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!


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.


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.


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

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

The Regenerative Power of Restraint

If we were lacking an adequate appreciation for the concept of power and the ways it can be used in both constructive and destructive ways, the world has certainly given us an abundance of opportunities in the past several years to remedy that situation. From the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Arab Spring, leadership transitions in North Korea and the Catholic Church, and right up to the current Ukrainian crisis, we’ve had a chance to examine and contemplate the alternative expressions of power on an international stage numerous times.

In addition, there has been much attention to the exercise of power on a smaller scale between groups of people who think differently, act differently, or are just plain different.  And the power that sometimes comes between individuals in the form of bullying or other types of abuse is something we seem to care much more about these days, at least in theory. It’s laudable that our society is doing more to address bullying in schools, though equally notable that it goes unchecked sometimes in communities, civic organizations, politics or even the U.S. Congress.

We have also experienced big power moves within the realm of farming and food systems during this time – ongoing situations that are far from conclusive at this writing. New approvals of genetically modified seed varieties coming at a quickening pace, a Farm Bill process that took years and was more contentious than ever, the Food Safety Modernization Act (‘nuff said), and a stealthy move by USDA to substitute the vague idea of “coexistence” for a blessing of the status quo, have all complicated the lives of those of us dreaming of a more sustainable future for our people and the planet.

Continue reading

Letting Nature Lead

The past year has been an extraordinary one in the world of sustainable agriculture for many reasons, some of which may not be fully understood for many years to come.  That year (November ’12 thru November ’13) included much attention across the country to labeling of genetically engineered foods, including two high-profile public referendums that went down to defeat in California and the state of Washington. For many, this effort, occurring state-by-state, has become the holy grail of the effort to promote local, sustainable and organic food and farming systems for the future.

But for me and many of my closest colleagues across the country, the past year has been about something much less glamorous, i.e. the drive to understand, explain and then fix the problems in proposed regulations associated with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This was certainly a long slog by any measure, with dozens of folks working together to generate hundreds of pages of public commentary in response to thousands of pages of material we were given to digest last January. It was an extraordinary experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat, but the sort of work that had to be done at a critical moment in our sustainable food system movement. Continue reading

The Winning Combination — conference speech

This year marked the twelfth opportunity I have had to address our annual Farming for the Future conference, and I have to say it is still one of the most challenging and solemn responsibilities I have as executive director of PASA.  Through the years I have tried to highlight some of the most important issues we face organizationally and as part of a larger, sustainable ag and food system movement that continues to spread across the country and beyond.

But I have to say that while the challenge and thrill that goes with this duty still feels much the same, there has been tremendous change over this past dozen years in terms of the audience.  The audience at the conference, in addition to doubling, has evolved from consisting primarily of current sustainable farmers wishing to learn new things and be rejuvenated for the year ahead, to a gathering heavier on the “beginning farmer” contingent.  The spread between the two has made it more difficult to plan programming that will please everyone, but this is a challenge we enjoy facing.

The external audience has changed even more.  In this regard, I am thinking not only of average consumers, but also the remaining conventional farmers out there and, most particularly, those agricultural organizations and corporate interests that often look at things differently than we do.  I was recently reminded on twitter of a famous quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi that goes: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Continue reading