Hope springs from growing food

Share:

It’s spring again in New England and the gardeners are out in force. Most of my neighbors know I have a big garden, raise chickens, collect honey from my backyard bee hive and harvest greens throughout the winter in an unheated greenhouse.

So I often get the question (while walking Riley our dog), Why do you want to do all that work?  My first thought often goes to the reality of our current global situation, which in my mind includes the “perfect storm” of climate change, peak oil and economic downturn.

But rather than launching into my rap about the need for more community and family-level self-sufficiency in the face of this global crisis, I generally choose to tell my neighbor about a book I just read.

“Prelude” by Kurt Cobb is a fast-paced espionage story set in a time of escalating oil and gas prices. One of my favorite scenes comes when Cassie Young, a rising star at a Washington, D.C., energy consulting firm, asks a friend, Victor Chernov, “…so what do we do now that we know the truth about peak oil?”  For Cassie, this is a moment of despair, which many of us have felt.

And Victor’s response — grow a garden!  It seems this former oil executive is learning to grow tomatoes at his Washington, D.C. townhouse.

While not destined to become a classic, the appearance of mass market books like “Prelude” suggests we are beginning to accept the fact that we are facing an oil/climate crisis — and yes, at least one of the solutions might be to grow food for myself, my family and my neighborhood.

The author, a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, proposes a simple response to the crisis we seem afraid to face. Cobb reminds us that “fear trumps hope” and finding a source of hope is a necessary first step toward developing solutions to a problem.

I believe that if we can’t imagine reasonable solutions to a crisis, then we are not going to face the problem – not matter how real and critical it may be. So yes, let’s grow more food. This might be anything from a single potted herb on a windowsill to a big family garden. For me, I like to give fresh eggs from my backyard hens to my neighbors.  One of my favorite local groups is Grow Food Amherst, which works to encourage others to grow food in my hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts.

We realize of course, that a potted herb plant, a few eggs or even bushels of tomatoes won’t solve global problems like climate change and rising oil prices, but it is a place to begin to find hope.

And with hope, anything is possible.

My neighbors often ask if I really believe the “perfect storm” was imminent.  So, I take a deep breath, give the dog another biscuit and launch into the “do it anyway” rap.  That’s the one that says that taking care of each other is a better way to live, even if there was no crisis. And if the perfect storm slams us sooner than any one of us would hope, at least we’ve begun to take some steps to be better prepared.

  • So yes, let’s learn to grow more food.

  • And let’s learn to cook real food.

  • And let’s buy from local farmers.

  • And let’s teach each other how to do all these things better by sharing our knowledge and experience.

I was interviewed by a TV news reporter recently about my involvement with Grow Food Amherst, that encourages others to grow more food. I asked her if she had ever grown a garden and when I learned that she had not, I encouraged her to start with a potted herb plant on the windowsill – and she did.

In fact she sent me a picture of herself with her first food plant which she purchased on her way home that same day!  It’s a beginning!

===========================================================

Please check out my Just Food Now Resource Page and see our Sustainable Food and Farming page. Please share this blog with anyone who might be interested in either the Bachelor of Sciences degree or our 15 credit Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts.

The U.S. needs 50 million farmers – including local gardeners

Share:

One of the readings I share with the students in the UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Bachelor of Sciences  program is Fifty Million Farmers by Richard Heinberg.  This reading is an abbreviated version of an address he presented to the E. F. Schumacher Society in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 2006.  It is a powerful declaration that in a world in which climate change, diminishing supplies of easily accessible fossil fuel, and increasing economic stress – our food supply is not guaranteed.  We need lots more farmers in lots more places!

I first heard of this outlandish idea in Sharon Astyk’s book, A Nation of Farmers.  She makes the additional claim that we not only need more farmers but our understanding of “farming” must include individual efforts to feed ourselves.  That is, even those of us who have gardens and perhaps domestic livestock to feed ourselves and our neighbors should be included in this call for more farming.

I like this idea……

I realize that some families who depend entirely on farming for their livelihood look askance at part-timers and gardeners, but my experience is that “hobbyists” are among the best customers at the local farmers market.  We need to be a bit more broadminded as we think about farming in the future.  So, while I work to support full time farmers in my region, I also encourage individuals to begin to take more responsibility for a portion of their food.   We need lots more farmers of all types! 

Think Globally and Farm Locally

I live in the northeastern U.S., in the region we think of as New England.  At times I play the “thought experiment” asking how would my region eat if the ships and planes stopped and all of the bridges on the Hudson River went away.  New England south of Canada would (almost) be an island – a big one, but still cut off from much of our current source of food.  Now I’m not proposing this as a likelihood….. but still?  Think about it.

 

My friend, Dr. Brian Donahue, a faculty member at Tufts University did a rough evaluation of what we could grow in New England if we had the political will to do so.  He suggested that we could grow:

  • Most of our vegetables on 250,000 acres
  • Most of our dry beans on 500,000 acres
  • Half of our fruit on 250,000 acres
  • All of our dairy and most of our beef and lamb on grass on 4,000,000 acres with 3,000,000 in pasture)
  • All of our pastured pork, poultry and eggs but mostly using imported grain on acreage already in large animal pasture or in woodlots
  • Some portion of our grain for specialty products and perhaps feed and vegetable oil on 1,000,000 acres

The major constraints are:

  • lack of vision and will
  • lack of training/education
  • failure to invest

Well, one of the ways to develop the political will would be for more individuals to care about the source of their food – and gardeners care!   We could grow more food in New England and some of that food could be grown in our own backyards.

