionary economics, Schumacher said, “…my suggestion would be to plant a tree”.  Certainly, investing in your home as a site of production, saving seeds in your backyard, and rethinking economies is incredibly important, especially to personal well being.  But is seed saving sufficient politics?  I had a nagging question the whole time I was reading Ott Whealy’s memoir: What about commercial agriculture?

A bit about Gathering.  Ms. Ott Whealy founded the Seed Savers Exchange, the biggest heirloom seed collector in the country, with her husband in 1975. (In their basement! At one point they housed 4,000 bottles of over, 1,200 varieties of beans!).  The organization has since grown into a diverse network of over 13,000 members who grow, save, and exchange thousands of endangered seed varieties every year.  Seed saving preserves biodiversity, reinvigorates memories and cuisines, carries on family traditions and rural culture, promotes food sovereignty, and works towards “closing the loop”.  The values, sentimentality, and community around the practice are also very powerful, but I’ll leave that to Ott Whealy’s passion and humor.  SSE produces an annual yearbook with information about all the growers and their varieties, which are available for trade.  They also sell seed online, maintain a hugely diverse demonstration farm, and host community-building campouts.

As passionate as SSE is about saving seed, Ott Whealy admits the lack of political drive within the organization. It is certainly political in Berry’s sense of home economics that I discussed above, and to Schumacher as well, but Gathering did not bring up how seed saving can help change the way food is grown in this country in a big way. SSE does compile a directory of commercial seed companies that offer non-hybrid varieties.  The catalogue is called the Garden Seed Inventory and is no doubt a great resource for gardeners and perhaps commercial growers as well. However, saving seed and choosing heirloom varieties becomes harder at a larger scale

Saving seed on a commercial vegetable farm is next-to-impossible, if not hugely impractical. Twice the staff and twice the land area would be required. Many plants are easily cross-pollinated and varieties have to be covered when flowering or planted acres apart from one another.  If covered, the plants must be hand-pollinated.  The fruits have to be harvested at a specific time and allowed to cure or dry, the seeds extracted and properly stored.  Labeling is, of course, crucial.

Farming and selling vegetables is hard enough in and of itself. I can’t imagine also worrying about growing our own seed.  There would be a lot of risk involved. What if the seeds don’t store well or the beets mold in the root cellar over the winter? (Beets are biennials, meaning they flower every other year. To harvest seed you must pull them, keep them happy through the cold months and replant them out in the spring.) Saving (and finding new seed varieties) is a huge job, as Ott Whealy will tell you.

The varieties we grow are constantly changing depending on pest pressures, customer preferences, and convenience.  We want hybrids as well as open-pollinated crops because folks like big beef tomatoes and we like tomatoes that are late blight resistant.  We use pelleted lettuce seed so our eyeballs don’t explode. Sometimes we buy non-organic seeds because the trusted and tasty varieties are not always available organically. We also keep an eye on the price tag.  Heirloom and organic seeds can add up fast on a large scale.

Despite the impracticalities of seed saving, I’m sure many commercial, locally-focused, sustainable vegetable farms buy into the idealism of saving seed. We live by the humbling economy of the land.  We are intimately connected to place.  We are the queens of thrift.  How can we hold on to and promote seed saving without participating? This type of question comes up a lot in the food movement:  How to promote, re-invigorate, and protect the more appropriate practices of the past, while also reshaping them to accommodate today’s economy, the farm economy, and customer preferences. How can commercial operations be true to ideals of the past and thrive in today’s world?


Adjusting My 2 Piece Caps

August 25, 2010

Back in March I started to think about my goals for the summer. I’m a goal oriented person and like to think ahead-it is a good way to fill my free time with productive activities. I didn’t know it then, but my ideas for productive activities were really just urban homesteading ventures. I decided to dry all my laundry on the line and to “put up” foods.  Thankfully, hanging up clothing requires little skill and just days after the goal of canning popped into my head I came across the Ball Blue Book of Preserving.

