Saturday night was about knowledge, straight up. Knowledge that could easily be lost. Valuable knowledge, that gave our sweet apples their crunch, and left salted, roasted pecans melting on our tongues.Equal Exchange and Fair Trade USA may parade their glossy pamphlets into a profitable niche market, and consumers might have their qualms about the economics of the minimum price and farmer premiums of Fair Trade in a Free Trade market. We could have talked about accountability, or economics, or about the process and cost of certification, or about exactly how much Barney and Chris pay their Jamaican employees on their 200-acre orchard in Vermont. Any of these topics would most likely have resulted in just as striking and informative an event. But speaking for myself, and Saturday’s Park Slope crowd, we’ve spent time on those topics before. For me, Connecting Movements was different. We were in the upstairs, high ceilinged, dull-green back room of the Park Slope Food Coop, and no one needed a rehearsed sales pitch and a cheery encouragement to “Buy Fair Trade!” Four farmers sat at the front of the room, beside each other: Yocser Godoy Carranza from Coopetrabasur in Costa Rica, Diann Johnson from the Southern Alternatives Agricultural Cooperative in Georgia, and Barney and Chris Hodges from Sunrise Orchards in Vermont. They predictably tipped their hats to the organizations with which they work: Oké USA, the Domestic Fair Trade program of Equal Exchange, and Red Tomato. They credited these groups with finding good markets, and offering helpful assistance.But the elderly woman in the front row wanted to know if the color of the apple told her anything about it’s sweetness. The hoarse, bearded man in the corner wanted to know if global warming had affected the farmers in a tangible way. The little girl, already in full gypsy costume and braided brunette pigtails, wanted to be sure the chocolate she took, to do Equal Exchange’s “reverse trick-or-treating,” would still be good by Wednesday, on Halloween.The girl was not convinced by any reassurance about the chocolate, and announced she’d be putting it in the freezer as soon as she got home. But the elderly woman listened intently as Barney Hodges patiently explained the way different varieties of apples are different colors, how the apples change colors as they mature, though some may get sweet while staying green in the shade of thick branches. Barney, standing up, tall and lanky, a Johnny-Appleseed young father, said he could only guess what changes on the farm were the effects of global warming. What he knew? The nights were warmer this year. Macintosh apples require cool nights to mature into sweetness, and gain their red color, and this year they’d taken weeks longer than usual. It had been a record late harvest.Diann Johnson shared with us a step-by-step account of pecan farming. “How many of y’all know anything about pecan farms?!” she began, almost in a rallying cry, followed by a satisfied chuckle at the air above our heads, not a hand raised. She led us through: the shaker (which shakes the pecan trees), the blower, the sweeper, the harvester, the dump bucket, the assembly line where twigs, hulls, (and snakes!) are cleared away, and where the pecans are washed, baked dry, dumped into a dunlap bag, a holding bag, and then brought to her co-op, where they shell, crack, separate the halves and the pieces, package, and finally sell (!) to individual customers, as well as Equal Exchange. “But it wasn’t that easy!” Diann went on, “Limbs fall when you’re shakin’, and you gotta go and clear ‘em out, one by one. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned all the labor…” She explained how Equal Exchange helped her, especially as a black woman. She’s often blocked in the market, she said, or isn’t taken seriously. But her eyes only lit up again when the elderly woman in the front row asked her pecan question: How do you tell whether the pecans are roasted or salted or candied or raw? Diann smiled and went right ahead, describing every texture and difference, down to the slightly darker color of a roasted nut, and the feel of the salt on your fingers.Yocser Carranza scrunched his broad shoulders and twisted his arms, demonstrating what happens to his plants when there’s too much rain: the flowers stay closed, and the bananas are deformed. When it rains too little, he said, the plant can’t absorb nutrients, the