Grow Food Amherst

A local initiative got off the ground this past month, in which residents of my hometown, Amherst, MA, decided to “roll up their sleeves” and get to work to help our town become more food self-sufficient (trying to “keep up with our neighbors” Grow Food Northampton).

The first project was a “gleaning and cooking together” community effort in which food that would have gone to waste was collected by volunteers and delivered to the Not Bread Alone soup kitchen and food distribution center, as well as a local church.

 

Organized by the town’s Sustainabilty Coordinator in cooperation with a new organization, Grow Food Amherst, and Transition Amherst, this work attracted about 20 volunteers who collected sweet potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower (that was too small for market).

A few days later another community event was organized as part of the national Food Day celebration of local and sustainable food for residents to learn to preserve and make soup from the food that was gleaned from local fields.

In addition to these efforts organized by volunteers, the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture and the UMass Permaculture Initiative partnered with the Amherst Public Schools to plant fruit trees at three elementary schools and are making plans for vegetable gardens in the spring.  Following the lead of Todmorden, England, permaculturists at UMass are committed to growing food in pubic spaces such as local schools.

NOTE: Anyone who wants to be added to the mailing list for Grow Food Amherst should contact John Gerber or add yourself to our mailing list at GrowFoodAmherst.

We can grow much more locally!

This is not to say that we should rely on gardening or even backyard homesteading to feed the American population but – I believe if we each took more responsibility for some portion of our own food – individually and as a community – we would also create more market demand for food grown by local farmers.  In the U.S., about one-percent of the food is sold directly from farmers to consumers.  We can do better!

==========================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts.  To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming.

 

Occupy the food system: a sermon

Share:

I thought I had exhausted just about every angle on my “occupy” message in previous posts when I was invited to give a sermon at the Unitarian-Universalist Society of Amherst, MA.  My students often accuse me of being a bit preachy, and here was an opportunity to “preach the good news about local food and farming from a church pulpit”.  I couldn’t pass it up!

So here it is (or at least an abbreviated version of the sermon)…

————————————————————————————————–

We live in a world that is profoundly unjust and fundamentally unsustainable.  Food is grown, packaged, processed and distributed in a way that plays a role in global climate change, is dependent on non-renewable energy sources, and contributes to social inequality.   For me, buying local is a means of uncoupling my household from an inherently unjust global food economy.  A recent  Huffington Post article states:  

“…the rules and institutions governing our food system — Wall Street, the U.S. Farm Bill, the World Trade Organization and the USDA — all favor the global monopolies controlling the world’s seeds, food processing, distribution and retail.” 

Industrial agriculture exploits people, undermines democracy, erodes community, and degrades the land and water to maximize profit.  We can do better.  It is unlikely either government or corporate leaders will cry out against a system that maximizes short term profit but ignores long term ecological and social degradation.  Government officials run for election every 2, 4 or 6 years and corporate leaders must show increased profit every 3 months to be successful!

Government & corporate leaders can’t think in the long term

Only average citizens can make decisions that consider the 7th generation.  We must all be leaders.   We must “start a parade.”  When we are all marching in a more sustainable direction, government and corporate leaders will jump right up front and carry our flag!

A leading international voice for food justice, la Via Campesina, represents peasants, indigenous peoples and family farmers.  They have claimed that well-managed small farms can feed the world while reducing carbon emissions using principles of agricultural ecology.  Many new small, family farmers in the U.S. are working to partner with Mother Nature rather than trying to dominate her.

Corporate agriculture is in the business of maximizing short term profit by manipulating the environment with fertilizers, pesticides, land levelers, mechanization, and irrigation.  The result of these efforts to control Mother Nature is environmental degradation and an unsustainable dependency on non-renewable resources.

Domination of Mother Nature is not “natural”

About 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia something shifted in the human psyche, as people who had formally lived in partnership with Mother Nature as hunter/gatherers, learned to intervene into the management of complex ecosystems and began to manipulate the environment –  to serve our own short-term benefit.

We called it an agricultural revolution and we moved from a partnership relationship with the Earth Mother – to a domineering relationship.  We are the only species that fails to live “naturally” – that is in accordance with Mother Nature’s “rules” (or ecological principles).  Thomas Merton wrote that an oak tree gives glory to God simply by being an oak tree.  It can’t break Mother Nature’s rules.  Humans can and do on a regular basis.

We learn Mother Nature’s rules by observing what has worked for billions of years.   There are three “rules”:

Humans can “act naturally” once again by learning to play by the rules!   And it matters little if you believe these rules were created by divine intervention or by an evolutionary process over the last 4.5 billion years.  These are the rules that work in the long-term!

Industrial agriculture produces lots of cheap food by violating these rules.  The global corporately controlled food system is not sustainable in the long run, but still presents significant short term economic competition to those small, local farms trying to do it right!  If we want to support a more sustainable agriculture, individually and collectively, we need to:

  • buy local food and grow our own,
  • create tax incentives for small farms committed to selling within their own community,
  • support changes in zoning regulations to support the “homegrown food revolution,”
  • make public investments in infrastructure to provide communal food processing, packaging, cold storage and redistribution, perhaps a local butcher, a community kitchen for processing vegetables, a maple sugar boiler, a cider press, and a flour mill, and
  • develop education programs encouraging family, neighborhood, community self-sufficiency, and local farming.

All this is possible…. if we start the parade….

We all can eat better by eating local.  And in doing so we can support personal health, community health, and environmental health.  Putting food in our bodies is the most intimate act we do on a regular basis.  Eating food can either be a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy – or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with other people, the earth – and thus with all of Creation.

