Thursday, April 17, 2014

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

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Chasing cows—and sustainability

Shizue RocheAdachi ‘15 gives us the lowdown on her summer in Colorado.
Cowboy Gene Surveying the Pasture

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The week before a deadline, I would spend my Saturday and Sunday at the kitchen table in my cabin, a cup of coffee inevitably gone tepid as a result of my neglect resting beside my elbow.  Eyes narrowed, I would stare at my laptop editing audio for hours on end.  The sounds of the sprinklers and bawling cattle were blocked out by my headphones and those days would pass as if in a vacuum; there was a sense of timelessness as day became night with little motion to suggest its passing.  I know it doesn’t sound appealing––I could’ve been swimming in the pond or working Billy, my horse, around in the corrals, or napping under the apricot trees––but that work at my kitchen table became just as important to me as my work out in the field.  

Slaughter in the Field
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Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.  I was working, you see, as a farm and ranch hand at the James Ranch in Durango, Colorado but I was also, simultaneously, producing a radio series for the Heritage Radio Network recording my experience in a sort-of radio journal.  Every other week I would listen through the hours of audio collected from the week and and thread together a story that might appeal to a greater audience. Suddenly my experience was no longer just mine own.  By contextualizing my summer work in a larger narrative, people across the country––friends, strangers, people in between––were sharing my mornings with me as I turned on the sprinklers or chased down a runaway calf.  Friends of mine who have never farmed listened to me pull weeds and call cattle and suddenly could understand why, perhaps, this world was so appealing to me, while farmer friends would call me up to say “hey, we’re having a drought too.  Glad to hear you caught that first monsoon out there––nothing like the sound of those first heavy drops.”
Branding

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It is hard for me to describe my experience on the ranch this summer.  I can try in so many broad strokes and generalizations to talk about what it means to flame weed a potato field for three hours straight or electrocute yourself on the electric fence or have your shirt torn off your back as you ride through the thick brush; but, something always gets lost in those characterizations.  The spaciousness and the warmth of those long days, their steadying rhythm, seem obscured by all those words.  So I’m not going to try to explain it to you.  Instead, close your eyes and just listen. 

If you’d like to hear more about Shizue's summer spent out on the ranch, you can listen to the archived episodes of her radio show, Chasing Cows and Sustainability, at http://www.heritageradionetwork.com/programs/103-Summer-of-Food.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012

John Gerlach ‘14, a pizza and events intern, reflects on Thanksgiving and the opportunities and challenges it presents to thinking about reforming the American food system

The Thanksgiving holiday always presents us with a healthy serving of dilemmas to go with our food: how to cook the turkey? How many turkeys? How on earth am I going to avoid my crazy uncle for an entire day? What in the world is that brown substance that my grandmother is pouring on my plate? How am I related to these people? Etc., etc.

Questions also exist for those passionate about food and sustainability. On one hand, the fact that there persists, even in our age of agribusiness and fast food, a national holiday that revolves largely around the simple pleasures of the table should be heartening. More than just encouraging us to cook and consume our own food, Thanksgiving allows us to celebrate these acts with family and friends, to think about our lives and give thanks for what we have. All good things! Right?

Not necessarily. It is possible, as it turns out, to have unproductive culinary traditions; in the case of Thanksgiving, that tradition is dramatic overconsumption. So instead of having a holiday that encourages us to think about our food, we focus on excess instead of enjoyment. I’m no exception- I eat more food more quickly on Thanksgiving than on any other occasion. While I’m normally concerned not only with eating healthily but also eating locally, for whatever reason I forget all about it when it comes time to stuff my face. 

For me, Thanksgiving illuminates the biggest challenge the slow food movement has yet to overcome: the somewhat real but mostly perceived tradeoff between satisfaction and sustainability. Yes, as things stand right now it’s harder (not to mention more expensive) to find good, local ingredients and turn them into something everyone can share and enjoy. And that needs to change. But rarely do we as a nation think more about (and spend more on) our food than on Thanksgiving. There is an opportunity for progress here, one that I think we’re missing. In our hurry to create an embarrassment of options, we miss an opportunity to look critically at our food and find a way to make the good ingredients taste even better. We also, for the record, become inevitably distracted from the “giving and receiving thanks” part of the holiday. Food should be a lubricant for this process, not an impediment to it.

