In Celebration of Tasty Tomatoes

In honor of the forthcoming 5th annual Heirloom Tomato Tasting, held Thursday, September 15th from 5-8pm at Edwards Greenhouse in Boise, I am posting my humbled and buoyant reflections from the first annual event, which we held in our little backyard farm at Cymry and Daniel’s place…

Hope to see you next Thursday to stuff ourselves with the bounty of our local farmers and gardeners!! In Tomatoey Solidarity, xo Casey

It is often difficult as individuals to confront the overwhelming global problems, the big ones we feel too little and powerless to do anything about. But at the first annual Heirloom Tomato Tasting and Salsa Contest at Earthly Delights Farm in Boise, the mood was anything but grim. Dozens of people gathered together in the crisp sun of a late summer evening to celebrate something that’s been quietly slipping away for generations—agricultural biodiversity. In this case, an astounding variety of tomatoes.

While a grocery store might have one or two kinds of tired-tasting tomatoes even at the height of tomato season, area gardeners and farmers arrived in cars and on bicycles, schlepping boxes, bags, and napkins of homegrown precious cargo, plucked straight from the soil hours before. Fat, dripping pink Brandywines and speckled, gooey gold and red Hillbillies took their place at the tables alongside tart Green Zebras and striking black-and-orange Indigo Rose. Tiny Red Currants and picture-perfect Cherokee Purples lined up next to dusty-lush Black Cherries, all of them splaying their flesh for the delighted tasters in a smorgasbord of juices and smells and flavors dancing wildly on tongues as we grasped, many for the first time, the sheer and simple pleasure of tasting an abundance of unadulterated, homegrown tomatoes. Of tasting a mind-boggling diversity of any common vegetable, really.

Varieties kept coming, brought by the hands that have lovingly tended them. The bell-pepper-like Striped Stuffing, with thick walls and hardly any juice, gorgeous red skin streaked with orange. The almost grotesque-looking Green Sausage, mimicking its namesake in a green and yellow, bulbous tube. Perhaps most exciting were the Idaho heirlooms—varieties kept alive by Idahoans for generations, brought with their ancestors through countless epic journeys, the seeds carefully planted out and saved year after year by descendants and neighbors, creating a living, edible, local history of sorts. The Rockin’ R Ranch Roma tomato, stewarded by the Edwards Greenhouse family. The Payette tomato, a wonderful, stout little determinate plant with early maturing fruits.

Over 100 varieties of tomatoes found their way to our tiny urban farm that day, each the result of a line of careful gardeners who have cared for its seeds over generations. A remarkable feat by any calculation, but considering that 94% of the vegetable varieties available at the turn of the century have been lost, it becomes almost radical. As small seed companies continue to be bought out by large corporations, our agricultural biodiversity shrinks proportionally. Our public plant breeding programs give way to breeding for industrial farming—for long-distance transportation, not taste. For chemical agriculture and a steady supply of synthetic fertilizers, not for resilience and organic systems. For the ability to genetically modify.

If we want to develop secure local food systems, we must begin with locally-adapted seeds, since seeds are the headwaters of agriculture. No seeds, no food. The larger the diversity of seeds we have, the better chance we have of producing food on our ever-unpredictable and changing earth. The Irish potato famine that caused the massive starvation and emigration of an entire people tragically demonstrates what happens when we rely too heavily on one variety that succumbs to disease or climactic pressures like drought. By keeping biodiversity alive, we increase the chances that some of our crops will make it through a pest or disease infestation, a long summer drought or a harsh winter, even while some fall victim. And by doing it locally, we’re developing varieties that love our climate and soils, that will work here even when seeds brought from other places fail.

It turns out, little farmers and home gardeners are not powerless after all. In fact, we’re quite the opposite. Small farmers and gardeners doing what they love to do are the solution to the huge, intertwined problems of loss of biodiversity, corporate-contolled agribusiness, and global climate crisis. As writer Michael Pollan says, “Food is one of those rare arenas where the ethical choice is also the one most likely to make you groan with pleasure.” By growing out and saving seeds off our favorite garden plants, we not only enjoy the personal empowerment, the abundance, and the increased self-reliance of the work, we actually help the entire world.

That’s not what was in the forefront of the minds of the tomato tasters that day, though. It didn’t need to be. In freeing ourselves from the “tyranny of the tasteless tomato,” in writer Guy Hand’s words, we succeeded in some small part in making that broken system totally irrelevant. Our eyes, tongues, and bellies stood witness to a breathtaking array of delicious food, grown by our neighbors and friends, in a simple evening of great pleasure and abundance.

Thank you to all who participated, and to all who participate every day by growing good food and saving seeds. What a grand life!

Vote-shaming and the Grand Electoral College Sham

After yet another friend sharing on social media a vote-shaming post aimed at making us feel like we don’t care about Muslims or black/brown people if we don’t vote for Hillary Clinton, I feel compelled to weigh in on the Presidential election. Specifically where we as progressive Idahoans–hell, even Idaho Democrats–fit into it. While we don’t literally have a two-party system as many folks claim, we do in fact have an electoral college system.

For those who have forgotten some of high school government class, here’s a quickrefresher: The people don’t directly elect a President in this country. Instead, each state is awarded a number of electors based on how many Congresspeople they have. Idaho has four electors. Whichever party wins the popular vote in each state sends their party electors to vote on behalf of the people of that state. So while in the last election roughly 1/3 of Idahoans voted for Democrats or other parties, all four of our electoral college votes went to the Republican ticket. For all intents and purposes, Idaho’s electoral college votes always go to the Republicans. 1964 was the last time that Idaho voted for a Democrat for President.