Barbara Kingsolver’s wrote in her lovely little book, Small Wonder, that people will join the sustainability movement (including supporting local farms) because;

 “…our revolution will have dancing and excellent food.”

I invite you to join with others in your community to….

Amen…

==============================================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

What will you do when the lights go out (again)?

Share:

An unusually early snowstorm in the Northeastern U.S. left three million people without electricity for up to ten days at the end of October.  While some deaths were reported (mostly caused by carbon monoxide poisoning from using gas stoves, generators, and even charcoal grills indoors), for most of us it proved to be a week of inconvenience and discomfort.

The local newspapers covered the storm extensively, sharing stories about long lines at the fast food restaurants, people hanging out at coffee shops to get internet and stay warm, and many showing up at the library or other public buildings to charge their cell phones.  Letters to the editor criticized the electric companies for ill-preparedness and politicians promised to investigate the situation!  Lots of people seemed pretty angry about the disruption in electrical power (something that is relatively common in much of the world).

A story nobody covered however happened in my basement, where neighbors gathered each evening for dinner cooked on the wood stove.   As someone who teaches classes on sustainability, I figure I need to be somewhat prepared for “the end of civilization.” 

Okay, so this is bit of an overstatement (I hope), but I do think everything we consider normal (plentiful food in the stores, lights that turn on at the flick of a switch, and ready supplies of fuel – just to name a few) will come to an end someday.   Why you ask?  Well, lets consider;

  1. Peak oil – If something can run out….. it will run out.  Easily accessible fossil fuel is an energy resource of the past.  And we are not doing much to develop alternatives, are we?   Well, are we?
  2. Global climate change – I don’t know about you – but it hardly seems “normal” when my home state of Massachusetts experiences a hurricane, a tornado, tremors from an earthquake, and a major October snow storm in the same year.  Something is up…..
  3. Economic stress – I guess you read the newspapers too.

So, yes….. I think we are experiencing a “new normal” in which power outages, fuel shortages and periods in which some foods won’t be available will be more commonplace.  I don’t know when……..   but if the lights can go out…. well, they will go out.

And, yes….. I confess to have done a little work in preparation for time when the electricity might shut off for a few days.  Over the past few years, my wife and I (okay, mostly me… she thinks I’m a little nuts) have invested in:

  • A big garden
  • Solar hot water
  • A wood stove
  • An alcohol cook stove
  • A small generator
  • Oil lamps
  • Efficient hand-cranked flash lights
  • A water filter and rain barrel
  • A chain saw
  • A portable toilet
  • And chickens….. yes, we have fresh eggs when the stores are closed

I’m not a survivalist nut…. no, really.  But I think a little preparation might be good practice for the day when power outages are part of everyday living.

So, what happened when the lights went out at my house?

Well, we weren’t prepared for a snow storm in October.  One of the things you need to run a generator is gasoline.  When the lights went out, I went out to the garage, pulled out the generator and realized we didn’t have enough gasoline to get through the night.  Undaunted we went around the neighborhood and siphoned gasoline (with permission) from lawnmowers that wouldn’t be used until next summer.  We had lights!

The generator provided just enough electricity to keep the freezer (with 25 frozen chickens we had raised in our backyard last summer) humming along.  The refrigerator was next and then a few lamps to read by.  We spent a quiet evening by the wood stove sipping tea we warmed on our alcohol stove.  And we woke to a world in which tree limbs were everywhere and power lines lay on the ground.  It didn’t look good.

The first neighbor who showed up had heard the generator and asked to put a few things in our freezer.  The next neighbor wanted to take a shower (the sun was shining and the solar system was making hot water).  And then folks began stopping by  just to get warm and charge their cell phones.

For most people, the week in the dark began as a bit of an adventure and turned into a depressing and cold week….. well, everywhere except in our basement.  There we had food (salvaged from thawing freezers in the neighborhood), hot coffee and tea, and good conversation.  My wife served breakfast each morning of local (from our backyard) eggs.  A few family members and neighbors spent the night.  I got some help removing tree limbs from the yard.  We even provided internet service (I have no idea why it was working).  My wife and I enjoyed being able to help a few friends simply be a bit more comfortable.

And then the lights came back on!

So, what did we learn?

Well, perhaps a few more of us might want to be prepared for the next time the lights go out.  That’s pretty obvious. You can start with any of the items on the list above.

But what about the deeper meaning?  For me, it was about neighborliness.  I believe we have a yearning for community.  Bill McKibbon, in his book, Deep Economy, wrote “if you are a poor person in China you have plenty of friends and family around all the time.”   But this is not true for the average suburban homeowner in the western world.  For the suburbanite he wrote, “….adding a new friend is a big deal.”  We lack human connections. Frankly, I really liked having friends and neighbors stopping in, unannounced.  Nobody has stopped by since the lights came back on.  I miss them.

What else?  I noticed how difficult it was for people to ask for help.  We need to work on this.  Hyper-individualism will literally kill us if we don’t learn to depend more on each other.  My thing is food.  I grow way too many vegetables.  In the summer, I like to put the extras out in front of the house  for anyone walking by to take.   I also enjoy helping people get started raising hens (for the eggs of course).  And we give away lots of eggs.

But this is only a beginning.  Maybe we should start practicing asking for help before the lights go out again.  And how about sharing a snowblower among a few families?  Do we all need a 40 foot extension ladder?   But sharing tools is the easy part – its difficult to borrow a ladder when you don’t know your neighbor’s first name.

