When the Very Old is New Again

An Onondaga elder once explained to me that plants come to us when they are needed. If we show them respect by using them and appreciating their gifts they will grow stronger. They will stay with us as long as they are respected. But if we forget about them, they will leave.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

The summer of 2016 was when everything started to change for me. The most obvious change was in my professional life, as I moved from my long-held position of executive director with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) to the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) at The Ohio State University. My title remained the same, but almost everything else is completely different in my work life now. Other changes occurred or began over this period, and they will always be merged in my memory as a single complex transition that may take some years to play out completely.

The immediate point here is that I simply had no time to manage my nearly 4,000 square feet of garden space over this growing season, and my choices were to either put in a cover crop for the whole summer, or try something that would require the lowest maintenance possible. Since I have always been fascinated with ancient forms of agriculture, I decided to try a Native American style “three sisters” garden, utilizing heirloom varieties of corn with pole beans and winter squash, to see if this style of companion planting really could manage itself. Truth be told, I added a fourth sister in the form of several sunflower varieties interspersed with the other crops, and bordered the outside of the plot with other things I like, including summer squash and okra.

The result of my experiment can be seen in the photo currently used as the heading of my blog, which was taken in early September. As you evaluate it visually there are a couple things to keep in mind. First, and despite my best intentions, everything was planted about a month later than what would have been ideal. Second, the garden was greatly hindered by periods of both too much and too little rain in this very strange climatic year, a challenge that I’m afraid is becoming the new normal across the country for avid gardeners and professional farmers alike. Altogether there are three varieties of each of the four sisters spread across the plot.

p1010700I have learned a lot along the way, and continue to discover new things from this trial planting. One thing you’d expect is that some varieties did better than others, which is pretty much the intent of such a diversified approach. Other years would naturally favor different combinations. Another hoped for result that did not disappoint is that I avoided heavy weed pressure, which is part of the magic of a system like this. I had only gone over the plot once with a manual hoe after the corn sprouted and before planting the other companions. I was also glad to observe some of the tallest corn I’ve ever grown in a garden – 8 to 10 feet – which was done without any soil amendments at all, except for whatever the beans were able to provide.

What I didn’t expect is that the patch now has the feel of a whole new world, as opposed to just being a garden. A walk through, which has to be done gingerly, generates a sense of being in an exotic environment, complete with plenty of birds and pollinator activity. It is downright pleasant in there. And what’s more, I can reliably emerge on the other side, after zigzagging my way through, with enough vegetables for a meal or two. The gifts of the garden certainly outweigh the effort I put in, and the biggest harvest is yet to come!

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My little native garden patch is but a shadow of the historical practice. Native Americans are thought to have cultivated much larger pieces of ground with an even greater variety of plants, and often in conjunction with multiple stories of growth including trees bearing fruit and nuts. Some berry brambles on the side might have been used to dissuade wildlife from overrunning the site as well. And an occasional controlled burn helped with fertility and maintaining a broad variety of perennials. Managing the grazing patterns of bison and other wildlife was probably in their repertoire as well. What a unique and vibrant scene it surely was. In the end the natives were much more susceptible to the infectious diseases Europeans brought with them than they ever were to lack of food security.

Still, over 500 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, descendants of at least two of the three sisters – corn and beans – continue to dominate the agricultural landscape of North America. And as I recall, winter squash in little jars played a leading role in feeding my two children when they were quite young. These native foods, plus many others like potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and even chocolate, continue these many centuries later to provide a big part of the American diet, and that of the rest of the world too.

However, the basic practices of native agriculture have only barely survived, and thanks most notably to the sustainable farming movement that they have at all. We may not immediately recognize it, but everything from diversified cropping systems, crop rotations, companion planting and cover crops, to forest farming, rotational and multispecies grazing, permaculture, medicinal plant propagation, and even aquaponics, may all share roots in native agriculture. I’m sure other experts could add to this list. Many of these techniques are even being “discovered” as aids to healing larger scale, industrial systems of agriculture today. In many ways, the native farming systems that were little understood and nearly wiped out, as was the case for their practitioners, continue to offer promise of preserving the human species and our common environment for the long-term future.

And yet we trudge along as rather unwitting and ungrateful recipients of such special cultural gifts, while the need could hardly be greater for us to acknowledge the skills and wisdom of those who occupied this land before us. Personally, I find the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer, an accomplished botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, to offer perhaps the most refreshing view of the challenges we face in understanding and restoring the natural world today. Her striking quote about plants coming to us when they are needed exhibits an attitude about nature that is as scientific as it is spiritual . . . two views of the world that probably would not have seemed distinct in traditional native culture. This is how I felt when walking through my garden this year, as though I had created an opportunity for the scientific and spiritual world to merge, resulting in a virtual Garden of Eden to keep me both fed and satisfied with my place in the world.