I’m imagining a Thanksgiving where we eat just as much salad as we do stuffing and pie, and where we give thanks for the food on our tables in addition to the farmers nearby who produced it. The persistence of Thanksgiving in American culture is proof that we do understand and appreciate the value food can have as a way to bring people together; we obviously treasure the opportunity it affords to pause from our busy, frenetic lifestyles and take time to sit together with loved ones and contemplate what we have.. But we’re still struggling to think about what’s in our mouths while we do all that other good stuff. I firmly believe that once we’re doing that, the next steps (controlling our consumption, exercising, growing our own food) will come far easier. Imagine all we’ll have to give thanks for then!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Sophie Mendelson ‘15, joint Farm and Events intern, on the kind of reflection and conversation that farm work can encourage:
Stoney Lonesome Farm sits tucked away in an unexpected pocket of hilly countryside amidst the mind-numbing sprawl of strip malls and subdivisions that bleed out of Washington, DC into Northern Virginia like a hemorrhaging artery. This summer, there are three of us apprentices tending to the four acre garden that provides for 75 CSA shareholders and their families. On a typical day, we’ll plant, harvest, cultivate the soil, re-organize row covers, stake tomatoes, weed – and weed, and weed, and weed.
Crouching across from each other in the aisles that run along either side of the rows of vegetables, we have been weeding for several hours, tugging out thistles by the roots and (futilely) attempting to avoid grabbing up handfuls of poison ivy. The sun has steadily been gaining height all morning and now sits directly above us, beating down with unrelenting vigor on our sweat-stained backs. The heat wave sweeping across the United States has spared no one: it’s been over 95 degrees every day for a week, with no end in sight. To take our minds off of the heat and the repetitive task, we are talking about faith.
What do you believe in? How do you know what you believe is real? Does knowing even enter into the equation? Does it matter if what you believe is real or not, or is just believing enough? Do you think that faith is a good thing or a bad thing? Do you think that there is anything that you can know that doesn’t require at least some small leap of faith? If you don’t have faith, can you believe in anything at all? If you don’t believe in anything, then how do you decide on your values, make choices, live? Without faith, how do you resist utter paralysis? We reach the end of the row.
Over the course of the summer, the topics of our weeding conversations ranged from the philosophical (what do you really want from your life?) to the political (what is your ideal government?) to the mundane (name your top-five favorite ways to eat blueberries). As our hands went about their business, our minds were free to wander, plunging into territories that may have felt uncomfortable if we hadn’t been partially occupied otherwise. In the same way that many people actually pay attention better in class when they doodle, in the field, we were able to be more honest with our thoughts by virtue of the distraction provided by physical tasks.
The Yale Farm sits at the seemingly unlikely intersection between husbandry and academia. Yet considering that some of the most forthright and provocative conversations I’ve had took place as my hands sifted through some pile of dirt or another, I would say that the combination of agriculture and intellectual exploration is not so far fetched after all. Removed from the stresses and pressures of the classroom, farm work provides the ultimate medium for processing and reflection. At school, I spend so much time trying to think; it’s often the case, though, that my thoughts coalesce most clearly and easily when I allow myself to take a break and do something completely different – like weeding. On a campus full of fervent thinkers, the Yale Farm acts as an invaluable resource to students looking to take a step back, get their hands dirty, and sort through some of those big ideas.

Sophie Mendelson ‘15, joint Farm and Events intern, on the kind of reflection and conversation that farm work can encourage:

Stoney Lonesome Farm sits tucked away in an unexpected pocket of hilly countryside amidst the mind-numbing sprawl of strip malls and subdivisions that bleed out of Washington, DC into Northern Virginia like a hemorrhaging artery. This summer, there are three of us apprentices tending to the four acre garden that provides for 75 CSA shareholders and their families. On a typical day, we’ll plant, harvest, cultivate the soil, re-organize row covers, stake tomatoes, weed – and weed, and weed, and weed.

Crouching across from each other in the aisles that run along either side of the rows of vegetables, we have been weeding for several hours, tugging out thistles by the roots and (futilely) attempting to avoid grabbing up handfuls of poison ivy. The sun has steadily been gaining height all morning and now sits directly above us, beating down with unrelenting vigor on our sweat-stained backs. The heat wave sweeping across the United States has spared no one: it’s been over 95 degrees every day for a week, with no end in sight. To take our minds off of the heat and the repetitive task, we are talking about faith.

What do you believe in? How do you know what you believe is real? Does knowing even enter into the equation? Does it matter if what you believe is real or not, or is just believing enough? Do you think that faith is a good thing or a bad thing? Do you think that there is anything that you can know that doesn’t require at least some small leap of faith? If you don’t have faith, can you believe in anything at all? If you don’t believe in anything, then how do you decide on your values, make choices, live? Without faith, how do you resist utter paralysis? We reach the end of the row.

