Supporting Farmers, Eating Local Food

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A garden in Philadelphia puts formerly unused space to work growing food.
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Will Allen (right) shows off rich vermicompost to students at Growing Power in Milwaukee. Allen modeled his system after nature, and the only input from outside the garden is kitchen waste.
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Rooftop gardens make good use of empty space.
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Why grow grass in your front yard when you can grow food for yourself and your neighbors?
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Growing food and flowers in waste space is an old custom we should revive.
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A rooftop garden at South Bank Centre in London puts dead space to work.
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Growing Power chickens scratch up compost, helping it decompose.
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Joel Salatin is a third-generation family farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
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From farmer Joel Salatin’s point of view, life in the 21st century just ain’t normal. In “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” he discusses how far removed we are from the simple, sustainable joy that comes from living close to the land and the people we love. 

Joel Salatin’s newest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal(Center Street, 2011) describes, with Joel’s distinctive voice, how far removed we are from the simple, sustainable joy that comes from living close to the land and the people we love in the 21st centuryExplore how local food and seasonal eating, when done right, are ways to return our food system to normalcy. The following excerpt was adapted from Folks, This Ain’t Normal.

The average morsel of food sees more of the world than the farmer who grows it, traveling an average of 1,500 miles from field to fork. It takes 15 calories of energy to put 1 calorie on the table, and 4 of those are expended in transportation.

Folks, this ain’t normal.

When you go to the supermarket, the majority of what’s for sale came from some other state. Imagine walking down the aisles, then ask yourself, “What could be produced within 100 miles of here?”

In most areas, the list is lengthy: Apples, barley, beef, beets, cabbage, carrots, cherries, chicken, corn, cucumbers, dairy products, grapes, honey, oats, pork, potatoes, tomatoes, wheat, coffee.

OK, I was just seeing whether you were on your toes with that last one. But, most of what we eat can indeed be grown nearby. Often it can’t be grown year-round, however, and therein lies the conundrum. You can’t have a viable local food system without a seasonal eating commitment, which includes preserving seasonal production for nonseasonal consumption.

One solution is season extension. With greenhouses, high tunnels and more seasonal, localized eating, we can feed ourselves if we just do the following:

Reduce the Waste. Half of all food for human consumption never gets eaten. Look at what goes out the back door of a restaurant, a supermarket, any food-processing facility or even your own kitchen.

Grow Food on Unused Land. Lawns, campuses, parks, medians — we should grow our food everywhere. Land is moving out of production at an extremely rapid rate, both as a result of aging farmers and of non-farmers purchasing land.

Train New Farmers. With aging farmers retiring, we need to teach and mentor new farmers who can succeed them. The average age of a U.S. farmer is now approaching 60, but business analysts consider 35 years of age to be the median age of the practitioners in any vibrant economic sector. Unless and until the people who want to preserve farmland can sit around a table and figure out how to preserve farmers, we’re not solving the need of the hour: land stewardship.

The following stories prove we can return our food system to normalcy.

Urban Farming Done Right

In St. Louis recently, I had a wonderful time touring inner-city farms. The highlight: a one-twelfth-acre farm built on a lot formerly occupied by a condominium and presided over by several 20-somethings dedicated to biomass recycling and local food. These young people had transformed the spot into a productive farm. With chickens recycling kitchen waste, vermicomposting, and intensively worked raised garden beds, this tiny farm was producing all of the produce needed to feed 20 people year-round.

Kitchen scraps went into the chicken yard. The chickens ate just about everything — scratching, eating and pooping. This residue buildup then went to the earthworms, housed in bins. The worms sterilized the manure and scrap residue. The earthworm castings, or “vermicompost,” ratcheted up fertility a few more notches. The whole system ran in a self-contained cycle, except for the injection of kitchen scraps.