fruit lacks calcium, and often turns a red color that won’t sell at the market. He explained how it would cost less to grow palms for palm oil on the land of his cooperative, rather than bananas, but it takes seven or eight people to work a hectare of bananas, while palms only require one or two. Switching crops would leave 150 families in their community without a job. The social advantage of banana production is more important than the benefits of producing palm more cheaply. Bananas keep everyone in the cooperative employed. Iokser told us how Coopetrabasur decides upon how to use their premium from Oké ($1/box): as a community, with a democratic vote. The cooperative built a hospital for its members, and they’re working to capacitate microfinance enterprises. “In every new project or effort,” Yocser explained, “our goal is to increase community benefits.”Barney mentioned at one point in the evening, “If you buy an apple from Washington, you’re benefiting that farmer as much as you’re benefiting me. What I hope is for my customers to have an association with where their food’s coming from, who grew it, and how. You’re more likely to have that with something grown locally. It’s all about having a connection, with the place, and the people.” I’ll be the first to say, he could ask more of America’s customers. But like I mentioned, this night wasn’t about high-minded ideals and social solutions. It was about the red of an apple, the shake of a pecan tree, the dimensions of a well-grown banana. The event brought together two movements that we often separate – that of local food, and that of Fair Trade – and didn’t need to push the common point. These are people worth supporting, worth knowing, who love what they do, whose knowledge is invaluable. They’re passionate about their land, and they know how to work it. Let these small farms die, in a discriminating, subsidized, or exploitative market, and not only do they lose their land, but we lose their knowledge, and the tastes and relationships their occupation provides.LinksFaces of Fair Trade: Uniting the Global and Local (The Host)Park Slope Food Coop (The Location)Equal ExchangeRed Tomato (see EcoApples Program)Oké USASouthern Alternatives Agricultural Cooperative, Inc.Project Bona FideInterrupción
Archive for October, 2007
I’ve struggled over the past few weeks to focus on a single topic about which to write here, but I expected Thursday night’s lecture at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service to provide some specific food for thought. I knew the event had to do with technology and rural development, and I’ve been interested recently in my classes’ discussions about how innovation and technology affect farming techniques and food production. The title of the event was: The Role of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Rural Development. I should have known what I was getting into. Yet I only registered the situation fully by the speaker’s third reference to an ambiguous “they.” “They” who are so beneficially impacted by cell phones and modern communication possibilities – a vague “they,” eventually identified as rural Indians and Africans (and Central Americans too, if we were being inclusive). The speaker was a professor from NYU’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. And he led a lecture about affecting the “rural development” of developing countries, of course, and the clever, shocking technologies our avant-garde mathematicians are inventing to connect poor, rural populations with the rest of our “developed” world. In general, I fully support cell phones, particularly cell phones in Africa. And even perhaps $100 laptops. Yet the professor began his lecture by admitting to the failure of most technological efforts in the developing world, “because ‘we’ don’t know what is needed, because we make assumptions and act on them before we know what will really help.” The professor admitted this crucial fault in the ICT profession, and went on to outline his newest projects, in which he’ll make exactly the mentioned mistake. But of course he will. He is excited about technology! And about the potential he can and wants to demonstrate. And so the constituent population, not to mention others who are working on alleviating the same problems of poverty and isolation, fall forgotten by the wayside as he carries on with the excitement of academic discovery and innovation.