Over the course of the summer, the topics of our weeding conversations ranged from the philosophical (what do you really want from your life?) to the political (what is your ideal government?) to the mundane (name your top-five favorite ways to eat blueberries). As our hands went about their business, our minds were free to wander, plunging into territories that may have felt uncomfortable if we hadn’t been partially occupied otherwise. In the same way that many people actually pay attention better in class when they doodle, in the field, we were able to be more honest with our thoughts by virtue of the distraction provided by physical tasks.

The Yale Farm sits at the seemingly unlikely intersection between husbandry and academia. Yet considering that some of the most forthright and provocative conversations I’ve had took place as my hands sifted through some pile of dirt or another, I would say that the combination of agriculture and intellectual exploration is not so far fetched after all. Removed from the stresses and pressures of the classroom, farm work provides the ultimate medium for processing and reflection. At school, I spend so much time trying to think; it’s often the case, though, that my thoughts coalesce most clearly and easily when I allow myself to take a break and do something completely different – like weeding. On a campus full of fervent thinkers, the Yale Farm acts as an invaluable resource to students looking to take a step back, get their hands dirty, and sort through some of those big ideas.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Hannah Sassoon, ‘15, one of our Farm interns, spent the summer WWOOFing in Sweden. What follows are her notes from Östra Gerum:

The parish of Östra Gerum is a single road through southern Sweden’s flat fields of rapeseed and potatoes. At the middle of the parish is a circle of stone wall older than anyone can remember. Inside the wall is a church that does not open on Sundays. You can hear the bells there every day at seven in the morning and seven in the evening.

Down the road to the south is a dairy farm. Out of the back of the barn, the farmer sells some of his milk, unpasteurized, to the neighbors. When they have carried it home, they whisper to each other about the way he keeps his cattle, but they do not complain because the milk is sweet and cheap, and because he is a good man.

Ten years ago, he taught the new neighbor Jonas how to make a haystack. In Östra Gerum, he explained, it is done with seven vertical timber poles and four horizontal wires:
Sink the poles into the ground in a zigzag line for strength
against the wind. The cut grass,
when gathered with a hay fork, must face in different
directions in order to hold together. Settle it on the wires and over the tops of the poles.
After a week the stack looks like a many-humped camel.
After two weeks the timothy stalks break.

Jonas, before he came to Östra Gerum, was a member of the Swedish Parliament. He had studied cultural heritage without ever learning to make a haystack. When he left the city and bought the farm across the road from the dairy here, he had to re-thatch the barn roof himself. Then he sewed himself a suit and married.

At the north end of the parish lives Vanessa with her goats. She is from Connecticut, studied in New York. At twenty-five, she decided to move to Östra Gerum, learn Swedish, and raise goats—at which point, so far as her father in Darien was concerned, she’d gone to seed.

