Sustainable Pasture Management in Kyrgyzstan
Events intern Caroline Tracey ‘14 spent her summer on an environmental fellowship studying pasture management in Kyrgyzstan. Here, she muses on her Russian lit background and the sociopolitical controversies that shape the country’s agricultural landscape.
I spent a month of this summer in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet republic nestled between China and Kazakhstan. It was clear to me before I arrived that environmental issues were at the forefront of the minds of the people in the country. For one thing, less than a month before my visit to Kyrgyzstan, a large riot broke out at the Kumtor mine, a gold mine on the south side of Lake Issyk-Kul. The mine accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP, but is owned and managed by a Canadian company. About 1,000 people, some arriving on horseback, camped out for days and blockaded the road from the mine to Bishkek, calling for Kyrgyzstan to receive a bigger share of the mine’s profits.
My studies as a Russian literature major have focused on Russian writers’ treatment of landscape: how authors understand vast, unending landscapes; what kind of culture and specific experiences develop in places marked by vastness. I have also versed myself in the contemporary environmental challenges that come with these kinds of landscapes. During my trip this summer, I planned to find out how the country’s pastoral heritage was faring in the modern economy.
Horse supplies at Osh Bazaar in Bishkek
Flying into Bishkek delighted me: it felt like flying into Denver, where I grew up. Tall, snow-capped (even in July) mountains are visible in the distance, and the flat, brown land that holds the airport and the city slides up to meet them. From the plane window I could see both dry and irrigated fields; windbreaks; and small reservoirs. There were fewer roads than I was used to; the land wasn’t gridded, as the whole middle of America is, and so the fields took stranger shapes, strips and trapezoids. On the drive into the city, I drove by a young boy herding goats with a stick, and I realized there wasn’t going to be any shortage of interesting things to learn about pasture agriculture.
Here’s what I found out:
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the land and livestock holdings of collective farms were parceled out to their employees based on seniority. This immediately led to crisis: most employees had held positions unrelated to animal husbandry - they had been drivers or bookkeepers - and were unprepared to manage their own farm animals. Most - seventy percent, a pasture manager later estimated to me - floundered. Their animals died, and they lost their chance at financial solvency in the new economy. To make matters worse, those that did succeed in raising their animals met the harsh reality of the new system: they worked all year only to sell their animals at market for a price so low it often wasn’t even a profit. Now, the prices are better, thanks to consumers from Kazakhstan, where the economy is much stronger, crossing the border to buy animals in cheaper Kyrgyzstan. The increased demand means that Kyrgyz people have a financial incentive to go into agriculture - farmers in the villages often make more money than middle-class people in Bishkek.
Abandoned Collective Farm
Kyrgyz “farmers” are more like what we would refer to as ranchers (if you want to talk about vegetable or fruit farmers, you have to specify). They raise animals, and sell them at large, open-air markets. During the winter months, their animals are in their villages’ town pastures, either within the town or just outside of it, and during the summer months, they bring their animals (along with the animals of other villagers who have paid them to look after their animals for the summer) to the rural pasture. The rural pastures are mountain camps where the farmers live in yurts with their families while the animals graze the high range.
Talas Livestock Market
Unloading bulls from the mountain pastures for sale at the market
The requirement to bring their animals up to rural pastures, I learned, is one of a group of radical changes to pasture law that were enacted beginning in 2009. Kyrgyzstan was one of the only meat-producing countries in the Soviet Union, and as a result of always-increasing demands from distant Moscow, the country left the USSR highly overgrazed. Until 2009, when the country really began to gain some traction on the challenges of privatization, pastures were private. Now, with the new pasture law, the land is government owned again, and pastures are managed by a village committee. Each town has been assigned a piece of rural pasture that corresponds with the size of the village. The “closed,” or “winter,” pastures within or nearby the towns are not to be used during the summer, so that they can recover from the last year of use.
