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?


A Rot Revolution

May 25, 2010

In The Town That Food Saved, Ben Hewitt talked about the founder of Highfields Center for Composting, Tom Gilbert. Apparently Gilbert considers composting an “agent of social change”. I laughed out loud when I read that a couple of weeks ago and have since repeated it several times. Then I got to thinking. Is it really all that funny? Or was it really more an ironic type of laugh? Could it be that a heaping, steaming pile of waste is all we need to change the world?

After a lot of milling over I’ve come to complete agreement with Gilbert. Fundamentally, what we need is a full circle system, or as the folks at Highfields say, we need to close the loop.

Many people have worked to reveal the interconnectedness of all things. Wendell Berry speaks about the connection between respect for one another and respect for animals, the connection between the health of the soil and the health of all of earth’s creatures.  A favorite book of mine by Marilou Awiakta teaches readers how these connections were instilled in the earth at the time of Creation. In Selu: Teaching the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom she shows us the Universal Law of the Cherokee (and really of all): “Take and give back with respect.”

In the modern paradigm, the concept of balance between give and take is obsolete. I believe this is because people are so separated from the workings of the earth that it is hard to imagine what they use even comes from it. This has destructive consequences. We continue to demand more and more natural resources all the while dumping our waste back in to nature. Authors like Michael Pollan have helped reveal the devastating effects of this ignorant path.  He speaks about the animal welfare that is sacrificed in factory farming, about the terrible pollution running off of the Midwest’s famous cities of corn. In In Defense of Food he recalls the cultural importance of food that used to keep our nation healthy.

Unfortunately, our current system depends on disguising the truths that Berry, Awiakta and Pollan know so well. Our system depends on this ignorance. It depends on a linear system of using, consuming and discarding. At the base of composting is recycling, regenerating, replenishing. It is a tool for social change because it is radical.  It lies at the base of all that is wrong with our system. We must give back.

In Defense of Food

September 9, 2009

In Defense of Food cartoon map
In Defense of Food: a great book and must read by Michael Pollan.

What really took me aback about this book was how it was really the modern elaboration on The Art of the Commonplace (Wendell Berry), if only specific to food.  Not only does Pollan embrace Berry’s all encompassing concept of health, but also uses Berry’s logic to explain the ills of our food system: separation.

Firstly, we must stop separating nurtition from food-no matter how much marketers try to convince us to and no matter what research persuades processing companies it is the right (most profitable) thing to do.  Nutrition research singles out specific nutrients that are supposedly crucial to our health, and food companies then incorporate them into processed foods. Aside from the fact that nutrients in plants act in a synergistic way that we cannot understand, adding the ones we do know about to overly processed, unbalanced food is only making the problem worse.

These reassembled, processed “foods” claim that the value of eating is measured by which constituent nutrients are present and not by the nutrition of the soil, or for that matter, the joy of eating, the art of cooking, or the enduring importance of food culture.

We must reconnect with our food culture.  Humans have never depended on health claims printed on packages to get their essential nutrients. Instead, people have relied on whole foods and the ways of preparing them that have been passed down for generations.  These whole foods  haven’t been broken down into their constituent parts and reassembled according to the rules of capitalism instead of evolution. Food should form family recipes, and memories of sitting around the table, not anxiety over omega-3s or carbohydrates.  And indeed, as Pollan points out, people who eat traditional cuisine are much more healthy than nutrition-crazed Americans.

Lastly, we must not separate food from the food chain.  We often forget that we are in fact members of a circle of life.  Processed foods cheat the circle of life by substituting quantity for quality, health, and respect for the land (not to mention biodiversity). This quantity is responsible for overeating and the exploitation of soil, farmer, the environment, and the neglect of tradition. Organic farming, and the farming of many types of produce (not just corn and soy), put fertility back into the land and support many types of organisms.  By getting to know and investing in your farmer or growing your own food you become accountable for what you take from the circle of life.

Wendell Berry gives us a theoretical basis for the suggestions Pollan makes.  But lets face it, Americans own computers (Berry refused to buy one), they work in an industrial society and they eat in one too. Listening to Berry rant about how evil it all is won’t change anyone’s eating habits.