Last fall I joined with a group of neighbors to read  Navigating the Coming Chaos: A Handbook for Inner Transition.”   Caroline Baker suggests that to be prepared for the pain and confusion of the coming crisis, we might want to try to become better practiced at dealing with despair.  She suggests a few tools such as mindfulness meditation, story telling, and “inflicting joy” on each other.   At least we might want to get to know our neighbors a little better.  When things get really bad, it won’t be enough to be able to siphon a little gas from your neighbor’s lawnmower.

As the impact of peak oil, climate change and economic stress accelerate, we may learn that growing food, finding clean water, and providing heat will be among the easier transitions.  More difficult perhaps may be learning to communicate effectively while we are hungry and cold, to barter and trade with our neighbors, and to support each other as all the things we take for granted today slowly disappear.

Thomas Malthus wrote in 1798 “the mighty law of self-preservation expels all the softer and more exalted emotions of the soul.”  He predicted chaos in response to what he called “…the chilling breath of want.”   I suspect he is right.  If we are to survive the coming chaos, we’ll need to prepare both our homes and gardens as well as our souls for a new and much harsher world.  But perhaps in the pain and despair, we’ll rediscover what it means to be a human being again, living in community.

 So what will you do when the lights go out (again)?

==============================================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Please join the “buy local food” movement – and invite your neighbors!

Share:

It’s harvest season in Western Massachusetts and everywhere I look I see wonderful local food products for sale.  We have vibrant farmers markets, colorful farm stands and productive farms in my region of the world.   And of course, I have my own very large garden that is producing tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, blackberries, green beans, Asian pears, eggs, honey and more this time of the year.  So I am surely not objective when it comes to local food.  I think about it, talk about it, and participate in growing and buying local food whenever I can.

I’ve written in the past about the need to relocalize our food system to support democracy, to build a vibrant local economy, and to move us toward a more sustainable agriculture.  One might think I’d have nothing more to say about local food, but when I was asked recently to speak at celebration of local food in the nearby town of Granby, Massachusetts, I was moved to write yet another blog!   Here is the outline of what I said……

While it is easy to celebrate local food this time of the year, I am concerned that an increasing number of farmers are competing for customers in a market that is not expanding as fast as production.  We need more people to buy local – and we need your help to make this happen!  Most people buy their food at “big-box” stores (Walmart is the largest food retailer in the world).   We need your help to build a local food economy that will offer some balance to the industrial food system and give us a bit of insurance against collapse, soooooooooo….

…I’m asking you to join the “buy local food” movement and be sure to invite your neighbors! 

If you are going to help, you might first think about what you’d say to your neighbors, who don’t participate in the local food movement.  Here are a few of my own thoughts…..

“I care about good food….  my local community…. and my connection with the sacred.”

1.  I care about good food and we know that local food is “fresher by miles.”   The average food item on your plate has traveled from 1300 to 1500 miles to get there.  And in spite of advances in packaging, refrigeration and handling (which are very energy expensive), sweet corn loses its sweetness within hours of picking…. and there is really nothing like an egg collected “direct from the hen”  and eaten on the same day.  Really… try it!

While some food items ship and store well, such as potatoes and squash…. even with these, you should try a local potato like the yellow, orange, or purple skinned fingerling potato (halved and roasted).  And while one might think that squash is squash is squash….. it is difficult to get the thin-skinned Delicata squash (you can eat the skin) except from a local farm, as it bruises easily when shipped.  I grow my own.

I also care about safe food, and quite frankly I don’t trust the industrial food system to keep my food free of pesticides and anti-biotic resistant bacteria and other human disease organisms (like bird- an swine-flu.  You may not want to know….. but there is a food recall by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration every few days, and Congress has threatened to reduce the inspections budget.  Last summer’s salmonella tainted eggs in the American Midwest was unfortunately not a surprise.  I much prefer to look into the eye of the farmer from whom I buy my food.

———————————————————————————————–

2. I care about my local community, and I much prefer that any money I spend on food stays close to home.  When I spend my money at a Super Walmart grocery store (I don’t), that money leaves the community.  The purpose of a corporation is to  generate profits for investors….. that’s all!  Recent reports of how CEO salaries have skyrocketed makes me sick.  When I buy bread from Ben and Adrie Lester at Wheatberry Bakery, I know my money is going to people I know and trust.

A study comparing a locally owned bookstore and a national retailer found that $100 spent at the local store resulted in $45 circulating in the community through services such as banks, bookkeepers, accountants and advertising etc.  This compares with only $15 from a national chain.  When you are talking about food rather than books, the difference is even more dramatic.  The Local Multiplier Effect is an important contributor to our local and regional economy, creating jobs and building relationships close to home.

———————————————————————————————-

3. I care about my connection with the sacred, so I buy local.  Okay, so this one isn’t quite as obvious as the other two reasons.  I wrote in an earlier blog…. “Putting food in our bodies is the most intimate act we do on a regular basis.  Eating food can either be a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy – or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with other people, the earth – and thus with all of Creation.”

Rediscovering the sacred through growing or purchasing and preparing good food can be an act of healing.  Shopping in a supermarket with its artificial lighting and hurried atmosphere is not a sacred act.  We seek and receive bargains, hurry home to microwave a pre-prepared package  (or perhaps stop for ‘fast-food’ on the way) and thoughtlessly shovel too much food into our hungry bellies (maybe while watching television).

Perhaps we can experience a connection with the divine……..

