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100 million new farmers? North Carolina writer calls for agricultural revolution

Last year, I interviewed Concord resident Aaron Newton, one of the few people I know who has gone beyond academic conversations about peak oil and climate change to making comprehensive lifestyle changes.

Newton has since co-written a book called "A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil," which is nothing short of a call to arms for local food proponents. Newton and New York writer Sharon Astyk call for a grassroots-led agricultural revolution that would result in 100 million people becoming farmers and millions more becoming home cooks.

It sounds like a radical idea. At first. But reading their book, one comes away with the feeling that this makes plenty sense; without a credible alternative, more Americans will grow food in order to tackle various food-related challenges, including the desire to move away from agriculture's dependence on fossil fuels.

Already, we see the local food movement gaining momentum and converting decision-makers at high levels. Grassroots groups await a vegetable garden at the White House. An official with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has written about peak oil and will be speaking at a health conference at Johns Hopkins University this week (you also have this). N.C. lawmakers Ray Rapp and Charles Albertson are drafting a bill for a state food policy council as part of a local foods/sustainable agriculture initiative by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. And community gardens are popping up all over the country; I've heard that Guilford College is one of the latest to add a garden this year.

So it seems that food has become a focal point around which people concerned about climate change, fossil fuels depletion and price volatility, the credit crisis and the recession, health and national security rally.

"A Nation of Farmers" fleshes out how this movement can hit critical mass and what American food systems can look like in the future. One proposed concept is the "bulls-eye diet," a perhaps more approachable framework for local eating than the popular "100-mile diet."

Update: Listen to the podcast below; in it Newton talks about the bulls-eye diet.

Newton and Astyk also explain how Americans will need to change the way they prepare meals in order to get full use out of what they grow. This means learning how to cook again -- they are quick to point out that this is not just a woman's job -- and eating more seasonal salads, soups, casseroles and stir fries.

The book is filled with personal anecdotes (both writers garden/farm and are married with young children), recipes and interviews with heavyweights in the areas of peak oil, climate change, and farming: Richard Heinberg, Bill McKibben, Gene Logsdon and Albert Bates. They write about the value of the informal economy, explain their preference for the reduction in scale of government, and present numerous arguments for why the conventional agricultural paradigm will not work going forward.

They write:

"The idea that the same system that depleted aquifers, created the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and enabled the transmission of mad cow disease will magically cease causing problems and merely create solutions is nonsense, and yet we are accustomed to believing it. It requires a belief in a linear, climactic vision of humanity, in which we are perfected by technology; but, of course, we have been trained in that vision, so we find it immediately accessible."

The writers also dispute the perception among some that the push for small-scale agriculture is elitist and disenfranchises those without access to land:

"It is possible that this may be a fair critique of a few strains of the movement. But what we've seen is the contrary -- thousands of people out there are reaching out to protect their own but also to extend their preserve to include some small piece of the world that belongs to them.... I think most of us, once we begin to move past our immediate panic responses to the changes in front of us, realize that we serve ourselves by serving others, that our communities matter as much as our homes and families, that there is no future in which we merely feed ourselves."

It will be interesting to see how the tensions between conventional, large-scale farmers and small-scale garden farmers are worked out. On a personal note, I know that the number of vegetable gardeners in Greensboro is becoming more diverse - racially and socioeconomically. On the other hand, an established farmer in Forsyth County told me last week that he supports the local food/sustainable agriculture movements because the many failures he believes will occur should give people a greater appreciation for the hard work and dedication farming requires.

You can find much of what Newton and Astyk have written on their Web sites. Newton, a land planner by training, is working in the Concord area to promote local foods. He has started a community garden in his neighborhood and is participating in a farm incubator program. I wouldn't be surprised to see hear his name come up at state and national levels going forward.

Editorial Notes: From Morgan's blog "Green Notes" at the News-Record in North Carolina. Morgan Josey Glover is a young journalist who "gets it." -BA

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