A simple makeshift kitchen under a hoop house provided a hangout for neighborhood youth, who were jazzed about food production and preparation. Rather than build an expensive, conventional building to house the kitchen, they erected hoops and covered them with plastic. The whole structure cost little, was erected in a day, and does not qualify as a building. Because it isn’t a building, it doesn’t need a permit, footers, inspections or any of the other associated bureaucratic wrangling. The light footprint design is ingenious. Located in an impoverished neighborhood, the little farm showcases every kind of biologically enhancing technique, from tier gardening to fertility management. At the time of my visit, the neighborhood was bringing too many kitchen scraps for the allowable half dozen chickens to recycle. The visionary young farmers were negotiating with the city council for freedom to expand their small flock in order to convert more community kitchen scraps into high-quality compost.

I asked, “How much of the produce eaten in St. Louis could be produced like this in the city limits?” Their response was quick and firm: Every single pound of produce could be grown within the city. Indeed, the same could be said for many cities, particularly the ones that are undergoing rapid depopulation as a result of manufacturing job losses, such as Detroit. Baltimore, for example, has 40,000 acres of vacant urban land.

Local Food: Making It Work

These young visionaries were mentored by urban farm guru Will Allen, who founded Growing Power in Milwaukee in 1993. Allen’s inner-city farms are off-the-scale more productive than any industrial, single-species farm. His model proves the viability of urban farming as a real answer to urban food deserts. His model simulates natural ecosystems, recreating in an extremely intensive way what nature does.

The foundation is food waste. He builds compost piles with food waste, eventually running everything through worms. The vermicompost provides the substrate in pots growing a variety of produce all watered from fish tanks. The nutrient-dense fish tank water is purified just like a natural stream — by flowing through a labyrinth of hydrologic (water-purifying) plants.

Combining plants and animals gets the best of all worlds. That’s the way nature does it. Surrounding cities and towns, millions of acres of wasteland beg for productive exercise. These acres can be pressed into service to grow food. We have the land and the know-how.

When the culture wants it to happen, these lands will be stewarded by ecological farmers. No inherent barrier exists to keep this from happening. The only reason it is not happening yet is because most North Americans still think it’s normal and fine for the average bite of food to travel 1,500 miles from field to fork. The day when that becomes too energy-expensive or ecologically repugnant, these lands will once again produce food.

Wasteful Planting

America has 35 million acres of lawn and 36 million acres devoted to housing and feeding recreational horses — and neither of those numbers accounts for golf courses.

I once spoke at a conference where sprinklers were running all over the place. Hedges, lawns, trees. I don’t have anything against flowers and beauty, but I think vegetables, grapes and apple trees are pretty, too. Apparently, all institutional landscapers have signed some sort of code that views edible landscaping as a scourge upon the Earth. Why?

According to an article in the March 12, 2010, Washington Post, Donna Marchick, a program administrator at the Maryland Department of Facilities Management, wrote to teachers at Maryvale Elementary School in Rockville, “As you know, food-bearing plants attract pests. Maryland law restricts the use of pesticides on school grounds. Therefore, planting of food-bearing plants is prohibited by MCPS [Montgomery County Public Schools].” According to Washington Post correspondent Jane Black, the prohibition did not include butterfly gardens or rain gardens. Can you imagine the prejudice toward food and gardens with which these young people will enter life?

Kitchen Chickens

If every kitchen in America had chickens attached to it to eat all of the scraps, no egg industry would be necessary. Imagine shutting down the entire egg industry.

Anybody can keep a couple of chickens. They are certainly no dirtier than parakeets, much less noisy, and far more productive and useful. Institutional dining service directors receive awards from environmental groups for instituting composting programs that cart food service waste 10 miles away to some composting site. How about putting a small chicken house adjacent to the kitchen so the garbage doesn’t have to be trucked anywhere? Just feed it to the chickens and then bring their eggs inside. Now we’ve got multiple benefits with one simple action.

If you really go to the heart of the problem, all sorts of ancillary benefits accrue. If you tiptoe around the edges with distant compost piles and nonintegrated solutions, you create another problem — such as how to transport the waste and pay for the fuel to transport it. Let’s grab the low-hanging fruit, the obvious stuff. The rest will work itself out.

