Food & Wine 09 -- Fertile Grounds
Small growers, sustainable foodies take heart at Eco-Farm gathering.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
The fire is warm on his denim-clad backside, but Wallace Condon is thinking about the Sierra snow pack.
Strategically toasty in front of Asilomar Conference Center’s fireplace, the retired schoolteacher-turned-grower worries that a warm winter could squeeze the summer irrigation water supply for his three-acre potato farm in Lodi. He’s also thinking about genetically modified crops, Marxist food systems, farmers’ dependence on fossil fuels and the lack of ethics in big corporations.
Fellow attendees of this year’s Ecological Farming Conference shift around him like seeds in a sack: some chatting by the registration table, others squinting at their laptops in cushy armchairs. Jeans and boots are the unofficial dress code for a crowd that skews toward facial hair, dreadlocks, Patagonia jackets and sun-weathered faces.
Some 1,600 small farmers, foodies, distributors and ag experts tromp between Asilomar’s wooden buildings over four days in late January, cheerful in the 55-to-60 degree showers that fall on Pacific Grove’s coast after an unseasonably dry, hot streak.
The Eco-Farm conference, a fundraiser for the Watsonville-based Ecological Farming Association, is in its 29th year. But something new is budding: a timid optimism, unlikely as a garden in an abandoned parking lot. After eight years of federal policy favoring corporate agribusiness, there’s a new administration in charge. It’s a damp hope – after all, Obama appointed genetic engineering cheerleader Tom Vilsack as federal agriculture secretary – but it’s hope nonetheless.
“ORGANIC FARMING HAS ALWAYS BEEN CARBON FARMING. EVERYTHING IN THIS WHEELBARROW CAME OUT OF THE SKY.”
This is a fundamentally skeptical crowd, one that scorns pesticides, chemical fertilizers, livestock antibiotics and the companies that make them. They distrust a government that subsidizes big agribusiness at the expense of the little guys, and a global food system that fills grocery stores with processed international foods while nearby small farmers struggle for customers.
But the conference’s bigger emphasis is on the alternatives: Grocery cooperatives that support local growers, urban gardens, permacultures that thrive without pesticides. In a vote of confidence for that vision, the eco-farmers gathered at Asilomar are distilling ideas, trading heirloom seeds and collecting earthy ag swag in what has become a sort of West Coast Woodstock for organic farmers. Their goals: tending the planet, feeding the masses and yes, making money.
There are now roughly a billion people going hungry in the world, keynote speaker Raj Patel tells a packed auditorium, and yet a billion more are overweight. “Only four out of 10 Americans are a normal body weight, and the rest of you are a little podgy.”
The crowd lets out a collective chuckle. It’s the conference’s opening plenary, and the farmers are both lean and forgiving.
Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, goes on to deride the corporations that mediate the flow of food from farmers to consumers. He blames the World Bank for predatory lending and the U.S. Department of Agriculture for subsidies that destroy small farmers in other countries – flooding Haiti with cheap U.S. rice, for example, while driving Haitian rice growers into the ground.
Here at home, supermarkets are “ground zero” of a corrupt and inequitable food system that manipulates us into over-consumption, he says. Fair trade, organic and otherwise huggable foods, in his view, are merely a “balm to your guilt.”
As for Obama, Patel sees a pizza delivery metaphor. “We expect him to bring hot steaming change,” he says, earning another ripple of laughs.
Deborah Koons Garcia is another celebrity in the eco-ag community – and not just because she’s the widow of Grateful Dead legend Jerry Garcia. Her 2004 documentary The Future of Food, a simply told but terrifying review of genetically engineered agriculture, brought the issue into the mainstream. At Eco-Farm she screens a 13-minute preview of her latest work, In Good Heart: Soil and the Mystery of Fertility.
“We’re reaching ‘peak soil,’” Koons Garcia says later, leaning forward in her wooden chair in Asilomar’s main lodge. (Beside her, potato farmer Condon makes short work of his chess opponent.)
Koons Garcia’s documentary debunks the concept of “dirt cheap,” re-casting soil as an undervalued resource infinitely capable of producing healthy crops – which make healthy people – as long as we treat it right. That means weaning ourselves from pesticides that kill the soil’s microscopic life, chemical fertilizers that deplete its long-term carbon store, and mechanical tills that erode arable lands. Instead, the film advocates farming by the science of sustainability, allowing soil do its natural work of filtering toxins, sequestering carbon and providing food.
“Soil can create its own fertility,” she says.
She pauses to chat with Jim Riddle, a University of Minnesota organic advocate who spent five years on the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board.
Unlike Patel, Riddle is optimistic about Vilsack, Obama’s agriculture secretary, whom he hears is intelligent, open-minded and supportive of GMO labeling. “That is huuuge,” he says.
Koons Garcia agrees. The economic meltdown is inspiring people to cook more, drive less and fill their needs closer to home, she says: “It’s making people more hands-on with their lives. More centered and more creative, instead of just consumptive. There is this sense of possibility. There is a movement.”
Over the next several days, conference-goers zip like bees between Asilomar’s honey-brown buildings. With about nine concurrent topics in each of the six workshop sessions, participants can build their own salads of learning – from business tips (sourcing equipment, managing animals) to foodie flair. The political sessions are split between doomsday and utopian themes.
