Presentation to the Assateague Coastal Trust
March 9, 2005
I have been asked to speak to you this evening about sustainable agriculture, but first I would like to tell you a story.
The seed I am holding is from a Fish pepper plant.
The origins of the Fish pepper are obscure, but it is believed its ancestors were brought to this country from West Africa during the slave trade by way of the Caribbean Islands. It is known that the Fish pepper was an African-American heirloom that began as a mutation of a common Serrano pepper. The plant is very attractive, with green and white mottled foliage and slightly curved fruit that turn from white with green stripes to orange with brown stripes as it matures.
Fish peppers were raised almost exclusively in the black community and used in oyster and crab dishes, and especially when cooking terrapin. By the early 1900’s, fruits from this hot pepper had found their way into the markets of Baltimore and Philadelphia, where they were discovered by chefs and used as a secret ingredient to spike seafood dishes. It has since become popular with home and market gardeners.
The seed was first made available by Seed Savers Exchange, a network of seed growers dedicated to preserving the heritage of our seed supply. It is now available commercially through small seed companies thanks to the efforts of seed savers, one of whom lives in Delmar, Delaware.
We can scratch an opening in the soil, place a seed there and it will sequester carbon, fix nitrogen, retain moisture, purify air, prevent soil erosion, provide nourishment for thousands of species of soil dwelling organisms, feed animals and people, make compost and self replicate. That is a highly intelligent life form, perhaps more intelligent than humans. Michael Pollen, in his book “The Botany of Desire” contends that humans are arrogant to think that we have cultivated plants for our use, because, in fact, plants have actually cultivated humans to do their bidding. As I watch plants unfold their mysteries through a growing season, I find it difficult to disagree with his contention.
I stand in awe of the power of a seed.
Seeds contain the wisdom of hundreds of generations of gardeners and farmers, and that wisdom belongs to you. It should not belong to a multi-national corporation whose myopic vision aims to manipulate this wisdom, these capabilities, purely for profit. That is a form of prostitution which can only hurt society.
You may be asking yourselves, “What does this story have to do with sustainable agriculture”?
It has everything to do with it.
This fish pepper seed is absolutely local, historically connected to this area and preserved by someone just up the road from here. It is not a generic vegetable seen on every supermarket shelf and it did not travel hundreds of miles to my field and from there to local dinner plates.
The path to a sustainable food system passes through the people it feeds, and it must be built on the local level. For this reason, a sustainable agricultural system cannot be considered separately from a sustainable society.
It makes absolutely no sense to truck food for humans or any other creature from thousands of miles away. The average meal in the U.S. travels 1500 miles from farmgate to plate, through a myriad of processors, packagers, handlers, truckers, warehouses and chain stores. By the time it reaches the consumer up to 75% of the nutritional value is gone.
In 1984 Americans were spending 8% of their disposable income on healthcare and 15% on food, today those numbers are reversed because we are eating food that has been stripped of most of its sustenance. Furthermore, the farmer who grows the food that should be sustaining you is not sustaining himself - typically he or she receives 10% of the food dollar; while at the turn of the century that farmer could count on 50%. For any farming system to be sustainable, the first thing that must be sustained is the farmer.
In his essay titled “The Pleasures of Eating”, Wendell Berry says that eating is an agricultural act. If we extrapolate that statement to its logical conclusion we arrive at the understanding that we are all farmers, either by occupation or by proxy. According to the 2000 census, farmers, those who actually do work the land, account for less than 2% of the population, … for policy makers that makes us statistically irrelevant. Think about that fact for a moment, more than a moment…
the people that feed you are statistically irrelevant.
If you do not grow your own food, then you have given that responsibility to someone or something else. But you still have the right and more importantly, the responsibility to decide how your food is grown and where it comes from. Most of us have forgotten this right and abdicated this responsibility, leaving these decisions to be juggled with profit motives in corporate boardrooms under the precarious supervision of the USDA, the FDA, the EPA and the various political interests which manipulate them.
So the next question that arises is “Why have we given up such important rights and responsibilities”? I will offer three possible answers for your consideration.
One possible answer can be found in a study done by a group of biologists for The American Institute of Biological Sciences. They tried to understand the possible effects on humans of a disturbing global trend: the tendency of populations to concentrate in urban areas with distinctly low levels of species diversity. Why do we all live with pigeons, sparrows and Norway maples when our environment should, by nature, offer so much more?
They suggested that being surrounded by pale imitations of what nature could be diminished one's expectations of what nature should be. We are forgetting, and losing, what we have!
They offered 2 solutions: we could move nature to the people, or move the people to nature. The researchers preferred bringing nature to people because the alternative could cause serious disruption of ecosystems. I believe both solutions have merit. There are some wonderful success stories about reclaiming blighted areas of our inner cities with urban gardening projects that connect people to their food supply. We can bring some experience of the natural world into our urban centers. We can also, carefully, move people closer to the natural world.