This semester, my agriculture professor has pinpointed me as the token idealistic, organic, dirt-loving hippy that clings hopelessly to the goal of a certain unreachable agrarian utopia. While, admittedly, such a utopia may very well reside in the back of my head, I initially stood up to my professor’s subtle bullying because I thought she was just jaded. I thought our differences were like those we see in generational politics, in the sense that even some of the most stubborn conservatives were radical when they were young. They grew up and gave up. They got tired of fighting. Yet my professor has highlighted in me a naïve energy characteristic of more than youth. It is characteristic of the leaders and do-gooders of the Western world, as well as of many alternative (radical, liberal) movements. I believe so strongly in particular principles, concerning land and farming and food and consumption, that I (even with a perspective I believe is valid!) hugely oversimplify the sides of a complex reality. I limit myself, identifying only the industrial versus the sustainable (straightforward terms much like developed and developing), the mainstream versus the alternative, the corporate– versus the family-owned. These simple sides do not reflect the agricultural community. There exists an endless variety of soils, perspectives, and cultures that lead to innumerable beliefs, ideals, and practices. There are many tenets that I do not profess, lived out in a practical manner that I very well might strive to mimic. There are many different types of farmers, not just “industrial” versus “sustainable.” And there are innumerable changes under consideration – in land ownership, policy approach, farmer collaboration, worker organization, technology use, and acceptance of GMOs. We cannot (and must not) confine this community of people and ideas to one side of a coin or another. We would miss the intricacies of ideas, the unique details of achievements. Our approach would be naïve and simple, as I have come to recognize, even in the classroom.People who value biological systems, health, and community are not all people cut of the same cloth. We have different political views, different cultural values, different income levels, and we are from places where very different things grow. We are of different religions. We work differently, and we eat differently. And so, acknowledging diversity and justice within the local food movement is not just about recognizing violated labor rights, underserved communities, and unjust trade laws. It is about opening a dialogue with people of various perspectives, who value nutritious food, land stewardship, and local community as much as we do. If we of these values want to talk about change in the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed, even just in the US, we’re gonna have to start recognizing each other’s accents. For me, this means growing up and out of the idealistic student phase, not into a cynical passive adulthood, but into an active and open-eared role of attention and dedication to realizing exactly what it is we all need. It’s seeing what fits this world, beyond what I want, beyond the change I’m excited about. It is actively not making assumptions based on my own limited perspective, but incorporating new and thoughtful ideas into the structure and future of that which I already believe.
Posted in Published (Student Articles) on October 19, 2007|
This little essay was written for Metaphor and Meaning, a class at Gallatin taught by Stacy Pies. While the subject of “metaphor” is not typical for this site, the setting of this piece fits here. That is: the farm where I first started putting thoughts on the table.The Dancing Hummingbird: A Reaction to I.A. RichardsThree years ago, during these months of the fall season, I was living and working on a small organic farm. My hours were spent bottling and corking wine, picking olives from not-so-high-up in the trees, and cooking for the family into whose home I had wedged myself and my perspectives. There were a few weeks when the work was slow, and I could relax after lunch for a few hours. In the evenings too, the family would occasionally leave me to myself while they went to bed early, or when the boys were especially busy with their homework. So I ended up reading several large books while I was there, and writing many long letters as well. I have just scavenged out my old notebook from those days, stuffed with maps and photos, and in which most of the original pages have been ripped out, to be mailed away. The last page, however, remains, with a penciled list of birds, and then cheeses, beside my family’s names. Mary is a Peacock, I wrote, Katie is a Bluebird, John is a Rooster, Peter is a Red-Breast Robin (or an Owl), I am a Hummingbird, and Lizi will soon be a Swan. Mom and Dad are Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, for lack of creativity. I left a line blank and then wrote, Mary is Gorgonzola, Katie is Ricotta, John is Goat Cheese, Peter is Mozzarella (di Bufala), I am Pecorino, and