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
New Entry and Food Access in Boston
Events Intern Jake Wolf-Sorokin ‘16 discusses his work with New Entry, a nonprofit serving the Greater Boston Area and questions his own food choices.
Up until leaving for college, I had spent my entire life living in the greater Boston area. For the first 18 years of my life, I knew one farmer by name: my uncle who raised lamb in rural Minnesota. Once I began thinking about the sources of food, it became hard to escape. Where had that tomato I’d eaten on my sandwich at lunch every day—even during New England’s winter—actually come from? Who picked it? Were they treated fairly? Was it organic? If not, what kinds of chemicals was it grown with? How was it shipped to Boston? Would the label tell me anything? Why couldn’t I find out all this information? What structural systems was I supporting by taking a bite out of that tomato? And couldn’t I be asking these questions about everything I eat?
The lack of connection to my food—one of life’s vital ingredients—began to really unsettle me. It seemed every question, generated three more until I’d cast aside the tomato, the lettuce, the turkey and the sprouts. All that was left of my lunch were two pieces of sourdough bread. I’d decided they were ok since they came from a bakery near my home that got its flour from an organic grower in New York. That’s when I began to see food consumption as a political act. In the short term, as someone living in an urban area, I lacked a means of escaping this food system. Without eating sandwiches like the one I described, I’d have trouble living. But by seeking answers to my questions and making efforts to change my habits, I’d be able to make some progress on a longer timescale. And that’s why I decided to intern at the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, an organization dedicated to helping aspiring organic farmers open viable farms near urban areas in Eastern Massachusetts.
Through my work, I had the chance to meet scores of small farmers aiming to make local farming the norm—or at least more common—again in America. “My goal for the future is to continue farming and to continue to supply people in the community,” Bessie Tsimba—one of these farmers—told me. She moved to the United States from Zimbabwe in 1988. Like most immigrants, Bessie arrived without much land—let alone enough to begin a garden or farm. So for 20 years, Bessie—like most Americans—cooked with grains and vegetables bought at the grocery store. Over time she began to see farming as a reminder of home and a way to promote healthy eating.
In 2009, Bessie seized upon her renewed interest in farming and began a small-scale organic farm. “It’s something we grew up doing back home and I benefit from eating organic,” she said. Five years into her endeavor, Bessie sells her produce to a cooperative CSA and to many of her friends who also came to America from Zimbabwe. “I know the things they miss [from] back home,” Bessie told me. By growing maize and other crops common in Africa, but harder to find in the United States, Bessie has created a community around her farm.
Her optimism inspired me. Like many of the farmers trained by New Entry, Bessie didn’t have the means to give up her other job to farm full time. And despite five years of effort, she does not ever expect her farm to become her principal income. Bessie’s belief in the importance of food as a means of enriching culture and community motivates her.
As an organization, New Entry aims to ensure its farmers have a guaranteed source of income by operating a cooperative CSA. Although this CSA does not provide enough income to support a full time farmer, the World PEAS CSA represents a good first opportunity for many new farmers. Over the last 15 years, New Entry has helped to dramatically increase the ranks of urban, organic farmers in Eastern Massachusetts through its farmer training programs. Yet challenges remain: given the dense population of the region, the sum total of food produced by all these farmers represents a small fraction of the food needed to sustain all of the areas residents.
After spending a summer conducting farmer interviews for an analysis of New Entry’s success and working to promote the cooperative CSA, I left feeling both inspired and realistic. Centering our food system on sustainability and community health will require a dramatic change in our society’s understanding of what it means to consume food. Yet through the dedicated, passionate work of individuals like Bessie Tsimba and organizations like New Entry, these seeds of change in the food system are beginning to grow. Realigning our food system around sustainability and community health will require the collective effort of many individuals, beginning with a desire to understand the nuances of the connection between the food we consume and its source.
Zoe Reich-Avillez ‘15, on how a favorite farm task transforms the mundane:
I first worked on a farm (rather, I first stepped foot on a farm) during my freshman year of high school. The trip to Gaining Ground was posted on a school bulletin board under “Community Service.” Gaining Ground, the sign proclaimed, is a non-profit farm that donates all its food to local food banks and meal programs. Located just ten minutes from my high school, it was the perfect destination for a mid-afternoon volunteer shift. Never one to turn down an outdoor field trip in early spring, I immediately signed up. Looking back now, the memories of that short shift are beyond foggy. What I do remember though, is the feeling of being engaged in manual work. I couldn’t articulate it then, but something just felt so right about working my hands through the soil and crouching over a bed of newly planted seedlings.
