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
Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners: The Intersection of Race and Environmental Justice in the Food System
The weekend of November 8-10, I had the honor of attending the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners conference in Brooklyn, New York. Before you hear what I have to say about the conference, however, I want you to know that I went there as a listener and observer, and that the following are things I heard and saw. It feels important to first situate my reactions in some context, so that anyone reading will better understand how they might have been shaped.
I have known for a while that I care deeply about fighting for a better food system, but my critical eye towards food as it concerns justice and sovereignty has only just begun to take focus. I found that most of the conference-goers I spoke to were growers, activists, and organizers working in primarily black communities. I am a white junior environmental studies major, studying food and agriculture and working on Yale’s educational farm. As such, the conference may have had a much different meaning, energy, and purpose for many people there. I learned and heard some incredible things, and I want to share them. But as much as we are all implicated in any given piece of the food movement, you should proceed knowing that my personal stake in this conference was mostly one of learning and attempting to better understand food in the intersection of racial and environmental justice.
“Good morning,” Dr. Monica White greeted the crowd assembled in the Boys and Girls High School’s auditorium, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brookyln. “My heart is full today.” These were apt first words for her keynote; the love and friendship in the room was palpable. Before White had stepped up to the podium, there had been drumming, a song, and a Yoruba prayer in which audience members were invited to honor their families and friends. This was no passive audience, either—throughout Dr. White’s address, many among the nearly 300 people in the room would call out in agreement or encouragement. Unlike at most lectures, speeches, and addresses I’ve attended, it felt like everyone was listening, digesting, and participating in what the speaker had to say.
Dr. White’s presentation was titled, “Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement 1880-2010.” While she made sure to address the history of structural oppression that black farmers have faced, she quickly moved to point out two things.
First: that we have to stop focusing our conversations about black growers around sharecropping and slavery, in order to counter the message that growing food is oppressive. Black people don’t have a negative relationship with the land, she emphasized. They have a negative relationship with systems that have committed violence against them and the land.
Second: “The discussion of resistance in agriculture is not new.” In studying black freedom movements, we read a lot about boycotts, marches, strikes, and sit-ins. Without minimizing the importance or necessity of these types of resistance, Dr. White categorized them as “disruptive.” Growing food, which takes energy away from racist institutions and focuses instead on building community, is “constructive.” “There’s nothing more powerful than growing a garden,” she said. Disrupting systems of oppression and constructing new spaces of freedom, it seemed, must be mutual and concurrent projects.
Plenty of examples of constructive resistance followed. One was George Washington Carver’s “movable school,” a wagon equipped with supplies, seeds, and fertilizer that traveled throughout farms Alabama in 1906, demonstrating plowing techniques and other useful agricultural innovations. Another example was the rise of black farmer cooperatives during the civil rights movement, designed to pool resources in the face of discriminatory farm supply companies.
These accounts of black agrarian resistance sparked something in the auditorium. Dr. White’s words rippled through an audience of fiercely nodding heads and occasionally drowned in shouts and cheers. Remembering that this work is already underway, that better worlds are being created in the present, fills the heart with a sort of energy and readiness to jump in. But Dr. White made sure to temper this energy with sensibility: “Respect and honor process,” she urged. “Never hurry. Take it slow.”
After the keynote came the first breakout session, and as per usual, when faced with a list of workshops to attend, I felt totally paralyzed by possibility. Flipping through the conference schedule and seeing sessions titled, “Wisdom Rising: Garden Tales from Our Elders,” “Healing is a Revolutionary Act,” and “Ambivalence into Action,” I finally settled on “Providing Access to Local, Organic Food to Low Income Families Through Community Supported Agriculture,” mostly because CSA’s as alternative food spaces had been a focus of some of my readings for class. Community Supported Agriculture is like shopping exclusively at one farmer’s market stand, only you pay the fee for the whole season’s produce upfront. This boosts the economic viability of small farms, providing them the start-up money for buying the summer’s seeds, fertilizer, new tools, and so on, while also taking on the farm’s risk of a bad season, crop failure, and drought. Though CSA costs vary, they are usually several hundred dollars for a season.
