Monday, May 28, 2012

Cross-posted from The Veg Table: Saving Seed, Saving Face

NOTE: This week's post is a cross-posting from The Veg Table, a blog by Signe Porteshawver. Signe is a recent Tufts graduate who wrote a great senior honors thesis on Community-Supported Agriculture and who's now working at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Mass. This post seemed to follow really nicely on my own thoughts last week about questions relating to scale in local and regional agriculture, and Signe graciously agreed to let me cross-post it here.

"Saving Seed, Saving Face" 

I recently re-discovered a memoir on my bookshelf. I was drawn to Gathering: A Memoir of a Seed Saver mostly because of the author’s roots. Diane Ott Whealy grew up in rural Iowa, and relates fond memories of its countryside and culture. The agrarian history of thriftiness and neighborliness is nostalgic and enchanting. In Whealy’s childhood, as in many areas of the United States during that time, large gardens and livestock were maintained as a matter of necessity. Saving seed was commonplace and economical. The practice of saving seed exemplifies the more humble sense of economy felt during that time.

In The Unsettling of America Wendell Berry argues that modern economic thought is reflected in today’s homes. Whereas in Ott-Whealy and Berry’s youth the home was a place of production as well as consumption, the standard American home is only a site of consumption. Consumption engages the economy of money, but disregards the economies of land and energy. Homesteading communities engage in these more tactile economies every day, as they live with the results of their practices, gathering those seeds, promoting connectedness of process and product, use with replenishing.

 A home-based agricultural economy trusts in and heeds the economy of the land. Place matters to this economy. Weather and soil type and community all make a difference. This is especially true in seed saving, as varieties are shaped through selection to thrive in specific regions and climates. The modern American home instead has no response or ties to place. It is only a symbol of status and leisure.

 If Berry’s discussion of appropriate economy didn’t get me thinking about E.F. Schumacher, certainly this quote would have, “….as a society, we have abandoned any interest in the survival of anything small”. When asked by a friend the best political action to fuel revolutionary economics, Schumacher said, “…my suggestion would be to plant a tree”. Certainly, investing in your home as a site of production, saving seeds in your backyard, and rethinking economies is incredibly important, especially to personal well being. But is seed saving sufficient politics? I had a nagging question the whole time I was reading Ott Whealy’s memoir: What about commercial agriculture?

A bit about Gathering. Ms. Ott Whealy founded the Seed Savers Exchange, the biggest heirloom seed collector in the country, with her husband in 1975. (In their basement! At one point they housed 4,000 bottles of over, 1,200 varieties of beans!). The organization has since grown into a diverse network of over 13,000 members who grow, save, and exchange thousands of endangered seed varieties every year. Seed saving preserves biodiversity, reinvigorates memories and cuisines, carries on family traditions and rural culture, promotes food sovereignty, and works towards “closing the loop”. The values, sentimentality, and community around the practice are also very powerful, but I’ll leave that to Ott Whealy’s passion and humor. SSE produces an annual yearbook with information about all the growers and their varieties, which are available for trade. They also sell seed online, maintain a hugely diverse demonstration farm, and host community-building campouts.

As passionate as SSE is about saving seed, Ott Whealy admits the lack of political drive within the organization. It is certainly political in Berry’s sense of home economics that I discussed above, and to Schumacher as well, but Gathering did not bring up how seed saving can help change the way food is grown in this country in a big way. SSE does compile a directory of commercial seed companies that offer non-hybrid varieties. The catalogue is called the Garden Seed Inventory and is no doubt a great resource for gardeners and perhaps commercial growers as well. However, saving seed and choosing heirloom varieties becomes harder at a larger scale.

Saving seed on a commercial vegetable farm is next-to-impossible, if not hugely impractical. Twice the staff and twice the land area would be required. Many plants are easily cross-pollinated and varieties have to be covered when flowering or planted acres apart from one another. If covered, the plants must be hand-pollinated. The fruits have to be harvested at a specific time and allowed to cure or dry, the seeds extracted and properly stored. Labeling is, of course, crucial.