It is not just plants that come to us as needed, of course – people do too. Our challenge as humans is to recognize the importance of both plants and people coming into our lives just as we need them most. They are easy to miss, and even easier to lose if we fail to respect and care for them in proper measure to their importance in our lives. This is not some kind of New Age retreat philosophy I am espousing here, but the very foundation of what it means to be a response-able human being living in the world, with a capacity to love and nurture the most important aspects of our lives in community. Our exile from the plant world, and from the sources of our food more generally speaking, threaten to leave us physically insecure, and unhealthily under or overfed. Our exile from each other can breed the kind of distrust that we commonly experience in the world today, and more personally, leave us wandering aimlessly through life as though following a vague map of emotional independence that leads nowhere enduring or particularly satisfying.

Which leads me to the greater point of this essay. Is it possible that not only plants and people come into our lives in mysterious and timely ways, but that an entire People could as well? I have been inspired and hopeful watching the many native tribes coming together in North Dakota to fight the Dakota Access Pipeline in recent months. While their official stance is in opposition to this one specific project, the fight is really more deeply rooted in the issue of tribal sovereignty, and now extends to the questions of climate change and whether or not we should be extracting oil from new and harder to reach sources at all. The key here is that these events are raising the consciousness of American Indian tribes broadly speaking to become the conscience of our whole society on important issues of sustainability. If they can maintain such focus and intensity as we have already seen, this could be the beginning of a necessary reawakening for our entire country, and even the world.

We have long been in need of fundamental renewal in this country, and the emergence of a Native American voice in defense of the continent and planet we share is indeed an opportunity we should not fail to meet with a respectful and impassioned positive response. This is not only true when considering sources of fossil-energy we rely upon, but of food as well, which is just another form of energy. Our dominant agricultural paradigms represent an assumption that technology will solve everything. But instead we have arrived at a place where they are not working very well for either public health, or the farmers who work so hard to keep their economic treadmills spinning. Maybe it’s time we look back for inspiration . . . waaay back.

There is in life no pristine past or utopian future to which we can aspire, regardless of what the politicians of one party or another might want us to believe. There is only the present predicament, and the necessity we all face to overcome the challenges with which a couple centuries of extractive living and abject denial have saddled us. But that is all we really need, a chance to start over, particularly if we are willing to listen to the spirits of this land who are still with us, at least for a little while longer. Every moment is pregnant with the possibilities of what can be accomplished if we as a People can come together with a sense of common purpose and the sacrificial will to get things done.

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Author’s note: This piece is dedicated to my daughter Kerry, who is currently toiling away as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, trying to do the right thing by the plants and the people coming into her life down there.

 

The Future of Sustainable Agriculture

We have come a long way in the 15 years I have been privileged to serve as executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. When I first started, I remember being ridiculed or, even worse, ignored in a lot of public contexts where PASA now is a welcome voice for change. For this we can feel some pride, while also thanking myriad other national groups and personalities who have paved the way, often in the face of withering uphill battles.

As I prepare to transition to a new position in June, my main concern is that we don’t lose the momentum gained over the years. There are a number of critical factors that I believe need to be kept in mind, as follows:

  • Words matter. Though faced with abuse and even cooption of the word sustainable by corporate interests wanting to steal our thunder or undermine the power of our ideals, we must never give in to that. Other words like natural, local, and fresh are similarly threatened, even within our own ranks, but we must never relinquish or walk away from the words that got us here in the first place, even as we develop more descriptive terms, like regenerative, to convey the significance of our vision.

Continue reading

Looking Back; Surging Ahead

It should readily be apparent that we arrived at PASA’s 25th annual conference thinking more about the next 25 years than the past. We could easily have built this year’s conference around a celebration of all that has come before, and indeed there was some of that to be found in the conference center and on the program.  But the predominant motivation for all of us – staff and board members alike – in planning the event was to make manifest the urgency of taking action to change agricultural systems in the immediate future, and our plans for doing so.

I also want to add here a few additional thoughts about the nature of this organization, our work together and the success we anticipate for the new programs PASA is now developing. To do this I want to return to a favorite topic of mine, one that I talked about just over fifteen years ago as I first interviewed for the job of executive director. Instead of looking back just 25 years, though, I’d like to go back in our consideration to a little over 500 years ago. Continue reading

Dancing with Nature: The Sustainable Challenge

I am not much of a professional sports fan these days.  But every year at this time I remember myself as a kid, pulling out my old Maury Wills baseball mitt and Carl Yastrzemski bat from the basement to play outside with my friends, following what seemed like endless winters while growing up in the Midwest.