  •             by collecting an egg from under a hen you have raised yourself…
  •             by pouring maple syrup on pancakes from a tree tapped by a neighbor…
  •             by knowing the baker of the bread (or better yet, baking it yourself)…
  •             by  shaking the hand of the farmer who dug the carrots you bought…
  •             by saying thank you for the gifts of creation; the fruit, the vegetables, the meat, the eggs, the bread and the wine…..

I believe there is value in rediscovering ways to connect with the sacred by growing our own food,  buying real food from people we know and trust, and sharing food with family and friends in a communion of the spirit…

So, yes…. I support the local food system whenever I can.  Are you willing to join me… and invite few of your neighbors?

==============================================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Local food: lets get serious – NOW!

Share:

Although the demand for locally grown food has increased over the past 20 years, most people still shop at the major food chains.  I suspect this is because we live busy lives and supermarkets provide a full range of products year round, are convenient with good parking, and are open every day.  Not everyone is willing to join a CSA or stop at the local farmers market.  But given the continued pressure of global climate change, peak oil, and economic stress, I think we need to get really serious about building a vibrant local food system – NOW!

We need to build a Food Commons, a national network of local and regional food production, processing and distribution options to complement and partially replace the current corporate food system, which is showing signs of being in serious trouble.  According to the authors of the Food Commons proposal, “…the antidote to the unsustainable path we are on is a 21st-century re-envisioning and re-creation of the local and regional food systems that pre-dated the current global industrial food system.”

The Food Commons Proposal

The proposed national Food Commons would consist of three intersecting components:

  • Food Commons Trusts to own farm land and food system infrastructure in perpetual trust for the benefit of all citizens.
  • Food Commons Banks to provide financial services to food system enterprises, producers and consumers.
  • Food Commons Hubs to aggregate and distribute local and regional food, create and coordinate regional markets, and provide services to communities and local food enterprises.

If you are interested in the details and proposal, see; “The Food Commons: Building a National Network of Localized Food Systems.”  The remainder of this post will give some examples showing that we are already moving in this direction.

The Food Commons Trust

I’m pleased to be a board member of the North Amherst Community Farm, which is an example of a Food Commons Trust.  NACF is a community group that was organized in 2006 to save one of the last working farms in North Amherst, Massachusetts.  Private donations, town and state funds were acquired to protect this farm from development.  It is now leased to an organic vegetable and livestock farm, Simple Gifts Farm, which provides food to the community through a successful CSA and local farmers markets.  You are invited and encouraged to help us support this project.

The Food Commons Bank

We have an example of this sort of financial institution emerging in our region called the Common Good Bank.   This is a bank created to serve the common good.  According to their mission statement, by “common good” they mean:

“First and foremost, the well-being of each and every individual person, including adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education, community, satisfying work, rest, and self-determination, empowering those in need.

“Second, peace and justice — a spirit of cooperation and community between all people, with compassionate sharing of the world’s resources.

“Third, a healthy, sustainable planet, with clean air, clean water, clean earth and a healthy and diverse population of animals and plants.”

The first ever Common Good Festival will be held in Amherst, MA on July 10, 2011 to raise awareness of Common Good Finance, a nonprofit organization working to bring economic democracy to communities in Western Massachusetts.

Other examples are being developed, but one way you can help support better financing for the local food system is to write to the Farm Credit Administration (FCA) asking them to direct FCS banks to be more responsive to the credit needs of small and mid-sized farmers and ranchers producing for local and regional food markets.  The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has a web page to help those willing to write a letter.

The Food Commons Hub

I am not aware of any local food hub as envisioned by the Food Common proposal, but there is interest in developing such a project in our region.  The Feed Northampton Study produced by the Conway School of Landscape Design proposed neighborhood based “food hub” facilities to provide; commonly-owned packaging, cooling, processing, waste management and education for farms in the area.  The report includes a proposal to redevelop a local fairgrounds as a food hub.

What can you do?

The global food system will always favor large, financially efficient businesses which exploit people, undermine democracy and erode community, and degrade the land in order to maximize profits.  If we want to build a vibrant and sustainable food system, we need public investments in a local production, processing and distribution infrastructure (similar to the investment in the national highway system).

At the same time, we need to integrate the drive for economic growth with a concern for the environment and a commitment to social justice.  Unless we are willing to pass regulations and tax laws mandating more sustainable practices in the global marketplace (which is unlikely), this will require a major public investment in infrastructure that will help us relocalize our food system and move in a more sustainable direction.

In addition to creating a Food Commons project in your own area or supporting the Food Commons project with a donation, there are lots of local government, college, and non-profit organizations working on local food projects you can help.   If you want to take personal action in your own backyard, you can begin by growing your own food.  To see more of my own projects and activities, please go to Just Food Now or join my Facebook Group Just Food Now in Western Massachusetts.  But please do join us……

Lets get serious about local food – NOW!

Just food now: taking personal responsibility

Share:

In my last blog, I presented some ideas on how local government, colleges and community groups might help to strengthen the local food economy.   In this blog, I will share some ideas on how individuals can contribute directly to the long-term health of local food systems by changing our behavior.

But wait you say…..  how can individuals make a difference when government, corporations and university research and education all support industrial agriculture?

Well, lets begin with the assumption that investments in a local food economy make sense in the long term as we face increasing stress to the industrial food economy.   Then if we look at the systemic structure of large systems like corporations and government, we see that their behavior is governed by powerful mental models that discourage their leaders from acting on a long-term perspective.   Let ask…. “who among our leaders has a planning horizon that allows them to think in the long term?”   Afterall…..

