Food in the time of Coronavirus

We grew huge amounts of delicious food here for 4 years without incident, but the now-vacant lot needs a security camera to police it…

I stood in the middle of the field with my hoe in my hand, the hot afternoon sun searing down on me. My clothes clung to my sweaty, itchy body. My back groaned as I straightened upright. Half the row to go. Next to it, another row that desperately needed weeding, and another after that. After a year spent mostly away from my farm, the transition back to it threatened to swallow me. Like several other memorable times over the previous sixteen years, I stood surrounded by the plants I am working so hard to cultivate and began to cry. Out of exhaustion, probably, but mostly from the profound desperation that accompanies this small farm livelihood. A list of tasks far greater than the number of hours in a day. Work that is never done. On land I don’t own, will never own, will never build equity in.

Of course, it isn’t the same world I left a year ago. A global pandemic has swept over the planet, smashing things we thought were unbreakable. The local food movement has long criticized the vulnerability and unsustainability of the globalized industrial food system. I have routinely been a part of that chorus, often citing the sobering statistic calculated by Crossroads Resource Center for the Treasure Valley—“We have 3 days of food in the grocery store!”—in my public classes and lectures.[1] Still, I was as shocked as anyone to see empty grocery store shelves for weeks on end for the first time in my life. It turns out that what local food systems advocates have been saying all along is true—we are woefully unprepared to feed ourselves. And COVID has just ripped off the band-aid and shined a massive spotlight on the gaping wound that is the industrial food system, a wound continuously carved since the inception of this country, inflicted by the twin evils of capitalist greed and racist policies.  

In Idaho, we are seeing industrial food processing plants shutting down left and right as COVID outbreaks spread like wildfire among workers crammed into the factories in dangerous conditions. Or worse, we see leaders ordering them to not shut down, forcing their “essential” workers to keep working despite their increased risk, their bodies sacrificed to keep the cheap food flowing onto grocery store shelves. A high percentage of people working in food processing jobs in Idaho identify as Latinx or Hispanic.[2] As of July 2nd, Latinx people, while only 13% of the state’s population, account for more than 50% of COVID-19 cases in 5 of 8 counties in the Magic Valley, and 35% of cases with confirmed race or ethnicity overall.[3]

Since this country’s inception, its agriculture has relied on the labor of exploited people. From the chattel slavery that built the agricultural empires of Eastern and Southern landowners to the waves of migrants who risk perilous border crossings each year to labor in fields all across the country for substandard wages, we have consistently been willing to accept that certain people will be sacrificed to provide cheap food for the masses and fat profits for the owner class. During the centuries-long process of colonization, Indigenous granaries were ransacked and people forced off their lands in a genocidal march from one shore to the other, and communally-managed lands were seized and sold to European settlers. The Homestead Act of 1862 ultimately passed over 270 million acres of land in the West—nearly 10% of the entire land mass of the United States—to settlers in 160-acre parcels for little more than a filing fee.[4] More than 1.6 million white families, both citizens and immigrants, were able to become landowners through this act, building the foundation for their future amassing of wealth. The number of adult descendants of Homestead Act recipients living in the year 2000 was over 46 million people.[5] Nearly a quarter of the adult US population can trace their legacy of wealth and property ownership back to this one government program.

For years, we’ve been looking at the local food movement and wondering why it is so very white. Recently, it occurred to me—it’s so white because we white folks are the ones who have the privilege to be poor enough to do it. I have family and friends who have enough to offer a safety net for me should I ever need it, and I live in a community of people who have excess which easily gets sloughed off to folks like me even while we make poverty wages on paper. The thrift stores near me are packed with nice, useful stuff at cheap prices. Because of my relative proximity to wealth, I can afford to have spent the last sixteen years of my life toiling away on a series of plots I don’t own, throwing every ounce of my passion, creativity, and energy into an enterprise which will leave me no legacy to pass on, no retirement to speak of, no safety net of my own. But I don’t have to support anyone besides myself, and I have support if I ever need it.