Throwing a baseball back and forth for hours felt like absolute freedom. And every once in a while you could reach an exalted state with a best friend whereby the two of you would feel at one with each other, the gloves and the ball – nothing would miss the mark, until you fell out of that groove due to fatigue, or maybe the dinner bell ringing.

The same kind of thing happens with other sports, including an outdoor sport like fishing, another harbinger of spring. As any good fisherman will tell you, it is at those times when you feel unified with the fish, and the stream in which you both do your dance, that the true nature of the sport and the freedom it has to offer is realized. For me, there is no greater sense of liberation, and belonging at the same time, than to commune in this way with nature, often in the company of a dear friend. Continue reading

PASA on the Move

{This is my speech from PASA’s recent annual conference, which was delivered there in a somewhat abbreviated version}

The 24th edition of our annual Farming for the Future conference is an achievement worth celebrating in itself, but this year we are mindful that it begins a year of intense preparation for our 25th “PASA family reunion” as some people like to think of this event. And while there will be much literal preparation for the next conference in terms of developing a program, designing the workshops and recruiting the best lineup of speakers possible, there is a far more subtle process of organizing, and reorganizing, currently underway, that will come more fully to light over the next 12 months and in the years ahead.

To put it succinctly, PASA is undergoing an “extreme makeover” that we hope will pay dividends for our members and society in general, both in the short and long term. We are planning for what the next 25 years will bring to an organization that has already experienced considerable success, but is fundamentally restless and feeling an urgency to do more. It is indeed in the very nature of this organization that we, as its stewards, are perpetually dissatisfied with the status quo in agriculture and food systems, and are committed to moving ahead even before we stop and celebrate anything very much. Continue reading

Let a Farm Be a Farm

{blogger’s note: Please make sure to read the action alert at the end of this post!}

With the dust still settling from the horrific terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the U.S. Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law a piece of legislation widely known as the Bioterrorism Act (BTA) in early 2002.  From one perspective this action was a necessary response to one of our greatest vulnerabilities as a nation, a potential attack on our people through the food supply chain. From another, it was an overreach of federal power intended and abetted by corporate America to extend their control over our food system. The actual reality of the situation probably falls between these two perspectives, and in many ways is still very much in play today.

No matter the effects of the BTA, one of the most significant things it did was to draw a distinction between two major categories of activity within any food system by defining a “farm” as a producer of raw agricultural commodities as distinct from a “facility” that transforms those commodities into the variety of processed foods that can readily be observed in any modern supermarket.  The distinction was critical, especially since the stated intent was to exempt all farms from the new regulations facilities would face, beginning with the requirement to register under the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), establishing the agency’s authority to regulate the activity of all such facilities.

Enter the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 (FSMA), which was intended as an elaboration and extension of the BTA, now with added intent to authorize direct FDA regulation of farms producing raw agricultural commodities consumed by humans or animals with very little or no processing by a regulated facility along the way. The immediate effect of FSMA was to blur the lines between farms and facilities, such that even FDA personnel visiting farms – some of them for the very first time – were apt to see facilities wherever they looked. It was a dramatic representation of the old adage “Give a boy a hammer and everything looks like a nail.”  Even those of us working to improve draft regulations written to implement FSMA were wondering if anything such as a farm, pure and simple, could ever exist, at least according the definition being used in the new regulations. Continue reading

Food Safety Back On the Agenda

If you thought we were done with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), you can think again. It has been most of a year since the process of responding to newly proposed food safety rules seemed to be smothering every waking moment of our lives, and late December since we heard the good news that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had “heard” our concerns loud enough to force serious reconsideration of those first drafts of the Produce and Preventive Controls rules.

Fact is, the past eight months have been anything but quiet for those of us following the situation closely. There have been myriad other, lesser known proposed rules to respond to along the way, and several high level meetings behind the scenes aimed at helping FDA to “get it right” in a second go-round of rulemaking as well as the later implementation phase.  For most people, the process simply went below the water’s surface, but now it is poised to make a big splash back out in the open. As of this writing, we expect to see new proposals any day, perhaps within the next week or two.

As a reminder, this whole process really started in the spring of 2009 when FSMA first appeared in various forms of proposed federal legislation.  So some of us have been at it over 5 years now, making sure at every turn that the needs and interests of family farmers of all sizes, as well as the preferences of an increasingly engaged community of sustainably minded consumers, are taken into account both in the legislative and regulatory phases. Implementation will take several years of diligence too, but right now we may be facing the most crucial point of the whole process, as a second draft of rules takes us closer to a point of no return. Continue reading