So if you are not planning on voting for Trump for President in Idaho in 2016, your vote literally will not count regardless of who you vote for. If we don’t like that fact, there are things we could do about it, like working to abolish the electoral college and replace it with a popular vote election or, even better, instant runoff voting so we never have to worry about “throwing our vote away” by voting for a 3rd party candidate of our choice! Publicly financed elections, campaign finance reform and open debates would of course help create a true democracy too…

This post is a long way of expressing this plea: Idahoans, please, please, PLEASE stop trying to guilt-trip me into voting for Hillary Clinton! Your vote for her won’t “count” any more than mine would. The bright side to Idaho politics in an electoral college system is that we can freely vote for the candidate who best reflects our values without any unintended consequences as a result of our vote. So instead of going down the rabbit hole of outrage about all this vote-shaming by scared, well-meaning friends, I’ll instead share why I will be voting for Jill Stein in November:

I fell in love with the Green Party’s 10 Key Values when someone handed me a flyer outside the Moxie Java where I worked in 2000 and from that point on I have voted Green in all Presidential elections. To me, they create a breathtaking tapestry of all I hold dear and they hint at the policies that would make the US a country I am truly proud to call home.

I’ve been impressed with Dr. Jill Stein’s platform and actions in both the 2012 election cycle and this one. Check out her “Power to the People” platform! (taken from her campaign website). While I agree that many of the specific action items in her plan would be difficult to implement immediately, they provide a map to where I would LOVE to see our country go moving forward!

I’ll let the Greens and Jill Stein have the last words here. Onward and upward, intrepid Idahhoans!

Love, Casey

The Green Party’s 10 Key Values–the national Green Party website goes into more detail on the specific philosophies behind these!

1. Grassroots Democracy                        

2. Social Justice and Equal Opportunity

3. Ecological Wisdom

4. Non-Violence

5. Decentralization

6. Community-Based Economics

7. Feminism and Gender Equity

8. Respect for Diversity

9. Personal and Global Responsibility

10. Future Focus and Sustainability

Key points of Jill Stein’s Power to the People Plan (taken from her website):

A Green New Deal:

Create millions of jobs by transitioning to 100% clean renewable energy by 2030, and investing in public transit, sustainable agriculture, and conservation.

Jobs as a Right:

Create living-wage jobs for every American who needs work, replacing unemployment offices with employment offices. Advance workers rights to form unions, achieve workplace democracy, and keep a fair share of the wealth they create.

End Poverty:

Guarantee economic human rights, including access to food, water, housing, and utilities, with effective anti-poverty programs to ensure every American a life of dignity.

Health Care as a Right:

Establish an improved “Medicare For All” single-payer public health insurance program to provide everyone with quality health care, at huge savings.

Education as a Right:

Abolish student debt to free a generation of Americans from debt servitude. Guarantee tuition-free, world-class public education from pre-school through university. End high stakes testing and public school privatization.

A Just Economy:

Set a $15/hour federal minimum wage. Break up “too-big-to-fail” banks and democratize the Federal Reserve. Reject gentrification as a model of economic development. Support development of worker and community cooperatives and small businesses. Make Wall Street, big corporations, and the rich pay their fair share of taxes. Create democratically run public banks and utilities. Replace corporate trade agreements with fair trade agreements.

Protect Mother Earth:

Lead on a global treaty to halt climate change. End destructive energy extraction: fracking, tar sands, offshore drilling, oil trains, mountaintop removal, and uranium mines. Protect our public lands, water supplies, biological diversity, parks, and pollinators. Label GMOs, and put a moratorium on GMOs and pesticides until they are proven safe. Protect the rights of future generations.

Racial Justice Now:

End police brutality and mass incarceration. Create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to understand and eliminate the legacy of slavery that lives on as pervasive racism in the economy, education, housing and health. Ensure that communities control their police rather than police controlling our communities, by establishing police review boards and full time investigators to look in to all cases of death in police custody. Demilitarize the police.

Freedom and Equality:

Expand women’s rights, protect LGBTQIA+ people from discrimination, defend indigenous rights and lands, and create a welcoming path to citizenship for immigrants. Protect the free Internet, legalize marijuana/hemp, and treat substance abuse as a public health problem, not a criminal problem.

Justice for All:

Restore our Constitutional rights, terminate unconstitutional surveillance and unwarranted spying, end persecution of government and media whistleblowers, close Guantanamo, abolish secret kill lists, and repeal indefinite detention without charge or trial.

Peace and Human Rights:

Establish a foreign policy based on diplomacy, international law, and human rights. End the wars and drone attacks, cut military spending by at least 50% and close the 700+ foreign military bases that are turning our republic into a bankrupt empire. Stop U.S. support and arms sales to human rights abusers, and lead on global nuclear disarmament.

Empower the People:

Abolish corporate personhood. Protect voters’ rights by establishing a constitutional right to vote.  Enact electoral reforms that break the big money stranglehold and create truly representative democracy: public campaign financing, ranked-choice voting, proportional representation, and open debates.

 

Hubba Hubba–the Scrumptious Food Culture of CSAs

 

photo by CSA member Catie Eyer

While I normally reserve CSA-oriented rants for waxing poetic about the economic security the model brings to our small farm, today my thoughts are on the more abstract concept of food culture and how CSAs do a great service to creating them.

