Knowing Our Sources


In one of his early books, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan struggles against the enemies of weeds and a woodchuck as he cultivates a garden. His daydreams escalate into their total annihilation (gasoline down a burrow hole included) until, chapters later, he pauses to ask, “What sets us apart from other species is culture, and what is culture but forbearance?”

This question has stayed with me. After looking up forbearance in the dictionary (air high five for honesty!), I realize the question is asking us, “What is culture but restraint?” Now I agree: restraint is not a word that stirs passion. Nor is its close cousin “patience” anything to dance to all night.

Yet when it comes to producing food for an ever-growing population, these words are our highest call. They are for long-term vision, not short-term profit. They ask us to be the earth’s guardians. They don’t ask us to maximize food growth via any means necessary – CAFOs, pesticides, etc – only to deplete the resources given to us. In other words, what is culture but the call to act in honor of our highest, collective selves?

Thinking about Pollan led to another book, Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money by Woody Tasch. It examines the harm done when our economic engine runs white-hot, running solely on financial ROI as its fuel. It’s centered on the thesis, “the basis of the economy is soil fertility.” Recently, I was grateful for the opportunity to write about Slow Money as a guest for Mission Markets; please find the full post here.

In the nearly two years of writing Groundswell, I’ve learned two primary things: 1) We have a broken food system, but there are countless people working to change it. Many of them are business owners. These businesses patiently do good and create strong livelihoods. If we can’t figure out how to earn our keep in sustainable food, then the changes we want won’t be sustainable. 2) When the farmers invite you to dinner, go no matter what. It will be the best meal of your life.

Lastly, in Slow Money, Tasch writes, “Entrepreneurs and farmers are the poets of the economy …. Ideas in a business plan; seeds in potting soil; rhymes in search of new reasons.”

As someone with a little bit of humble experience as both an entrepreneur and a poet, and with much respect for farmers, I find a lot of inspiration in this quote. The common trait in poetry and entrepreneurship is that they both make the heart soar. They both fly in the celebratory spirit of the unknown and the possible.

So, dearest readers, it’s time to fly and put Groundswell down for now. If you find you miss this somewhat informative, yet smart-alecky voice, you can find me writing for slowmoneynyc.org. If you’d like to be notified if and when Groundswell starts back up, please subscribe with your email. Simply stated, it’s been a thrill to write about you and for you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading.

In the press release for Chautauqua: Creating Community Through Food, the latest series of imaginative food events by Derek Denckla, I’m drawn to a simple phrase tucked in parenthesis:  “and vice versa”.

The full line reads, “Chautauqua aims to create community through food (and vice versa), assembling a series of innovative and diverse events and exhibitions harking back to historical cultural gatherings started in NYC and held in rural farm communities all over America.”  The series begins with a Farm City Book Club meeting on Tuesday, February 22nd, and will explore food via art, sustainability, history, and more on a weekly basis for the next five months.  He’s got an incredible line-up and you can find it all right here.

Denckla Speaks Chautauqua at 61 Local

What I like about the vice versa is that it makes a two-way street; an exchange.  Yes, through these events, we’re going to break bread and expand the table.  Yet in the vice versa — creating food through community — we’ll also create sustenance.  This two-way exchange leads to a trademark in Denckla’s work that I always appreciate: “…collapsing the distinction between maker and consumer” (phrase also from press release).  It reminds me of Denckla saying that his 2010 Farm City series sought to get people to realize we don’t have to be “alienated consumers.”

These ideas recall a conversation I got to share last summer with Professor Joan Gussow.  We were sitting in her garden, after roasting freshly-harvested eggplants, and she was asking me a series of questions such as, “Did I know how to hem a pair of pants?”.  While I was busy thinking of the tailor I’d call, she answered for me by saying, “It’s disempowering not to be able to do things yourself.”  Thus implied…and vice versa.

So, let’s make some food — and ideas, conversation, and connection, while we’re at it — in these coming weeks.  The venue is Local 61, a new bar/restaurant at 61 Bergen Street in Carroll Gardens dedicated to local food and beer producers.  The place is warm, cozy, and exquisite.  See you there.

Inviting...

61 Local Sign Says It All: Drink, Idea, Food, Conversation, Connection

Brooklyn in Proper Perspective

Brown paper packages tied up with string and seed packets from the Hudson Valley Seed Library — yes, these are a few of my very-very-number-one-forever-most-favorite things.  Take a look at these beauties found yesterday at the New Amsterdam Market.  Priced at $3.50/packet, I stocked up to fill Christmas stockings soon to be nailed to the wall with care.  (Greetings from NYC; what’s a mantle?)

