Thursday, December 3, 2009

How are we going to feed ourselves?

Farming is hard work. Seriously, I'm exhausted. I spent Monday and Tuesday working at Lost Creek Farm, an organic produce operation in central Oregon. (Technically, it was within the Eugene city limits, but it seemed awfully rural -- and hilly -- when Ollie and I biked the 12 miles back to town from the farm.) As we labored -- harvesting, washing veggies, packing boxes, constructing a hoop house (a temporary greenhouse), pouring concrete for a permanent greenhouse foundation -- I had an opportunity to rant...I mean talk...with David and his team about the challenges of organic food production.

Lost Creek is one of the larger CSAs that I've been to, and yet it is run by a skeleton crew of David and two helpers (two fellow AmeriCorps alums, actually, so we had much in common and much to rant...I mean talk...about). The diversified farm has over 60 varieties of fruits and vegetables that it offers CSA members, small grocers, and local restaurants, and I learned from David that the region is considered by many to be one of the most productive in the country in terms of food. And yet, considering the consumption habits of the vast majority of Americans, there is a good deal of concern about whether this kind of farming (aka organic) on this kind of scale (still much smaller than pretty much any conventional farm) can actually feed our country. "It's not likely," David grumbled. The problem, aside from the skewed government crop subsidy system (don't get me started again), and a general pattern of undervaluing both food and farmers in this country (again, I'm restraining myself), David pointed out that the biggest problem is that there are simply not enough people *growing* the food in comparison to those (over)consuming it. We need to eat differently and eat less (especially less resource-draining meat). And where possible, we can do a better job of providing for ourselves. Yes, gardening.

I recall learning during my time at the Strawbery Banke Museum -- on my way through Portsmouth in July -- that during WWII something like 40% of all produce consumed in the country was grown in Victory Gardens. Yes, in people's front yards, school gardens, formerly empty lots. Forty percent! And now? Hardly anyone knows what brussels sprouts look like on the plant, or when strawberries are actually in season, nevermind how to save tomato seeds or when to start lettuce outdoors. "Food" comes prepackaged in gargantuan portion sizes from Costco and Walmart, ready to be "cooked" in the microwave. And then there's fast "food." Ugh. As a society, we've managed to sever just about every substantial connection to our food: how to grow it, cook it, enjoy it. But there's hope.

As a former classroom teacher, of course I believe that the paradigm shift that needs to happen for our food system to recover comes down to education. Understanding the difference between good food and crappy pseudo-food (what Michael Pollan terms "foodlike substances") is key. Some knowledge of what goes into producing food will go a long way toward understanding why good food costs more. For as hard as it is to grow and harvest organic carrots, they should be $10 a bag -- those suckers use up a lot of water and they are heavy to haul around the field in bushel crates! They should cost more, but not so much more in dollars than their chemically-dependent conventional sister carrots: there wouldn't be such an atrocious price difference between conventional/processed foods and organics if the *true* costs of food were taken into account -- in terms of labor requirements, environmental and personal health impact, and in the case of CAFO meat production excessive animal suffering. It would help if the government subsidies that I am trying not to harp on in this post were more conscientiously distributed. (Oops, I slipped.)

Still another part of the worldview shift will necessitate respecting the challenging nature of thoughtful, low-impact farming, not viewing food production as a mindless job that merely requires enough brute force, petroleum guzzling machinery, and a bunch of chemicals. (Some serious physical strength is needed, though. Whew!) I'll tell you, farmers, like teachers, work their tails off. To be truly great at either takes a special combination of talent and a lot of hard work. And while we all realize on some level that we need food (and critical thinking skills) to survive, we don't really value the people who feed us (or those who teach us). If we did, more people would *want* to be farmers (and teachers). And the work would pay better. These would actually be considered professions rather than just jobs that anyone can do. These days I feel like there is a perception that the work in either field is something left to those not smart or ambitious enough to do something better. It's no wonder most people want their kids to grow up and be doctors, lawyers, engineers, politicians. (There are some pretty idiotic politicians who have held office in recent years. If I have a kid one day, I hope my child grows up to be an organic farmer, or at least an avid gardener.)

How, then, can we begin to change the system? Seek out your local, organic farmers and buy directly from them as much as possible. Failing that, seek out small co-ops and markets who source from these farmers. While you support the important petitions of advocacy groups like Food Democracy Now to effect change at the policy level, don't forget to think about where you are personally spending your food dollars: you choose three times a day the food systems you support. (Unless you're biking across the country, in which case you choose about five times a day. What? I get hungry.) As Pollan would say, "We vote with our forks." Actually, while I'm at it, I'd advocate Pollan's most recent line: "Don't buy anything you see advertised on TV." Share the cooking and eating of good food with those you love. And for heaven's sake, get cracking on your victory garden.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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