Lizi is Parmiggiano. Mom and Dad are Brie and Cheddar. According to Richards, we mustn’t assume that if we cannot see how a metaphor works, it does not work. Believe me, I have a hard time seeing a Red-Breast Robin in my brother Peter these days, and I stumble over the way Brie and Cheddar don’t particularly go together, considering my parents have been married nearly thirty-five years. Still, reading the simple metaphors makes me laugh at the way I considered my brothers and sisters, and brings me to desperately want their company, even for a moment. Feeling this reaction in myself, I remember why I wrote the silly metaphors, at the age of seventeen. As Richards points out, metaphor need not be (in fact should not be) about visualization. “The language of the greatest poetry is frequently abstract,” he says, and not, as Hulme (and Aristotle) demand, “accurate, precise, and definite.” My family is neither bird nor cheese, nor ever was or appeared to be. But as I wrote them letters from the farm, I faced a strange dilemma: I was living a dance they had never learned. The olives and the grapes, the pastas and cheeses, the chickens and their eggs, the sheep and their lambs (newborns in November!), the dinners and cigarettes and sounds and smells of living on the farm, were all part of a natural and comfortable cycle, of life and work and pleasure. The cycle, or the dance, was one my family had never witnessed. To connect with them, to write them a letter they’d understand, I remember wanting to fit them in, to abstract them into figures of the dance that reflected their characteristics, so that I could write to them about myself with a perspective on what they would see and hear, how they might read what I wrote. Just as “words are the meeting points at which regions of experience…come together,” so I used metaphor to bring together parts of my life that would never meet. The words were the “means of that growth which is the mind’s endless endeavor to order itself.” I was relieved to read Richards’ statement, in slight contrast to what we’ve read until now, that “Words are not a medium in which to copy life. Their true work is to restore life itself to order.” Somehow (but with just this purpose), the imagination of my metaphors rendered me sane and connected, and with complete irrationality, kept me in order.
Get your name on the list: http://www.yale.edu/sustainablefood/RealFoodSummit.html.
Last Monday in Park Slope, Slow Food sponsored an evening featuring three important characters of the local food scene. Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver assured those gathered that Slow Food USA is not just some “upper class eating club.” Yet his claim seemed predictably hard to back up. We all took a seat in the cozy restaurant location, our host Justin poured tastes of beers paired with our food, and the staff began to serve a meal of three delicate, delicious courses. We ate eggplant with spicy oil and olives, endives with blood sausage and a poached quail egg, and house-made pork bratwurst with apple compote and silver-dollar pumpernickel toast. The scene didn’t necessarily reflect obvious ideals of social justice or hard-working activism. Yet I learned to push my cynical criticisms aside: The gathering of distinct but similar-minded people was undeniably positive and productive, and when a meal is enjoyed with acknowledged pleasure, in the name of family farmers, seasonal awareness, and a strong local community…it’s silly to throw stones.Justin Phillips and his wife Trisha proved themselves admirable hosts, generously sharing the contents of Beer Table, their soon-to-open location on 7th Avenue. The couple designed and built the interior of the comfortably small space, and the visible kitchen served up fresh flavors, locally-sourced. The anti-obesity portions may not have filled our bellies, but the various brews did, and I left the easy familiarity and comfort of the setting feeling sure to return.Brian Halweil, founder and editor of Edible East End, and a Member of the Slow Food USA Advisory board, began the evening with an acknowledgement of the backlash against the local food movement recently initiated by mainstream media. Stories like that of Manny Howard’s failed attempt to feed his family from his Brooklyn backyard (New York Magazine, Sept. 2007) totally missed the point, Halweil said. “Eating local is the most encouraging change in our diet today.” Halweil highlighted the way buying locally prevents sprawl, keeps money in the local economy, saves oil, and prompts consumer curiosity about the source of non-local foods. He emphasized the importance of food systems in which the farmer captures the majority of the dollar paid for his products. He mentioned that even large corporations are showing appreciation of the benefits of local food, and dissatisfaction with today’s large, anonymous, long-distance food system. Kaiser-Permanente has started hosting farmers markets at its hospitals, SYSCO is offering regionally sourced meals at some universities, and King Kullen in Long Island