24 February 2009

Encouraging change in your community

Well, I'm posting my responses back up as a new blog again because I would like to keep this conversation going. We had to take a few days to sort out how to respond back to the over-population theory, and I'll be posting more on that later this week. I also wanted to say thanks to Bishops Homegrown who really detailed a lot of the solutions that I only threw a passing reference to. But first off, I wanted to respond to Farmmom and Trapper Creek, fellow rural homesteaders who see a lot of the same things we see around us.

Farmmom and Trapper Creek, living out in the country as you both are, I am sure you see many examples of the devastating mismanagement of natural resources practiced in market-driven big-ag. And your own examples of low-input sustainable food production provide a stark contrast to this model. Because of this contrast, we often feel that we are living in a different world than our neighbors, which makes communication difficult because we lack a shared vision, and share only a few common goals, such as the notion of a continued quality of life for the next generation. But our notions of how to achieve that common goal is a wide gulf to cross. We greatly sympathize with both of your frustrations at being daily confronted with what seems clearly to all of us, not just a misuse of resources, but also an ethical issue. What Trapper Creek's cabbage growing neighbor does with his soil, water and crops affects all of us. It is painful to see that food go to waste, especially in the face of empty food banks, and the hungry children and families in our own communities. Every year that Prince Edward Island has a bumper crop of potatoes, the potato farmers collectively dump many thousands of tonnes of perfectly good potatoes into the ocean just to keep the price up. They report this fact on the local news in the Fall, and at the same time, the local food banks are broadcasting public service messages asking for donations to meet the high demands of the Christmas season and winter months.

I believe that a few of the farmers and food banks started to work together, and the food banks would accept bags of potatoes, but most food banks have restrictions on the types of produce they accept. And although the farmer gets a tax-writeoff for the donation, it does cost him money to harvest the crop. I wondered if a U-pick style would work, basically the biblical gleaning method. But I doubt that many of the families that must rely on food banks in difficult times would harvest and either store or process the food. Perhaps it would require a new approach to donating to a food bank. Instead of donating money or peanut butter and canned goods, people in the community could donate their time to meet the farmer half-way and either harvest or process/bag the “excess” produce. In some cases, even setting up a community food-kitchen to can the produce so that it can be stored and distributed by the food bank.

Of course this would require some sort of politicking and educating on the municipal level, and food safety standards would need to be met. But I would imagine that this kind of approach would open the door a little wider between “us” and the big-ag farmer who has been doing the same thing for years and perhaps cannot afford to take the risk (or cannot quite see the way) of dramatically altering the way that he farms. It does not work to approach the farmer in opposition, nor would it work to shove books and literature into his mailbox to try and “educate” him about a new model. We need to build a bridge to reach across that gulf. And that is usually harder to do than any of the work that follows.

We have a neighbor with a small farm, who grew up surrounded by big-ag, and who believes that the Green Revolution of chemical farming is the only way to feed the world. He uses roundup in his garden, and everything that goes along with that approach. He often ridicules our organic approach to growing food, and sees us as eccentric idealists. But we keep the conversation going, and we see him watching what we do. He looks through our garden, and sees that we have fewer pests or disease, year after year, than he has in his garden, and that we often get bigger harvests. He also watches our animals and how healthy they are, and that we have treated common ailments without antibiotics. He never openly acknowledges these things, we just watch him watching us.

When we planted our grain without any “inputs” and no herbicides, he came over and walked through the field and basically told us that we would not get much of a crop. But in the fall, when we had harvested a decent crop of grain, and most of the grain fields around here were lost because the farmers could not get their harvesters over the soggy fields, or had lost the crop to fungus, our neighbor kind of gave us a nod. He did not openly approve of our methods, instead, he put his own sheep and goat manure on his garden for the first time in decades and came over to explain to us how he would not need to buy so much fertilizer next spring. It was amusing to see him explain it to us as his own idea that had occurred to him when he thought back to the garden his mother used to grow when they were too poor to afford fertilizer, and not as any sort of response to what he had seen in our garden. He has good memories of his mother, and it is kind of a basic human response that we sometimes need to associate a new or opposing idea with something good from our past experience in order to accept that new idea, no matter how much physical evidence and data we are confronted with to try and convince us. We don't pay much mind to his ridicule of organic farming because we know it is backed up by years of thinking that way, and we don't much mind whether or not he openly learns anything from us, we have just kept the conversation going, and kept our door and our garden open to him, because he has to make up his own mind in order to change his well-worn beliefs and well-trodden paths. So I guess that's what I've got in response to your question Trapper Creek “any ideas on educating everyone, besides just keep plugging away as we are?”. Keep plugging away. Keep churning the issues, like churning butter. And keep the conversation going.

On a personal note, I've just read this out to my husband and he laughs and says to me that this blog is beginning to sound like a Dear Abby advice column. Ha! Oh my. Sorry if it sounds that way to you all too, I guess I'm full of advice and organic fertilizer! In truth I'm writing this out as “advice” and ideas for myself as well, and using your comments and this blog as a sounding board.

It is a lot easier for me to learn how to grow vegetables than it is to learn how to communicate well with people, especially people I do not share many common views with. My conventional education did not teach me much in the way of communication skills, conflict resolution and emotional intelligence, and by hiding in books most of my life, I got away without learning these skills. About a year ago, I found a great site about emotional intelligence and communication skills, it is practical and I like the way it is written (it's not flaky), and I find that most of what the author says is true. I am finding that these skills are just as important as "survival" or homesteading skills because in order to start acting on some collective or collaborative solutions, we need to be able to sit down at the table together and work some things out. Here's the link.


Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Dear Abby, err I mean Freija - we'll just keep plodding away. We were involved for a long time with a gleaning project at our Grange, however the group morphed into something we could no longer devote time to. Original members tired and new members wanted to approach more grocery stores for outdated "foods." Now after 6 years, the program does not resemble the original. Instead of fresh in-season produce, the group has concentrated on getting organic processed and overly packaged food, and a plethora of bread products. They have purchased freezers, but no refrigeration - their thinking is that produce is too perishable! So we have turned to helping others who want to learn to graze, and grow more vegetables. Ideally, we would like it to be our neighbors, but that will be a slow build. They too are curious like your neighbor, asking questions, and trying a few new things. A friend of ours maintains a great website www.eatwild.com, so we have purchased some of her books at a nominal cost, and if someone is interested, we hand them a book at no charge. We also offer to help them locate good minerals etc. We can add several bags on to our order and know that more stock will have access to better minerals, which will in turn help the land regenerate. We were pleasantly surprised to see a neighbor flame weeding his pasture. Ideally I think if he moved his cattle more often, the weeds would go away - but I keep telling myself, baby steps...

Thanks for the link - we can all use some help in the communication department!

Cindy said...

I agree with so much you've said here! Its heartbreaking just how much food gets thrown away on a daily basis- which is why I've started to turn away from the world overpopulation theory to the "we suck at allocating resources" bandwagon

I remember a couple of years ago finidng an online garden challenge to "Plant a row for the Hungry", and donate that extra produce to a food bank. If everyone did this it would greatly help strained food banks and help local communities. Sadly no local food bank in my area would accept my perfectly clean and healthy produce because it didnt have a USDA inspection stamp on it and therefore a lawsuit liability. In the end I managed to leave boxes of it out in the parking lot on distribution days with a sign and it sure enough always vanished in minutes. Its irritating when we as individuals can't even help because of legal red tape.

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

Trapper Creek, it sounds like you are doing some great work in your community, those baby steps do add up, after all, we all started with baby steps. That is too bad about your local gleaning group, but it does seem to be the easier route, to focus on packaged and processed food. Perhaps it is more fruitful to put that effort into encouraging and helping people grow their own produce, in backyards or community gardens. And these big wasteful farms will just die out in their own time (or make that shift) as they become less relevant to the local food system. Oregon has some great university and institutional research and educational programs centered around local food systems, and that is very encouraging. My sister lives in Portland, and we are beginning to make plans to move back that way in a few years. Thank you for being one of the unacknowedged and untold community activists who has helped make Portland and Oregon such a leader in change, it is an inspiration.

Cindy, Hi geogal! I guess for some of these kinds of neighbor helping neighbor activities, it is sometimes better to just skip over the red tape. You are free to give your produce to your friends and family without USDA food safety certification, so why not the hungry and needy in your community? I have heard of community food boxes showing up in neighborhoods or rec centers, full of backyard produce, like I used to see the neighborhood “free box” full of goodies for the taking. Where I can really see these fresh produce donations going to good use is at a soup kitchen, for homeless people who do not have the facilities to prepare, cook and store food, even if they had a community garden plot to grow produce. Soup kitchens are already certified food safe, but I do not know what standard the donated produce needs to meet? Perhaps if one were to form a relatioship with those running the soup kitchen, they would overlook the red tape and accept small donation of fresh backyard produce? Mabye it really takes a whole different approach, like growing a row of produce for the hungry (which is a great idea that I totally love), and then going through the cooking and canning in your own kitchen, making something like canned soup, and handing them out yourself to the homeless in your community? One year, after a big family camping trip, we had a huge amount of food leftover, things like cheese, bread, lunchmeat, and my sister and I were driving through San Francisco, and passed the food out the window to the homeless on each corner and red light that we stopped at. In some cases, this was not met with smiles, we gave a crusty loaf of bread to a man who opened his mouth and showed us his gums and asked us how we thought he should eat it, and that he prefered money for his own liquid diet. That is perhaps why the canned soups would be a good option, they are nutritious, soft on the gums, and can be eaten cold. Perhaps even building a relationship with a few of the homeless people who might be willing to distribute the canned soups, and collect the jars back to be filled again? These kinds of grassroots solutions are in some cases civil disobedience, and require courage and forming relationships within the community, but perhaps have the greatest potential for change, take for example Ghandi and Rosa Parks. I would have been too scared or intimidated to do these things 10 years ago when I was in the cities, but as I gain confidence in my own ability to take care of myself and others, I am also gaining confidence in the human potential for change. Baby step by baby step!

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

I drove past the cabbage farm in question the other day, and the ditches were running full of muddy water and soap suds, which I believe where probably caused by the sticker/spreader used for the sprays they employ. However, I was struck by the sheer waste of effort involved in the growing of these acres of unharvested crops, and realized that if this farmer and his neighbors don't rethink their practices and learn different marketing techniques they will just sell their land and where one farm is polluting, 200 houses with paved areas and all the trappings of suburban life will replace it. I will take the cabbage farmer any day.

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

Trapper Creek, well that is another way to look at it! You are right, the amout of topsoil the farmer loses on his fields does not compare to the "developer's" notion of removing all of the topsoil and paving over it. It is impossible to drive past those ditches full of soil and chemicals that should not make it into our water system, without a sinking feeling. But we are beginning to hear conventional farmers and ag-dept teachers speaking about something called soil science and hummus. Change is in the air.