Use Every Square Foot

When I was in Turin, Italy, at Slow Food’s biennial conference, Terra Madre, I was impressed by the small lawns and highway gardens. Spaces around houses in the city were filled with vegetables, not turf. At the intersections of the expressways, the land between exit and entrance ramps wasn’t mowed. These acreages were divided instead into quarter-acre plots, each with a toolshed and sleeping shack. Urbanites would come out to the garden plots on the weekend and cart the week’s produce back into town to eat and share with friends. What a great idea.

When I was in Mexico, I saw expressways mowed by family milk cows that were tethered each day to mow a new circle. Late in the afternoon, the owners would gather their cows to milk them and then bring them back for the evening. Some city parks were also mowed by cows.

“Grazing the commons” has been around for a long time. A notion that food production is “dirty” and that people need to be protected from its sights and smells has taken hold in our culture only because of atrocities in the industrial food system.

My daughter-in-law, Sheri, thinks that all interstate medians should be planted with orchards tended by inmates. The inmates go out there to spray weeds anyway?–?why not let them prune trees and pick fruit, selling it back to the community in farmers markets? They’d get out in the fresh air, earn some money and do something meaningful. 

Risk Versus Reward

Innovation always requires risk. Would the Wright brothers have flown today? No, they would have abandoned the notion of flight — their insurance company would have said their exposure was too high. Maybe we’d better stop administering tests in school — the risk of emotional trauma is too high. Where does this kind of timidity stop? A society ruled by fear is stagnant. The level of fear exhibited by our culture today just ain’t normal.

If we poked edible landscaping everywhere it could be poked, we’d grow so much food we couldn’t eat it all. With the supermarket and the abdication of personal food responsibility, the entire fabric of local food systems has been lost. From abattoirs to canneries to home gardens, the infrastructure that previously supported community-embedded butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers has given way to mega-markets and global trafficking.

The reason this kind of disconnection can occur is because cheap energy masks the costs. If the true cost of fuel, including the cost of maintaining stability in the Middle East, were added to transportation costs, food miles wouldn’t look efficient. If energy were as dear as it was before the petroleum age, refrigerated warehouses, climate control and shipping mesclun mix from California to Boston would be prohibitively expensive. Historically, energy required significantly more effort.

Today’s market-manipulative government intervention hides the true costs of supermarket food. Meanwhile, it’s prejudiced against local food viability.

People have traded historically strong, local food systems for fragile and detrimental industrial food systems. As a culture, we’ve traded our backyard gardens and neighborhood farms for Chinese imports and chemicalized, fumigated mega-fields.

We could grow all of the produce for the United States in just our lawns and horse paddocks without needing any additional farmland. Produce is extremely inefficient to ship because it contains so much water. One of the strongest arguments for local food systems is to quit shipping all that water in vegetables.

Building Communities Through Seasonal Eating

Local food systems are the backbone of any sensible food model. They have stood the test of time because they make sense if measured for energy, motion and logistics. This blip known as the “petroleum age” or the “cheap energy age” doesn’t change the rules that have made local food production the foundation of all secure villages.

No culture has ever survived if it couldn’t feed itself. The strongest communities are the ones that feed themselves. That is historical normalcy. Let’s rebuild it.

What can we do?

1. Edible Landscaping. Campuses, lawns and anywhere plants can grow — move these toward edible rather than ornamental. It takes no longer to prune an apple tree than it does an ornamental pear.

2. Use the Margins. Road rights-of-way, parks, the areas underneath power lines, public spaces and unused places — fill them in with food plants.

3. Eat Bioregionally. Save the distant stuff for extremely special occasions.

4. Build a Solarium. Add one to the south side of your house to grow plants.

5. Replace the Parakeets. Raise two chickens instead. They won’t make as much noise, and they’ll lay eggs.

Joel Salatin is a third-generation family farmer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. This excerpt was adapted from his newest book, Folks, This Ain’t Normal. Salatin and Will Allen will speak at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR June 2 and 3, 2012 in Puyallup, Wash. Salatin will also speak at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR Sept. 21 through 23, 2012 in Seven Springs, Pa.