My story is not unique. I know dozens of small farmers around the state of Idaho, and most of them are in the same boat as me. Especially in the Treasure Valley, where land is exorbitantly priced amid Boise’s “fastest growing city in the country” claim to fame, most of the folks who operate small farm businesses do not own the land they farm. Instead, they jump around from plot to plot trying to find a way to put down roots. When they have kids, or they need to support a family member, or they just end up getting burnt out, they end up quitting farming so they can get a job that can actually pay a living wage.

I turned in a slow circle in the field, taking in the rows of flowering seed crops buzzing with pollinators and rows of vegetables threatening to be overtaken by weeds, all of it indescribably beautiful and abundant. “I don’t think I want to do this anymore,” I said out loud. “I think I’m done.” With that, my tears turned to sobs. Shaking, I left the row I’d been hoeing half done, put my hoe back in the tool shed, and slowly walked away, my eyes blurry through the tears. I couldn’t make sense of what that meant. This thing I’d been doing since I was 25 years old was my main source of purpose and identity. I didn’t know who I would be without it. What would I do instead? I felt selfish, to consider walking away from it. Would I be selling out? Claiming my educated, white privilege and going to get a good-paying job with cushy benefits and no back-breaking work? Eating off the backs of others instead? Would anyone else take over stewardship of the many seed crops I’ve been growing and saving for years?

Later that evening, my sadness turned to into rage. The more I thought about it, the angier I became. The feelings I’m having are systemic feelings, borne out of a series of specific policies that have created the food system we have today. I’m not a failure because I’m considering walking away from this livelihood, I’m an inevitable casualty of this legacy, as is everyone else who grows our food. I’m not being selfish, I’m finally—finally—getting real about why this hasn’t worked and will never work, at least on a systemic level. 

Visiòn 2C, a chapter of the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils, is currently organizing a program to get food to farmworkers. Yes, you read that right. Many of the people who work in Idaho fields to produce the cheap food on our tables do not have access to fresh foods themselves. Our state’s industrial farms are food deserts, as are industrial farms all across the country. And the workers who work them often lack access to transportation to get to grocery stores, so they are stranded in the monocropped deserts where they work. So in an ultimate irony, the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils is turning to local small farmers to help, forging partnerships to get fresh food to the folks who are putting their bodies on the line to keep the industrial farm machine going.

As the pandemic sweeps through the Midwest, some massive corn and soybean farmers are looking around their own food desert farms and trying to figure out how to plant something that could actually feed their communities. In May, Civil Eats published an article about a growing number of industrial farmers who are mixing a bunch of different vegetable seeds into a planter and seeding the mix over a few acres of their 10,000 acre farms, figuring the public can come harvest what they want when it’s ready[6] (Miller, 2020). Some are calling this method Chaos Gardening, while some refer to it as Milpa Gardening, which honors the milpa cropping systems of small-scale Latin American farms, where farmers plant several to over a dozen varieties of food crops and flowers together in a field.

One challenge the large farms attempting to plant milpa gardens face is the commodity crop subsidy system that pays farmers to plant their acreage in certain crops but not others. Acres planted into a milpa are not eligible for crop insurance and subsidy payments like the rest of their acreage, which is a deterrent. 

NAFTA policies, among others, have impoverished Latin American subsistence corn farmers by undercutting them with cheap US corn imports subsidized with our taxpayer dollars, driving them north to seek work.[7] Now, these same policies are working against the US farmers who have historically benefitted from them when they attempt to grow food for their own communities, using a method perfected over centuries by none other than Latin American farmers themselves.

When one shines the light into the dark corners of this wound, the question surfaces yet again: What are the people of this nation willing to accept to secure cheap food? Farmworkers deemed “essential,” many of whom are also called “illegal” who lack basic rights and access to the very food they work so hard to produce? Small farmers who themselves don’t make a living wage trying to secure access to food for farmworkers on industrial farms? Massive industrial farmers who will rely on volunteer labor to harvest food from their milpa gardens and donate it to foodbanks? Farms run on the labor of incarcerated people? No matter which way we look at it, the fact remains: we do not pay the true cost of food in this country.

It isn’t a mystery how we got here, and it isn’t a mystery what our policymakers and power-holders would need to do to make a functioning healthy food system that sustains the people who grow our food. It isn’t business-as-usual convenient, but it also isn’t magic. The pandemic has shown us that funding and resources for many things that seemed out of reach mere months ago are actually accessible when policymakers act in the best interest of their constituents.