The cook book and resource gives step by step instructions of how to can–including pictures, explanations for canning techniques, the low down on canning equipment, a glossary of food preservation terms, and hundreds of recipes. The Blue Book is by no means trendy like my roommates “Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It”, and even seems a little corporate. However, for $5 it has a way to preserve any fruit or vegetable that you have too much of and it is printed on recycled paper. If you have any unexpected results, flip to the back for a list of common problems in home canning.  Pick up a copy today to not miss out on all that can still be “put up” for colder times- apple sauce, tomatoes, corn relish, hot pepper jelly, and more! My roommate and I just canned 150 ounces of pickle relish, soon to be paired with homemade ketchup and offered as Christmas gifts. Without the old pressure of feeding a family only from the growing season, canning can be fun and creative as well as a step in the direction of sustainable living.

Find a copy at ACE Hardware in Porter Square.

The ABC’s of CSA

July 18, 2010

The Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC) is a non-profit organization with a mission to connect CSA farmers and eaters. MACSAC has two annual happenings.  The CSA Open House offers member workshops and a CSA farm fair.   Their pledge-based Bike the Barns event helps support their Partner Shares Program, which subsidizes CSA shares for low-income families.

“The Partner Shares Program is a unique initiative
aimed at improving nutrition by increasing access
to fresh, local vegetables and
supporting local farmers in southern Wisconsin.
Partner Shares provides financial assistance for fresh,
sustainably grown produce from local CSA farms.”

MACSAC’s “From Asparagus to Zucchini:
A Guide to Cooking Farm-Fresh, Seasonal Produce” is the perfect CSA companion. It is an educational guide as well as a cookbook.  Recipes are
organized alphabetically by vegetable and headed with a picture and species name for easy identification.  The book offers natural history, storage information and preparation techniques for dozens of crops. Recipes from farmers and celebrity chefs alike are beautifully simple, bringing out the fresh flavor of the CSA season.  Don’t skip over the “Food for Thought” section at the beginning, which illustrates the benefits of CSA that transcend taste. If you are a researcher like me, or want to learn more about food preservation, composting, food politics or gardening, head to the “Resources” list at the end of the book. If not, just use this versatile cookbook to enjoy the vegetables of the seasons.

The Town that Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food was the perfect follow-up to Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money (previous post).  Both books work to answer a critical question: how can a local food economy be viable? In The Town that Food Saved, investigative journalist Ben Hewitt sheds some ethnographic light on the local food movement in Hardwick, Vermont. As the town received press due to successful, what Hewitt calls agrepeneurial, local food ventures, Hewitt turned to the long-time inhabitants of the region displayed in the media as a local food utopia.

Could Hardwick really serve as a model for local food economies across the country?

What is a successful local food economy?

Hewitt proposed these 4 principles:

1. It must offer economic viability to small-scale food producers.

2. It must be based on sunshine.

3. It must feed the locals.

4. It must be circular.

With a composting facility, a growing relationship between High Mowing Organic Seeds (read: squash flesh post seed-extraction) and Pete’s Greens (read: large kitchen), and a pig herd to eat expired cheese from Jasper Hill Farm, Hardwick’s food system is a closed one. The region has a high percentage of organic farms that steer clear of chemical fertilizers and rely instead upon careful farming techniques and the energy from the sun.

20-dollar-a-pound cheese from Jasper Hill Farm, $748/CSA share at Pete’s Greens, and heady home-state tofu, these new agrepeneurs are hanging in there. Much of that money undoubtedly stays in the region (there is a local food Community Supported Restaurant [!] called Claire’s and the Buffalo Mountain Food Coop in Hardwick), but the majority of the residents can’t afford to eat at Claire’s and would never dream of buying cheese from Jasper Hill.

How can this be reconciled?  These are great local food enterprises that are successful, and yet the people who live down the road from them cannot afford to buy their products.  Well, these enterprises have created about 100 much-needed jobs in the area.  The more food ventures the more jobs.  It is unfortunate that many people in Hardwick are left out, but only if these new businesses are successful will the money trickle down.