Our collective lack of a “food culture” is a woe articulated by food-focused philosophers from Michael Pollan to Wendell Berry to Barbara Kingsolver. In her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Kingsolver describes “culture” this way: “Humans don’t do everything we crave to do–that is arguably what makes us human. We’re genetically predisposed toward certain behaviors that we’ve collectively decided are unhelpful: adultery and racism are possible examples. With reasonable success, we mitigate those impulses through civil codes, religious rituals, maternal warnings–the whole bag of tricks we call culture. Food cultures concentrate a population’s collective wisdom about the plants and animals that grow in a place, and the complex ways of rendering them tasty. These are the mores of survival, good health, and control of excess. Living without such a culture would seem dangerous. And here we are, sure enough in trouble…”

I’ll spare us the rest, where she delves into our national obesity epidemic, diet-related health problems, and fad diets that constitute a culture of “anti-eating.” We’ve heard it all before, lived it all before. But as we open our annual farm education curriculum with this article, each year I see the CSA as becoming more solidly anchored at the center of a food culture for our committed members.

CSA members!

CSA pickups at our farm have become what I envisioned them being when we started 11 years ago–a place of camaraderie and intrigue, where folks from different walks of life find common ground around food produced a few hundred feet from where they’re standing, harvested a few hours before they arrive. Each week, folks come to the pickup after a day of working (or not), dressed in business suits or swimsuits, with kids in tow or beers in tow (or sometimes both). They stay for a few minutes or an hour, sitting in the shade on lawn chairs or the coolers that hold their week’s goodies, and chat about everything from what they ate for dinner last week to the death of a loved one. And when it’s time to get their goodies and head for home, they hold out their bags like trick-or-treaters and ooh and ahh appropriately as I pull each item out of the coolers and dole it out between them. Together we celebrate the miracles of seeds making indescribably beautiful sustenance with each enormous bouquet of brightly colored chard or enticingly plump early turnips, and we count our blessings that we’re able to eat so well, through the good-natured work of passionate humans attempting to conduct the orchestra of the natural world into something tasty.

Now there’s a man who loves chard–AND growing food!

This connection–grateful eaters communing with humble farmers–makes for a powerful shift in grocerystore mentality, where everything needs to look perfect in order to be given a place of honor in someone’s belly. We share it all with our members, from the voluptuous brandywines that can barely make it from the field to the pickup spot without bruising to the tiny bunches of pathetic beets that just didn’t seem to grow this year.

“It’s ok,” the members smile, taking them gingerly. “They’ll be great in a stirfry.”

It’s common knowledge that I didn’t know beans about food when I first joined a CSA years ago, and I had a painful go of learning how to cook and eat the things in my share , most of which I’d never seen before and was thoroughly terrified (and actually disgusted) to eat. Kale, mustard greens, chard–all of it scared the crap out of me, and it was intimidating to ask for guidance on how to cook it. When I see that deer in headlights look on a new member’s face as I’m handing them a gigantic bouquet of collard greens, a more seasoned member will step in.

One of my favorite members Jane always stuck her head in the bag of CSA basil to inhale it with a euphoric sigh.

“I love those in soups!”

Another will join in, “I scramble them with my eggs in the morning, with a little French Tarragon.”

You can literally see the new member’s face relax as they realize they’re supported in this frankly huge new endeavor.

And it is truly huge, for so many reasons. Committing to bringing 18 weeks of vastly more vegetables than you’re used to cramming into your diet into your kitchen and into your belly, especially when many are unfamiliar and most need to be prepared in some way is a serious undertaking.

Over seasons, it becomes huge in other ways. A CSA teaches us what can be produced in our valley every week over many months of time. It also teaches us what isn’t available in every week, or in some cases (like avocados) ever. But instead of that being a letdown, the progression of CSA crops becomes an exciting journey, and each one brings with its arrival the promise of specific meals that families come to look forward to.

When the first green beans arrive in the shares, members squeal about green bean tacos, a phenomenon largely unknown in the mainstream food culture but an almost cultish part of our CSA food culture. (You simply MUST try them if in green bean season if you haven’t already–loads of cumin is the secret). Sage butter, kale salad with soba noodles, and Casey’s Tasty Leek and Ground Cherry pizza are all CSA member favorites, and each year a new member brings another epic dish into the fold. Last year it was caponata from Amanda, the year before, curried pickles from Kailie. The kids move through their delighted season from turnips to peas to ground cherries to watermelons–all the sweetest treats in the shares, and they eat them all like candy during the pickup.

Marian and Ned Eyer have been patiently posing for a photo with their CSA share each week for 5 years!

“She never eats vegetables!” a parent will say as his kid is chomping down on a lemon cucumber straight from the cooler.

And if that isn’t the cornerstone of a food culture–elders teaching healthy and yummy eating habits to the next generation–what is? “These are the mores of survival,” Kingsolver says, “good health, and control of excess. Living without them would seem dangerous.” But living with them is supremely delicious; a delectable, satisfying, season-by-season adventure.

TED TALK: Seeds and the Abundant Economy

Miss Boise Carolyn Pace emceeing the event. She did a great job!

Last week I attended the inaugural TEDxBoise event. In the interest of full disclosure I had applied to be a speaker and was not chosen as one of the nine talks presented. So, you might say I had a little ego wrapped up in my curiosity to see what the selection committee thought Boiseans should hear. Many of the talks were moving, all of them mentally stimulating. And I also was surprised to realize that outside my little foodie circles, food is still a marginalized topic of conversation even though without it, most of the things the other presenters spoke about wouldn’t have existed. In fact, through all nine talks, food only came up twice, both in quite negative contexts where either food or the farmers who grow it were trivialized and/or insulted.