Highway overlooking government pastures
Sheep running in on the rural pasture
Before I had learned about the distinction between rural and closed pastures, I experienced the distinction firsthand, by being in transit between the two. Having approached a tunnel through a mountain pass, my minibus back from Talas found itself stopped at the entrance, along with a parking lot’s worth of cars. Finally, fifteen confused minutes later, a man on horseback emerged from the dark opening. He was followed by a whole large herd of horses, who tried their best to follow his lead and navigate their way through the herd of cars.
So you can imagine it made sense to me when the pasture manager of the town of Barskoon explained that the reason that people hadn’t made sufficient use of the rural pastures until they were required to by law was that there was not sufficient infrastructure to reach the rural pastures. 2 million som, he said, or about $40,000 - a very large sum of money in Kyrgyzstan, where the middle class makes about $160 per month - has been marked for new bridges to the rural pastures. It remains to be seen, however, whether that money will make it through the government’s extreme corruption.
As I talked to more and more people in Kyrgyzstan about pasture management, I came to the most surprising conclusion I could have: pasturing seems to be moving in a good direction. Certainly it would be hard to create a system that does more damage than the Soviet Union’s system. But I am disposed to expect that the arc towards capitalism is an unstoppable and destructive force, and the Kyrgyz people proved me wrong. They tried out privatizing their pasture land, and fifteen years later returned to a system of the commons. The pasture committee system is still young, and the law still needs changes, but the new system stipulates an attitude toward rangeland that shares both resources and responsibility.
When I describe this, I am reminded of a presentation I saw at the forestry school as part of its grasslands lunch series three years ago. It was on the “buffalo commons,” an idea published in Planning magazine in the 1980’s, suggesting that the emptying American prairie should be returned to buffalo rangeland. The idea was virulently rejected. But yesterday I read in the High Country News that Montana is slowly introducing free-ranging bison. Perhaps with enough committed minds, the commons - east and west - will get their chance to succeed.
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.
How Good is Good Enough?
Farmers’ Market intern Sadie Weinberger ‘14 on the challenges presented by trying to figure out how to eat ethically:
I became a vegan at the start of the academic year, at the same time I moved into my off-campus house. I’d been feeling it out over the summer—I filled the refrigerator with Earth Balance and soymilk and popsicles galore—but living with a certain steadfastly omnivorous roommate made commitment a little difficult. Now, for the first time in my life, I am responsible for everything I put into my body, and it causes the sort of crisis that so often accompanies freedom of choice: how good is good enough?
I am vegan because I object to the practices by which the majority of animal products are produced in this country, mostly for environmental reasons. I have no moral objection to the consumption of animal products like dairy and eggs, but I find it easier to commit to the whole lifestyle rather than to try to pick and choose which sources I trust.
But my convictions on the matter of the environment create problems like, am I still allowed to eat Oreos? Oreos are technically vegan, and they are undeniably delicious, but their production also has a negative effect on the environment. So does the fact that I buy my vegetables at the farmer’s market and refrain from eating cheese really make my contribution any greater than anyone else’s?
And problems like, don’t I have an obligation to support farmers who provide alternatives to factory farming? It is somewhat unrealistic to expect that a significant percent of the population will be going vegan anytime soon, and in the meantime, most people will continue to consume animal products produced by factory farming. By refraining from eating any animal products, am I also hurting farmers that use humane and sustainable practices?
I don’t have good answers to these questions; if I did, I’d write a New York Times bestseller and move to Bora Bora. Even though I find myself in the privileged position to be able to make these kinds of choices, it is neither simple nor easy to determine which issues take precedence and which get sacrificed. But I think the important thing is that we keep trying. My ideal diet is all local, organic, sustainable, [insert buzzword here]. Do I live up to that ideal? Of course I don’t. I’m busy, I don’t have the money, etc. But maybe next time I go shopping, I’ll skip out on the Oreos.
"It turns out that fertiliser can be as deadly as a pesticide.”
