Hopeful Action for an Ecologically Conscious Agriculture: An Conversation with Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, and Mark Bittman on the Future of Agriculture
On Friday April 4th, fellow YSFP intern Eamon Heberlein ‘16 and I made our way to Cooper Union in New York City for an evening of Wes and Wendell. Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, that is. The talk, entitled “Nature as Measure” was a conversation on the state of agriculture and the ways in which progress in the agricultural sector necessitates a shift from an industrial consciousness to an ecological one. Nature as measure stood as the condensed title for this transition of metrics. Encouraging ecological cohesion by comparing agricultural systems to natural processes––striving to achieve the balance seen in natural ecosystems––rather than relying on measures of yields, profit, etc. is the key to developing resilient, sustainable agricultural models.
Okay, so that last (somewhat run-on) sentence is compelling but not particularly earth shattering; modeling agricultural after natural processes is not a novel concept. On the train into New York I was unsure how productive the talk would be: What would I really glean from Wes and Wendell that I didn’t already know? Like most of you reading this tumblr, I’d already drunk the Kool-Aid. I didn’t need convincing that an ecological rather than industrial consciousness was needed to repair our agricultural system. Wes and Wendell are figure heads in the so-called sustainable food movement, the former titled “a poet statesmen” in his introduction; but why listen to them now?
Well, as Wendell so lucidly put it (in his typical fashion) the language of ecological modeling and land respect in agriculture, despite its seeming ubiquity, is still absent in most discussions of systemic change and large scale transformation. “We’ve spent 200 years increasing our yields, and 200 years decreasing our natural endowment,” Wes stated, and the sort of cultural mentality that engrains such actions is hard to recalibrate. As Wes put it, we’re in the “talk, no do,” sometime “talk, do,” phase of this so-called movement; we need to be in the just “do” phase. The talk may be ubiquitous but the activation of that talk on the ground is not.
So how do we “just do”? It’s not about having a plan, Wendell stated. Plans, he says, are futile and he is wary of anyone who thinks he has a “plan” for fixing the food system. Rather action is momentum. Being part of the sustainable food movement, or as I find myself describing more often “the reach for agricultural resiliency,” means you’ve made a commitment before we had a strategy. At least, that’s Wes characterization. This distinction, this dedication in principle before semantics come into play, is key. We stumble yet we do not quit, for we have dedicated ourselves to the long haul, not just a singular problem. Our move for change may be clumsy, Wendell stated, but its persistent.
As we move forward, unsteadily but purposefully, there is reason for hope. Wes warned that it is hope, however, and not optimism that we must cultivate. Hope suggests an intention to act upon; optimism is a trap. Wes warned that optimism and pessimism are just “opposite forms of the same surrender to simplicity.” Being optimistic would mean ignoring the complexity of the obstacles ahead; it would mean resigning oneself to a sense of unearned contentment. In other words, change is as slow and complicated as the ecological systems we are striving to learn from. And change will only be achieved as we move forward, in Wendell’s words, more “humbly, alertly, and pleasingly.”
Change, however, does not rely on the dramatic swinging back of the pendulum from industrial models, Wes noted. Absolutism, he warned, is unproductive. Organic agriculture does not have to be the standard, chemicals can be employed sparingly: “I take aspirin but I’m not an addict,” he quipped. It is more about developing a land mentality. We must learn to look to the land in labor as we drive across Kansas rather than the horizon in search of snow-capped mountains; we must learn to value our acres year-round, rather than leaving them to erode in April before the bare soil is coated in soy and corn seed. So the high morality we’re reaching for, it’s not anything as specific as “organic,” or “local,” or any other neoliberal niche market coinable terms. Rather, we’re reaching for a system that legally and socially actualizes a vision based on a respect for land and a mimicry of natural systems.
Industrial agriculture is a dragon, Wendell says, and it’s pretty much dead. It’s brain, the little one it had, is surely dead, but it’s death throws are tearing the country apart. And so have hope, not optimism, that we might stay the violent thrashes until our fire-breathing aggressor is defeated. We may not win in a single stone throw, but we can still beat our Goliath. We’ll probably just need a lot more rocks.
