A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a TEDx talk by Ben Falk (which I’ll put at the bottom of this post), and today I watched it while eating lunch. My lunch was nice — a big salad and some of the bread I made yesterday, but apart from the actual making of the bread, the rest of it was store-bought and I hadn’t grown any of the ingredients myself. There’s nothing in the garden that’s ready to pick yet, aside from herbs and the celery that lasted through the winter — way too much celery really, so I’ve been feeling a bit rabbity this week since Alvaro doesn’t like the stuff. I’ve duly noted this and won’t bother planting so much celery this year.
So while I was happy with my nice midday salad, I couldn’t help feeling a bit envious of Falk’s rural Vermont homestead. What a dream, to be able to grow almost all of your own food, grains included, as well as medicinal herbs and eggs from happy chickens. To be able to feed yourself almost entirely with what you’d coaxed into being with your own two hands.
But it also got me thinking again about something that has nagged me for years: we, the people who are into this sort of stuff, salivate over lush foodscapes like Falk’s backyard while at the same time living in apartment blocks, paved-over suburbs or cities, with a lucky few having a few square feet of balcony. The rest have to be contented with windowsill boxes… if that — I once lived in a studio apartment whose two windows looked out onto a fire escape, barbed wire fence, and the next building’s wall eight feet away. We didn’t get much sun so I tried to compensate by painting the place canary yellow.
More than half of the world’s population today lives in urban areas, and I’m sure many people living in apartments like mine would, like me, be very happy to get away from it all and live somewhere that doesn’t smell like car exhaust, and isn’t so cramped that the guys working on the scaffolding of the building across the way can see what TEDx video you’re watching while eating your supermarket lunch. But not everyone who wants to can get out — because of finances, family, work, available land to buy — and even if they did, where would they all go? Wikipedia has just told me that if we were to spread out the human population over the Earth’s land mass, excluding Antarctica, we would be more than 50 people per square mile — and that’s taking into account land mass including the top of Mont Blanc and the middle of the Mohave Desert.
Thus, it’s not going to happen, that we as a species can all heed the call to go back to the land. That isn’t to say that those who have the inclination and possibility to do it shouldn’t. If Alvaro and I are lucky enough to score a piece of land upon which to cultivate our paradise, we’ll certainly jump at the chance. For that, Falk’s talk is some lovely farm porn, something to dream about and work towards, but it remains that there need to be some alternatives presented that better take into account the fact that this dream is not realizable for everyone — nor is it for everyone.
I organized a walking tour for a group of art students yesterday that ambled through the streets of Geneva on mission to discover alternative systems of food production in this urban landscape. We saw large and small plots of fruits and vegetables, chicken runs and bee hives, beautiful and cared for pockets of land squeezed in among old buildings and new ones. It all looked so precarious, and yet at the same time gave a tiny taste of the way things could be — even with Geneva’s housing crisis — if there existed the political and cultural will to change. Problem is, there isn’t really. As is the case in other cities, there are very few urban gardening projects in Geneva that take the long view. There are a few exceptions, but most urban gardeners here have to be contented with a few square meters of clay-heavy soil in peripheral areas or parcels of land that the city lets them use temporarily while finalizing the permits for an upcoming construction project. (The latter is the case of my community garden — I’ll give an update on that here soon.) There is no grand urban planning scheme here, no thought to preserving green spaces aside from the city parks. Always there is the cry of “but we’re in a housing crisis” and “but all these immigrants need apartments.” These sound like excuses to me, because look around Geneva and you’ll see plenty of buildings that are either vacant or vacated of meaning, shops filled with fast fashion and electronics that will stop working after two years, offices whose sole purpose is to pass paper around or trade decimals of wheat. We don’t have a housing issue — we have a priorities issue.
I’m afraid I don’t have any sweeping plans that I can take to the Grand Conseil tomorrow, so this will be filed under Complaints with No Clear Alternative Offered. I will therefore leave you with Ben Falk’s video, and continue pondering the issue and try to figure out something that at least I personally can do about it.