  • those we elect to the U.S. Senate want to get elected every 6 years,
  • the President of the United States wants to get elected (or be succeeded by their own party) every four years,
  • those we elect to the House of Representatives want to get elected every 2 years,
  • most local officials run for election every 2 or 4 years, and
  • corporate leaders must show increased profits every quarter (3 months) to be successful!

Popular uprising in Egypt

Given our expectation for immediate results, how can any of these leaders take actions that will pay off in the long term and expect to remain in leadership?   WE have to begin to change the mental models governing western culture by changing our own behavior FIRST!

As I suggested in my last blog, if WE START A “LOCAL FOODS PARADE” (based on new mental models), these leaders will jump right up front and carry our flag!

Leadership of the local foods movement is in our hands!

While we need to continue to work with local government, businesses, colleges and community groups, we also need to take action as individuals to directly support local food and begin to shift mental models.  Here are a few things we might do now:

  1. If you live in an apartment, plant a few vegetables or herbs in window boxes or on the patio. And of course walk or bike to one of our farm stands or farmers markets to buy local food whenever possible.  Better yet, join a CSA!
  2. If you live in a suburban neighborhood, tear up that lawn and just grow food now!  And then teach your neighbors how to grow more food.  Can and freeze as much as possible, and share it with your neighbors.
  3. If you are in less populated part of town and maybe have a large yard (like some owners of “McMansions”), grow a large garden with fruit trees.   And don’t forget  hens, chickens and rabbits for meat, perhaps a milking goat, and bees!
  4. If you live on a farm, grow more food crops (for people).  Much of the farmland in New England is used to produce hay (some for cows, but much for riding horses).  Is this the best use of farm land?
  5. If you are responsible for a public building, grow food on the rooftop.  This not only produces food but makes heating and cooling the building less expensive.   Or look to re-configure parking lots and other open areas with raised beds such as the urban organiponicos in Cuba.

And no matter where you live, think about ways we can make food farming a more attractive lifestyle. Farmers (especially those who don’t own land) struggle with the economics of a food system that keeps prices artificially low through public subsidies and failing to pay for externalities. If we want more local food, we need to help these farms compete more effectively within the global food system.

We all need to begin by imagining possibilities and then getting to work in our backyards, neighborhoods, local government and educational institutions.  There are plenty of examples of ways in which you can get involved in creating a sustainable food system.

Individual Actions

1. Join the Slow Food movement, which “unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature.”

2. Buy Fair Trade food products which ensure that farmers receive a fair price for their labor.   And why not try out this cell phone app to determine which products are “healthy, ethical and green.

3. Support Bioregionalism which encourages us to get our food from an area defined loosely by natural boundaries and distinct cultural human communities.

4. Work for clear public commitment to a nutritious diet for all, fair wages and working conditions for farm labor, and a living wage for farm owners.  Share the idea of a local Food Commons with your neighbors.

5. And perhaps the most effective way to support local food is to begin to uncouple your diet from the global industrial food economy starting with avoiding all factory farmed animal products such as eggs, milk, meat, and cheese.   Try to increase the number of food products you buy from farmers you know!

What else?   What would you add to this list?

==========================================================================

For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  And for those of you who still wonder if one person can make a difference, please see an essay I wrote on this topic called “Saving the world – one clothespin at a time.”

Growing our own food: for a spiritual connection with the earth

Share:

One of my previous blog posts focused on our efforts to change a local zoning bylaw to make it legal to raise backyard hens.  A side effect of this work has been several interviews with the local press, in which I am invariably asked why I raise hens.  

Frankly, I don’t always tell the whole truth.

I tend to talk about my desire to uncouple from the industrial food system and factory farms that contribute to diminishing fossil fuels, the threat of pandemic, and global climate change.  I also talk about my desire to be more self-sufficient and to have food to give to my neighbors as the reasons for growing a garden and raising hens.  And this is all true…. but not quite complete.  The truth is…..

…raising my own food also gives me with a spiritual connection with Mother Earth.

Going out in the morning before work to check for eggs and “say hello to the ladies,”  is a daily reminder of my connection with all of life.  It is away to reaffirm that we are part of – rather than apart from Mother Nature.  If I do this simple act with mindfulness, it can be a brief spiritual moment at the start of my day.

What and how we eat food can also be a sacred experience (or not).

Putting food in our bodies is the most intimate act we do on a regular basis (generally more often than sex).  Eating food can either be a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy – or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with other people, the earth – and thus with all of Creation.  According to Wendell Berry “when food… is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.” This amnesia prevents us from realizing the contribution food makes to our lives as a source of both physical and spiritual nourishment.

Berry presents a few ideas on how we may free ourselves from this amnesia when he suggests that we:

  • participate in food production to the extent that we can,
  • prepare our own food,
  • learn the origins of the food we buy,
  • deal directly with a local farmer, and;
  • learn more about the biology, ecology and sociology of our food.

I would add to the list, composting all usable kitchen and garden waste (cycle of life).

How we grow food and what we eat is a reflection of our relationship with Mother Earth.  If we are willing to accept continued dependence on a mechanized, specialized and industrial agricultural system, we will remain disconnected from the land, from Mother Earth, and perhaps from the Divine.  While an increasing number of people seem to desire a more intimate relationship with the earth through good food, most simply assume that industrial agriculture is a necessary component of an efficient global economy.

Francis Moore Lappe’ challenges this assumption when she asks; “why do we tolerate rules of economic life that violate our sense of the sacred“?   At the heart of this question is a tension between the economic world we know and the sacred world many of us desire.