I’m not sure where I want to go from here, but I know that my work has to shift to address these structural issues, if not for me, for those young farmers who come after me.

[1] Meter, Ken. (2010). Greater Treasure Valley Farm and Food Economy. Crossroads Research Center.

[2]Idaho at a Glance: Hispanics: Labor Force and Economy. (2010). ; Idaho Department of Labor (2014). Food processing Industry of Idaho.

[3] Foy, Nicole, and Taros, Megan. (July 3, 2020). “We’ve always been essential: Latinos fill jobs keeping Idaho afloat in a pandemic. The Idaho Statesman.

[4] Bradsher, Greg. (2012). How the West was Settled: The 150-year-old Homestead Act Lured Americans Looking for New Life and Opportunities. US National Archives.

[5] Merritt, Keri Leigh. (March 11, 2016). “Land and the Roots of African American Poverty.” Aeon.

[6] Miller, Daphne. (May 12, 2020). “Most Farmers in the Great Plains Don’t Grow Fruits and Vegetables. The Pandemic is Changing That.” Civil Eats.

[7] Seals, Alan, & Zietz, Joachim. (2009). The decline in maize prices, biodiversity, and subsistence farming in Mexico. American Economist53(2).

Cultivation Through the Wilderness

This story feels impossible to write. It’s mid-April and we’re neck deep in a mandatory shelter-in-place order given by the governor. We’re two months away from the summer solstice, and who knows what the world will look like by then. Some of my loved ones may be dead. I may be, too. Of course, this has always been the case. It’s just not usually at the forefront of our collective mind. Now, how can we imagine our present, let alone what’s to come?

Further, this is the year I took a sabbatical from farming and moved to the mountain mecca of McCall to attend the University of Idaho’s McCall Outdoor Science School (MOSS). As I write, it’s twenty degrees outside and there is still over a foot of snow on the ground. Summer is utterly unfathomable.

There are many reasons why I came here. An accident the summer before my 40th birthday left me without the use of one hand during the bulk of the farm’s harvest season, highlighting the precariousness of my farm model. My future lease is uncertain on the land I farm, and Boise’s breakneck growth makes me sure I will never be able to pay for a piece of farmland with the money I can make by farming it. It felt like a good time to reassess.

But there was another reason, too. After fifteen years of cultivating every square inch of my relationship to the natural world by building a livelihood and identity through working the land, I wanted an opportunity to explore wildness. To be in a place where plants grow where they are without intensive human intervention. A place where it is not my job to protect prey from predator. Could I feel satisfied by being a passive observer of the natural world rather than an active, cultivating participant?

So I loaded up sacks of squashes and buckets of potatoes and headed to the frosty middle of the state. There’s no way I could have guessed—none of us could have—that the year I left my farm would be the year of a global pandemic that throws into stark light the importance of having a robust regional food system. While I sit in this mountain quarantine, the folks at Snake River Seed Co-op and the woman running the farm in my absence are scrambling like mad to get seeds and garden starts to local people who are desperately trying to take a portion of their food security into their own hands. My winter stores are almost gone and for the first time in well over a decade I’m buying the bulk of my food from the grocery store, just like almost everyone else. No greenhouse full of plant babies popping up with a promise to feed me in the coming months. No fields of sprouting garlic or asparagus peeking up through the mulch. When the snow melts here, CSAs in the valley will be in full swing. Some people will actually be sick of greens.

And I know this sounds crazy, but I don’t actually miss farming right now. For weeks, I’ve been swirling around in a mass of guilt and confusion about this fact.My goal to reacquaint myself with wilder places has been easy to achieve in this place surrounded by wild lands. Nearly 70% of the land in Idaho is held in the public domain, mostly as wild lands managed by federal or state agencies. This includes the largest designated wilderness area in the lower 48 states—the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, which is separated by single lane roads from the Selway-Bitterroot and Gospel Hump Wildernesses, each impressive in their own right.

The first time I realized how unique Idaho was in this regard was on a spring trip with some friends as an 18-year-old. The eight of us who were living together in a rented house packed ourselves into two dumpy sedans and, armed with walkie talkies, headed off to explore California. The year was 1998. Our first destination was the redwoods. The plan: Drive all day and when we arrived, simply pull off the road, throw up some tents, and wake up in that majestic forest the next morning.