Art is one of the better ways to show this cultural diversity that at the same time is intimately related to the natural world, which for us now means also the production and designing of “bio-artifacts”. Corn is a bio-artifact. But we have to learn to see degrees, nuances and be more specific in the kind of analysis that we make when we draw a border between the natural and the artificial.
It can be said that there is no problem with transgenic food, but there is no consensus in the scientific community about this. And this should be enough to have more precaution. But I insist, what is at stake is not only the way in which we produce food and what for, but also how we dwell in this world, and what cultural diversity are we willing to preserve and respect.
One sunny morning last autumn I went to the farmers’ market for pumpkins, eggs, and whatever vegetables were still available at this, the final market of the season. One of the more prominent booths, Magic Garden, featured friendly elderly ladies offering produce, dried herbs, and a dozen different types of relishes and sauces in home-canning jars.
“We can do this now,” one of them said brightly while passing her arm above the display, “thanks to that new law.”
The law to which the vendor referred was Oregon HB 2336, signed in 2011 and implemented in January 2012, which allows farmers to process their own produce in a limited number of ways, and then sell directly to consumers in a farmers’ market setting. Previously, the canning would have been required to occur in a licensed commercial kitchen.
We went a bit off topic after the point where I left off, so, getting back to things…
Olivier: We can’t get to everything in one day, you should come back this summer, to see the mill and the other things we have going on here.
Me: You use a stone mill?
Olivier: Yep, stone mill, it’s about five kilometers from here, at my friend’s place. I use that, I can’t do everything here by myself so I’ve got Raphael (his neighbor) and his mother and father who help with things.
Me: Do you make bread too?
Olivier: Not really but I can. We’ve got flour here after all! I’ll give you some before you go, I can give you a bag of durum flour.
Me: Really! I’d love that. (Note: I was sent away with three kilos plus two bags of the pasta the intern was weighing out. The flour’s already been made into dough, slow-proofing in the fridge right now to be baked this afternoon. Report to come.)
When we left off, Olivier and I had started talking about multinationals’ hold on the free exchange and cultivation of seeds.
Olivier: I’m possibly going to have an opportunity to go to Iran. Apparently there’s a phenomenal museum there with a rich amount of information on the history of agriculture. We’ve got to discover those things.
Me: I was in Armenia this past August, and apparently there are fields of wild wheat somewhere —
Olivier: Oh right, Aegilops? It was Aegilops?
Me: I think that’s right. There was a conservation program during the Soviet era, and with the end the program was left to one side with all that happened after the fall. But it seems from what we found that these fields are still somewhere between Yerevan and Ararat. We went out looking for them, a bit blindly, and didn’t find anything. But that’s the story as we understand it, that the fields are out there practically on the side of the highway.
Olivier: Aegilops, it was most likely that. You know it’s the same thing with apple trees. The apple trees in Azerbaijan, there’s a fantastic genetic reserve, I’ve heard it’s really something.
Me: So the seeds you use here? You’ve got to start by getting them from somewhere established…
Olivier: National conservatories. Now they’re doing something else, with the seed banks. It first happened in the US, more of this bullshit. The big businesses, they go pick up seeds that are accessible for the public at large — it’s a common good. The corporations take the seeds and make a genetic profile of them, they file a patent, and then nobody else can use them without paying. Patenting a form of life.
Me: How do they justify that? They don’t change anything in the genetic makeup.
Olivier: They influence the state, they have lobbying power. They’re more powerful than the state.
Me: But wait — if I’m understanding correctly, they take seeds to do tests and make a genetic profile, and with that they say —
Olivier: That they own it.
Me: That’s insane! It’s like they take me and —
Olivier: Exactly, they take you, they do your genetic profile, and they say, “We own her. She doesn’t own herself, we own her.” It’s unbelievable. If you had told me this sort of thing five or six years ago, I wouldn’t have believed that such idiocy could be happening. It’s an instance of a fiction becoming real. But with these sorts of things, we can’t be afraid. We have to work together, pool our resources. Above all to not be alone. With us farmers, we’re there, we’re outdoors working, and the more we work together the more autonomous we become.
