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
A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure–with a number of YSFP staffers, Yale faculty members and students–of sharing a breakfast with Michael Pollan, god of all things food related. For the majority of the breakfast, I cowered in the corner of the table, afraid to arrogantly assume I might have something to add. But I did finally work up the courage to ask him a question, one related to a topic I think about a lot when it comes to considering recent changes in American gastro-culture.
We’ve all probably seen at least a bit of Top Chef. Maybe that’s just an assumption I’m making to rationalize my period of obsession in high school- it was my “Untextable Hour.” I stopped watching when I decided that they just weren’t showing enough of the actual food. But I’ve always assumed that the proliferation and popularization of cooking shows, be they competitions, travel shows, or demonstrations could at worst have a neutral effect on food culture in America, and at best could get Americans thinking more about how fun and satisfying it can be to cook. I assumed they were slowly priming us to go cook more, since we already model so much of what we do based on what we see on TV. But I wanted someone else’s take on this theory, so I sheepishly asked Mr. Pollan for his thoughts.
His answer was simple and in retrospect, very unsurprising. His response was basically that TV is designed for one thing, and that’s to keep people watching TV. Not anything else. So even if I end up making myself a sandwich instead of peeling open a Lunchable after watching some Hells’ Kitchen it’s probably not indicative: I’m an outlier, or someone who would have gotten up to make the sandwich myself anyway.
I’m sure there are valid counterarguments to this idea- what about documentaries? Newscasts? TV has been used effectively to motivate people often throughout history in some absurd ways. But to me it presented a more basic lesson, one that sits comfortably in between both theories: always seek to know why you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing, and whether you’re doing them for the right reasons.
There are many ways to be a conscious and responsible consumer of food, and obviously certain ones are more palatable or possible for certain people (in my house, we call Whole Foods “Whole Paycheck”). And if one of those ways is reinspiring yourself to cook periodically by tuning in to Top Chef, then more power to you! To not do that would be dumb. It’s clear is that dogmatic idealism and unrealistic expectations are just as, if not more harmful than getting a little distracted every once and a while.
At the same time, in our search for a better way to interact with our food, it’s important to not trick ourselves and let that distraction develop into inaction. Let’s make sure that we don’t get stuck feeling like we’ve done our duty when we buy an organic bunch of bananas, or judge others for their TV choices while we congratulate ourselves for being gluten-free locavores. If we’re going to choose to care about this issue, let alone work to improve things, then it’s important we don’t get stuck rationalizing and settling, or judging and proselytizing. If we all find the best way to be involved, and remember to think critically about our involvement, then we’ve taken the hardest and most important step forward. Even if that step takes you back onto the couch.
-John Gerlach, ‘14
Most of my friends spent their spring break flying south, migrating to white beaches or service trips in the outskirts of jungles. I spent my spring break being pulled north by the smokey, sweet lure of my family’s sugaring operation.
Late winter, early spring at my home in Western New York is a time of tradition. I know that tradition is an overused word, but it really is the only one that remotely describes what pushes my dad to spend his summers sweatily cutting down tress for sugaring fuel, and his winters freezing his fingers while untangling sculptures of knotted tubing. Tradition is what brings my family together around the evaporator for a night filled with Bob Dylan crooning from the scratchy radio and savory sugar-house specials: a steaming shot of almost-done syrup and dark Haitian rum.
In my dad’s younger days of three braids and hitchhiking, he picked up a long church pew in his travels. I doubt he knew where it would fit into his life then, but it has its place now. It stretches along the back wall of the sugar house, engraved into perfect seat cradles by the many neighbors, family members, dogs, and strangers who have found the warmth of conversation and syrup upon it.
Syrup is the embodiment of the power to connect. It quite literally connects itself. Syrup has boiled to completion when its stickiness is strong enough to hold it in a connected curtain across the edge of a special metal scoop. It connects recipes. Add a dash of syrup and I swear that everything in your recipe will come together perfectly. It connects generations. Your grandma might not recognize high fructose corn syrup, but I bet she understands the sweetness of maple syrup! Syrup brings together people, and ideologies, and animals. Sugar houses provide a space to take the time. To sit down next to someone with no agenda in mind and connect. Maybe to talk, but maybe to just sit in steam and sip.
Favorite and Simple MacKenzie Family Maple Syrup Recipes:
*The Favorite, Tried and True Spoon (or as my dad calls it: his medicine): All you need is maple syrup and a table spoon (or even a tea spoon.) Fill the spoon with syrup and drink. Feel free to refill as many times as you desire.