Elizabeth Henderson, an author, farmer, and founding member of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), welcomed me into the circle of desk chairs as she passed around some handouts about accepting food stamps, alternative CSA payment plans, and the CSA as a strategy for food justice. I immediately felt puzzled; in all my eagerness to critique CSAs as a niche food market for the wealthy, it didn’t occur to me that a) CSAs should be made more accessible despite their elitist image, or b) There are a lot of people working hard to make this happen! And I got to sit in this workshop with about a dozen of them!
As I found out when we were all introducing ourselves, most people in the room were community organizers, CSA managers, or otherwise involved in community food work. Eager to spark a debate, I delivered my little my piece about how CSAs have historically been inaccessible, white and upper class spaces. Everyone nodded kindly in my direction—“Very true,” someone murmured—then got back to what they were there for: to trade tips on sliding scale fees, setting up Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) for families using SNAP, and other ways of making CSAs available to everyone in their communities, regardless of socioeconomic conditions. While I have been reading paper after paper deconstructing and critiquing alternative food networks (like CSAs), the participants in this workshop have been actively working to reshape these food networks to better suit the needs of their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. It brought to mind exactly what Dr. White had just spoken about: constructive resistance moves beyond diagnosing the problem and denouncing the harm it causes. It is a form of fighting back that empowers struggling communities to flourish in the face of that harm.
The first breakout session was followed by lunch, during which I wandered down Fulton St. in search of vegan food (after eight blocks with a handful of delis, I found only broccoli and rice). Back in the high school cafeteria, I inched my way into a lively conversation about what it means to truly understand the values of a given community before proposing development-based solutions. This discussion struck me in particular because of my work with New Haven Farms, an organization that provides a subsidized CSA from its garden plots around Fair Haven. The CSA members, all diabetic or pre-diabetic patients from the Fair Haven Community Health Clinic that fall 200% within the poverty line, have certainly expressed appreciation for the program, but this conversation made me feel less convinced that this model of food production is what Fair Haven necessarily wants or needs. Though I still support New Haven Farms’s effort to build a better community food system, I wonder how people benefitting from the program could have more of a voice in shaping it.
After lunch came the second breakout session, and I chose to check out “Facilitating Change in the Food Justice Movement,” run by D’Artagnan Scorza from the Social Justice Learning Institute in Inglewood, CA. Scorza began by drawing a set of concentric circles on a large sheet of paper, with “high-need communities” (an intentional choice of words, avoiding deficit-framing like “low-income”) in the center circle. Outside the very largest circle he wrote “Governments,” “Corporations,” and “Foundations.” In the intervening rings, he drew out a hierarchy in which broad public interests such as health and economic viability occupied the outermost circles, and “food justice organizations” lay just outside “high-need communities.” The idea here, he said, is that the agenda for the food movement is usually set from the outside (governments and foundations) in. In order to reverse this trend, and to have high-need communities set the agenda so that larger powers are working specifically towards their goals, community members need to own their narrative, shift public funding to smaller, community-based initiatives, and develop leadership.
With that, Scorza passed out “Collective Impact Initiative Planning” worksheets, and we were encouraged to work together to enumerate goals, objectives, visions, and strategies for advancing the interests of our own communities. The worksheets separated strategies into those relating to policy, physical place, and promotion, and included spaces in which to list target population groups, key partner organizations, and forms of direction action.
As everyone began filling out their sheets, I glanced uncomfortably around the room, then back at my own paper. Scorza had laid out everything I needed to think about in one thoughtful graphic organizer, where I could start brainstorming ideas for bringing food justice to my community. It was the question of my community, however, that kept me from picking up my pen. Who could that be? I tried to picture the 5,000 other Yale students who are mostly my age and taking classes at the same institution as I am, and the 5,000 different places they came from before they moved to New Haven. My connection to other Yale undergrads, though significant, felt superficial, and our collective stake in creating a community together shaky and uncertain.