That phrase— not even a whole sentence— is slipped quietly into this little piece about new technology that will help weed and thin lettuce beds on massive conventional farms in California’s Central Valley. The machine in question has found a way to put fertilizer’s deadly strength to good use, its makers claim: by spreading it directly on unwanted plants, it first kills competition and then provides nutrients to the surrounding survivors.
It seems to me, though, that this idea raises a number of questions relevant to the state of agriculture as a whole; for starters, why are we putting poisonously strong chemicals onto our food and our land? Issues with fertilizer runoff are numerous and well-documented, including everything from tainting groundwater to creating massive dead zones along nearby coastlines; soils managed with chemical fertilizers have been proven to fare very poorly under conditions of drought and flood (the coming effects of climate change, which is caused at least in part by manufacturing chemical fertilizer and then using fossil-fueled machines to spread it). A system that insists on a fertility source that is in every way toxic can’t possible be in very good shape.
There is also a larger question, though, raised by the notion that we need technology to do this work in the first place. The current system is inefficient because “labourers, who tend to be paid per acre, not per hour, have little incentive to pay close attention to what they pull from the ground, often leading to unnecessary waste.” The modern tendency is to view jobs like this one as irredeemably menial, and so to compensate them minimally (if at all) and try to tech them out of existence. For a country in the middle of an employment crisis, this seems like a shortsighted way of thinking about things. What if we took manual labor seriously, protecting workers and paying them a fair wage, making it possible for them to take real pride in their jobs? Agriculture is tough work but it’s absolutely crucial, and there’s no reason to continue to treat it as if it were an expendable process.
This is not to say that technology is inherently evil, or that we shouldn’t be modernizing and mechanizing at all— it’s only to suggest a more comprehensive way of thinking about where technology and agriculture meet might benefit workers in the field as well as the land they tend. Especially given this report that increasing wages for food workers, which includes field hands, would only cost the rest of us a dime a day.
Embracing the Delicious Unnecessary: Making Corn Tortillas at Home
Erin Vanderhoof ‘12, Special Projects intern, explores one of the favorite foodstuffs of her native New Mexico:
During my time at the YSFP, I’ve become interested in rediscovering lost foodways and trying to make an event out of something I usually only buy at the store. I’m from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and making tortillas is something of a native New Mexican tradition. I learned how to make them in elementary school, but had since forgotten how. I found a simple recipe online, and with a lot of experimentation made some pretty delicious tortillas that we used to make green chile enchiladas. The ingredient list might look simple, but this is probably one of the most complex tasks that I’ve undertaken in my kitchen. That being said, there are a lot of ways to make a good tortilla, so I encourage you to try it out.
2 cups of masa harina (I used Goya brand that I found at Stop and Shop in New Haven, you can probably find it at any grocery store)
1 teaspoon salt
1 2/3 cup boiling water (I boiled the water in my electric tea kettle)
2-4 tablespoons of oil
1) Combine the masa harina and salt in a large bowl, and mix so that the salt is distributed evenly throughout.
2) Add the boiling water to the bowl and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture looks like cooked cereal and has the consistency of polenta.
3) It’s time to form the tortillas (I think this is the hardest part). Get a bowl and fill it with lukewarm water. Dip your hands in the water every time you touch the cornmeal. Roll a hunk of the cornmeal into a ball the size of a golf ball. Place the ball between two sheets of waxed paper and flatten it with your hands. They should be about a ¼ of an inch thick. Don’t make them too thin or else they’ll stick to the waxed paper.
4) In a cast-skillet (if you have one, or a non-stick frying pan if you don’t), heat a tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Fry the tortillas one at a time, flipping them after about a minute, when the tortilla holds together and has black flecks on a side.
I layered the tortillas with cheese and green chile sauce because to make enchiladas because they’re too fragile to fold. It might seem kind of silly to make something that is so readily available at the grocery store, but I swear these tortillas are better — not only because they taste like elbow grease.
Looking for follow up from last week’s New York Times Magazine food issue? Look no further: here’s Mark Bittman, talking about his experiences in the Central Valley on LA’s KCRW.