The mission of the Hudson Valley Seed Library is glorious:

  1. to create an accessible and affordable source of regionally-adapted seeds that is maintained by a community of caring farmers and gardeners; and,
  2. to create gift-quality seed packs featuring works designed by New York artists in order to celebrate the beauty of heirloom gardening.

Can I get an AMEN?  (And some seeds for Christmas?  Thank you, beloved family and friends.  Did I mention you’re the best?)

The First of the Jewels

Suited Gentleman Not Included

Lady Lovely

Yes, I'll Take the Whole Display, Please. Thank you.

Today, on opening day of the Foodshed Market held at the community space known as The Commons Brooklyn (a.k.a., The Commons), I heard one of my most favorite quotes in a while:

“Forget about beating your head against chem agriculture — big agriculture — and just go ahead and start creating a new food system.”

Foodshed Market at 388 Atlantic Avenue - Now Every Sunday 11:00 am - 5:00 pm

The words were from Melissa Ennen, who along with Lauren McGrath of Rick’s Picks, were hostessing with the most-tess-ing, outside the new neighborhood food spot.  Melissa was describing a 1990s article that started building the concept of a “foodshed.”  Just like a city sources water from the surrounding area for its watershed, a foodshed is a network of growers from outside the city.  The distribution of resources is direct, transparent, and neighborly.

“It’s not necessarily a matter of miles, but definitely a question of sustainability, energy use and transportation, and creating community…not just growing vegetables and food, but growing community,” she further explained.

While touring the vendor tables, I was reminded of the study that showed we have as many as 10 times more social interactions at a farmers’ market than in a conventional store.  (And that’s before the food talks back to you.  One vendor, The Brooklyn Salsa Company, caps their jars with GET INTO IT! and TAKE the lid OFF, among other ready-to-rumble phrases.  Then with the taste, you wave the white flag of surrender.)

The market is a commercial venture by The Commons Brooklyn, an organization self-described as “a skill-sharing space in the heart of Brooklyn”.  They host classes and offer office rental for compatible organizations, such as The Brooklyn Food Coalition.  There’s a great list of classes this fall, all with an eye towards training people for sustainable food jobs in the future.

To borrow language from the investor world, the Foodshed market is one way for them to build a “diversified portfolio of income”.  Recent history has shown that businesses and non-profits alike have to become financially viable.  Many organizations have seen their grant funds sputter out, and now such groups are developing new means of earned income.  Simply stated, if we lose money building our new food system, then it won’t be sustainable in any sense of the word.

Local, Seasonal, Fresh

With white walls and light wooden floors, the market space evokes an art gallery — with master works of artisanal cheeses, breads, and specialities crafted by love and enterprise.  It’s also part farmer’s market, stocked with well-priced produce from the fields of Migliorelli Farm, near Tivoli, New York, among other vendors.  There’s a lot to choose from, and all the sellers offer samples of their edibles, so you’ll find your favorites fast.  As one fellow shopper, Maria, said: “When you get to try so many different things, you don’t just ‘go to the market’.  You’re in it.  You live it.”

Ripe for the Picking

Migliorelli Farm: Quality Produce, Honest Questions

Upcoming Classes at the Foodshed Market - and more events to come!

Happy Upon Departure

Still Life with Foodshed: My Loot

Dr. Vandana Shiva; Photo courtesy of The Center for the Study of Science and Religion

Last week I got to hear one of my heroes speak:  Dr. Vandana Shiva.  As she took the stage, Reverend Arnold Thomas of Riverside Church introduced her as the “world-renowned environmentalist.”  To many she is best known for her interviews in movies such as The Corporation.  To the growing community of food activists, she is the pioneer who delivers the precision cut message.  The international effort to fix our food is an emerging movement; new ideas come fast and fervent.  Dr. Shiva is the steadfast voice, now decades in progress, that deeply resonates.

In her words, she started her organization, Navdanya, in 1987 once “I realized seeds were being patented.”  The main corporation to patent seeds is, of course, Monsanto.  They do a good job of telling the world that they are up to good deeds — potentially ending famine, for example, by creating drought-resistant crops.  Dr. Shiva, however, explained the danger at hand in an analogy to the BP oil spill.  Consider her words:

In the Gulf of Mexico…I keep thinking, ‘This is supposed to be a high tech industry in a high tech society.  And they can’t figure out how to stop that leak’….Just as BP doesn’t know how to shut down the oil spill, Monsanto doesn’t really know how to control pests…Every season, you have new pests….The consequences are a 30-40 times increase in pesticides.  And this technology was supposed to replace pesticides.  In your country, the herbicide-resistant crops have created superweeds to such a large extent that 5.4 million acres have been overtaken by superweeds.

