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.

 

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

Time for the Whole Enchilada

Subtitle: Bigger Food System Change on the Horizon

The recent failure of the Farm Bill to pass the U.S. House of Representatives has been widely touted as another indication of how nothing useful can get done by Congress these days, and that interpretation has plenty of merit.  But this unexpected collapse in the process may also signal just how far away from the needs of ordinary farmers the “Farm” Bill had drifted.  Much has been said about the divisiveness of SNAP (i.e. food stamp) benefits in the bill, but the real potential losses to rank-and-file food producers came in the guise of one successful amendment to please the dairy industry (contrary to most dairy farmers), and another failed one that would have put limits on crop insurance subsidies for larger farms. Combined, these factors left the legislation without much of a cheering section, which proved fatal in the end.

In any case, the Farm Bill as we know it is critically flawed.  Some simple math will make the point.  It starts with the basic fact that about 80% of this government largesse goes for food stamps (no matter how worthwhile), and only 20% to agriculture of any kind. Then take into account that the share afforded to agriculture is similarly weighted, in a disproportionate way, toward what I will call the “industrial end of the spectrum” and away from family-scale farming. But even the latter portion is slanted toward supporting the troubled status quo, or conventional methods of farming.  What we are left with is perhaps one or two percent of the entire Farm Bill being applied to what we can clearly recognize as programs focused on sustainability and local food systems.  There are many laudable attempts being made to redress this basic structure, as with programs to expand use of SNAP benefits at farmers markets, but the fact remains that the overarching structure of Farm Bill funding acts like a prison within which the promise of more progressive food and farm policy is constrained. Continue reading

Safety Rules Cloud Beginning Farmers’ Futures

Blogger’s Note: I haven’t posted anything for a few weeks, being tied up with new initiatives at PASA and family events at home.  But I wanted to share this guest posting, written by my good friend and colleague Roland McReynolds, who is executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.  Roland has been active with we me and several others on food safety issues ever since the Food Safety Modernization Act began to take shape in Congress during the summer of 2009. He is a strong advocate for farmers and small, food-related businesses, as this piece, written for the CFSA newsletter, will demonstrate.  For more information about FSMA, please consult other posts in this blog and  the NSAC tab above.  ~Brian S. 

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At its core, the movement for local, organic food and farming is about aspiring to make lives better: Prosperous for farmers and farmworkers, healthy for all humankind, happy for the animals we depend on, and sustainable for the earth’s ecosystem.  And the influx of beginning farmers pursuing agriculture as a career over the last several years has been one of the signal achievements of our movement.  After forty years of slow and steady work to re-envision how we produce and consume food, young people, veterans and second-career-seekers are able to see the potential for making a rewarding, meaningful living in farming.

After a century that has industrialized the landscape and our diets, this hopeful trend of new farmers is a manifestation of the transformative power of local, organic agriculture, bringing people back to land with a mission to care for it and preserve it for future generations.  And it is a trend that would be choked off by pending federal food safety rules, suffocating our chances for a better, healthier world along with it. Continue reading

Twilight of the Great Regression

Subtitle: Where the Farm Bill and FSMA Deem Not to Go

When I was a child, nothing captured my imagination more than our country’s space program, and specifically the race to land astronauts on the moon.  I read every single article I could find on the subject, and did several school reports and science fair projects on the Apollo mission.  I was obsessed, and still remember that hot, late July night in 1969 when we all stayed up late to watch the Apollo 11 astronauts walk on the moon for the first time.

It was a heady time.  Really big challenges didn’t seem so big back then; they were thought to be achievable.  In addition to the space program, advancements were also made – though not without significant effort and some setbacks – on racial equality, women’s rights, clean water and air, preservation of endangered species, and even in terms of improving relations with a country as fearful and closed to Western influence as China.

Perhaps of utmost importance, all of the progress of the sixties and seventies came against a backdrop of extreme tension in the country, and some very major failings.  This list is just as easy to construct, to include the Vietnam War, assassinations of some of our most beloved leaders, routine violence in the streets, a rash of airline hijackings (to Cuba, remember?), the Watergate scandal and even, in that same fateful summer as the moon landing, the collapse of the 1969 Cubs (What can I say?  I grew up just outside Chicago!). Continue reading

Agriculture at the Crossroads

With food safety work on a bit of a hiatus right now – the 120-day extension for public comment on FSMA rules confirmed – I have a chance to think and write about the situation we are facing within agriculture more broadly.  A recent trip to Washington DC also pushed me in this particularly pensive direction.

While in Washington, I attended a special Rural Summit sponsored in the U.S. Senate, and now have a much better understanding of why almost nothing can get done in Congress these days.  With agricultural leaders assembled from across the country, it quickly became clear that no one was really going to engage in meaningful discussion at all.  The event was pretty much staged for certain Senators to give the speeches they had prepared in advance, but I was surprised to note that many of the questions from the audience were predetermined speeches as well.  With everyone talking at each other so urgently, it was difficult to see who might be listening well enough to make a real difference in national agricultural policy.

Much of the energy in Congress right now, at least with respect to agriculture, is all about getting the 2012 Farm Bill completed no more than a year late.  The lines are drawn pretty much as they were last year, and no one is even sure the House leadership will allow the bill to be raised on the floor for debate and a vote. Despite all the energy and theatrics, however, there’s a palpable sense, at least to outsiders like me, that the Farm Bill as we know it is either on its last victory lap or perhaps already defunct. Continue reading