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.
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
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
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
Every year I try to use my chance to speak at our annual conference to raise some of the most important issues facing us in the sustainable farming community. And with each succeeding year the urgency of these issues seems to increase. This is partly because some of the negative situations we face are actually getting worse, and partly because the positive solutions our movement offers are increasingly met with resistance and denial by those who represent the status quo.
Let’s back up just a bit and review some of the challenges we have encountered over the past year. First and foremost, 2013 will always in my mind be the year of proposed rules coming from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) aimed at implementing the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). What a long slog it was! At conference time last year we were still reviewing about 1,200 pages of material – with hundreds more to come – and were just starting to think about some of the implications involved should the proposed rules go into effect.
At the beginning, we were very much outnumbered and outspent in terms of being able to influence the final outcome, but what we had going for us was beyond the ability of any other group to purchase with mere dollars. We had a devoted coalition of dozens of groups from across the country working feverishly together, with meetings every week throughout most of the year, and many of us in smaller groups attending FDA listening sessions held across the country. We also found some new partnerships that we hadn’t really expected, including with faculty and students at the Law Schools of Harvard, Georgetown and Emory Universities, the leadership of the United Fresh Produce Association – a powerful group that had fought us hard in the legislative phase of FSMA, and even the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA). At one point NASDA even shared a post I had written on my Write to Farm blog with the Departments of Agriculture in all fifty states. Continue reading
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