Once, as she bicycled through the parish, an elk galloped across the road and leapt. Its whole enormous mass sailed over a fence and into a cow pasture. The cows looked up from their grazing. The elk did not stop running. Then, all together, the cows turned to follow it, lurching, at first, and then running, running, until the herd glided together like a single shadow, moving with this elk. At the far fence line the elk leapt again, and let itself be swallowed by the spruce forest. The cows stopped. Breathless from this dream of wildness, they bent their heads to the clover and dispersed among its purple flowers.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Writing and Outreach Intern A. Grace Steig ‘15 reflects on the meditative nature of volunteering on the Farm:
Many Fridays at midday, I leave the work of Yale behind with each step up the hill toward Yale Farm. The walk is not a short one, taking Hillhouse Avenue and then Science Hill to completion, and if I were to rush the sweat would collect on my back. So I meander, in ritual, cleansing myself of the past week, its obligations, its ego. Along the way I sustain myself with small wafers of nature: oak leaves and acorns, dropped almost on my head by squirrels. On this sunlit pilgrimage, I pass lower idols – halls, houses, laboratories – without a glance. The last stretch in the sunshine is bliss, and I slow just a bit to enjoy my freedom from work before passing beneath the concord grapevine draped over the Farm’s arched entrance.The Yale Farm is nature in a deliberate urban space, an acre arranged in 2003 by Yale people who love living things. It is concentrated chaos, where plants grow with no chemicals. They are tended but could naturally thrive or, just as naturally, die. I go to the Farm often but without a schedule. I go, and I devote myself to its work, in body and spirit.[[MORE]]In September the rows and rows of leafy greens grow endlessly. There are the heads of romaine lettuce alongside Nevada, radicchio, pirot, freckles. The subtle speckles to their leaves bring delight, as do the edges’ frills, like fleur-de-lis. I squat alongside these greens and make my efforts with a little work knife, taking the heads with the greatest of care, trimming those leaves that would rot the rest. See them, fleshy and open, showing and sharing all of nature’s nutrients in their whorls outspread. They have so much to give, and I take it, lovingly.There are broccoli raab and the leaves of broccoli plants. Across the Farm are arugula, butterhead, mesclun. I hold a few plants upright with one hand and slice with the other, an imprecise horizontal trim; this handful I bunch in rubber bands. The greens in rows below, I work on with my knife in smaller cuts, taking only some leaves and leaving a plant with a chance to flourish. Below is fordhook chard, and bright lights chard – see what a rainbow the leaves make, a deep healthsome green through yellow, orange, and on to fuchsia, rosy in the allure of nature’s heartfelt love. They are indeed bright as neon lights, carrying the vigor but none of the glitz of the city. In this break in the urban, how much pleasure they give in their growing displays, full of the joy of life from the ground.The afternoon sun wants all creatures to be in it. From my greens to the house finches in the trees to me, it has much to share with every being. Most of the students take it as a surprise gift; it seems not to exist on lower campus. But on the Farm all are warmed by it. Receiving the sunshine, who can help but be content?A row down from the other greens are my beloved kales: curly, winterbor, and Tuscan, known colloquially as dinosaur. Dinosaur kale! It lives up to its name with its long dusty green leaves, slender with muscular curves, rippled and wrinkled like the necks of ancient peaceable lizards. Ah, dinosaur kale! A lifeform could be no more spectacular if dinosaurs themselves still roamed the land, if O.C. Marsh shepherded a living Apatosaurus to his alma mater and led it to the Farm.Both he and the dinosaur would appreciate the break from academic study, perhaps gain a bit more life themselves from munching. The greens give me so much good. Merely to sit in their midst is to be close to the heart of nature’s health, to taste its nutrients. And working along, as I pull off a leaf too frayed or spattered with holes to be sold, I eat it with slow enjoyment.On the Yale Farm, in the sun one day, I sweated as I worked. My shirt back was sticky, my throat parched. With very little trouble I could have gone for a drink, but, stubbornly, I knelt to finish my task first. My vision swam; I focused on chard.In this row a few plants struggled. It hurt to see. Though definitely fordhook chard, they had no giant leaves characteristic of the variety. Their green fell short of deep; shallow it was, a green in name only. I sought the explanation, feeling affronted and shorted, for their condition. Ah, aha! Beneath, many wilted leaves clung, and tiny offshoot stems sprouted already-doomed leaves. Could it be these shoots, left to their own, diverted and drained earth’s nutrients from the plants themselves? These chards, I couldn’t take from. These, though, I could help. I cut off the shoots that drained nutrients and left the green leaves, which could now, in time, flourish. I treated the afflicted one by one. In this labor, I harvested not a single leaf, but the work was good.For the many who devote themselves to it, the Farm is a meditation. More accurate, it is karma-yoga, the yoga of selfless work. The Farm is what it needs to be, for me, for so many. In rows of green, how can any people retain the egos they held in the classroom, the selves that kept them distinct from other creatures being warmed beneath the sun? No, they must give themselves totally to the growth of others. Here is one path up the hill to enlightenment. It is hours of toil, sometimes without immediate, tangible gain. It is the slow shedding of ego in the trimming of chard.

Writing and Outreach Intern A. Grace Steig ‘15 reflects on the meditative nature of volunteering on the Farm:

Many Fridays at midday, I leave the work of Yale behind with each step up the hill toward Yale Farm. The walk is not a short one, taking Hillhouse Avenue and then Science Hill to completion, and if I were to rush the sweat would collect on my back. So I meander, in ritual, cleansing myself of the past week, its obligations, its ego. Along the way I sustain myself with small wafers of nature: oak leaves and acorns, dropped almost on my head by squirrels. On this sunlit pilgrimage, I pass lower idols – halls, houses, laboratories – without a glance. The last stretch in the sunshine is bliss, and I slow just a bit to enjoy my freedom from work before passing beneath the concord grapevine draped over the Farm’s arched entrance.

The Yale Farm is nature in a deliberate urban space, an acre arranged in 2003 by Yale people who love living things. It is concentrated chaos, where plants grow with no chemicals. They are tended but could naturally thrive or, just as naturally, die. I go to the Farm often but without a schedule. I go, and I devote myself to its work, in body and spirit.

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