With the sun setting, we couldn’t find anywhere even remotely near the redwoods to camp, at least for free. The small swath of forest land limited camping to improved—as in, pay—spots, at a whopping $20 per space, per night. As broke teenagers, we had not budgeted money for lodging on our trip, and this first night was a wake-up call. Where was all the National Forest land, where you could camp wherever you wanted? The redwoods were entirely surrounded by private land with “No Camping” signs posted everywhere.

We ended up sleeping sitting up in the cars, parked in front of some houses in a suburban neighborhood—much to the dismay of the occupants as they left for work the next morning.

Over the years, I would travel to many other parts of the country with even less public land than California, and I pieced together how the land in Idaho shaped my upbringing. Growing up, I didn’t want for land. Our family had a little house and a little yard. We played rec soccer at the city park, and on summer weekends we often went camping in the mountains. It was normal to drive into the woods, pitch a tent, build a fire. I didn’t understand the concept of public versus private land. It was just the city and the forest.

As I got into farming, my relationship to land changed completely. Farming requires access to ground, and unlike much of the ranching in the state, virtually all the farming here is done on privately owned land. In the desert, that land also needs to include access to irrigation water. Irrigated land isn’t cheap and it isn’t getting cheaper as Idaho’s population swells. Boise, Idaho, the city where I farm, was the “hottest real estate market in the country” in every quarter of 2019 according to the Federal Housing and Finance Agency.[1] A recent study by Boise State University found that Ada County has lost over 100,000 acres of farmland to development since 1969, and will lose over half of its remaining farmland—roughly 200,000 more acres—by 2100, if current growth rates continue.[2]

So I’m walking the fence line between Idaho’s two defining identities—the cultivated and the wild. Potatoes and the Frank Church. Agriculture and Wilderness. I’ve heard agriculture, logging, and mining interests say that wilderness is an elitist concept, a privilege afforded to the lucky few recreationalists who can access it. I would argue that it is actually more accessible to us as Idahoans than privately-owned farmland. As long as I have a car or someone willing to drive me there, I can drive to a wild place and walk into it with my two feet. Technically, I own it by birthright, as do all citizens of the United States. This is true even as the ability to secure long-term access to a piece of farmland has eluded me.

So I take advantage of my birthright. Almost every day, I go to my favorite nearby outdoor place—Bear Basin, a swath of land in the Payette National Forest near my house that’s crisscrossed by Nordic ski trails in winter and hiking trails in summer. On my daily outings, I take specific trails so I can visit certain trees, rocks, and vistas. I say hello to the foxes and snowshoe hares as I pass the tracks that lead to their forest dens. The ski season is ending and I’m making an effort to go on every trail one last time, to say good bye to the friends along them until next winter. When the snow melts and the hiking trails re-emerge, I’ll get to say hello to friends I left when the snow started falling last autumn. I’ll get to see them leaf out, flower, and make seeds.

Through this sustained contact, I’ve grown into a deep and satisfying relationship with this place, which makes me realize that my initial question of whether I can be satisfied as a passive observer of the natural world missed the mark. Observation is participation. In fact, farm life is so busy that I don’t have as much opportunity to observe when I’m farming. And there’s the irony of modern society—we’re so busy “participating” that we often forget to stop and look around. As Wendell Berry says, “We have never known what we are doing because we have never known what we are undoing.”

While some folks crave a constant influx of new experiences and adventures, I’ve realized that it’s familiarity with a place that nourishes me. Whether the land I farm in the valley or the land I visit every day here in the mountains, both bring me the similar satisfaction of being in the continued company of a diversity of species, of watching them grow and change, and having them bear witness to my growth as well.

Out the window, I watch the sun glitter off the snow blanketing the lake as I struggle to put these thoughts into words. Suddenly, it dawns on me: this agonizing over wild versus cultivated land has never actually been about land. It’s always been about people, and my right relationship to them. There is no question that I can find intrigue and wonder in the natural world. But work is a decidedly human construct. And when we talk about finding satisfaction in the span of a human life, we’re voicing a need to be useful, if not only to other humans, at least in relationship to them on behalf of other species. After all, it is humans who are accelerating climate change, humans who are bulldozing wild places for industrial agriculture and clearcutting forests for our mansions. If we love the land, we must engage with humanity to protect it.

