I attended the Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference over the weekend. World-class farmer/speakers Joel Salatin and Michael Ableman were featured along with British agriculture luminary and dairy farmer Patrick Holden and vegetarian-lawyer-turned-beef-rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman. It was a fun and stimulating conference which got me asking more questions and considering more possibilities.
Michael Ableman suggested that the task of growing the nation’s fruits and vegetables could fall on a lot more shoulders, including lots of city dwellers. The extra productivity of small, intensively tended plots (including balconies) makes this completely possible. The enhanced freshness and nutritional bonus from locally grown foods coupled with the reduction in the need for refrigerated transport and the widespread circulation of extra dollars in lots of pockets would also have a tremendously beneficial impact on local economies and lowered oil use. It got me wondering: If we did become a nation of part-time farmer/entrepreneurs, a nation where most of us spend roughly 5 to 10 hours a week working in and producing food from small areas, eating what we grow, selling some of what we grow, and sharing some of what we grow with family and friends, how would that change our health, our relationships, and our creativity?
According to Nicolette Niman, our consumption of fruits and vegetables is down from what it was 30 years ago (and it wasn’t very good 30 years ago). Considering that this lower consumption includes the potato chips, french fries, and iceberg lettuce that Americans eat, expanding the numbers of people who are fruit and vegetable farmer/gardeners could have a tremendous impact on the nation’s health.
Joel Salatin spoke fervently about the historical connection between agriculture and the existence of such a thing as civilization, as well as the original Jeffersonian idea that a strong democracy could only rest on the shoulders of a nation of intelligent, self-reliant farmers. Right now only 1% of the population is comprised of farmers, and it is pretty clear that the democracy is in trouble. While the recent influx of young people to agriculture is heartening, it is still tiny. If we implemented Michael Ableman’s idea and made growing the lion’s share of our vegetables and fruits a priority, how would that affect the responsiveness of our government to the 99% of its people? What impacts might it have on the way power is distributed through communities? How might is change the value we assign to ourselves and to each other? Would it change the way we design our cities and neighborhoods? How would the relationship between urban and rural change?
At the end of Patrick Holden’s talk, he mentioned that his most creative thinking often comes at the end of his two hours of milking chores. He may have gotten out of bed at 5 am feeling down on himself and the state of the world, but by the time 7am rolls around and the cows are milked and heading back to pasture, he’s feeling like anything is possible. If people did return en mass to agriculture, and especially on a part-time basis, what flowering of our creativity might take place? What solutions might we find that we are now overlooking? What ingenious ideas are waiting to be born at the end of weeding a patch of carrots or mulching a collection of blueberries?
Finally, Joel Salatin also spoke eloquently about the essential joy in farming, the joy in the simplest experiences, such as seeing the dew sparkling like shards of diamonds on the web of a spider in the early morning or smelling the sweet breath of a young calf. And everyone spoke of the joy in producing something very tangible, in the flavors of a strawberry fresh from the garden or of the cheese in the pantry or of the poultry in the freezer. If this type of joy and connection were present each day in each of our lives, would we make different choices throughout our day? What would we prioritize? What would we value most?
My own agricultural projects – gardens and goats and cows – nourish me in many of the ways described above. They bring moments of intense joy, satisfaction in providing myself with food that cannot be equalled by what is available in any store, the economic security of simply needing less money, and an endless supply of creative ideas for how I might do things better, both on our land and in this blog and in every other part of my life.
What about you? How do your garden/farm projects impact your life? What ideas do you have for finding fun and creative ways to share the joy and spread the message that a little farming could go a long way?