*Maple Grapefruit: If you like a bit of sweetness with your grapefruit, ditch the sugar and pour on the syrup. I guarantee you’ll never go back!
*Sap Coffee: Make coffee like you normally do but replace the water with sap. It adds subtle, but wonderful flavor and you won’t even need to add any extra sugar!
*The Sugar House Special: A shot with half warm syrup and half dark rum. Sip so you don’t burn yourself!
-Onagh MacKenzie ‘15
Triple Bottom Line
by Sophie Mendelson, ‘15
So I have this crazy idea.
It’s an idea about what the farm of the future could look like. Big topic, I know, and right now the idea is still pretty half-baked, I’ll be the first to admit. It’s fanciful and incomplete, with untested foundations, erratically constructed extensions and a leaky roof. But seeing as it’s an idea about collaboration, and the first step toward any kind of collaboration is communication, I’m going to lay it out for you anyway.
This idea, like so many, starts with the identification of a problem: loneliness. I believe that loneliness is a problem that is often overlooked in the discussion surrounding sustainable, small-scale farming. When trying to envision the farm of the future, we spend a lot of time talking about economics and chemicals – how can farmers make a living? How can they reliably produce food without harmful technology? What new economic models and low-impact technologies can we implement? These are all important questions, but I think equally important is the question: how can we make the farming lifestyle sustainable? In other worlds, how can we help farmers not to be so darn lonely?
In my personal experience, loneliness has been THE NUMBER ONE hardest part of farming. Isolated geographically and socially, farming is often a solitary business. There is a huge difference between working fourteen-hour days with a group of people and working those same hours on your own, and I’m not just talking in terms of productivity. For me, the former is exhausting but satisfying, while the latter leaves me flattened and struggling to suppress a creeping sense of desperation. It’s no wonder that so many young farmers start out with enthusiasm only to quit after a couple of years in the field!
So here is my crazy idea: the farming cooperative. I may be twisting the word “cooperative” to fit my purposes here, because I don’t mean a totally consensus-based, commune-like farming model. What I have in mind is more closely matched to the Zingerman’s business model (check out A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building A Great Business by Ari Weinzweig if you’re intrigued). I’m talking about a farming model in which several quasi-independent farms, all located in the same geographic region or even the same property, collaborate to coordinate operations and market their products under one front. You could have, for example, a vegetable farm, a dairy farm, a meat farm, a fruit orchard, and a processing facility for value-added products that all run mostly independently from each other, but draw on each other for support and all market through the same outlet and under the same label.
In my idealized and untested fantasy version of this model, the farm cooperative would work to meet “the triple bottom line” (to steal, and then tweak, a phrase from Dina Brewster): economic, environmental, and spiritual. Economically, marketing through one outlet would provide consumers with an incentive to buy from the cooperative, as they could meet most of their grocery needs through the products collectively assembled. Environmentally, the cooperative model encourages a diversified farming approach, where multiple kinds of farming are all taking place in coordination with each other on one piece of property, allowing farmers to close nutrient cycles and feedback loops. And now here’s the biggie: spiritually, the cooperative addresses to major issues for farmers. First, it provides a built-in community. This model of farming necessitates the involvement of many families and many workers, de-isolating small-scale farmers and creating a social environment. Second, it makes it so that one farmer doesn’t have to keep track of everything that is going on in a diversified farm all by his or her self – each operation is managed by a separate set of people, who then collaborate to bring their operations in concert with each other, thus diffusing the responsibility and easing the need for manic multi-tasking. Oh yeah, and each operation can help out other operations during times of particular need, like harvesting tomatoes or slaughtering chickens, strengthening social bonds and reducing the need to bring in extra labor during these times.
So far, that is the extent of the crazy idea. I would love, love, LOVE to talk to people about this, so please don’t be shy! Help me poke some holes in this thing so that we can build it back up even stronger.
Kendra Dawsey ‘13 explores cultural culinary traditions in her own college kitchen:
Over the summer that I spent working at the Yale Farm as a Lazarus intern, we grew collard greens. It was strange to grow something that I only knew as a food that my mother cooked on special events and holidays, or when she wanted to do something other than pasta. It was also strange hearing my fellow farmers call the big fans of leaves “collards” — putting emphasis on the d that my family always left out. It was a familiar food in a new space.
I didn’t realize how culturally tied I was to this food, and other staples in Black American/Southern food like cornbread, sweet potatoes, grits, and all the rest. It took me a while to realize that not everyone ate them. I didn’t do a particularly good job of absorbing these traditions of cooking either. Whenever my mother or grandmother was in the kitchen, I was doing homework or watching TV. This still goes on — over fall break, my mom shook a turkey leg and seasonings in my direction with the intent of teaching me, and I fended her off with staring at my computer screen and murmuring “I’m busy.”