If people can be made to understand that nature is not something external to them, but that they are an integral part of the web of life, I believe that awareness would evolve into a respect and perhaps even a reverence for our home. Earl Butz, the former Secretary of Agriculture, said “Soon the American people will be relieved of the drudgery of growing their own food.” I am convinced he was thinking with that portion of his anatomy that his name describes, because I have found quite the contrary to be true. On our farm, we have volunteers who come on harvest days to help pick and prepare the produce for delivery. I am always amazed at how much they enjoy themselves. Many of them have told me that they never realized the amount of work that goes into growing food, but they truly enjoy being a part of the process.
The second possible answer can be found in our flawed accounting practices. The American Empire was built on three false assumptions.
1. That we were blessed with an inexhaustible supply of natural resources.
2. That we could always import a necessary workforce cheaply.
3. That our transportation costs would remain low and stable.
We are now coming to terms with the reality that these assumptions are, in fact, false but we are unwilling to sacrifice the level of comfort they provide. The present biased structure of subsidies and incentives that reward bad behavior has fostered a dangerous misconception. We suffer from an illusion of unprecedented prosperity and economic growth while we live in a land of degraded farms, forests, ecosystems and watersheds; polluted air, failing families and perishing communities. We must bring the security of our planet’s ecological capital into the calculations of the marketplace.
Cheap food is not cheap;
when you pay $1.25 for chicken in the supermarket you do not pay the cost of cleaning up the rivers polluted by the poultry industry. In its 2004 Living Planet Report, the World Wildlife Fund revealed the shocking news that our ecological footprint, that is, the impact of humanity on the Earth, has increased two and a half fold since 1961. The report showed that the average footprint is 5.4 acres per person. There is a problem here - that footprint is 20% greater than the 4.4 acres of land that each person on the planet needs to provide the necessary natural resources to sustain life. The average footprint of a North American is not only double that of a European, but seven times that of the average Asian or African.
The third possible answer to this question is one that has intrigued me for years. We have, quite simply, lost our reverence for Creation. I used to blame this on Eve for making that uninformed pact with the serpent. As a result of that poor decision, we were kicked out of the Garden and told we must toil for our food. I believed that this drove a wedge between humanity and the natural world, creating an antagonistic relationship, and that we have suffered the consequences ever since. But after taking a couple of courses at SU and doing quite a bit of independent reading, I have come to the conclusion that we were not kicked out of the Garden, we are still in the Garden, but we are operating on the wrong principles. I now hold the fathers of the scientific revolution responsible. I should never have blamed a woman and I should have known that men with their “get a bigger hammer approach” to a problem were responsible.
The Scientific Revolution started a gradual transformation of society that has caused us to devalue the natural world and to destroy its resources for utilitarian ends. In his keynote address at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s conference in 1999, Wm. McDonough pointed out that the question posed in Genesis regarding dominion versus stewardship is actually moot: how can we have dominion over what we have destroyed?
In the same address, McDonough, a designer, told the audience that he sees design as the first signal of human intention. If the systems we design prove to have faults as they are applied, it is not by regulations that will only further encumber the application that we will solve the problems of that poor design, but by re-design. Certainly we did not intend to design a system of agriculture that pollutes our water, air and soil, enslaves farmers, compromises our health and ultimately tyrannizes future generations. These are the unintended consequences of our poor design. I see no purpose in bashing the industrial agriculture model other than to inform us about the perils we face if we continue on this course. I prefer to heed the advice of Buckminster Fuller when he said, “You never change anything by fighting the existing. To change something, build a new model and make the existing obsolete”.
It is to that end that I, along with a dedicated group of hard working folks, have been working for the past 5 years. We are working toward a regionally based, safe, just and sustainable food system in the Community Supported Agriculture farming model, known as CSA farms.
The CSA model emphasizes mutual, shared responsibility: a committed group of consumers accepts the financial responsibility for the farm and the farmer returns his commitment by growing the highest quality of food he is able to produce for them. The essence of the relationship is mutual commitment: the farmer is motivated by the needs of the shareholders and the shareholders are motivated by the needs of the farmer. The roots of the CSA movement can be traced to what are called Teikei farms in Japan. Teikei translates to “food with the farmer's face on it”.
After the second world war, when chemical inputs were introduced to increase the yields on Japanese farms and the population became increasingly urbanized, both farmers and their customers were concerned about the degradation of the land and the poor quality and availability of food. Cooperative arrangements were established to deliver food to the urban population. The concept spread through Europe where farmers sought market stabilization and consumers sought fresh, nutritious food.