Collecting my own eggs from backyard hens makes little economic sense, as industrial eggs are really cheap.  But I am more than an economic being.  Lappe’ writes: “only as we leave behind this false notion of the economic self will we be able to critique and resist economic rules that violate our deepest intuitions about our most basic human values, including… our need to cherish the sacred.”

Growing and eating our own food or purchasing from people we know can be both an economic and a sacred act.  Most Americans however worship the economic act, while ignoring the deeper, sacred implications.

E.F. Schumacher seems to agree when he wrote in his classic text, Small is Beautiful….

“the crude materialist sees agriculture as essentially directed toward food production.  A wider view sees agriculture as having to fulfill at least three tasks:

  1. “to keep man in touch with living nature, of which he is… a highly vulnerable part;
  2. to humanize and ennoble man’s wider habitat; and
  3. to bring forth the foodstuffs and other materials which are needed for… life.”

It seems that Schumacher is acknowledging the need to serve both the economic and the sacred self (if we can look past the sexist language in this 1970’s text).  He  continues…

“I do not believe that a civilization which recognizes only the third of these tasks, and which pursues it with such ruthlessness and violence that the other two tasks are…  systematically counteracted, has any chance of long-term survival.”

Strong language!  But I generally agree.  Hens raised in battery cages (for the efficiency required to keep the eggs cheap) are treated with ruthlessness and violence.

But it is not only the chickens that suffer from the industrial system!

Industrial agriculture has been eminently successful at displacing millions of people from the land, thus reducing the opportunity for most of us to have a personal relationship with our food and with Mother Earth.  Disconnection from the earth is a human disease, perhaps contributing to an increase in drug, alcohol and prescription drug use in the U.S.

Rediscovering the sacred is an act of healing  – or perhaps remembering.  In forgetting the sacred we have become unhealthy and un-whole.  From this place of illness, we ask the wrong questions and seek after the false-gods of consumerism and superficial amusements.  I believe we must rediscover ways to reconnect with the earth, perhaps by growing our own food, raising a few hens (for the eggs and the laughs), and buying real food from people in our own communities we know and trust, if we are to heal the damage we have caused to the global ecosystem and the human soul.  What do you think?

Please share your own thoughts below.

==============================================================================

Quotes from:

Berry, W. 1990. The pleasures of eating. IN: What are People For? North Point Press. San Francisco.

Moore Lappe’, F. 1990. Food, Farming, and Democracy. IN: Our Sustainable Table. Ed. R. Clark. North Point Press. San Francisco.

Schumacher, E.F. 1972. Small is Beautiful. Harper & Row.

This blog was adapted from an essay I wrote; Agriculture is a business, a lifestyle, and a conversation with the universe.

==============================================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Changing the zoning laws; making your town safe for backyard hens

Share:

Last week I wrote about the rapidly growing practice of raising backyard hens (for the eggs and the laughs).  One of the problems in some communities however, is that zoning regulations may make raising hens illegal.

There seems to be a prejudice among some suburbanites regarding  raising chickens.  We know that hens are easier to care for than dogs and cats, and if managed well are not smelly or noisy (as many suburbanites imagine).

Many of us who are committed to family and neighborhood level self-sufficiency believe that the keeping of backyard hens, is an appropriately-scaled, practical and symbolic form of environmental, fiscal, and community sustainability.  Even though it may illicit  sneers from some people (often people who have never seen a live hen or eaten a really fresh egg), it is most important that we try to change these local laws to not only allow but to encourage backyard hens.  This is an issue of Food Sovereignty!

We MUST fight city hall!

Toward that end, I’ve been working with a group of neighbors in my own town to try to convince our Planning Board to change the zoning regulations to make a few backyard hens legal.  Before speaking publicly to town hall however, I applied for a Special Permit and went through the process of getting a Special Permit so that my own birds were legal.

The “educational experience” of getting a permit cost me $210, and took several months.  Most of my friends who raise hens, just don’t tell anyone – as they feel the regulatory process is simply too burdensome.  I fully understand this viewpoint, but I wanted to “get legal” myself so that I could try to change the regulations.

Once I had my own Special Permit (dutifully filed with the County Registry of Deeds), I began attending Planning Board meetings to ask for their help to change the law.  We got great press coverage, unanimous support from the town Agricultural Commission, and a statement from the local Board of Health agreeing that backyard hens did not represent a public health problem.   We were feeling pretty good!

Next, a group of about a dozen residents (with experience raising chickens) developed the basic concept for an amendment to the Town Zoning Bylaw and the Town General Bylaw, which would make it easier to raise backyard hens.  We met with the Planning Director on several occasions and got his help putting our ideas into the correct legal language.  The proposals were then submitted to the Planning Board along with a couple hundred e-signatures, asking for their support of our Citizens Petition that would eventually be voted on by annual Town Meeting.

In spite of widespread public support as well as the encouragement of the Health Department, the Agricultural Commission, the Health Director, and the Animal Welfare Officer, the Planning Board Zoning Subcommittee remained unconvinced!  They insisted that some residents were worried about smells, noises, and rodents.  The Planning Board filed a revised version of our Town Meeting article, which would require abutter notification by certified mail and a public administrative hearing to ensure that our hens were not a hazard to public health and safety.

This was getting a bit absurd!

So a group of us showed up at the next Planning Board meeting and with the support of the town Agricultural Commission and lots of citizen support, we convinced the Planning Board to change their somewhat “draconian” recommendation.  Our compromise was to “license” our henhouses (much like a dog license) but to modify the process of neighbor notification to make it much simpler and more about education than regulation.  We are making progress!