There was no doubt that I felt a strong community among my housemates and other friends, but this community was perhaps too small and too homogenous to count. And, without discounting the various forms of oppression we encounter daily, I figured the genuinely most pressing interests of my household’s “community” could usually be addressed by someone picking up more toilet paper and dish detergent from Stop & Shop.
There was home, of course. I grew up the New Jersey suburbs of New York City, where streets of neutral-color colonial-style houses bled into each other. There was crime, but not too much. There was some serious wealth disparity, but nobody talked about it. The political initiatives that received the most attention and support were those driven by self-described “progressive” middle-aged and wealthy moms, which is why teacher’s aids and special education assistants were laid off during the recession, but solar panels got installed on streetlights. Food activism, in the form of shopping at Whole Foods, was rampant.
In the two years since I had left New Jersey, I already felt more passionate about New Haven than I ever had about the place I called home for most of my life. So where was my community? I returned my attention to the classroom, where people were beginning to talk about their plans for direct action. I neatly folded up my graphic organizer, stuck it in my bag, and quietly slipped from the room.
I had desperately wanted to catch some of the “Radical Women of Color in the Local & Good Food Movement” workshop, co-run by Tanya Fields, who spoke to the Yale community at a Chewing the Fat event hosted by the Yale Sustainable Food Project and Pierson College last winter. Clearly, many other conference-goers had the same idea—the classroom for this session was packed. As I snuck in, introductions were still going on. A man in the corner gave his name, then added, “and I’m here because I’m healing from years of internalized patriarchy and chauvinism.” The rest of the room (mostly women of color) laughed and snapped in encouragement. “That’s right,” came a voice from the other end of the room.
If you didn’t catch Tanya Field’s Master’s Tea back in January, you’ll have to trust my sad attempt to capture her energy in text: she is one of the most unapologetically radical women I’ve ever encountered. Her voice is loud, her words are candid, her laugh is full of warmth, and her mind is full of brilliance and determination. This time, however, instead of her speaking before a quiet group of contemplative Yale students, her energy was met with that of dozens of other women who exuded a similar sense of audacious self-love and sisterly empowerment.
“What is being a radical woman of color?” Fields asked the room. Some answers included “speaking your truth,” the ability to be vulnerable with one another, being firm in your beliefs, not apologizing. “I’m not going to sugar-coat what I have to say,” said one woman. Fields knows the price of self-expression for a woman of color all too well; just before she came to speak at Yale, she had been uninvited from speaking at TEDxManhattan’s Changing the Way We Eat conference. “Being your optimal self, it’s expensive,” she told the room. “What is the cost of being radical, and how do we navigate that?”
This workshop, too, had an activity—along with Dara Cooper, a BUGS organizer and the other session leader, Tanya broke us into groups and assigned each of us a quote from a radical woman of color (including one quote from herself). My group got the following quote from Angela Davis: “The idea of freedom is inspiring, but what does it mean? If you are free in a political sense, but have no food, what is that? The freedom to starve?”
We were encouraged not only to talk about how these quotes applied to our work, but how they could help us reimagine our work going forward. Fields and Cooper stressed this point—as our groups talked about the meaning of these words, they asked us how they will transform our future actions.
My group talked about the language of freedom. We discussed how, since we speak the world into existence, we can reimagine ourselves and our work by coming up with new language to express our ideas about changing the food system. (Fields: “We’re talkin’ ‘bout some real hippie-dippy shit here.”)
The workshop ended all too quickly, but before we left, Fields and Cooper had us call out the names of our heros. With smiles, claps, and calling out “ashe!” (a Yoruba word meaning “the power to make things happen”), we honored Harriet Tubman, Audre Lorde, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sojourner Turth, Ida B. Welles, and many others (including many of our mothers and grandmothers).