This year is the first time that I’ve lived off campus at Yale and had to cook my own food on a regular basis. My first experiment with cooking the food I grew up eating was a sweet potato. Instead of calling my mother to ask for directions, I looked up a few recipes online, and then didn’t follow any of them. I tried cooking it with a friend and wounded up stabbing it with a fork, and then alternating between sticking it in the microwave and oven, and then hacking at the potato for it to cook faster. It was not a success.
I decided to try again with collard greens. I never watched my mother or grandmother cook them with a particular distinction — I only remember seeing the huge leafy greens fill the sink and then eating them a few hours later. Collard green can be a very laborious vegetable to cook — my grandmother in particular boils the collard greens for hours in a pot, leaving them sweet and buttery. Additionally, in typical Black American/Southern fashion, you cook it with leftover bacon fat and some ham. But being a busy college student, I didn’t have the time or ingredients for any of that. So I decided I would try my own sort of method for collard greens one Tuesday evening.
First, you clean the collard greens so that they are free of any dirt and debris. It is usually helpful to do it in a large sink, like a kitchen sink, but this one took place in a freshly scrubbed and rinsed bathroom.
Then, take the collards and remove them from the stalks. The leftovers should look like this.
Don’t worry, all of these greens will cook down really quickly!
Cut the collards into one inch pieces so that they are easier to handle, and then boil the collards in hot water for about fifteen minutes, or until they are soft and a vibrant green. Then strain to remove excess water.
Told you they cooked down!
Now, get a pan for sauteeing, and put in a tablespoon of both butter and olive oil, and then some chopped garlic to taste (I used about two cloves). Stir in the collard greens and add salt and pepper. Sautee them, stirring constantly, for about five minutes. Then remove from heat and add some lemon juice for a light tangy taste.
When I ate them, they tasted very similar to (but not quite like) the collard greens my mom made, and they took much less time to do! I’m glad that I found one more thing to cook that reminds me of home.
Memories of a Summer Spent in Food: Praiano, Italy
Kyra Morris ‘14 reflects on the way that food shaped her summer farming in a coastal Italian town:
If you were to go to Casa L Orto you would fly to Naples, take a train from Naples to Meta, and then take a bus from Meta to Praiano. The bus winds along the coast road that skirts the edge of the cliffs and by the time you arrived in Praiano your stomach would be wound into knots. As you climbed out of the bus and into the sun, you would have in front of you what my friends and I call “the Vettica hill”—a hill that just keeps going up. It starts out steep and then it climbs to a point before dropping down sharply into the other part of town. The Vettica hill will take you past the grocery store Tutto per Tutti, past Pasquale’s barber shop, and up a steep ramp to the gates of Casa L Orto. You stop, out of breath. Through the ironwork of the gates you can see only the domed white roof of the villa and the surface of the water sitting still as fabric below the cliffs.
I spent this past summer farming at Casa L Orto, a villa in Praiano, Italy. Praiano is a tiny town an hour south of Naples “in the heart of the Amalfi Coast.” Casa L Orto belongs to Carol Lewitt, the widow of the famous American contemporary artist Sol Lewitt. The property includes nine terraces available for farming, all of which had been abandoned for period of ten to twenty years before Carol began a project to restore them. The process is still very much in its initial stages, but she hopes to turn the property into a eco-tourism destination with an outdoor kitchen and outdoor cooking classes.
During my summer there, the farm at Casa L Orto was a farm without an outlet. The farm had three interns and a farm manager to maintain it, but without a partita IVA we could not sell any of our produce or even set up a farm stand. Instead we simply gave food away. In the mornings we would go down to the terraces and weed or stake tomatoes until the sun became so hot we felt our bodies baking. After a break for lunch we would walk into town (up and over the Vettica hill) and distribute vegetables. Sometimes we would bake or cook with our produce before distributing it, but other times we would simply carry a bag full of cherry tomatoes on each arm and a bag of eggplant in our backpacks. Sometimes it was difficult to find a home for our produce because though Praiano no longer has an agricultural economy, almost every family has a small garden. But where we did find a home for our vegetables, we always received something in exchange.
One of our first afternoons in Praiano we made zucchini bread. I had never thought about the oddity of this American dish until we were met with skeptical looks when we declared to Pasquale the barber that we had made him “panne di zucchini.” The following evening Pasquale called to us from the opposite side of the fence that separates Casa L Orto from his shop and passed a plate of cookies over to us.