But we had lots of work to do!

When a small group of hen owners began this process, we thought it would be obvious to any thinking individual that raising a few hens was not a public health threat, nor a nuisance.  We were wrong.   There were lots of good questions raised by members of the Planning Board and the general public, along with a few that were a bit over the edge.  Next we geared up for a good old fashioned public debate on the floor of a New England Town Meeting!   We tried to understand the concerns and fears of those who were in opposition and to answer all rational questions from our neighbors.

We wrote letters to the editor of our local paper, participated in several listserves and responded to questions on the Town Meeting discussion board.  When our article was heard by Town Meeting, we had the local Health Director, the local Animal Welfare Officer, the Agricultural Commission, the Planning Board, and the Select Board on our side.  While several objections were raised in public session, in the end the new bylaw was approved overwhelmingly by Town Meeting members.  When it was all over, I sent personal notes of thanks to all of the people involved and created a web page to celebrate our victory.

Of course, my town is not the only one dealing with this issue.  Here is a typical news story about changing the chicken laws!

………..

Based on our experience, I’ve got some suggestions for those of you who are considering trying to change your local regulations based on my experience so far.

  1. Find friends to help.  Unless you are unemployed, you will need to attend lots of meetings.  Having others help you cover these meetings will help (I’ve been criticized by town board members for not being able to show up at some meetings when I had to work).
  2. Study the issue and learn from others.  Follow the blogs, Facebook groups, and listserves for advice from others who are going through the same process.  You will feel less lonely, when things aren’t going well.
  3. Be patient and try not to get angry (I’m not particularly good at this).  When you have people who have no experience and are getting their information from the internet making decisions on what you can and can’t do in your backyard, it is difficult to be patient.  Anger won’t help – no matter what!
  4. Be persistent.  Its a bit of a game.   But if you continue to show up for public meetings and continue to share your message respectfully, the “crazy ideas” you propose at first will slowly become common sense.
  5. Volunteer for a town committee or board yourself.  It is really easy to criticize others (who are generally volunteers) when they disagree with your particular concern.  Sitting on the other side of the table gives you perspective, experience and respect for those volunteers, most of whom are doing a great job.

Finally, if you are not successful with a frontal assault (like a zoning change proposal), it might help to try to change the culture of the community.  Bring speakers to town to talk about bigger issues like sustainability, the “homegrown revolution,” self-sufficiency, the Transition Towns movement, Food Sovereignty, etc.  Asking for a change in zoning to allow backyard hens makes more sense in the context of this larger discussion.  I’ll let you know if it works!

==============================================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

Let’s all raise hens (for the eggs and the laughs)

Share:

For the past few weeks, I’ve been posting about food issues.  Last week, I wrote about the Food Sovereignty movement.  The prior week, I shared some ideas on how to deal with the emerging global food crisis.  This week, I thought I’d suggest a very simple action that almost anyone can take in response to these complex issues, and one that I’ve written about on my “local” blog in the past…….  raising backyard hens!

I find that when I spend too much time thinking about the many problems we face today, I can easily slip into a state of despair.  At these times, I need to “do something,” and even a simple action often helps.  Perhaps it makes no logical sense – but it works!  One of my favorite things to do when I’m “down” is to hang out with my backyard hens.

Of course I’ve got to go out to our hen house every day to collect the eggs (even in the coldest weather), so this has become something of a habit for me.  It helps me “get real” and relax for a few minutes.  I generally bring the “ladies” a gift; sometimes wilted leaves of some old greens, maybe a handful of worms (from my vermiculture bin), maybe a soft tomato or a handful of corn kernels (that I collected from local farm fields after the harvest).  The hens get pretty excited when they see me coming out the back door!

I’ve been raising hens in my backyard for years.  I don’t live on a farm but in a “normal” suburban neighborhood and I believe this is something almost anyone can do.  In addition to the eggs (which I share with my neighbors) I love to watch the ladies scratch, fight, talk strut, play, and “argue” with each other.  And the kids in the neighborhood love to come by and visit the girls too.

Let’s all raise hens!

Raising hens is a simple, practical response to the complexity of the global food crisis.  By taking small steps toward personal, family, and neighborhood self-sufficiency, we can begin to take more responsibility for our lives.  A few eggs each day won’t change the world, but it can change the way we think about the world.  It connects us to another creature and reminds us that we are part of a living system.  Or at least it can – if we pay attention.

One of the problems of course, is that zoning regulations in some towns make raising hens illegal.   I’ll write about my personal experience trying to change these laws in my hometown next week.   There seems to be a prejudice among some suburbanites regarding  raising chickens in the neighborhood.  We know that hens are easier to care for than dogs and cats, and if managed well are not smelly or dirty (as many suburbanites imagine).

The keeping of backyard hens, is an appropriately-scaled, practical and symbolic form of environmental, fiscal, and community sustainability.   And its fun and educational for kids!

To give you some idea on what it might be like to have hens in your backyard, have a look at this fun and instructional video.

………….

To help you get started, I’ve compiled a few resources that I share with my friends.

  1. An article on why to raise chickens
  2. A list of useful resources (links to more links)
  3. The City Chicken (a fun and useful web page)
  4. An excellent and simple description on how to raise hens
  5. A hen cartoon (check it out)

==============================================================================

I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now. And go here for more of my World.edu posts.

And if you happen to live in Western Massachusetts, join us for a workshop on Raising Backyard Hens on April 2, 2011!