As all of the conference-goers took their seats once more in the auditorium for the closing keynote, my mind spun with thoughts and questions. As Ben Burkett, president of the National Family Farm Coalition, took the stage, I found I could hardly focus. What was my main takeaway from this conference? What could I do with these thoughts and questions? Was I just going to write it them all down and stash them away, or was there some immediate change I could make to my own process, like Tanya Fields was pushing us to do?
Well, here I have written down a whole lot, and for now, I think I must somehow hold on to the energy that these speakers, workshop leaders, and conference participants inspired in me. I will remember the incredible amount of work already being done to change food systems, and how much the people doing this work have been and continue to be challenged by racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of injustice. I will remember that communities must voice their own narratives, and while I continue to think about New Haven food policy, the problems therein should be named by the people facing them. At the same time, there is much work to be done, and finding my place in the food movement must be a process that happens simultaneously with offering what resources, energy, and work that I can to the work that is underway.
Ron DeSantis: Creating “The Fellowship of a Table”
The letters “CMC” are stitched into Ron DeSantis’s white coat. The terse abbreviation does not do justice to his full title: Certified Master Chef. He’s one of only 67 people alive in the country who can honestly print that on their business card. The lofty epithet of “master” was bestowed upon him after he passed a rigorous ten-day exam that tests one’s skills at freestyle menu planning and food preparation, as well as one’s knowledge of gastronomy and nutrition. Only 12 percent of people pass all the stages; a Navy SEAL candidate can expect a higher success rate.
He is Yale Dining’s current (and first) Director of Culinary Excellence; the position was created for him. Don’t let the “master chef” designation lead you to think Ron wears a cape everywhere or acts holier-than-thou. Once he began speaking at a Master’s Tea in Trumbull College, he struck me as humble and down-to-earth. If he took off the coat and told me he was a barber, I would believe him.
Ron began his three-decade-long professional culinary career in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he went through cooking school and placed 28th in a class of 30. He got better with practice, and after leaving the service enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, “the original CIA.” His Jedi-like education continued when he moved to Germany, which he felt attracted to because all the great chefs he had met at the CIA seemed to have foreign accents. He originally planned to stay for a year; that turned into five years, because it took a while to convince this one pretty German girl to marry him.
As a chef, Ron has cooked at restaurants like the Ritz Carlton, taught at the CIA, served as the presidential chef at Camp David, and consulted for Sonic, McDonald’s, and Borders (he apologizes for the sandwiches they once served in their café).
Food has the potential to evoke strong emotions in people, and Ron says his mission as a chef is to craft memorable experiences with the dishes he serves up, whether it’s to George Bush or some bearded Yale junior scribbling incessantly in a pocket notebook. To him, the Pixar film Ratatouille—particularly the scene where the restaurant critic eats the peasant food and is taken back to a meal his mother made him when he was a young boy—really nails the joy of the culinary arts. Every meal is an opportunity to make someone’s day great.
Eager to show us just how great our days can get, Ron announces that he has talked enough about himself, and leads us into the Trumbull master’s kitchen for a cooking demo. The dish he has in mind is pasta with sautéed vegetables and a white bean velouté sauce. It’s both vegan and gluten-free. Ron sees the trend in American eating towards a more plant-based diet as a good thing, and tries to practice it himself.
He floats to the front of the cutting board, swifty picking up the chef’s knife and beginning to chop up shiitake and cremini mushrooms. The up-and-down movement of the blade reminds me of a sewing machine. Then it ceases.
“Of course,” Ron says, “I’m just showing off.”
He then demonstrates how to chop properly, first on the remaining mushrooms, then an onion and some sun-dried tomatoes. The tips he shares—hone a knife with a steel every time you use it to keep it sharp, place a wet paper towel under the cutting board to keep it from slipping, fold your non-dominant fingers and rest the middle phalanges against the blade—all sound familiar to me; I’ve heard them from cookbooks and other chefs I’ve encountered. It pleases me to recognize a canon of cooking.