So maybe I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid but have I wielded a stone (or two or three)? Leaving the auditorium I began to consider how I might manifest my hope for a resilient food system in my actions. Enough with the talk. We’re moving towards “just do.”
by Shizue Roche-Adachi ‘15
photos by Eamon Heberlein ‘16
Miya’s Sushi: How to Adapt Traditional Cuisine So Both Sushi and Ocean Life Can Survive
Jackson Blum ‘15, a farm intern, drew upon his love of a local sushi restaurant and a Yale College course he took to make an informative and entertaining podcast.
This past fall semester, I took Karen Seto’s Environmental Studies seminar “Urbanization, Food Systems, and the Environment.” In lieu of a boring final assessment, like a test or research paper, the students each created some kind of outreach project that presented some of the class’s takeaway lessons in a publicly digestible form. I elected to have a little fun and produce a podcast. My subject: my favorite New Haven sushi restaurant.
In early December, the class got together for a closing dinner, catered by Miya’s Sushi. The head chef and manager of Miya’s, Bun Lai, said a few words about the philosophy of his restaurant and its place in the modern world of sushi. I recorded Bun’s remarks about the popular Japanese cuisine and turned it into a podcast that illustrates the perils that many fish species experience in the face of the modern seafood industry and how one New Haven restaurateur and sushi chef hopes to address these challenges.
New Entry and Food Access in Boston
Events Intern Jake Wolf-Sorokin ‘16 discusses his work with New Entry, a nonprofit serving the Greater Boston Area and questions his own food choices.
Up until leaving for college, I had spent my entire life living in the greater Boston area. For the first 18 years of my life, I knew one farmer by name: my uncle who raised lamb in rural Minnesota. Once I began thinking about the sources of food, it became hard to escape. Where had that tomato I’d eaten on my sandwich at lunch every day—even during New England’s winter—actually come from? Who picked it? Were they treated fairly? Was it organic? If not, what kinds of chemicals was it grown with? How was it shipped to Boston? Would the label tell me anything? Why couldn’t I find out all this information? What structural systems was I supporting by taking a bite out of that tomato? And couldn’t I be asking these questions about everything I eat?
The lack of connection to my food—one of life’s vital ingredients—began to really unsettle me. It seemed every question, generated three more until I’d cast aside the tomato, the lettuce, the turkey and the sprouts. All that was left of my lunch were two pieces of sourdough bread. I’d decided they were ok since they came from a bakery near my home that got its flour from an organic grower in New York. That’s when I began to see food consumption as a political act. In the short term, as someone living in an urban area, I lacked a means of escaping this food system. Without eating sandwiches like the one I described, I’d have trouble living. But by seeking answers to my questions and making efforts to change my habits, I’d be able to make some progress on a longer timescale. And that’s why I decided to intern at the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, an organization dedicated to helping aspiring organic farmers open viable farms near urban areas in Eastern Massachusetts.
Through my work, I had the chance to meet scores of small farmers aiming to make local farming the norm—or at least more common—again in America. “My goal for the future is to continue farming and to continue to supply people in the community,” Bessie Tsimba—one of these farmers—told me. She moved to the United States from Zimbabwe in 1988. Like most immigrants, Bessie arrived without much land—let alone enough to begin a garden or farm. So for 20 years, Bessie—like most Americans—cooked with grains and vegetables bought at the grocery store. Over time she began to see farming as a reminder of home and a way to promote healthy eating.
In 2009, Bessie seized upon her renewed interest in farming and began a small-scale organic farm. “It’s something we grew up doing back home and I benefit from eating organic,” she said. Five years into her endeavor, Bessie sells her produce to a cooperative CSA and to many of her friends who also came to America from Zimbabwe. “I know the things they miss [from] back home,” Bessie told me. By growing maize and other crops common in Africa, but harder to find in the United States, Bessie has created a community around her farm.
Her optimism inspired me. Like many of the farmers trained by New Entry, Bessie didn’t have the means to give up her other job to farm full time. And despite five years of effort, she does not ever expect her farm to become her principal income. Bessie’s belief in the importance of food as a means of enriching culture and community motivates her.