For the past four months, the world has watched unending amounts of oil being unleashed into the Gulf.  At the risk of sounding alarmist, imagine if such a disaster hit our food supply.  We know now that BP was not ready for its worst-case scenario.  Is Monsanto?  Do we really want to wait and see?

At another point in her talk, Dr. Shiva told the story of a 1983 Indian court case that halted destructive limestone mining in that country.  The judge in the case ruled, “If commerce starts to destroy life support systems, commerce must stop because life must carry on.”

Yes, this landmark case in India occurred prior to our current era of intense globalization.  Yet it’s basic premise has not changed.  It’s not tree hugging; it’s common sense.  “We are first and foremost still citizens,” said Dr. Shiva, “And our highest duty is to maintain the living systems of the Earth that support our life.”

Rabbi Lawrence Troster of GreenFaith and Dr. Vandana Shiva

Well Attended at Riverside Church South Hall

Live from the Union Square subway:  A big food message that tips its hat to changing consumer perception.  When I saw this poster, the first thing I thought of was the film King Corn.  The filmmakers explain that grass-fed cows used to take 2-3 years to get fat and ready for our beef consumption.  Once we started feeding them corn, however, they got to the same weight in just 15 months.  By changing the diet of our cows, we’re forcing them into false maturation.  With this, and so many of our industrial food ways, we wrestle nature into the ground.

More and more, activist groups like Slow Food USA, are putting reason back on the table.  It takes time and thoughtfulness to make real food.  This Simply Orange ad isn’t all good, nor all bad.  But it’s interesting to think about its context.  Why would this be their message now?  The food revolution is making its way through the mass media channels.  What do you think?

Live from the Union Square Subway

On an early summer night

Under trees and soft light

The thought came to me

“I am where I wish to be.”

Continued below

Candlelight Dinner for "What's Organic About Organic?"

Some moments are best said in poetry.  This was my impression after the recent premiere of Shelley Roger’s documentary film, “What’s Organic About Organic?”.  The event was held in a precious, private Brooklyn backyard.  On a wide plank table, the hostess offered high notes from local farmers, bakers, and cheese mongers.  Shelley and her “characters” — the people interviewed in the film — along with journalists and bloggers, gathered in front of the screen centered between two trees.

Her beautiful film digs deep into what organic means.  Told through personal stories and official decrees, the word organic can be used many ways.  But this film isn’t interested in what it means to poseurs.  At its core, it’s about the farmers and consumers who vigilantly ensure the integrity of organic.

For example, the wording on grazing pastures for organic cows was once vague.  Some operations were stamping a hoof on grass occasionally, rather than having days in open pasture.  The truly organic dairy farmers were outraged.  As a result of their protests, the USDA strengthened its wording on these practices.  Now the organic label means something again.

Farmers go to these measures for “organic” because they are the stewards of their land and animals.  They serve a community they know.  To explain why they care, Andy Grant, of Grant Family Farms, tells a tough story from his childhood:  He lost his family dog to pesticide exposure.  His little boy perception saw then that something was fundamentally wrong.  Once an adult, he became an organic farmer.

Organic also has cultural importance — in the name of social justice.  To many, the principles also include fair wages and treatment for farm workers.  Wende Elliot of Wholesome Harvest, a co-op of family farms in Iowa, explains that she and her husband go beyond the U.S. organic standards and adhere to international codes.  In doing so, they promise their customers that the workers make a living wage in good conditions.  Similarly, Andy Grant shows his respect for his team as he inspects a box of lettuce packed by his field workers.  Gently handling the lettuce heads, he says, “These guys are artists.”

Back under the moonlight in Brooklyn, the crowd around the table talked late.  In addition to making a film, Shelley and her conspirators, are building a coalition.  These are kindred minds coming together.  It’s not enough to just say organic and go home.  Those who care remain watchful, promising integrity in word and process.

Now our table gets bigger.  If you are in NYC, then pull up a seat.  The team behind “What’s Organic?”  has a wonderful series of events coming in June.  Shelley and many of the people interviewed in the film will be ready for questions.  And together, with Shelley, her characters, and our expanding community for delicious, fair and safe food, we’ll find the answers.

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