Unlike most businessmen, the agrepeneurs in Hardwick are trying to connect with the folks that live there and make locally produced food available to them. The Center for an Agricultural Economy is an organization in Hardwick.

The vision and mission of the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) is to ensure that consumers have access to healthy, secure, affordable and locally-grown food within our region, and that farmers and agricultural based businesses have reliable and efficient access to local and regional markets.

Our bold vision is to build upon local tradition and bring together the community resources needed to develop and sustain a food system that is holistic in its approach. We recognize and support a healthy food system that encompasses soils, seeds, farms, transportation, processing & storage, distribution, consumers, enterprise and waste.

We support the desire of rural communities to rebuild their economic and ecological health through strong, secure, and revitalized agricultural systems to meet both their own food needs locally as well as to determine and build the best opportunities for value-added agricultural exports.

Is Hardwick the perfect model?  Well, no. But it is on its way. I guess a more important question is: Will there ever be a perfect model? There will always be work to be done making our food system more sustainable.  We must also keep in mind that any good local food system is place-based.  It is true that part of Hardwick’s recent success is due to the young businessmen that have hopped under the limelight, but it is also because of the long-standing commitment to simple, agricultural lifestyles that have given the region a community-based vitality that many places have lost.

This was a fantastic book that examined local food through a lens of economic viability and cultural importance.  Anecdotal evidence from living in the area combined with interviews with many community members, Hewitt comes from an anthropological perspective and says: We know local food is where we need to go. How can we get there?

A million Americans

investing 1% of their assets in

local food systems…

within a decade.

I was introduced to the Slow Money initiative at the Real Food Challenge training back in February.  Since then I’ve read the founder’s book: Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money-Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered.  I’ve been hearing a lot about the Slow Money National Gathering, an educational weekend at Shelburne Farms in Vermont.

Meet thought leaders and change agents from
around the country who are joining in this exciting
project: designing capital markets that go beyond
extraction and consumption all the way to
preservation and restoration…
starting with food and soil fertility.

It is no mistake that Slow Money sounds a whole lot like Slow Food. The idea is to invest in your local food economy…really, to put your money where your mouth is. Investing in local food economies is buying into a  future of fertility, sustainable farming practices, and community engagement. Like Slow Food, Slow Money advocates for personable food systems and resists this fast-paced, mostly destructive and divided market economy.  Slow Money moves past “growth at any cost” and asks the critical questions: Which economies should grow? What types of businesses should be fostered? And maybe more importantly, which should not? And also: How can we create an economy that is built upon the well-being of its members and their natural environment?

Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money
presents the path for bringing money back down to earth-
philosophically, strategically, and pragmatically-
and with an entrepreneurial spirit that is informed
by decades of work by the thousands of CEOs,
investors, grant makers, food producers, and consumers
who are seeding the restorative economy.

In his book, Woody Tasch challenges modern investment techniques of wealth now, philanthropy later.  Instead of investing in destructive, but profitable ventures, invest in local initiatives.  These local initiatives certainly won’t make as much money as investing in multinational or hugely popular businesses, but that is kind of the point.  Investing in huge companies with illusive practises distances investors from their money.  This often leads to investments that actually contribute to the problems they are intended to make money in order to ameliorate.  Tasch brings up the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is the largest in the world.  While one of its charitable missions is to improve health in Africa, the foundation invests in Nigerian oil exploration, a practice which pollutes local environments.

Tasch offers mission-related investing as an alternative.  Although mission-relating investing doesn’t generate as much money as conventional investing, less money has to be invested, and no money is needed to off-set damage if the venture is a success.  On top of that, investors can begin to really invest in relationships and communities. What I mean by invest is to really have a stake in something, beyond just monetary goals. As you can see by reading about the National Gathering, the Slow Money idea is much less about money than it is about creating a new capitalist system, one in which money truly has value.

Our current system is one of disconnect and, ultimately, of violence. This violence is the result of, in economic parlance, externalities. Slow Money envisions fiscal responsibility, both socially and environmently.  Woody Tasch believes that the economy can grow, even if “externalities” are factored in.  This economy would be down to earth indeed.