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

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

The Small-Minded, Small Farm Conundrum

Small is beautiful, said E.F. Schumacher to the world in 1973, but that declaration in itself was no small idea. Many people understood the implications of his work then, as they do now . . . except, it would seem, for those who have the power to make the big changes for which Schumacher advocated. One wonders if his ideas and efforts suffered from a basic, long-term marketing and communications problem.

I wonder that about our situation today in the sustainable agriculture community as well.  Our ideas are not small in any way, but we end up time and time again arguing our case primarily on the basis of size.  It almost seems we have replaced the “get big or get out” mantra of industrial agriculture with “get small or get lost,” resulting in an ineffective, elitist brand of policy formulation that leaves us far from the broad-based respectability and progressive goals we would like to achieve. Continue reading

Organic, Sustainable, Local Must Work Together

This column is a follow-up to my last one (September/October), which you can check out on our website if you wish.  The basic message of the previous column was that the social movement in which we are all participating – sometimes called the Good Food Movement – benefits greatly from its diversity, but faces great adversity if we cannot overcome internal fragmentation.  In this column I wish to take that theme a step farther in being more specific.

There are many different attributes that can be and have been assigned to food to make it more interesting to consumers and, at the same time, more profitable for farmers to produce. We seem to be coming up with new ones all the time, some of which are based on credible criteria and others less so.  But the “big three,” if you will, are organic, sustainable and local, which have been developed over the years in approximately that same chronological order, at least in the perceptions of consumers. Continue reading

Sustainable Food Safety

A Sustainable Agriculture Perspective on Food Safety

Released: November 8, 2010 

What makes food safe?  Or, for that matter, nutritious, or enjoyable? Such questions acknowledge the many inherent risks that compromise the availability, diversity, quality, wholesomeness, cleanliness, and affordability of food, making it less safe, secure, or sustainable.

We enter this conversation as partners in the rapidly growing constituency of local and regional food systems across the United States. We are farmers and food-related business of many shapes and sizes, committed to providing the safest food possible without increasing the potential for adverse unintended consequences. We see ‘food safety’ in the context of many other risks to our shared food systems.

As citizens and as stakeholders, our commitment to food safety is informed by our concerns about:

  • The long-term loss of topsoil, species diversity, natural resources, opportunity for farms and rural communities, and choices for consumers
  • The public health consequences of industrial chemical and pharmaceutical use on and off farms
  • The long-term effects of implementing inadequately tested and controlled technology
  • The concentration of wealth, power, and control of production in the hands of fewer and fewer players in the food system
  • Private ownership and patenting of seeds and other production technologies
  • A widening gap in the connection between many citizens and the sources of their food
  • Instances in which farmers are disregarded or demonized, in particular by other farmers
  • The measurable but unpredictable impacts of the industrial model applied to agriculture Continue reading