As an organization, New Entry aims to ensure its farmers have a guaranteed source of income by operating a cooperative CSA. Although this CSA does not provide enough income to support a full time farmer, the World PEAS CSA represents a good first opportunity for many new farmers. Over the last 15 years, New Entry has helped to dramatically increase the ranks of urban, organic farmers in Eastern Massachusetts through its farmer training programs. Yet challenges remain: given the dense population of the region, the sum total of food produced by all these farmers represents a small fraction of the food needed to sustain all of the areas residents.
After spending a summer conducting farmer interviews for an analysis of New Entry’s success and working to promote the cooperative CSA, I left feeling both inspired and realistic. Centering our food system on sustainability and community health will require a dramatic change in our society’s understanding of what it means to consume food. Yet through the dedicated, passionate work of individuals like Bessie Tsimba and organizations like New Entry, these seeds of change in the food system are beginning to grow. Realigning our food system around sustainability and community health will require the collective effort of many individuals, beginning with a desire to understand the nuances of the connection between the food we consume and its source.
Zoe Reich-Avillez ‘15, on how a favorite farm task transforms the mundane:
I first worked on a farm (rather, I first stepped foot on a farm) during my freshman year of high school. The trip to Gaining Ground was posted on a school bulletin board under “Community Service.” Gaining Ground, the sign proclaimed, is a non-profit farm that donates all its food to local food banks and meal programs. Located just ten minutes from my high school, it was the perfect destination for a mid-afternoon volunteer shift. Never one to turn down an outdoor field trip in early spring, I immediately signed up. Looking back now, the memories of that short shift are beyond foggy. What I do remember though, is the feeling of being engaged in manual work. I couldn’t articulate it then, but something just felt so right about working my hands through the soil and crouching over a bed of newly planted seedlings.
A year later, I heard about Gaining Ground’s summer internship. I had barely given my workday a second thought, but remembering that still-so-poignant feeling, I decided to apply. Through the summer, I weeded, planted, harvested, weeded, prepped beds, and weeded some more. As any farmer will tell you—and as I discovered that summer—there will always be more weeding.
For some reason though, I relished that never-ending task. What is often the bane of the farmhand’s existence became my favorite job: hand weeding. Massaging the soil, grasping for weeds, pulling the unwanted plants from their roots, and finally looking back to see a bed of head lettuce surrounded by dark brown soil, was deeply satisfying. I found myself looking forward to the days when I would be sent out to the field, with or without a partner, to weed for hours on end. Even now, when I crave a task that is comforting, that will re-orient me with myself, I crouch down in a pathway, dig my hands into the soil, and start to weed.
When I try to understand my love of hand weeding, I often turn to the physicality of the work. Search and pull, search and pull. So easily, I can lose myself in the repetition, in the sheer simplicity of the action. At my best though, it is not just my body put to work; my mind too, is engaged in that repetition and simplicity. When I say that I lose myself in the task then, I mean that I am completely and totally present. I’m reminded what it is to find home in myself. This groundedness, I now realize, is the feeling of “rightness” that I knew but couldn’t name during my first shift at Gaining Ground. Now, I know its name and I know it’s what keeps me coming back to the farm time and time again.
Ad-hoc intern Kendra Dawsey ‘14 on her trip to a conference on racial equality in the food movement:
On October 5th, college students and others with an interest in the food movement gathered for a panel on Race and Place in Food and Co-op Movements, which doubled as a fundraiser for CoFed. CoFed, short for ‘Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive’, is an organization that started on the West Coast, devoted to equipping college students with hard skills to create cooperatively-run food enterprises on their campuses. The event took place at Colors restaurant in New York City, a restaurant that uses local ingredients and trains local employees, and is owned by a national organization that prides itself on respecting restaurant owners. I was fortunate enough to attend the panel with the help of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, and it was so exciting to see tons of young people interested in promoting racial equality in this movement.