Me, personally, I’m looking for autonomy. I can’t quite do it yet because I have to work. In the current financial system, we’re obliged to do so. But we can still do things. I’ve got two hands and a head. And land, and forests, good land. That’s capital. And I’ve got seeds, and food, everything. I have an enormous potential. A richness in diversity. That’s what we don’t realize. It’s not necessary to have 10,000 square meters, but with an area of 5,000 or 10,000 square meters you can do big things. There are a lot of openings. It works if you’ve got two hands and a lot of motivation, and a vision of life and a future that’s open.
We must reappropriate knowledge, because we’re going to need it in the future. We think we’re all big and strong now, we think we’ve mastered everything. The reality is that civilization has never been so vulnerable. You don’t know how to make your clothes, feed yourself.
Last week I spent an afternoon hanging out with Olivier, a farmer who grows ancient varieties of wheat and other grains, some of them existing since the time of the Gauls, in a little village outside Romont, Switzerland. I took the train out, he picked me up at the station, and we rode out to his farm to discuss wheat, bread, seeds and agrobusiness.
Olivier: So here we have a ton of pasta. I prepare packages of 400 grams. The pasta’s made by a friend of mine who does organic cultivation next door, and uses my flour for the pasta. I don’t have a mill at the farm, but he has a big machine that he bought for making pasta, and a mill, we can go see it, it’s part of the process.
(a huge racket made by pouring out the dried pasta into a big plastic bowl for measuring) And there you go, this is great. We have a finished product, and there’s no middleman, nobody between us and the consumer.
(speaking to the farm intern who sat with us at the kitchen table filling up bags of pasta while we talked) So you put the bag there on the scale, take the scoop and measure out 400 grams into each bag and staple it shut, okay?
Student: Okay, great!
Olivier (to me): Anyway so I was saying there, there are 200 varieties of ancient wheat. We grow various kinds, and with them we arrive at a mixture of these different varieties to have a genetic potential that’s diversified. Mixtures are going to be more balanced because there are different sorts of wheat, each of which is going to contribute something. So it’s a question of letting nature do its thing. I don’t select, I don’t go looking for the stalks of wheat that I like —
Me: So wait, you don’t keep specific seeds from the year before — ?
Olivier: Exactly, I keep everything, all of it, seeds from the planting across the board. I’m not looking to make a particular selection myself. Let nature do the work.
Me: Letting it evolve on its own.
Olivier: Exactly. Of course, back in the day people chose seeds from certain stalks of wheat to keep, and that gave us the now established varieties. So now, I let it go on its own. The natural conditions are imposed — by the soil, by the environment, which is going to create a space that reinforces the conditions for growing, and for us. We live in this space, so we eat what grows in the region, which corresponds to our conditions of life. It’s a logic, a natural logic. That’s why I don’t intervene.
(taking one of the bags of pasta the intern was filling) That’s a good bundle, 400 grams. Pass me the stapler please? Voilà, finished.
Me: And you sell this in shops?
Olivier: Not at all. Not interested in being controlled. The best way to kill agriculture is with the law, specifically laws on hygiene. European laws are dismantling everything how it once was. (holding up the bag) You see, no labels, but there’s no need, this’ll keep for a year.
Me: You started talking a bit before about the story of how you got into doing all this …
Olivier: Right. And like I said, you need to know the story of where you came from in order to know where you’re going. The roots.
- How to plant a tree, Milkwood style
- 10 shocking photos that will change how you see consumption and waste
- Down to Earth: Small Farm Issues in a Big Farm World (documentary — via Shawndra Miller)
- What if everything you knew about grains was wrong? (via Root Simple)
- a blade of grass: socially engaged art
and I discovered this publishing house today (like I need any more books): Permanent Publications
** PLANT UPDATE **
When I was three years old we went to go visit my mom’s uncle Mark and aunt Mary on their farm in Kentucky. My only memory of the trip was coming upon a litter of newborn kittens in the barn, but I’m told that I also “helped” Mark plant pumpkins, and for the rest of the week-long visit kept pestering him as to when they would be ready to pick. I kind of feel like that still. (PS The punchline of the farm story is that come October we received a gigantic package in the mail — my dad had to go out to the mail truck to help the postman carry it inside. It was addressed to me, and we opened it up to find a hundred-pound pumpkin inside. There’s Uncle Mark for you.)