Now it’s time to make some sauce. “All blenders are not created equal,” Ron tells us. Well, his blender, “a Vitamix knock-off,” appears to be at the top of the heap. If kitchen appliances were evaluated for overall quality by their potential to cause damage when dropped on someone’s head, this one would be a winner. Ron pours in some cooked white beans and vegetable broth that had been simmering on the gas stove, and then kicks the blender into high gear. The roar of the blades spinning at 30,000 RPM, pulverizing the ingredients into a white paste, compels Ron to yell in order for all of us to hear.
“You really just want to let it run for a while! When the food’s as smooth as possible, you unlock the most nutrients out of it!” That part sounded like something I had heard on a late-night NutriBullet infomercial, so I asked him if it was really true. “Oh yeah!” I guess you can believe some things you hear on TV.
The sauce is composed of just the two ingredients, beans and broth. The simplicity lends potential for a wide variety of meal types. “I would serve this dish to anybody,” Ron tells us as the blender whirlpool dies down. “The beans and stock make a great mother sauce that can be used in all sorts of cuisine. Mediterranean, Asian, whatever.”
Let’s go back to the veggies. Ron tosses the chopped mushrooms into a pan over high heat, with no oil. It’s not long before they begin to sizzle.
“Hear that?” Ron asks us. “Cooking is all of your senses.” He keeps his distance from the whispering mushrooms. “Everybody wants to move stuff around when it’s in a hot pan like this. Well, don’t worry, it’s cooking!” If you don’t disturb the food while it’s cooking, you get more caramelization, therefore more flavor. Ron merely monitors them with a watchful eye. “The equipment never burns food. You do.”
As if he’s received some signal that’s invisible to the rest of us, he snatches up a bottle and drizzles some extra-virgin olive oil into the pan. The hearty Italian aroma of browning mushrooms and hot oil fills the kitchen. Ron notices the pleasant change in the group’s expressions. “See, it’s the smallest things! You can make a room full of people salivate just by sautéing some onions!”
He picks up the pan and carries it around to give us all a peek at the delicious alchemy that’s taking place inside. Heating the mushrooms reduces their moisture content; this causes them to shrink and concentrates their umami flavor.
Into the pan go the diced onion and julienned tomatoes. He leaves it alone for a bit (caramelization!), then dumps the white bean velouté sauce onto the veggies. It smothers the sizzling. Next comes the steaming rotini pasta. Stirring the end result together, Ron mentions how rotini is an ideal noodle to use for a dish like this; the sauce invades every nook and cranny of the pasta surface.
After about 25 minutes total prep and cooking time, the meal is ready. Ron spoons some of the pasta into a bowl and brings it to his face. He takes a slow whiff of it, then holds his spoon in the air like a confident professor holds a piece of chalk. “As a cook,” he says, “What should you do before serving your guests the main meal?”
We know this one. “Taste it,” we answer.
He shakes his head. “Torture them!” He plunges the spoon into the dish and takes the first bite.
Jackson Blum ‘15 is a farm managing intern.
Product Development Specialist intern Shizue RocheAdachi ‘15 makes a mean salsa. Here, she shares a radio piece reflecting on her time as a ranch hand.
There is a grace to death––a beauty to be found in the heavy moments that linger as present becomes past. The slaughter of an animal is rarely afforded such moments of grace, however, as carcasses are hung and processed in rapid motion, each worker on the slaughterhouse floor making a repeated slicing motion. Yet when I had the opportunity, as a ranch hand, to participate in a field slaughter after one of our steers had broken his leg in the cattle guard, I discovered that there was another way to carry an animal into death.
This is a five minute piece I put together of some audio taken on that cool morning, as wet clouds hung low providing a welcome respite from the summer heat. It is not a somber or gruesome piece, rather I like to think I captured the sweetness of the event and the sense of ceremony. There is a respect afforded as the eighty-year-old butcher, Tom, pulls the skin from the steer he lovingly refers to as “sweet pea” but there is also an understanding that this is not something to treat as precious. A steer breaks his leg, he is shot, he is skinned, he is cut open, he is gutted, he is sliced in half, and he is loaded into the back of a pick-up truck to hang in a cooler before being broken down into cuts. This is the way it goes.