Again, I fully acknowledge that my own ego is wrapped up in what was presented and what was not, but I truly believe those two statements, made by TED presenters, warrant my unveiling of my own “Idea Worth Sharing”, the TED talk I would have liked to stand up and give that night, with a renewed interest in reclaiming the intellectual, social, cultural, and economic validity of food as a crucial topic of conversation.

Starting, of course, with the seeds:

Seeds and the Abundant Economy

I will start with an admission: I am totally, completely, head-over-heels in love with seeds. The poet in me loves their infinite metaphorical possibilities. The farmer in me loves their abundant yields and promise of self-sufficiency. The child scientist in me loves their pollinators and their awe-inspiring adaptability. The sensual woman in me loves their sex and their allure. The intellectual in me loves their complexity. The changemaker in me loves their possibility for creating a more just and sustainable world.

Mayan Maize God

The reason you should care about seeds is simple–without them, there is no food. There is also no culture, because culture springs up around agriculture, which springs up around seeds. From carrots in Afghanistan to corn in Central America, cultures of people have simultaneously bred foods from seeds and have been bred by the seeds they sow. The Mayan people believe they are descended from corn, that they are Of Corn, which is a literal reality as they helped to make corn what it is–selecting it over hundreds of years from Teosinte, corn’s wild ancestor. It feeds them daily, making them who they are.

And without going too deep into the dire details, seeds are quite threatened in our modern day society. Small seed companies are being bought up every day by larger mega-businesses. In fact, over 50% of our seeds are

Seed industry consolidation chart

owned by three companies, and the top 10 largest seed companies own over 75% of our seeds. Patents and GMO technology criminalizes seed saving, making farmers dependent on these large companies who force them to buy new seeds each year instead of saving their own. An Indian farmer commits suicide every 30 minutes due to the crushing debt that has accompanied the spread of conventional agriculture and patented or GMO seeds. As a result, our agro-biodiversity–the number of different varieties of our food crops, is plummeting. Over 90% of the varieties that were in circulation in 1900 are now unavailable.

I am one of those unfortunate people ( like many of you I’m sure) who desperately wants to make the world better, who hears the dire stats and yearns to help somehow. I think I latched onto seeds so zealously because, unlike many of the other huge, big problems–climate change, resource depletion and pollution, global inequity–by growing seeds, I can, with my own small garden, have a significant impact on creating the solution. Seeds have throughout human history been largely in the hands of small farmers and gardeners and even today, though the agribusiness giants and chemical companies are trying to control them, most of our agricultural biodiversity still resides in the hands of small farmers and gardeners.

As one of my mentors Bill McDorman says, “You’re not going to defeat the world’s largest corporations politically, because that’s what they are and what they have.” Even as we speak, the Grocery Manufacturers Association and Monsanto and their cronies in Washington, DC, are trying to shove a bill through that will pre-empt individual states’ rights to pass laws that require GMO foods be labeled. I don’t feel like I, a Green Party member living in Idaho, has the ability to affect change on our national governmental level, and in the issue of labeling GMO foods, I’m not even sure I’d want to.

However, as a small seed farmer, I have immense power to affect change. The “problem” of ownership over seeds and loss of agro-biodiversity due to increasing corporate control over our seed supply is totally solvable by individual communities. We truly can make a broken system irrelevant, simply by planting and tending seeds. And in so doing, we fix a lot more than just a broken agricultural system.

We also add intrigue and empowerment to our lives and offer a blueprint toward a responsive, earth-based economy based on abundance, not scarcity.

 Here’s where, in honor of Bill, I would ask you to pull out the seed I handed you on the way in. I would have you look at it, feel it, turn it over in your palm like the treasure it is. And I’d say, “Who can hold up a million seeds?” You’d look around, confused, and then I’d hold up my seed and say, “I can!” Because inside that seed is the potential to create a million more of itself.

See, a seed is by its very nature generous. In just one season, one seed will make a

Look at all those freaking SEEDS!

hundred or a thousand seeds. That means that by planting and tending one seed to full maturity, I’ve made a hundred or a thousand fold return on my investment! As farmer Elliot Coleman said, “At 1,000 to one, you can’t get a better return than a tomato.” And this is real, tangible wealth! I can eat it and it will nourish me and keep me alive!

Each of these seeds has the will to live, to plant itself into the earth and root itself down and GROW. This simple miracle occurred in nearly every bite of food we eat. And as a person who grows seeds, I have the intense, sometimes overwhelming, pleasure that comes with that mind-blowing abundance. Around my house and my farm, seeds are everywhere, tucked inside lines of jars, drying on plates on every available flat surface, ripening by the thousands in the field. They’re alive, breathing, waiting (some more patiently than others) for the chance to spring forth and make tons more seeds!

Fermenting rainbow of tomato seeds!

Peeking in at the ripening blue corn!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seed “trash!”

This photo shows the small beds outside my greenhouse door. I swept out the greenhouse after finishing seed cleaning last fall out the door, and this is what happened! Wild abundance, springing up from what was essentially trash on the floor!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our monetary economy is kept artificially scarce so it remains valuable. The way money enters into our system is through an entity (like a bank, or the FED) loaning it into existence. But when a bank loans you $10,000, they’re loaning you the $10,000 but telling you you’ll have to pay it back with interest. So really, over the life of the loan, say you’ll pay back something like $11,000. Well, that extra $1000 was never created in the first place! Using this system, it is impossible for everyone who has borrowed money to pay back all their loans with interest, because there literally doesn’t exist enough money for everyone to fulfill their obligation! This means, for someone to get enough money to pay back her loan, someone else has to default. When a loan officer looks at your credit score to determine whether you’re a reliable borrower, what they’re really examining is how good you are at going out and competing with your neighbors to bring back a larger share of this scarce resource.