Luckily, with adulthood comes patience (sometimes). The germination corner of the dining room table has been steadily turning green, and some of its contents will be ready for planting in about a month.
Eggplant (finally — I’d all but given up hope because the seeds were pretty old):
And in the other room, my intrepid little avocado tree:
Last Friday Mas and I spent from late morning till early evening waking up our garden parcel for planting. I felt like we did loads of work but when I stood back to look at it at the end of the day it still looked like a dormant, wintry patch of soil for the most part. That will change.
Before: (our parcel is L-shaped, the one covered with branches on the exterior there)
The biggest chore was cutting back and pulling out much of the grass that had crept into the parcel. We grow food, not lawns. Pulling out all that grass along with its big, stubborn roots only confirmed my hatred of the species.
Mas spent most of the day re-edging the outer border of the plot and began preparing the ground for planting flowers. We’re hoping that will keep the grass from creeping up again, in addition to attracting bees. And looking pretty.
In addition to direct sowing a variety of seeds, I planted ten or so baby potatoes that had sprouted in my kitchen. We’re going to make a potato tower but in the meantime I marked the spot with a rock circle. If our neighbors ask I’ll tell them it’s an energy vortex.
The most fun part of the day for me was starting to build an herb spiral. I’d seen one before in the garden of a friend of Mas’s, and when the friend explained the system it made so much sense that I decided I needed to try it. I have a thing for architectural feats of gardening. We don’t have a lot of space to work with (the link there suggests 2 meters diameter) so it’s a bit edited down, but still in keeping with the principles.
There’s very clear, detailed explanations of all of this on the site I linked to above, but basically the structure of an herb spiral creates micro climates through the particular orientation of the spiral, rock walls, and varying elevation to effect soil hydration. Plants that call for more sun, more heat, and less water are planted toward the top of the spiral, while plants requiring more water and less sun are planted toward the bottom (oriented toward the north). All this means that you can grow more and diverse herbs in a smaller space than you normally could with straight planting on level ground.
Building the spiral:
I ran out of rocks (O Woe Is Ye, say people with rocky soil) so I’m going to need to track down some more. Also we only had three herbs in the garden (rosemary, oregano, thyme) so that’s all there is for now. Only the oregano did well last year, so I’m hoping the change of scenery for the other two will do some good. I’d like to add chives, cilantro, parsley, and mint, but I’m a little afraid of planting mint lest it take over the entire yard. To be seen.
This week I’m going to get some leeks, lettuce, and radish in the ground, in addition to the new herbs. Plus a whole load of onions — one of “my people” at the farmer’s market gave me a freebie couple of handfuls of onion seedlings.
So, this is the garden after all that hard work:
You see what I mean? Five hours of intense work and this is what we have to visibly show for it. People in need of instant gratification, beware.
My little tree making its way toward the light.
I disconnected from electronics this weekend, which didn’t take much effort because our computer finally went to a better place. And took my work along with it. RIP.
So I took that to mean that I should take off the weekend, enjoy the sunshine, go for walks, drink some beers and spend some time away from my research. That almost worked — I bought two books. Oops!
Anyway, last night I checked my email and the blog and discovered on the blog’s site stats page that over the weekend I had 20 visitors (or 20 separate visits from one person maybe, not sure how the count works) from New Zealand.
My question to you, New Zealanders, is this: who are you and how did you get here? (Here to my blog, not like here in the existential sense.) I’m very curious to know why I’m suddenly big in New Zealand.
It’s early February. This means:
Time to sprout seeds! (And be in denial that spring is still a ways off.) That was my bib lettuce about a week ago. Today the sprouts look like this:
In addition to some of my favorites (tomatoes, green beans, squash), I really want to plant some vegetables this year that I’ve never eaten before, homegrown or not. In that vein I’m kind of tempted to order okra — I’ve eaten it once but it was smothered in gumbo sauce so I couldn’t tell what it tasted like. The only thing holding me back from ordering it is a memory I have of a graphic nighttime outhouse scene from the children’s book When I Was Young in the Mountains in which the protagonist experiences some nasty effects from eating too much okra. I do not want that to happen to me.