spent $15 million this year on Long Island produce. Halweil concluded, “Even the Department of Homeland Security is playing games to predict and prevent agricultural terrorism,” and has apparently identified that the long-distance food system in the U.S. is our biggest Achillles’ heel, rendering us vulnerable to malicious or accidental crisis. The Department has therefore started a program to spread out the food system, and support regional food businesses. “This is a sure sign that the trend of buying local food isn’t going away,” Halweil concluded. “You certainly don’t have to worry that you’ve joined the wrong movement.”Ian Marvy, co-founder and director of Added Value and the Red Hook Community Farm, spoke on a more personal note. He initially informed the audience he would share with us a meditation on Cassandra the first grader, and her watermelon seed. The various years of elementary and high school cropped up several times while Ian spoke, as he told the stories of Cassandra growing a watermelon the size of her body, Timmy considering the business potential of an acre of dandelions, and the students of P.S. 15, summer helpers on the farm, voting, in a block, for green space at their school. Marvy mentioned he was grateful for Howard’s New York Magazine article, because it pointed out exactly what the local food movement is not about: isolationism. The movement is about building a stable, supportive community, especially at the Red Hook Farm, in a neighborhood with an average income of $15,000, where many customers pay for the farm’s produce with food stamps. “We serve restaurants owned by people who live in Red Hook.” Marvy said, “They’re buying food grown in Red Hook, where kids who live in Red Hook work. We’ve created an inter-community flow of money that is hard to find elsewhere.” It’s important to Marvy that much of Added Value’s work is with young people, for whom interacting with soil is often an utterly new experience. The impact is evident in the aforementioned students of P.S.15. After twenty-two weeks of working on the Red Hook farm, the first through third graders “had “invested in themselves a sense of ownership and knowledge,” Marvy recounted, “and what they wanted to do, given space and dollars, was produce food.”Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster and founding board member of Slow Food USA, concluded the evening, shifting our focus with a jovial sense of humor. He joked about the excuses of Americans who “don’t have time to cook,” but would never miss the premiere of Survivor. He regretfully expressed the way Americans doubt their “right to pleasure,” and don’t learn from the habits of Italians, who would never question why one might not take off the whole month of August. “Slow Food is not a protest movement,” said Oliver, “and that is why it is sexy, and vital.” Oliver highlighted the history of Brooklyn, and the way Brooklynites revolve back to neighborhood values. “We were always brewers here,” he said, “we were always farmers here.” Oliver even remembers his little backyard efforts in Queens, growing (a good two dinners’ worth) of corn for his family of five. Slow Food, according to Oliver, is working on honest transparency, on dispelling “the big lies” of how and where our food is made, what we are eating, and the idea that we need to use chemicals to feed the world. “What you discover when you move closer and closer to the truth,” Oliver said with a comfortable smile, “is that your life improves.”The little crowd exchanged stories afterwards, about Brooklyn and beer preference, farmer’s markets and familiar meals. I found myself describing to the couple beside me that I may be partial to the local food movement because I left my childhood neighborhood so early. My family moved from our home when I was six, and we never really grew roots again until settling in New York, not many years ago. Of course, my support for family farming has a number of concrete principles behind it. But it’s also true that my focus on local farming has been my main source of community in New York. As far as hoping to wake up “local” anywhere, being in Brooklyn was my first shot. And the community surrounding food here has made it happen.Slow Food’s event on Monday reminded me of a feeling I’ve had before, that joining the food-conscious community is like joining an ongoing dance. We are connected, active, and learning. We are a movement, about workers getting paid for what they produce, children growing up with an education that includes their nutrition and health, and community that can take advantage of the natural, historical resources of their neighborhood, their environment, and their region. It’s about relationships, I thought as I left Beer Table, full of names and faces and the excitement of foreseen collaboration. It’s about moving with the day-to-day trust, of our recognized dependence on each other.As far as I can see, Slow Food knows these steps by heart.Related (Mostly Bklyn) Links:Edible BrooklynAdded Value (October 20th Harvest Festival!)Brooklyn BrewerySlow Food USA