In 1983, Robyn van En, a Massachusetts farmer was approached by a local food co-op seeking someone to grow winter storage crops. This arrangement was successful and with a group of dedicated people, Indian Line Farm became the first consumer-driven CSA farm in this country. She began writing the book “Sharing the Harvest” but died of asthma before its completion. Elizabeth Henderson completed the book, which has become an important source of guidance for start-up CSA’s. The term Community Supported Agriculture was chosen by Robyn because it can be transposed into Agriculture Supported Communities, which defined her dream.
CSA’s spread throughout the northeast, mostly in university communities, but also among group homes for the handicapped that recognized the therapeutic value of gardening. Emergency food banks have also discovered the benefits of growing their own food.
At The Food Bank Farm in western Massachusetts, 50% of the food is distributed to the local food bank and 50% is distributed to the shareholders. The entire cost of operating the farm is borne by the shareholders. Because food distribution costs are minimized by eliminating middlemen, the shareholders receive more for their food dollar than if the same produce were purchased at the local supermarket.
Most CSA’s require a work commitment, either on or off the farm. Tasks such as bookkeeping, budgeting, recruiting new members, publishing a weekly newsletter and coordinating farm events such as potluck dinners and activities for children are available to the members not interested in getting their hands dirty. For those who like to play in the dirt we have transplanting parties, mulching extravaganzas, lessons on how to drive tomato stakes and tie tomatoes and the twice weekly picking parties. I am particularly blessed with a member who loves hand-weeding. All of this relieves the farmer of these chores so he or she can focus on growing the crops and practicing good stewardship of the land. Member involvement enables the CSA to fit itself to the community it serves. The success rate of CSA’s is directly proportional to the level of member involvement.
I first learned about CSA farms at a conference in Virginia in 1985 where Trauger Groh, a German farmer who had started a CSA in New Hampshire, spoke on the topic. After listening to Mr. Groh, I believed the CSA model had the potential to save struggling family farms from almost certain extinction. At that time I was in the greenhouse business providing transplants to local vegetable farmers and seeking to expand my market. I attempted to identify CSA farms and offer my service. Within a few years, I was custom-growing transplants for about 25 CSA’s. I watched them grow and prosper and decided to sell my greenhouse business and start a CSA here. In 2001 I sold Silver Seed Greenhouses to a local couple and started Provident Organic Farm based on the CSA model in 2002.
If you recall, 2002 was one of the worst drought years on record and our harvest was just as poor as the rainfall. Typical retention rate for a first year CSA is 35%, miraculously, we retained 65% of the members for the second year and we went into 2003 with 100 members. You may recall that 2003 was one of the wettest years on record and our harvest reflected that. Once again, the members honored their commitment and we went into 2004 with high hopes.
Last year was the great year we were hoping for. By the 25th week of our 30 week season the membership had received dollar value for their share cost. The shares they received for the balance of the season were essentially free.
In the three years we have been in existence, we have trained a young man in organic vegetable farming who is now working in Detroit on a community food project that enables poor families to grow their own food.
We have established an alliance with Go-Getters in Salisbury to help with distributing the shares.
We started the Lower Eastern Shore Sustainable Organic Network, known as LESSON, a non-profit organization with the mission of identifying local farmers interested in making the transition to sustainable practices and helping them to do so by providing technical and marketing assistance.
We created the Medora Harvest Fund to honor the memory of a young woman who, prior to her tragic death at the age of 23, had dedicated herself to organic farming. This fund accepts tax-deductible donations to distribute food shares to families in need of assistance.
This year we are cooperating with an international organization that brings interns to this country to study sustainable agriculture so they can return to their homes with an expanded knowledge base to share with other farmers.
We also have a documentary film crew interested in helping us create a video about the farm that, I hope, can be used in classrooms.
This is just the beginning. I see food as a powerful unifying force in society, it has been so throughout our history. I look forward to the future when we can assist in establishing micro enterprises that grow high value crops, perhaps this can be done by a group of young women struggling to raise their fatherless children and in need of skills to set them free. I would like to establish handicapped accessible gardens around a children’s garden to reconnect the elders with our young people. I would like to restock the soda and junk food machines in our schools with organic fruit juices and nutritious snacks.
Only if you think it is, if you can imagine it, you can do it.
Food is the vehicle, community is the destination.
I look forward to the day when farmers claim their rightful place in society as the first line of defense in our health care system and are properly compensated for their work.
In closing, I will tell you another story. A few years ago I went to Salina, Kansas for the Prairie Festival at the Land Institute. After two days of inspiring talks given by Wendell Berry, David Korten, Winona LaDuke and others, the crowd gathered on Sunday morning for the closing address from Wes Jackson. His talk titled “Life on the Farm, 100 Years Hence”, described his hopeful vision for agriculture in the 22nd century:
When perennial polycultures have replaced annual monocultures and, as a result the soils are weatherproof.
When the farm grows its own fuel.
When farmers are no longer like gamblers betting against the house.
When we are no longer trying to subdue nature, but realize that nature provides the model for us to follow.