For many reasons we family farmers have armored ourselves in the self-righteous story that the hard work we do is crucial, perhaps the most crucial work that humans do. But this pandemic has taught us so much about how many human endeavors are “essential” to our society. The world needs wild and cultivated land. It needs farmers and nurses, delivery drivers and retail clerks, all working together. This is perhaps the greatest comfort to me during this incomprehensible time. With so much at stake, it’s obvious how much there is to care for. The particulars aren’t important—relationships can be formed and care can be enacted in lands both cultivated and wild, in big cities and tiny towns. The earth has shrunk. Individuals can only be healthy through the health of the collective.  It’s not about me, but it is.

“Wild” land in Idaho hasn’t been wild, at least in the romantic, humans-haven’t-altered-it sense, for millennia. Long before my European ancestors arrived here, much of it had been shaped to a large degree by the interactions of Native people with it, people who have burned and tended it, eaten from its sustenance, organized rituals and societies around the principle of caring for it on behalf of the generations to come. European-descended ranchers brought cattle and sheep to Idaho and today the Bureau of Land Management authorizes livestock grazing through permits to private ranchers on over 11,500,000 acres of public land in Idaho.

My understanding of land use isn’t universal. It is a direct outcome of a life lived in this particular state, with its particular policies that have allocated the land contained herein to particular uses. One could argue we’re discussing apples and oranges here—the inherent purposes for wild and agricultural lands are different. But in the end, it is all land, and for better or worse we humans are constantly making decisions about how to interact with it.

In his seminal permaculture book Gaia’s Garden, Toby Hemenway notes that every square inch of land we can use to produce food, timber, and fiber in a city is one less square inch of wild land that needs to be destroyed to provide for our needs. Indeed, human activities in the United States have stretched our footprint across 24 million acres of wild lands between 2001 and 2017, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.[3] Every 30 seconds, the equivalent of a football field of wild lands are lost to human-serving activities like agriculture.  

There has been much talk of what our world will look like in the wake of this pandemic. As I write, efforts are underway to roll back many of the environmental protections of the past in the name of “getting America back to work.” The wild lands that make Idaho what it is will come increasingly under threat as more people move here, with evermore insatiable desires.

COVID is shining a spotlight on the inhumanity and vulnerability of this out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to feeding ourselves. Industrial poultry processing and slaughterhouse workers are being forced to work without adequate protective gear to make sure we keep the supply of cheap meat coming. We’ve got farmers digging massive pits with enormous tractors to bury truckloads of zucchinis and onions that they can’t sell because their vertically-rigid wholesale supply chains have been disrupted. At our tiny seed co-op, we are in the same boat as the rest of our seed industry peers—what we thought would be a 4- to 5-year supply of seeds has gone out the door in one season. It will take us years to regrow our inventory, which means the ripple effects will likely play out for years in the food system.

We can use this opportunity to be proactive in enacting policies that will preserve the agricultural lands in and near our metropolitan areas for agriculture, and work to entice willing and able regenerative farmers onto this land so that it can provide for our needs, or we can go down the other path, the one that leads to more subdivisions and strip malls, with wild lands being bulldozed around the world for our consumption.

So Idaho’s two identities aren’t as disconnected as they initially seem, and looking closely at them further blurs the line between passive observer and active participant. Observing the wild has much to teach us about how best to participate in its cultivation. And a person who drinks a cup of coffee that came from a place where a rainforest was burned and turned into a coffee plantation is an active participant, whether they’re hiking a trail in the wilderness, driving a tractor, or sitting in an office in a city. The earth has shrunk. Individuals can only be healthy through the health of the collective.  It’s not about me, but it is.

[1] Federal Housing and Finance Agency press release, 2/25/2020.

[2] Narducci, Jenna, et al. (2017). Projecting Urban Expansion in the Treasure Valley to 2100. Boise State University MILES program.

[3] Theobald, David M., et al. (2019). Loss and fragmentation of natural lands in the conterminous U.S. from 2001-2017. Center for American Progress.