Last night we held a barbecue in my apartment, in preparation for the Real Food Summit, to gather together the New York students who are working on food and sustainability. I hesitate to describe the cast of characters, or give my delighted account of their quirks and ideas, as the same people probably make up the entire readership of this essay. But the party itself can be described through an older memory of mine, and all who read should get a sense of the merry scene. Two years ago in late October, I visited my friend Ashley on the commune where she works upstate, for a barn party and concert to which I’d received the invitation in the mail, stenciled in red paint on an old newspaper she’d folded and sent to my parent’s address. A boy picked me up at the Poughkeepsie station, in a car seeping in sweet soil and salty sweat, smelling of tempura, and we drove up to the house, windows down, just as the chill that hadn’t yet reached the city rendered the warm kitchen light more welcoming than home on Christmas.The kitchen couldn’t have been conjured up in my imagination. There were a dozen pots boiling at once, warming the chill sweet air; oven trays leaning precariously on stacks of bowls lined with peeled-out dough; piles of cooling fresh-baked squash-based bread, flour everywhere, greens boiling and grains soaking, lentils stewing, carrots being chopped, and suddenly the oven was open, and pies, huge, bubbling, mushroom-cap fairytale pies, filled with apples, apples, and cinnamon and sugar that finely coated the floor as well as every finger, as well as the hot sticky sweet slices in the six fat pies, decadently overflowing their pans.Last night at the barbecue, we introduced ourselves one by one, but there was no introducing anyone in this kitchen. If you didn’t know everyone already, you’d heard enough stories about each of them to know them better than some silly handshake. I grabbed a knife, and helped chop. There were so many vegetables, it didn’t matter what was being made. Everything needed to be rendered cookable, from its state of soil-caked freshness, and if you could find a knife in the cartoon-like mile-high stack of dishes and silverware, you might as well rinse and chop.We ate in the barn, sang, and danced, and swam in the little lake, banishing fears of pneumonia with thick blankets and seats on the hot rocks by the bonfire. I considered the colors of hair, red curly, brown thick and long, blond dreads, all more vivid for their fullness of grease and sleep and after-pond smoke. I had known no one but Ashley, and she and I barely spoke until the next morning, when we dug into the reheated pies, with fanatic enthusiasm. There were no dishes left then, but we held slices in our hands and guzzled the warm sweet apples like there would be no other warmth within all us winter. I had a sense of what mattered, that day and half. It was like I’d stopped short, struck with love for a bystander, while running an Olympic race. I’d been living in the city, trying not to get caught up in the petty moments of loneliness and academic competition, the idea of a career, wondering if I had neighbors. And here there were people arriving from twenty miles away, on their bikes, with baskets full of sausages, and parsnips, from their next-door farmer. There was not a thing to bring these people together – and we were at least fifty or sixty – except music and a meal. But not a single dish had been brought without a person and a friendship behind it. The vegetables I chopped, the fresh herbs, the apples, the stews, the meats, the greens, the juices – all ingredients had come from the backyard, or next door, or from so and so who’d just biked miles in the dark. They’d recently finished their sawdust composting outhouse, and the car ran on tempura oil from the downtown Japanese restaurant. There was nothing to be cynical about in this scene. I had only to learn. Every detail of that farm had someone behind it to explain why and how and when they’d made it, from what, and where the parts had been found: the car, the outhouse, the fences, the oven, the barn’s loft. They’d built everything.I knew pretty quickly these were people I could learn from and love, people who I’d live with in a heartbeat, whose stories and priorities actually ran their lives, who could have a lot of fun, without ever jokingly discounting the things we really cared about. They were people that could trust me like they did each other. There was nothing there to do but feel like one of many siblings, a family of raw, creative, hard-working people, and there was nothing more important there than our knowledge, our friendship, and our energy.You have to water it down a little of course, to return to the evening at hand. Last night we were in a basement apartment, we were about fifteen altogether, not a particularly diverse group, and academics don’t smell of soil and sweat. I have a stovetop that fits one large pot, not a dozen. And we had no pie, I’ll admit. But more or less, yesterday, in spirit, my excitement was the same.