Farming and selling vegetables is hard enough in and of itself. I can’t imagine also worrying about growing our own seed. There would be a lot of risk involved. What if the seeds don’t store well or the beets mold in the root cellar over the winter? (Beets are biennials, meaning they flower every other year. To harvest seed you must pull them, keep them happy through the cold months and replant them out in the spring.) Saving (and finding new seed varieties) is a huge job, as Ott Whealy will tell you.

The varieties we grow are constantly changing depending on pest pressures, customer preferences, and convenience. We want hybrids as well as open-pollinated crops because folks like big beef tomatoes and we like tomatoes that are late blight resistant. We use pelleted lettuce seed so our eyeballs don’t explode. Sometimes we buy non-organic seeds because the trusted and tasty varieties are not always available organically. We also keep an eye on the price tag. Heirloom and organic seeds can add up fast on a large scale.

Despite the impracticalities of seed saving, I’m sure many commercial, locally-focused, sustainable vegetable farms buy into the idealism of saving seed. We live by the humbling economy of the land. We are intimately connected to place. We are the queens of thrift. How can we hold on to and promote seed saving without participating? This type of question comes up a lot in the food movement: How to promote, re-invigorate, and protect the more appropriate practices of the past, while also reshaping them to accommodate today’s economy, the farm economy, and customer preferences. How can commercial operations be true to ideals of the past and thrive in today’s world?

~ Signe Porteshawver

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Getting ready to "food-map" Wendell

This blog isn't going to turn into one of those this-is-what-I-planted-today-and-this-is-how-it-made-me-feel things.  Promise.  Its purpose is to help me think about the intersection of critical historical study and the local food movement, and I'm going to stick to that.  But since I'm trying to be more local in where and how I use my critical/historical skills, as well as where and how I get my food, my own place comes into the picture to some extent as well.

That place is in Wendell, Mass. (pop. 850), in a new house that we moved into just over a year ago.  We're newcomers in town, although we've lived in the area for 25 years.  Now that we've gotten through the house-building process, I'm now obsessing about building a garden--literally building it, because the soil in our part of Wendell is inhospitable at best.  I've been learning from experienced growers around here who have created thriving small farms and large gardens on equally inhospitable land--people like Sharon Gensler in Wendell, Ricky Baruc and Deb Habib of Seeds of Solidarity in Orange, and Dan Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm in Gill, among many others--and have been working on no-till "lasagne" beds and season-extending techniques (currently just a small cold frame, but I'm also trying to make a moveable hoop-house system).  We recently finished setting the last of the black locust fenceposts--"Nature's pressure-treated," according to the website of the forester we got them from. After years of container-gardening, it's a huge treat to have a big sunny space where I can really grow food.

Wendell in 1871
It's also a treat to be here because there are so many smart people in the area who are engaged in re-thinking and reinventing our food systems.  Wendell's well-deserved reputation as a hub for "alternative" ways of living is one of the things that made me decide to use this as a base for developing a "historical food-mapping" project, which I'll be launching later this spring. My plan is to start with a series of large town maps from different time periods and to invite people in town to add about what they and others have grown on particular pieces of land over time, with the goal of building up a more detailed picture of the networks of food production and exchange that Wendell has historically been part of.  The town cultural council has given me a small grant for supplies, and I'm hoping to gather enough data this spring and summer to give a sense of what kinds of additional research might help to fill in some of the blanks in the picture.

I was originally envisioning this as having a purely local focus, in keeping with the widespread notion in "transition" and "relocalization" circles that places need to become more food-self-sufficient as a strategy for resilience in an era of peak oil and climate change.  My ideas are already morphing on this, though, in large part through listening to historians and food activists like Brian Donahue who are arguing that regional self-sufficiency is actually a smarter strategy to aim for, as well as more closely reflecting historical patterns of the pre- and early-industrial eras.  And that makes me think that these food-maps should keep an eye open to larger scales, probably by asking not only what people have grown here in various time periods but also what food they've bought and from where. 