This is why in most major religious texts including the Bible and the Quran, usury (interest) is forbidden. “America’s Most Outspoken Banking Expert” Ben Gisin estimates that right now there are ten people competing for enough money for six!

Which brings me back to seeds, thank goodness. The idea of seeds as currency shifts us into an economy of sharing, not hoarding. Whereas in the monetary economy there exists more debt than there is virtual “money” to pay it off, with seeds each successive generation yields 100x more than its parent!

One of the problems with the US dollar is that we’re trying to use it as a means of exchange (exchanging it for something else we need, like food or clothes or shelter or cable TV) as well as a store of wealth for the future. This puts the dollar squarely in competition with itself, since spending and saving are opposite actions.

In tough economic times, such as in Depression-era Germany, various governments

Demurrage currency from Worgl

have instituted what’s called demurrage currencies. These are currencies that have an expiration date. Each month the owner of that bill must purchase and apply a stamp to it for it to be valid during that month. The idea with them is that people will be encouraged to spend them quickly, not hoard them, which stimulates economic activity and puts people back to work.

Seeds have a built-in perishability which, when coupled with their rampantly abundant nature, encourages wild, unfettered sharing of them between individuals. In essence, greater economic activity. Unlike our industrial economy, though, there are not adverse affects to the rampant growth of seeds. At the core of our capitalist economy is the pretense of endless economic growth as a necessity. The worst thing that could come of excessive amounts of seeds is a bigger compost pile!

As far as seeds’ ability to tend to the other half of the dollar’s dual mission–a store of wealth for the future–which would you rather have to provide for your needs in an uncertain future? A dollar? Or a seed?

” Whoever controls the seeds controls the culture”–have you heard that saying? I for one would prefer to have the future of our culture residing in the loving hands of small scale farmers and home gardeners who farm without chemicals, with more concern for the seed itself than the bottom line.

 

Look how RICH I am!

And this is the real reason I love what I do. With my little life, I can plant my seeds every year, adapting them to my garden, to our city, to our bioregion. The seeds learn the ways of the West, of Idaho, of the Snake River plain, of Boise, of Hill Road, of my field. Each year they spring boldly to life, facing an ever-changing world, an ever-changing climate with different diseases, different weather events, different challenges.

By saving the ones who thrive in each successive season, I’m helping to adapt these treasures to the world I will inhabit if I’m lucky enough to become an old lady. With my own little life I’m helping to preserve and prepare something that will feed my loved ones years from now. That is a true store of wealth for the future, a real retirement plan that isn’t subject to the volatility and the trickery of the stock market.

I may not be able to take down Monsanto, or even get selected to give a TED talk. But I can plant a seed, and so can you. Growing food–even a tomato in a pot on the balcony of an apartment–brings immense satisfaction and connection to something that’s often overlooked in our increasingly urban population. Yet without it, we wouldn’t be here to build buildings or write symphonies or make crazy robots that can drive our cars for us or whatever. Food is Of Us, and we are Of It. By planting and saving our seeds, we reconnect ourselves to this 10,000 year old ritual. We learn about who we are and where we belong and what we should be doing. And in addition to all that, it’s a riotously good time!

Thank you.

 

The Neighborhood NARC

When I finally got around to the stack of unopened mail that’s been piling up on the counter today, I uncovered not one, but two letters of warning from city code enforcement saying that one of my neighbors had called the cops on us and that our property was in violation of being a “public nuisance.” We were ordered to remove all “rubbish, garbage, litter, furniture, electronics, recyclables, piles of dead or overgrown vegetation, automotive parts, building materials, etc.” from the property within 7 days or face legal action.

junk photoIf you’ve ever visited my neighborhood, you might find this surprising, given that just about every house on both sides of the street near us has what I might call a festive, perpetual yard sale of projects, junk, and inbred scrappy dogs yapping through chain link fences. My first reaction wasn’t indignation (that came later). It was hurt. I felt sad thinking that one of my neighbors had broken what I thought was the neighborhood code—deal with your own shit, stay out of other peoples’ business, and if you have something to say, talk to the person instead of tattling on them. I’ve for years worked for people on landscaping jobs who live in a relentless prison of subdivision covenants and whitewashed Pleasantville-ites that limit what they can do and plant in their own yards, and I’ve always appreciated my neighborhood’s live-and-let-live vibe. This came as a real blow.

The aftertaste of neighborliness still lingers on the country’s palate, even as it’s retreated into its two-car-garage, flat-screen-TV isolation. It’s been so suddenly lost that we can still remember, if only subconsciously, what it was like to chat on front porches, borrow a cup of sugar, pitch in around harvest time. The idea that we’ve lost, in only a generation or so, the ability to talk with our neighbors about something that ‘s bothering us is paramount to tragedy. If we can’t find common ground with the person next door, how are we ever going to get along in an increasingly globalized world? Do we really want to turn over our own autonomy to the powers that be and eschew the nuance of individual interaction for cookie-cutter regulations?

I headed outside to survey the contents of my front yard through the eyes of the betrayer.

The evil, trashy wonderland in full effect

The evil, trashy wonderland in full effect

Alongside a frankly paradisical masterpiece of blooming flowers, seed crops, and vegetables was a small pile of items in the driveway that I could only guess were the source of the complaint. Two 5 gallon buckets, some poly pipe for doing irrigation repairs, equipment for Brent’s biodiesel making project, the wooden sides for the back of my truck, some used greenhouse plastic, and the folded legs from two sets of pop up canopies whose tops had bit the dust in the weather.