A year later, I heard about Gaining Ground’s summer internship. I had barely given my workday a second thought, but remembering that still-so-poignant feeling, I decided to apply. Through the summer, I weeded, planted, harvested, weeded, prepped beds, and weeded some more. As any farmer will tell you—and as I discovered that summer—there will always be more weeding.
For some reason though, I relished that never-ending task. What is often the bane of the farmhand’s existence became my favorite job: hand weeding. Massaging the soil, grasping for weeds, pulling the unwanted plants from their roots, and finally looking back to see a bed of head lettuce surrounded by dark brown soil, was deeply satisfying. I found myself looking forward to the days when I would be sent out to the field, with or without a partner, to weed for hours on end. Even now, when I crave a task that is comforting, that will re-orient me with myself, I crouch down in a pathway, dig my hands into the soil, and start to weed.
When I try to understand my love of hand weeding, I often turn to the physicality of the work. Search and pull, search and pull. So easily, I can lose myself in the repetition, in the sheer simplicity of the action. At my best though, it is not just my body put to work; my mind too, is engaged in that repetition and simplicity. When I say that I lose myself in the task then, I mean that I am completely and totally present. I’m reminded what it is to find home in myself. This groundedness, I now realize, is the feeling of “rightness” that I knew but couldn’t name during my first shift at Gaining Ground. Now, I know its name and I know it’s what keeps me coming back to the farm time and time again.
Farm Intern Nace Cohen ‘14 on the costs—both explicit and hidden—of the modern food system:
There is an economics term, externality, which means that part of the cost of a product is not passed on directly to the consumer. This cost is still inherent to the product, and because the consumer doesn’t pay it in dollars it often ends up being paid out in other ways by society as a whole. An example of a product with an external cost is gasoline. In addition to the price paid at the pump, Americans pay for an oversized military with bases throughout the Middle East, oil spills in the gulf, pollution, and climate change.
One of the major problems with our food system is that there are too many externalities in the food that we buy. Americans spend less than the members of any other nation on their food— less than 6% of their income, according to the USDA. The next closest country, the UK, spends 9% of their income. This could be hailed as a great success of industrial food production, and an affordable food supply is not a bad thing— in fact quite the opposite. However, while we may directly spend less than other countries on food, if you factor in externalities this isn’t the case. By demanding that our food be cheap before anything else, we are getting food that is making us sick: more than one seventh of the US GDP is spent treating diet related diseases, according to the New York Times. By ignoring the harmful production of our food, our food system is destroying our environment: there was a 9,400-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 due to agricultural runoff, according to Science Daily.
These are costs that aren’t being paid in the grocery store, and certainly aren’t being footed by the corporations producing food for our industrial system, so who is picking up the bill? The answer, sadly, is us. The consumer is not simply paying the healthcare costs upfront, with his or her own body: the dramatic increase in diet-related diseases, many of them chronic, has lead to an increase in healthcare costs across the board. The costs to the environment are such that we haven’t yet started to pay for the damage that has been done, but oceanic dead zones, soil depletion, climate change, and other adverse effects of farming are real, and society will end up paying for them one way or another.
So how should these costs be assessed and covered? I believe that the people who should be responsible for paying for the externalities of the food system should be those who benefit from the system, the producers. Anybody who has taken basic economics will tell you that this will lead to an increase in the cost of the product. Increasing the cost of food is a complicated issue because everybody has a right to life, and therefore to affordable food. However, this right does not need to be ensured by ignoring the external costs of the food system. How do I believe this should be done? I believe that food producers should be ranked by an independent party on how their food production effects the environment, and that food processing companies should be ranked on how damaging their products are to consumers’ health. Based on the rank and the scale of operation these companies should be fined accordingly.
What does not matter is the solution that we agree upon, what matters is that we agree upon a solution. The food system that we live in is endangering our health and our environment, and the government has yet to admit that it is a problem. This is not a problem the market will fix, if we want to live in a safe healthy society it is something that we will have to change.
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.
If you’re looking for some lunchtime reading, here are two stories that present a top-to-bottom approach to the issues facing farmers and the food community right now: Tom Philpott considers why organically managed soils stand up better to the extreme weather conditions produced by climate change than their conventional counterparts, and The New York Times gives us a look at who decides what gets labeled as Certified Organic. Both serve as a good reminder of all that goes into what ends up in supermarkets and on the table— and that the process is rarely a simple one.
Here are two podcasts, recorded last week, featuring YSFP Director Mark Bomford and the Rudd Center’s Kelly Brownell. There’s one on food and sustainability and another on local sustainability initiatives. Both are definitely worth a listen!