Holy Saturday

I last wrote on this blog nearly four years ago. That time – early fall of 2016 – was poignant for a few reasons, but especially because of big changes to the American political landscape that were about to occur. Back then, I thought maybe I was beginning a new series of essays that would appear in the ensuing months and years. It did not happen, however, partly because of some very confusing things that occurred in my personal and professional life, as well as the public sphere. I’m hoping this will be the new beginning I was thinking about in that less complex and troubled time.

As the name of this piece implies, I began writing it on the day between Good Friday and Easter this year, which happened also to be my birthday. It is perhaps easy to take too seriously the convergence of such occasions, but please understand that, considering the way Easter bounces around each year, this kind of thing does not happen all that often for me. I can remember over the years my birthday falling on both Good Friday and Easter, as well as Palm Sunday, but this is the only time I can recall it falling on that mysterious day in the middle.

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Good Friday 2020. As William Faulkner would say, “The day dawned bleak and chill.”

The day is also known variously as Black Saturday, the Saturday of Light, and other iterations falling within that range, depending on the religious tradition being consulted. This suggests considerable confusion about what the day falling betwixt the darkest and brightest days of the Christian calendar could possibly represent from a spiritual point of view. I struggled with the confusion that entire day, and into the next, realizing that experiencing the tug-of-war between doom and destiny is certainly a part of what Holy Week is intended to evoke.

But what a year for this to happen!  I, like most others, am now “stuck” at home and left to ponder the meaning of life with an intensity that quite honestly had not occurred to me since those fateful fall days four years ago. The current and unanticipated pandemic is causing all of us to think about ultimate questions in a way we did not anticipate just a few short months ago. For me in my professional work, this also leads to thinking more deeply about agriculture, food systems and our need to sustain life on Earth without simultaneously threatening the quality of life, though I’m rather certain these ends can only be achieved simultaneously.

To that end, I have noticed some very distinct trends emerging as the COVID-19 pandemic experience is playing out that have a bearing on quality of life issues. There are several that could be mentioned, but these three are particularly interesting to me:

  1. Food supply chains are being disrupted in predictable though seemingly contradictory ways. In some cases, while some farm products are being dumped, buried or applied back onto fields, grocery store shelves sit empty and lines at foodbanks are longer than ever seen.
  2. Underlying medical conditions are emerging in reports from around the world as the most reliable predictor of how patients who are stricken with the new coronavirus will fare. I’ve seen estimates as high as 80% of related deaths being associated with various iterations of metabolic syndrome lurking in the background.
  3. Racial and ethnic disparities are represented in the disease and death rates well beyond what is warranted by their relative populations. Disturbingly, this is as true now as it was in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, and in other socioeconomic circumstances since, suggesting that we’ve made little progress in this regard over the past century.

{Note: The links contained in the bullets above provide only examples, not the exhaustive data that is available in each case.}

The apparent inter-relatedness of these observations is a compelling argument that what we have here is a systemic problem. It’s instructive to note that most any kind of major disruption, whether medically centered or not, would likely show similar patterns.  When you look at all three of these trends together, it’s in fact hard not to conclude that we are in big trouble, though not primarily because of this new virus. There’s an old saying that “when the water is running low, you can see where the rocks are.” Point being, those structural hazards persist even when you can’t see them.

My post from four years ago ended on a note of optimism, but it’s much harder to be optimistic now.  It’s not as though solutions don’t exist. I have written before that we live at an awkward point in history where we know far more about what steps can and should be taken to fix our biggest problems, than we do about mustering the courage to enact them. Looking ahead, I think there are at least four critical success factors that must hold sway if we are to move ahead with confidence and reasonable hopefulness, as follows:

  • Communication – Transparency is the key here, and nothing that borders on marketing will do. Our trust in institutions has been badly damaged in recent years, whereas clear, consistent and totally forthcoming communication is what we really need to insist on from all our leaders.
  • Collaboration – It’s time to realize that, even when friendly competition is seen as a boon to progress, it will be the ways in which we work together, across all artificially constructed barriers within our minds, that ultimately will make the difference between thriving and mere survival.
  • Innovation – Scientific advancement and new technologies are indeed necessary right now, but not all impactful innovation occurs in a laboratory. New ways of thinking about things may be the most critically important innovation, and for that we need the arts and humanities, as well as the benefit of wisdom from diverse sources, including from ancient times.
  • Transformation – This is a scary word for some, but one we will need to embrace to forge a constructive path forward. Whether you’re more comfortable with the concept of creation or evolution, we need some of that mojo right now. Transformational thinking is the new sustainability.

We do indeed live in a time of transition. Our situation as a society is much like mine on my Holy Saturday birthday, emerging from darkness and trying desperately to move toward the light. There is no guarantee of success, and we don’t even know what “success” will look like right now, except that it would be, as we used to hear on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, something completely different. This is just as true for each of us individually. Our personal ability to claw through sometimes overwhelming and internally hidden barriers of darkness and stagnation may be the necessary precursor to positive change on a grander scale.

Tomorrow cannot be a repeat of yesterday, in very realistic, fundamental and profound ways, because yesterday – at least our most recent version of it – is nowhere near what we are capable of achieving, nor what we must aspire to if life as we know it on this planet is to be considered worthwhile.

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. Continue reading

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

Denial, Avoidance & System Failure

Those of us who have toiled much of our adult lives in the world of alternative and sustainable agriculture sometimes feel like we’ve been dressed up for years to attend a party that has never arrived.  We get closer and closer, it seems, though the main event just doesn’t materialize. But even without the culminating experience we hope for and expect – a complete revolution in farming and food systems – we also know that its achievement is no less critical.

Problem is, there is no amount of empirical evidence or scientific analysis that can make a true revolution happen. Such input just piles up, as though behind some kind of socio-political dam until desperate situations can unleash the change that will flow down like rushing waters. The science itself can sometimes become part of that obstruction, preventing necessary change more than pushing it ahead as we’d like to believe.

I’ve said it before and it bears repeating – there has never been a time in human history when we’ve known so much about what must happen, yet remain so incapable of taking constructive steps toward a better future.  We see the tragic loss of topsoil and biodiversity around the globe, the rise of super-pests of all kinds, driven by technology unfettered with ethics, and the increasingly failed economic systems that enrich the barons of Big Food while leaving farmers quite literally “in the dust.” We see the rise of chronic illness corresponding to the nutritional diminishment of our food, and rural communities choosing to install prisons and landfills as “hopeful” strategies to achieve economic development. We see the condition of the natural environment changing right before our eyes, as we continue to invent increasingly efficient methods for extracting fossil fuels and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.  However, we can’t seem to muster the necessary determination to do anything broadly effective about any of this. Continue reading

Letter to USDA on Coexistence

The Honorable Thomas Vilsack, Secretary
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
1400 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20250

March 4, 2014

Re: Docket No. APHIS-2013-0047

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) is one of our nation’s largest member-based, sustainable farming organizations, with about 6,000 mostly farmer members located primarily throughout Pennsylvania and across the Mid-Atlantic region. Our mission is to promote profitable farms that produce healthy food for all people while respecting the natural environment. In keeping with this mission, we wish to express our grave concerns regarding the issue of “Enhancing Coexistence” as framed by the Report of the AC21 Committee in 2012. Continue reading