This is where I started to get angry. We live in a country whose sole purpose seems to be to convince us to buy and consume more stuff. We’re told we need it to “create jobs”, for survival as well as social standing, and we line up in droves to get the next new ticket to success and happiness. Once we get it home, though, we’re not supposed to let it clutter up our precious yards, which should be nothing but sterile monocultures of chem-lawns and meatballed shrubs corralled by concrete edging.

And heaven forbid we are one of those souls who can’t stand to see potentially useful items sent to the dump. Almost every item in my driveway was the castoff of someone else’s failed plans, and instead of throwing it into the cesspool of rotting trash threatening to slide down onto the city and leach into the groundwater, I opted to bring it home, to a piece of land I’ve been paying for, and store it until it finds another useful purpose.

I’m not a hoarder, per se, nor a prepper who thinks the end times are coming and we’d better stockpile every last item we can before the trucks stop running. But I will say that I don’t have the religious faith in “The Store” that I’ve observed in many of my fellow Americans. It doesn’t deserve my worship, for two reasons. One, because an economy dollar-tree-store-random-jpegbased on sucking fossil fuels from the earth and turning it into cheap crap that’s designed to break down and be thrown in the dump within 6 months of manufacture doesn’t seem like it has the kind of sea legs on it that entice me to throw myself onto the boat. And two, the crap in the store is there because of the exploitation of resources, natural and human, and has created infinitely more waste and devastation in its processing than I could ever hope to stockpile in my driveway. Besides, I find it insulting that, in order to be “good neighbors and citizens” we should dutifully throw away everything the second it falls out of use for a moment, and then return to “The Almighty Store” like good little boys and girls and buy a new one.

I come from a long line of resourceful men and women who’ve taken the castoffs of society and with their own hands given them a second beautiful, functional life. My Grandpa and my Dad can build a building from the ground up with reclaimed materials. Brent can repair anything and is willing to make whatever he can’t repair. The self-sufficient bootstrapper holds a place of honor in our culture, but heaven forbid he store his materials in his yard for awhile before getting down to it.

At the bottom of all of it, I think, is a fear of wildness. We want everyone to have the manicured lawn, the concrete curbing, because it lulls us into a false sense of security in a terrifying world. Boisterous gardens, scrappy dogs, and piles of crap in neighbors’ driveways remind us that we don’t control everything around us. And it’s not just a one-way street. I shudder when I see a flag-waving neighbor spraying Roundup or polishing his gigantic new car, fearing for what will become of my beloved planet with this insanity all around me. But the point is that we find common ground when we talk to each other, and from those genuine points of connection, we can navigate the trickier differences in opinion. Isolation won’t keep us safe, it will keep us isolated and afraid, especially when we live in fear that our neighbors are spying and calling the cops on us!

So throw open the doors and invite the neighbors inside. We’re better together than apart. And for Pete’s sake, Talk To Me before calling the cops!

Farmer or Landscaper: Which is right for me?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpring has sprung, and with it comes the surge of offers for “free garden space” from well-meaning homeowners. As interest in “local food” grows, more and more people are looking at their land through new eyes, for the potential it holds for food production. This is an exciting shift, and one which holds tremendous potential. However, straddling the divide as I do between farmer and landscaper, I think it is important to clarify the differences between landscaping and farming in order to help everyone—landowner and prospective gardener—gain some clarity.

Though landscaping and farming/gardening are in essence the same thing—stewarding land that another person owns who does not want to steward that land him or herself—they couldn’t be more different in the way they are viewed and compensated in our culture.

As a landscaper caring for ornamental plants, I earn $35/hour working that land, a rate which is seldom questioned and widely accepted as just the price of things, much as you would pay a doctor or a heater repair person.

As a farmer producing food, I am not offered compensation by the landowner, and am sometimes asked to actually pay for the privilege of stewarding their land for them. This is also generally accepted as the way of things, I suppose because it is assumed that I will be earning money from the food I will be growing, which is where my compensation will come from. As we all know, farming doesn’t pay well, but to be fair, a small farm operation does generate some income, so it’s not a totally off-base assumption. However, there are differences between a farm and a vegetable garden in your back yard, which is partly the point of this article.

While this dichotomy between landscaper as steward and farmer as steward deserves a thorough reexamination in our culture, until that time comes, here are a couple of questions to ask if you are a landowner considering whether you’re in need of the services of a farmer or a landscaper:

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Farmland in action

1. How much land do I have available to be used for a garden?

In rural areas, it is common for people to own farmland which they lease to farmers. These are large tracts of land that are laid out for production farming—they’re cleared and graded, with irrigation systems in place. In our urban setting, pieces of vacant or underutilized land are much smaller, often surrounded by fences or other obstacles which make using equipment in them difficult. They also often have access only to expensive city water or are shaded much of the day by large trees. Potential farmers must learn to observe these things before agreeing to steward a piece of land.

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Garden space is different than farm space

A small garden plot, say 20’ x 20’, or a couple of raised vegetable boxes, is not useful from a farming standpoint. It can certainly supplement a single family’s diet, and is of course a valuable asset on a piece of land, but I believe it falls under the same category as a lawn or a shrub border—a part of a parcel that is the responsibility of a homeowner to take care of. If they do not wish to take care of it, the person they need to seek help from is a landscaper, not a farmer. It is widely acceptable to hire a company to mow and fertilize a lawn, to trim trees or shrubs, and weed ornamental flower borders. This small amount of garden space should be treated no differently. It is barely enough for one family’s consumption. A typical farm would use at least this amount of space per CSA member.