This was only the beginning of our food exchange. In exchange for tomatoes and peppers we got gelato-making lessons from the guys at the gelato store, in exchange for eggplants we got free drinks from Luigi who owns one of the hotels in town, from Salvatore at the restaurant Bare Mare we got donuts and cappuccino. One morning we woke up to find that one of the construction workers who worked alongside us had left us a box of fifty plums from his plum tree. I hesitate even to call it a food exchange, because there was no calculation involved in this exchange of goods, only an ingrained tradition of generosity.
With all the vegetables that we did keep for ourselves we cooked everything from the simple pasta dishes to elaborate risottos. Toward the end of the summer, every night turned into a dinner party. Our friends would begin to arrive around ten thirty and then cooking process usually began around eleven. When we were too tired to cook, we would walk down the hundreds of steps that led down to the beach—La Praia.
We always ate at Bare Mare, run by our friend Salvatore and his mother Clelia. The experience of eating at Bare Mare is difficult to compare to any restaurant experience I have had in the US. The restaurant consists of about fifteen tables arranged on a cement patio overlooking the rocky beach. The restaurant has no theme or idea, just has really good food, and especially good seafood. If we wanted to order from the menu, we had to ask for one. Otherwise Salvatore would start bringing us dishes.
The dishes at Bare Mare are not fancy and they have probably been approximately the same since the restaurant opened. Each dish is designed to showcase a specific seafood and that’s about it. Your fish doesn’t come with vegetables on the side or any complex garnishes. Yet I hesitate to call the food at Bare Mare “simple food” in the way that Alice Waters might use the term because it is not consciously simple. It is prepared with care and with an eye to taste and tradition.
I lived closer to food this summer than I ever have this summer, not only because only a few sets of stairs separated garden and kitchen, but because food embraced me on all sides. Food was the thread that tied together our friendships with Pasquale, Salvatore, and others. It was also the first topic of conversation. Whenever we ran into a friend the first question, “how are you doing?” was quickly followed by “what did you eat today?”—“che cosa hai mangiato oggi?” Sometimes when I am walking across cross campus, I wish a friend would stop me and ask: “what did you eat today?”
Sadie Weinberger ‘13 reminds us that the Farm Bill isn’t the only piece of legislation that affects farms and farmers in this country:
About a week ago, the satirical “news source” The Onion published an article headlined “Congressional High Priest Concocts Farm Subsidy Bill In Legislative Cauldron.” Despite its utter absurdity, I often feel that the Onion writers are pretty much the only ones who really know what’s going on these days. You don’t have to read the article to get the joke: the process of creating the Farm Bill has been, and always is, so complex and inaccessible to the public that it may as well be some dark ritual conducted by men in black robes in the dead of night. And, in fact, I read one more jab into the quip, which is that even the members of Congress do not completely understand what they’re doing when they “concoct” the bill.
This might seem like old news; after all, the Farm Bill is renewed every four years, and that should have meant a clean adoption of a new bill—or, rather, a revised bill—by the end of the 2012 session. That was me making a little joke, since we all know Congress doesn’t work like that. The fact is, Congress is even now introducing new bills that would affect the provisions of the Farm Bill, and we ought to be keeping them in sight. The end of 2012 didn’t mean the end of farm-related legislation, despite the cessation of talks and workshops revolving around Farm Bill activism.
In fact, just in the last week, Congress has introduced two such bills: the Farm Program Integrity Act and the Protect Our Prairies Act. The former, a bipartisan bill introduced on February 12, aims to close the loopholes in farm program payments that allow non-working or absentee farmers to receive subsidy payments. The bill allows for payments to working farmers and one additional non-working manager per farm. In fact, the House Agriculture Committee considered this proposal last year as well, but did not adopt it. Many sustainable agriculture organizations, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, are strongly in support of this bill, especially as we consider the new Farm Bill.
The Protect Our Prairies Act is part of a conservation effort folded into the Farm Bill that basically pays farmers not to farm certain areas of land in order to prevent erosion and development of valuable landscapes. This bill, also bipartisan, is a bit different in that it is actually designed to save taxpayers and the government money by prohibiting federal commodity payments on newly broken native sod and reducing federal subsidies by 50% on that land. Loss of grassland in prairie areas has led to erosion, fewer opportunities for small ranchers, and damage to local ecosystems and economies.
We should keep in mind that even though the New York Times stopped publishing articles about it, the fight over the 2012 Farm Bill is not over yet. Agricultural legislation is being introduced and passed all the time. Let’s all keep an eye out and keep ourselves informed.