Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A drop in the bucket

My, my, it's been a whirlwind of a week so far. I've been so focused on catching up with friends and family here in the District that I seem to be a bit behind on blogging about the amazing sustainable food work I encountered along the final on-the-road leg of my research. (Yes, I'm riding Ollie around DC these days, maybe a mere 10 miles some days, but the bikeable feasting continues.) For those who've been patiently waiting for the skinny on Appalachia, specifically southwestern Virginia, here's the first of two posts....

Abingdon, VA provided the setting for Barbara Kingsolver's insightful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The book has drawn attention to local food generally, and the food scene in Abingdon/Meadowview specifically, in recent years. But before Kingsolver's book -- which, if you haven't read it, I highly recommend doing so, though if you borrow someone's copy I'd try not to take notes in pen in the margins (sorry Jeanne!) -- there was another champion for local food and local economies around these parts. A man so capable and knowledgeable and determined to fix things as to be something of a force of nature in the region. And though it took a number of attempts at contacting him before I at last managed to chase him down, my conversations with Anthony -- at the farmers' market, at a 4th of July barbecue, and finally at his organic farm -- made trip #3 over the Appalachian Mountains totally worth it. (Thank *you*, Mike, for the lift to Charlottesville, sparing me a 4th trip over those persnickety mountains.)

Now, farming is hard work. Organic farming is harder still. Running an organic farm, writing regular columns for three local newspapers, starting a sustainable business development organization, and raising a family at the same time is, well, you'd have to be Anthony Flaccavento to pull it off. (Good lord, does this man ever sleep?) He's amazing, this mover and shaker. And yet, when pressed, the hardworking, outspoken, and yet entirely personable farmer insisted that in light of the entrenched agribusiness model that our country subscribes to he feels the advances and successes that he has been a part of constitute little more than a drop in the bucket when it comes to overhauling the food system. I respectfully beg to differ.

It was from Anthony that I learned about Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) -- the nonprofit that he helped to start back in the late 90s to empower marginalized rural populations and foster stronger local economies. Have you ever heard of a truly ecologically sound logging company? How about a program to help tobacco farmers convert to raising organic produce or free-range chickens? (How does one convince farmers that this is a reasonable, profitable switch to begin with?) Or a means of pooling the crops from a number of small farmers to collectively sell to supermarkets in the region for a fair price? ASD has proven that these models can work. (I'm hoping that the pilot programs proposed in our country's healthcare reform legislation have similar success. We need proof-of-concept models. What's that? You're right, I guess I haven't gotten on my healthcare reform soapbox in some time. Um. Right. Back to the related matter of healthy people and economies....) Anthony's concern seems to be that the victories on the road toward healthier communities are too small, that the progress being made in little pockets here and there around the country -- and there are lots of pockets I've discovered, and likely hundreds more I'm not even aware of -- is too slow. As things stand, small organic producers simply cannot compete with the dominant economic system that favors large-scale farms and a cheaper-is-better mentality. People are quietly starting to favor more sustainable practices in individual communities, but things must also change at the policy and subsidy levels as well or we're looking at band-aids rather than long-term solutions. Well, at least that's my take away message from our conversation.

I could listen to Anthony all day. (He couldn't talk to me all day, though, since he was busy, you know, farming -- even the photo I snapped here was an action shot!) In many ways I felt like I was listening to Michael Pollan's farming twin brother. Anthony's a bit shorter and has markedly Italian features, but the points he made echo those of Pollan (and Kingsolver). Actually, he's been saying these things for much longer, walking the walk while talking the talk. As a successful working farmer and a small business developer, he's got added street cred that gains him respect from small farmers and policymakers alike. Though he relinquished the reins of ASD a little less than a year ago, Anthony still educates and advocates for more sustainable food and economic systems, and through his consulting business has begun to reach out beyond his immediate region. He's gone on to work with farmers and market developers around the country while continuing to work his plot of land in Abingdon. He may think his work a mere drop in the bucket, but I think this farmer's making the right kind of waves.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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