That’s not to say an agreement between an individual homeowner and a neighbor who would like a little more space to garden can’t be amicably reached. What raises concerns for me is the number of these types of offers that are forwarded to me through email or facebook as viable options for farmers.

2. What are my aesthetic desires for the space?

Much of the time these offers for “free garden space” include some caveats about how the land will be tended. Often they include some requirements about weeding the garden. Again it is crucial to make a distinction between landscaping and farming here. From an organic farming standpoint, eliminating weeds is not necessary for producing a good crop, and farmers must balance weeding with the other demands on their time, working more from a standpoint of weed thresholds and reducing weed pressure on sensitive crops than on keeping the farm completely weeded. A weed-free garden plot falls neatly under the landscaping category, just like weed-free borders and lawns.

Home gardeners often have weed-free gardens, at least early in the season, because they like to putz in their gardens—it’s a form of recreation or relaxation for them. When a person invites another person to garden their land, that person doesn’t have the same thing invested in it—they’re not looking at it during dinner on the patio or mindlessly pulling weeds while chatting to a distant relative on the phone in their jammies. They’re doing that at their house, in their yard, if they have one.

Going elsewhere to garden is like going to a job. And when your job is as a landscaper and you’re getting paid by the hour, you will take whatever time the homeowner desires to make sure they have a beautiful, weed-free space. When you’re doing it for “free,” you’re balancing that with all the other demands of your life. Many home gardeners become tired of weeding their gardens mid-way through the season—why should it be any different for a gardener who isn’t getting paid to weed your land?

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Summer on a wild and weedy organic farm

I’ve actually had landowners where I’ve been farming their (big enough, with ample irrigation water) land complain that the garden doesn’t look nice enough when they have parties and they want to walk their friends out to see “their” farm. Again, this is where the aesthetic desires become the territory of a landscaper, not a farmer. That there are hundreds of pounds of food coming out of that land each week and no crop is being choked out by weeds is as good as it’ll get for me as an itinerant farmer. Anything else is an attempt to create a Sunset magazine fantasyland. Believe me, I’d love to live in one of those too, but if I’m going to put that kind of meticulous time and attention into a landscape, it’s going to be my own or one I get paid to work on.

Because a farm isn’t completely weed free does not mean a farmer isn’t being an excellent steward of the land. It means that person is balancing a task list that’s far longer than the available hours in a day, and that their basic need for an income will sometimes necessitate doing other things besides weeding, like harvesting, washing, and distributing produce.

Which brings me to the last question…

3. What are your demands of the person/people you’re asking to garden your space?

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Farmers or Landscapers?

These offers for “free garden space” often specify that they’re looking for a “responsible” person, a “conscientious” person, to come tend the garden. Of course, no one wants to open up their personal property to a sketchball. Still, if the answers to the above two questions point more toward needing a landscaper, then you may be disappointed in the way a person, even a conscientious one, does this work for free.

This is where it gets really prickly for me, so forgive what are obviously some deep scars coming through here. The above points circle around a set of unspoken values we hold as a culture about class. There is an idea that a person who owns a piece of land is somehow superior to one who may work it. The Benevolent Landowner mindset; the idea that a landowner does a farmer a favor when s/he graciously allows them onto his/her land to farm. There is some truth to this—if a person doesn’t have their own land and wants to farm land, then you are doing them a favor by providing them that land. But again, this is where the line between landscaper and farmer is a tough one for me to straddle.

If a person has more land than they want to deal with, then the farmer is absolutely doing them a favor by farming that land and not charging them money for their labor as a landscaper would. Years ago, I calculated the number of hours we spent on our farm plots, divided as it was then between three plots of land. If each of my landowners would have paid a very modest landscaper wage of $25 per hour for the time we spent tending their land, each landowner would have paid $21,000 per year, and we would have made $63,000 per year from the farm without selling a single vegetable. As it was, the farm brought in about $16,000 in revenue that year.

Food is tricky. Some argue that access to healthy food should be a human right. More and more of us wake up each day to the idea that we could be growing more food on our land, and that local food will create a strong, resilient community. We can look around our city with new eyes, seeing every vacant patch, every underutilized corner, as having the potential to feed us and our neighbors. How we each navigate the intersections of land ownership and land stewardship will be as varied as we are, but I hope this article can at least help to put some of the issues surrounding it into context, matching the right land owner with the right land steward.

A Heirarchy of Reverence

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This week in the urban agriculture class I teach at the college, the students were having a discussion about what would keep them from selling their farm products to a local restaurant.  Reasons varied, from timing and quantity of harvest to discomfort or shyness about approaching chefs, but most held at their core a fear of not measuring up, of not delivering the exact thing a discerning chef would want, exactly when he would want it.

While there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about new farmers doubting their abilities, the conversation alluded to a more prevalent sentiment regarding food products, or any product really, that got my hackles up—in the hierarchy of “who matters” in our system, the end consumer is on top, and each descending rung of producers below garner less and less respect. The highly discerning and quality-demanding chef becomes a beggar at the hands of the almighty customer who will make or break her career. The industrial farmer, in order to deliver blemish-free, appropriately cheap food, exploits the labor of migrant workers and fossil fuels and wastes and pollutes topsoil and watersheds. A more sustainable small-scale farmer, who relies more on human labor and co-creation with the earth is at a disadvantage because her food costs more and possibly has some nicks or holes in it.