Pollan’s book offers a way to reclaim the important principles that Berry feels have fallen out of our society: to connect food to the land, the people you eat it with, your ancestors who taught you to cook it, and the farmer who grew it.  Pollan helps people realize that they have the power to change-or in the very least that there is a problem with the way our country is trying to feed us. He offers great suggestions about where to buy food, what to buy, and how to eat it. He shows that being a responsible member of the food chain and of food culture is not that hard, but incredibly rewarding to the health and well being of each its members.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Berry says “eating is an agricultural act,” it is also an act of culture, connection, communication and pride.  Make it that way.  Take food back from industry-vote with your life style.

Some favorite quotes from the book:
“Biodiversity in the diet means more biodiversity in the fields. What’s good for the soil is probably good for you too.” 169
“To reclaim…control over one’s food, to take it back from industry and science, is no small thing; indeed, in our time cooking from scratch and growing any of your own food qualify as subersive acts.” 200

Buy In Defense of Food
Cartoon map from:http://www.austinkleon.com/2008/02/13/in-defense-of-food-an-eaters-manifesto-by-michael-pollan/

Wendell Berry

July 21, 2009

I have been reading the agrarian theories of Wendell Berry.  However, his essays do not just pertain to farming.  They talk about the whole of our society, and how the problems of agriculture are reflected and reinforced by the problems in our culture.
His mantra is connectivity.  Once we separate being hungry from farming, those ideas compete, and everything we try to do to improve one of them, we inevitably make both of them worse.  Instead we must focus on how they are related, and that they are mutually dependent.
He gives the example of gardening in “The Art of the Commonplace”.  Gardening improves space, produces fresh vegetables that allow the planter some self-sustainability, and it gives the gardener pride in his/her food. Therefore eating is not merely consumptive, but also an act of dependence.  Even more, the act of gardening itself makes the gardener hungry so that working with the soil, connecting to it and improving its fertility with ones hands nourishes the one who cared for it with healthy vegetables.
Berry explains how this philosophy can be eye-opening in its conviviality and meaning:
“A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us.  He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure.  But he is doing something else that is more important: he is making vital contact with the soil and the weather on which his life depends.  He will no longer look upon rain as an impediment of traffic, or upon the sun as a holiday decoration.  And his sense of a man’s dependence on the world will have grown precise enough, one would hope, to be politically clarifying and useful (88-89).”
Our connectivity also becomes our responsibility.  Once we realize that our way of life (exploitation) is directly diminishing our food system and our health, there will be grounds for change.
Look inside The Art of the Commonplace

the real dirt on farmer johnI saw this movie because WorldPeas (my CSA) was having a showing.  Although I couldn’t make it, I checked out the film from the library and was blown away.  It is an amazing story of a third generation Midwestern farmer who had full responsibility for the farm by the time he was 20.
When his father died, he had no choice but to go to college close to home so that he could keep the farm running.  The farm soon became a hang out for young artists and hippies, and was filled with life and excitement.  However, loan sharks and bad roomers led to farmer John having to sell most of his land in his early thirties.  He was devastated and felt like a great failure to his father, family and community, especially as he watched all of his farm equipment being auctioned to his neighbors.
In reality farming is just extremely difficult, as evidenced by family farms across the country being swallowed by bigger, more efficient technologies, and as subsidies awarded the wrong kind of farming.  After some soul searching and some money borrowing from his mother, John was finally able to start farming again.  He needed to.  He knew it was his destiny.
This time he wanted to go organic.  Bugs and lots of rain followed.  But so did a group of city dwellers requesting to start CSA with John.  They wanted to eat fresh, organic vegetables and to support local agriculture.  They wanted to be able to meet their farmer, to see and pick their vegetables, to have an investment in their foodstuff.  The CSA flourished. When John turned to his shareholders to tell them the land could not take constant planting any longer, his shareholders purchased the plot next door and leased it to John, whom they trusted to grow their food.  Angelic Organics is now a thriving, polyculture, organic farm about community involvement, interns, and people that want to touch the soil, maybe even give it a taste.
This film was incredible because of its artistry, because a man has documented his entire life in video, and because it is an emotional and important story.  But most of all it is about the connection between the body and the spirit.  Angelic Organic was only successful because the people were invested in the earth, its health, its growth, and the well being of its farmer.  This is the only approach that will lead to healthy, sustainable food.  A holistic approach where the people give back to the land and the land produces nutrients for the people.
(No one is more devoted to this holistic approach than Wendell Berry –check out “The Art of the Common-Place”, but more on him later.)