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An Agrarian Conversion: An Interview with Fred Bahnson
Staff, Image

Image: Soil and Sacrament took you around the country exploring the spiritual practice of agriculture, so to speak. What made you want to write the book? How did it take its shape?

Fred Bahnson: The travel story I’ll describe shortly, but first I’ll say that the impetus to write the book came from a desire to understand my own vocational journey. In 2000 I graduated from divinity school. Six months later I found myself in Chiapas, Mexico working among a group of Mayan coffee farmers. While in Chiapas I had what I reluctantly call a mystical experience, a word from the Lord. One morning while on a rooftop in San Cristobal, I came upon these words in Isaiah: “This is the way; walk in it.” What was the way? Growing food. Feeding people. An agrarian conversion.

I came back to the states, did an apprenticeship on a permaculture farm, and in 2005 helped start a communal food garden in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. We called it Anathoth, after the field God told Jeremiah to buy during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. It was a ministry of a rural Methodist church, less of a community garden and more of a mini-farm. I had a divinity degree and a basic knowledge of organic gardening, but neither were adequate preparation for what I would encounter on those five acres. I came to understand my role at Anathoth as a kind of minister of the land: part garden manager, part community organizer, part chaplain. Sometimes people needed me to teach them how to double-dig a garden bed; sometimes they needed prayer….

An Excerpt from Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith by Fred Bahnson:

Prayer began in darkness.

At three AM a buzzer rang in my cell. I dressed quickly and stepped out into the twenty-degree December night. The moon was full and by its light a host of dark, silent forms glided across the cloistered lawn and into the abbey church. One of the shrouded figures, his face obscured by a hood, held the door for me. Inside a faint aroma of incense lingered from Vespers the night before. The walls were unadorned. Near the vaulted ceiling, windows ran the entire length of the nave. Next to the bare, granite altar, a leafless maple tree stood in an earthen pot, a symbol of the barrenness of winter. Some of the monks walked to a stone font in the center of the nave and dipped their fingers before crossing themselves…

(25 July 2013)

U.S. program to save fragile land shrinks in size to 25-year low

Charles Abbott, Reuters

The U.S. program that pays farmers to idle fragile cropland soon will protect the smallest amount of land in a quarter-century, the government said on Monday, the result of several years of sky-high commodity prices that have encouraged farmers to plant as much as possible.

The Conservation Reserve will hold roughly 25.3 million acres (10.2 million hectares) on October 1, down in size by one-third from its peak of 36.8 million acres in 2007.

It would be the smallest area in the long-term set aside since 1988, when the program was two years old. Some 26.9 million acres is enrolled at present. Contracts on 3.3 million acres expire at the end of this fiscal year and 1.7 million acres are approved for entry on Oct 1.

(22 July 2013)

Wild crop seeds could provide £128bn boost to economy, study shows

Jessica Shankleman, The Guardian
Preserving the wild relatives of some of the world’s most popular crops, such as wheat, potato, rice and sugarcane, could be worth up to $196bn (£128bn) to the economy.

That is the conclusion of a report commissioned by Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, which warns that many of the wild varieties of our most important food crops that can be used to boost agriculture are at risk of dying out.

Crop wild relatives (CWRs) can be cross bred with existing crop varieties to help produce higher yields and make them more resilient to the effects of climate change, such as floods, droughts, and extreme temperatures, as well as bacteria and insects…

(23 July 2012)

You can find out more about the work of the Millenium Seed Bank found here.

America’s food debates are just white men talking

Erika Nicole Kendall, Salon
The Big Food-versus-Michael Pollan rhetoric ignores what low-income communities are already doing to get healthy

On a fine, bright afternoon, a beautiful girl named Celeste with brown skin and a fluffy ponytail walked me through a farm in East New York, Brooklyn.

While it was obvious to me that she loved it like it was her own, it belonged to the United Community Center, a collective that provides everything from fitness classes to English-as-a-Second Language classes and daily day care. The Center is a saving grace for girls like Celeste. Each year, it takes 30 or so teens from ages 13 to 17 under its wing, teaches them everything from hand-made irrigation using leftover tools and materials, to hosting their own bee hive and collecting their own honey, to composting, to… well, you get the picture.

The Center seems like the kind of grassroots effort a lot of people who talk about the lack of healthy food in low-income communities would love to support. But some of its members say the organizations intended to help them the most are ignoring them. They say the NYC Greenmarket – the city’s largest farmer’s market supplier — doesn’t make it out anywhere near East New York with a full market because of a common assumption about low-income Americans: They aren’t interested in healthy food. They can’t afford to be interested in it. They don’t care.

But the people of East New York do care. And yet the never-ending debates around food politics — debates that often center on what’s supposedly best for low-income communities — never seem to include their voices…

(27 July 2012)

Making money from your vegetable patch

Joanne O’Connell, The Guardian
Lemon pudding with locally grown strawberries; salads sprinkled with edible flowers from community gardens; foraged elderflower champagne … locally sourced produce is increasingly on the menu at restaurants and on sale in markets and shops. So if you’ve got a glut of gooseberries or a rash of raspberries and radishes, perhaps you could make some money from them.

Several projects have sprung up with the aim of helping people gain an income off the land. The bad news is that you’re unlikely to make enough to give up the day job – but selling your surplus should make tending the veg plot more worthwhile.

BigBarn and Crunchd are resources to help growers sell produce, the latter being a social network, with a website and app, which allows seasoned gardeners and novices to swap advice and trade produce.

Founder Tony Montague, an ex-City trader, says: "Growers can swap and sell produce, and if they want to sell on a bigger scale can meet up and pool their resources so they have enough produce to sell to restaurants, for example."… (26 July 2013)