I realize this looks like a good ole fashioned critique of capitalism, but I’ll argue that it’s not. When it comes to my life’s work of creating resilient and delicious local food systems, it’s not so much capitalism I have a bone with—rather, it’s with the faulty accounting systems on which the omniscient “market” operates. The externalities, in economist jargon, coupled with the need for a more accurate and celebratory exploration of the “supply chain,” which necessarily involves flipping the hierarchy on its head. It looks something like this:

At the absolute top, the place of most power and respect, sits the earth, and whatever brought it to be. I like this because, not only is it factually true—we are made of the earth and rely totally on it to live—but it guides us into making better and better decisions at each descending rung.

Next comes reverence for the seed, the egg, made by the earth and of nearly tn_480_ebb741ca83e0df2bdfeca6bd4cc34ab6incomprehensible wealth and beauty. It holds the power to grow life in perpetuity.

Next, an honoring of the seed steward, the mother. For those who caretake the precious seeds, and for the plants—the primary producers, who can make tissue from sunlight and water, enough to feed every being down the chain. For the farmer who nurtures the plants or animals grown from that seed. One who does this in service to the awesome earth, and to the dear and deserving life that springs forth from it.

As the chain of consumers grows, from middlemen buyers to farmer’s market or CSA customers to chefs and grocery stores, each one must join in with a fuller awareness of what has gone on before to arrive at that point. The miraculous earth springing forth the wondrous seed and the plants that make food from the sun, and the seed stewards who’ve lovingly selected the seeds of these foods over centuries and the farmer who grew the plants, tended them, picked them, and brought them to where you are.

A grocery store adds gratitude for the distribution network for collecting and bringing the food to it. The diner at a restaurant, rather than tasting and dropping the thumbs up/thumbs down hammer, instead basks in complete awe of all the work and miracle that brought the food, already cooked, to where he sits. The earth, the seed, the plant, the seed steward, the farmer, the distributor, then the chef and the kitchen staff who coaxed wondrous, succulent flavors from it and the dishwashers who cleaned the plate and the server who brought him the food.

Heartwarmingly, this is where the ladder becomes a loop, as the castoffs of our food, and eventually, ourselves, fall into the open mouths of the decomposers, the fungi and earthworms and microorganisms that recycle all this tissue and flesh back into nutrients that will help bring forth and nourish the next generation of plants and seeds. Thus, we participate fully in the cycle, and it’s important to remember where we fit. To put it bluntly, as the end consumer, we’re one step from the recycling bin, and honestly, the farmer could skip that step if she needed or wanted to.

And from the vantage point of a farmer, and of one who’s mentoring hopeful new farmers into existence, this shift in perspective seems crucial if we are to ensure a sustainable supply of food to stock the restaurants and grocery store shelves. Farmers increasingly need to skip the step to the end consumer, packing up their knowledge and skill and handing over their land to a big box strip mall because culturally we don’t value them enough to provide them an ample wage for their efforts.

I’ve always been a fan of the CSA model because of its emphasis on the producer. Our CSA members pay us money without seeing the end product, trusting as we must in the continual capability of the earth to spring forth new life, and being willing to shoulder the risk alongside us should something go awry. They put their wallets and their palates in our hands, and they gain a broader culinary experience by eschewing their ability to choose what they get in their share. We, not them, choose what they will be receiving in their share for the week. We tell them when and where they must come pick up their food, in accordance with a schedule that works for us, the producers.

In a conference last month, I sobbed in my seat as I heard a story about a CSA farm in California whose members attended an early season meeting at the farm. As they watched the farmers’ kids playing, one of the members asked the farmers if they had a college fund for their kids. Of course, they said no, they didn’t have the money to have one.

“What about health insurance?” another asked.

“No.”

“A retirement plan?”

Of course not. And their members, most of whom had steady jobs with health insurance and retirement benefits, decided this was unacceptable. They wanted their farmer to have the same level of security they had, to be valued at least as much as they were for their life’s work. They asked the farmer to sit down and crunch the numbers, to figure out how much their CSA shares needed to cost to afford their family these basic things. The farmers came back to the members and told them that a CSA share would need to jump in price from $400 to $900 for this to happen. And the CSA members agreed!

I sat in that room, surrounded by farmers, unable to hold back tears. What would it feel like to be valued like that? To get real about what food needs to cost to actually pay a producer, one who farms with the utmost respect for the earth, a living wage, and then to be supported fully in that!

I don’t know exactly what it will take to get us there, but we must. As spring begins again and a new season of cherished seeds find their way through the hands of reverent stewards into the wet, welcoming skin of the earth, let us come together in celebration and gratitude for all it takes to get food into our bellies, and let us work together to find ways of truly supporting that noble work.

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THE ONLINE STORE IS UP!

jackson and swag 187 editYippee!! After years of dreaming and scheming and “meaning to” get to it, we’ve finally created an online store for folks near and far to purchase, seeds, CSA shares, and several of the other wacky novelties you’ve come to expect from Earthly Delights…Magic Garlic coloring books, Old Horny Toad’s Miracle Goathead Tincture, and more, all available in a nifty and convenient locale right here on our own scrap of the world wide interweb…I’m sure you’ve got somebody special you could think of slipping a lil goathead tincture to…hubba hubba…lots more coming soon, so jackson and swag 193 editcheck back often, and get your seeds just in the nick of time to plant your spring gardens!!!seed-packets-2013

Common Wealth Seed Library is open!

CaseyThe Common Wealth Seed Library is up and running at last!!! This project, a joint effort by Casey at Earthly Delights Farm and Carrie Jones of Draggin’ Wing Farm here in Boise, helps to grow our common wealth–locally-adapted seeds!!!!–for our members. Members check out seeds through the library, grow the crops in their gardens, and return seed at the end of the year. For more information about this exciting project, check out www.commonwealthseedlibrary.com.