The speakers at the panel included many prominent people in the current food movement such as Kolu Zigbi, the Program Director for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems and EAT4Health and the Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation, Curt Ellis, co-director of King Corn and The Greening of Southie, Tanya Fields, an entrepreneur who founded both Black Girl Inc. and The BLK ProjeK, and Karen Washington, founder of two farmers markets and a board member of NYC Community Gardens Coalition. To start the night off Yoni Laudau, co-director of the organization, spoke about CoFed with praise. He noted how much the project had blossomed from its roots in a borrowed minivan. Then Christine Johnson, the Northeast Region Organizer for CoFed, greeted the excited crowd. Afterward a brief speech, she sat down and asked the panelists questions on their experiences.
The first was a personal moment when they became interested in the intersection of race and place. Karen Washington, who has been growing food for 20 years, realized the importance after calling the census bureau for statistics on farmers. She was astounded to find out that there were only 110 black farmers in in all of New York State. She said, “We have to do something … We are talking about an equitable food system but it can’t be equitable if a portion of people aren’t farming.”
Curt Ellis became interested during the production of King Corn. In one town where filming took place, all of the farm workers were from the same town in Mexico, one that had its own corn to be harvested. However, working in America gave the families of workers enough money to send back home. Curt Ellis is currently co-director and Executive Director of Food Corps, an organization that seeks to address systemic food issues at the local scale. The organization takes into account the realities of race and poverty and how it affects food access. He says, “It is our priority to understand how the food movement discriminates in race and in class.” Food Corps uses service members with a specific knowledge of the area they are to be placed in, and involves schools in the process of giving youth a lasting relationship with healthy food.
Perhaps most illuminating was the situation described by Kolu Zigbi. At the age of 17, before attending college, she went to visit her father’s rural village in Liberia. The farmers of the village constituted most of the population, and they grew enough native rice to feed themselves and also sell outside the community. However, the people lacked the automobiles and other means take their goods to the market, located far away. There was one bulldozer available in the entire village, but to use it, you had to take out a loan from the World Bank in the form of expensive seed—despite the fact that the farmers had seeds of their own. Therefore, they had no means to sell their natively grown rice without being forced into debt by the World Bank.
Additionally, US aid to Liberia is frequently given in the form of free rice. This rice was sold by the government to the citizens to pay off loans. Zigbi asked herself why international aid was putting farmers in debt instead of helping them develop. Reflecting on this point, she concluded, “race is a tool for exploitation.” She went to talking about her experiences with organizations in general. “Too many foundations are colorblind … the idea of talking about race becomes so personalized, no one looks at it like an academic reality.” By claiming not to see race at all, some organizations turn a blind eye on the unique histories and realities of each race, especially with regards to the food movement. Lack of access to healthy food disproportionately affects people of color in America, due to the complex way race and city planning have played into each other in this country.
Tanya Fields was the last to come in due to a babysitter flaking out; she walked into the room with apologies and two of her children. Hearing her speak from experience as a single mother and entrepreneur in the food movement was an excellent and moving way to end the night. Fields talked about how she had struggled to get grants when she wrote honestly about her background. “I thought I would list what I had done and people would make it rain,” she said, drawing laughs from the audience. “But that did not happen … ” She went on to explain that those who give out money for grants will still go for a college graduate over someone with a lot of experience, but less formal education. There is also the constant barrier of try to get jobs as a black woman, when many in charge place stock in having a white face on their organization. Later, she said, “When I submit a proposal to philanthropist … we have to start dealing with institutional racism.”
The panel ended with a conversation on how to start change. Washington said that overall, movements need to be grassroots, not political, and change must start within communities. Fields reiterated this point: “There’s a myth that people in poor communities don’t know anything, or they need help. They don’t need help, they need liberation.”
The entire night, I heard comments that articulated feelings I had regarding the general food movement in America, and helped open my eyes to the complexity of situations regarding race in the environment. I get to spend more time at Yale and afterward learning about these issues. I hope everyone in the room came away from the meeting with a desire to continue this very important discussion.
Two big fish stories: Alaska’s King Salmon populations are diminishing every year— and no one knows why. Their decline threatens local economies which rely on the catch and the tourists who come to try their hand, as well as communities with traditional subsistence diets heavily dependent on a strong season. In better news, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Out of the Blue program is working with fishermen, processing centers and chefs to get underfished species on menus in the northeast, giving strained populations a break and encouraging people to eat locally and sustainably from sea as well as land.