One standing-room-only workshop focuses on soil carbon sequestration. By farming organically, planting cover crops, minimizing tillage and using compost, the presenters explain, landowners can store about one-third of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions in the ground.
“Organic farming has always been carbon farming,” says Petaluma ag consultant Jeff Creque, recalling an epiphany on his farm. “Everything in this wheelbarrow came out of the sky.”
Creque is involved in the Marin Carbon Project, a collaboration among scientists, government agencies, nonprofits and ranchers to analyze the levels of carbon stored in Marin County soils under different conditions. Ultimately, they hope to teach farmers how to sequester more of the greenhouse gas.
Creque doesn’t expect farmers to be able to cash in on their carbon offsets. “If we’re already doing it, we’re unlikely to be compensated for it,” he says. But the Marin collaborators are working on a label for carbon-neutral and carbon-negative products. And doing the right thing counts, especially as a new federal administration signals a willingness to support ideas that work.
“We were a hopeful movement in an environment of fear,’’ says Helge Hellberg of Marin Organic. “We are now a hopeful movement in an environment of hope.”
At a backyard farming session, San Francisco garden advocate Blair Randall reminds the packed crowd that during the World War II Victory Gardens movement, 40 percent of American vegetables were grown at home. His organization, Garden for the Environment, leverages grants to build volunteer-driven community farms in the city.
Barbara Finnen of City Slicker Farm works gardens into vacant plots in West Oakland, one of the area’s poorest and most polluted neighborhoods. “This is not about charity,” she said. “We’re talking about empowerment.”
The War on Bugs author Will Allen examines the dominance of pesticides in agriculture – starting with the advertising cartoons Dr. Seuss doodled for Flit pest-killers in the 1920s and ’30s. (One slogan: “Don’t worry, Papa. Willie just swallowed a big, and I’m having him gargle with Flit!”)
“We have to push regulation on our agriculture,” Allen says, starting with enforcement of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act, which requires stricter pesticide standards and a re-evaluation of toxicities to women and children.
Discussion takes a darker turn at a session on the impacts of genetically modified organisms. Organic farming means no GMOs, but it’s nearly impossible to stop GM seeds from drifting, creeping or spilling into organic fields where they can cross-pollinate with heirloom seeds, the presenters explain. The offspring then becomes property of the biotech company.
Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery, an organic dairy in Marshall, Calif., frets about the contamination of certified organic products by genetically modified seeds. “We’re risking our livelihood by this,” he says. “Our consumers don’t want GMOs.”
“THE AVERAGE PERSON IN MONTEREY COUNTY IS LIKELY WORRIED ABOUT THEIR WAISTLINE. THAT’S AS GOOD A PLACE TO START AS ANY.”
Uncertain Peril author Claire Cummings jokingly calls herself “the crazy aunt” who rambles on about the GMO conspiracy, but her former career as a USDA attorney gives her the legal chops to speak with authority. “I see contamination as an intentional corporate strategy to insert these products into our lives… Biotechnology was invented as a means of social control. Never underestimate the power of this industry.”
Audience member Elsa Dooling, a Pesticide Watch activist who lives in Carmel, agrees. “It is our right not to be dominated – or have our government be dominated – by a few major corporations,” she says.
A week later, speaking from an East Coast hotel on his lecture tour, Patel reflects on the take-home of his Eco-Farm keynote. “The average person in Monterey County is likely worried about their waistline,” he says. “That’s as good a place to start as any.”
The U.S. consistently puts the interests of businesses over consumers, producing a glut of sweet, salty, fatty food that keeps us coming back for more, he says. Meanwhile a billion people go hungry, “not because of a shortage of food, but because they’re poor.”
In his vision of a more equitable food system, we’d pay more for our food. Small farmers would be paid fairly for their crops and rewarded for good environmental stewardship. Corporate agribusinesses would lose their billions of dollars in subsidies, shifting more profits toward small-scale, independent farms.
“This isn’t to say we need to return to three acres and a mule,” he adds. “We shouldn’t get misty-eyed about some imagined rural past where everything was fine. Usually in that mystical past, women were exploited.”
It’s also critical that the Obama administration enforce antitrust laws to break the stranglehold of big corporations such as Monsanto and Unilever. “The only reason these companies get away with it is, the past eight years they’ve been given a free ride,” he adds. “It’s hard to imagine this administration being more callous with regard to the rule of law than the previous one.
“The trouble is, if you look at the appointments for secretary of agriculture [and other officials], these are agribusiness yes-men” whose strategy is to turn U.S. agriculture into an export powerhouse to pay off the growing deficit.
“It means we’re forging full steam ahead with U.S. agricultural imperialism. Obama will likely at some point allow an organic garden on the White House lawn, but it will be absolutely at odds with the bigger problem: He’s prevented that kind of system from flourishing.
“People on Wall Street, if they still have jobs, are going to be licking their chops and thinking about how to spend the $700 billion we just gave them.” At the same time, he adds, the recession opens the door to an alternative economic system – one that values the things that grow close to home.
Patel’s British-inflected voice is taking on the passionately persuasive tone that inspired a standing ovation at Eco-Farm. “If we organize,” he says, “there’s every chance we can turn this around to a more progressive and sustainable future.”