One crucial piece of history for this project is the story of why places like Wendell stopped being mainly agricultural over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.  I can see this history just by looking out the window:  as with many places around New England, Wendell's woods are criss-crossed with old stone walls that speak of farms past and abandoned.  The rocky soil is a big part of this story;  my no-till raised beds are a solution on a fairly small scale, but once agriculture became more commercialized in the early 19th century, those people who were still trying to make a living farming began to struggle with the very real limitations of this landscape.  You can actually produce food in an intensive way here, but it's labor-intensive to do it, and it doesn't work on a large commercial scale.  And of course that connects to a whole raft of issues relating to how we work and travel and eat--our whole modern, consumption-driven, energy-intensive way of living.

So as I start to develop this local food-mapping project, I'm thinking that it's going to be as much about scale as about localness per se.  What evidence is likely to be out there for Wendell's involvement in regional-scale agriculture in the 18th and 19th centuries?  And what can be discovered locally about the pivotal moments (like the official designation of some environments as agriculturally "submarginal" in the 1920s and 30s, leading to reforestation and the creation of places like Wendell State Forest) when the scales changed radically?  Stay tuned--I hope to be able to report on some of this over the summer!

For an article on how the "submarginal lands" designation played out in neighboring Vermont, and how some farmers resisted it, see Sara M. Gregg, “Can We ‘Trust Uncle Sam’? Vermont and the Submarginal Lands Project, 1934-1936,” Vermont History 69 (Winter/Spring 2001):201-221, available as a PDF here.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A work bee, with a twist or two

Driving back from running errands yesterday, Fred and I noticed a sign on Route 202 near the Hunt Farm in Orange:  "Plow Day."  When we stopped to look, we saw that a number of antique tractors were crossing and re-crossing the big field where George Hunt grows feed corn for his dairy cattle.

I already knew that there's a whole sub-culture of tractor collectors and enthusiasts.  I didn't realize, though, that some of them--in this particular case, Chapter 18 of the International Harvester Collector Club--periodically converge on a willing farmer's field to practice their plowing skills or just (as one man put it when I asked him about the event yesterday) "to play" with machines that they wouldn't otherwise get a chance to use.  A bit of Internet research on Plow Days turned up a definition, some similar events using draft animals, and a  YouTube playlist of videos from around the country.  (I wouldn't necessarily say that watching someone plow a field is less riveting than watching paint dry, but I did find that watching just a few of these more than satisfied my curiosity.)  Closer to home, I found some video of the 2011 event at Hunt Farm and an article about 2010's gathering.

This is actually proving to be a more complex event to wrap my head around than I thought at first.  On the surface, it looks like a bit of old-fashioned reciprocity among farmers (or new-fashioned, if you compare it with the crop mob phenomenon among a younger slice of the farming demographic).  I have land that needs plowing, you have a group of people looking for a place to use their tractors--hey, kids, let's get together and plow some fields!  The fact that the tractors are from a previous era just seems to make it an interesting example of using older tools and skills around the edges of the present-day farm economy.

But the hobbyist aspect makes this a somewhat different animal.  My guess is that the main reason the tractor enthusiasts are willing to volunteer their skill and labor is that it gives them a chance to do something removed from the realm of present-day farming.  The old tractors are fun and collectable in large part because they're obsolete, and the reciprocity is strangely indirect.  It takes a detour into the kind of antiquarianism that you encounter in living history settings, where people work to recapture the past for reasons of recreational pleasure, education, or self-discovery rather than for more utilitarian purposes.  This is something quite different from choosing old machinery because you think it has some inherent advantages (as Tillers International does, for example).

Still, it's interesting to think about how the "pastness" of the tractor collectors and the present-day operations of a host farm come together on Plow Day.  It strikes me that this is a precise mirror image of a historic site that invites modern-day farmers to work its fields in order to preserve a historic landscape (something that happens, for example, at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio).  This leaves me with the same sense of disconnection that frustrates me when I encounter it at historic sites--but at least the old and the new are butting up against each other within the same framework.  When that happens, there's the possibility that someone will figure out how to take things a step further.  And meanwhile, the fields are getting plowed and everyone is pleased--so even to my cynical eye, this seemed like a pretty happy occasion!