Sustainable farming mania is frustrating me

September 6, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Photo: fireonthehill/Flickr.

I’m certainly no farmer. I work at a computer all day. So it’s odd that the books that get me most jazzed up these days are not about the big problems of the day — the economy or politics or climate and energy. They’re about farming.

For me, that’s a real about face. I used to revel in the skulduggery of the Koch Brothers and scorn the subtleties of heirloom tomatoes.

But now I can’t get enough of Wendell Berry and his poetic manifestos against industrial civilization. I’m also drawn to new titles on the local food movement like The Town that Food Saved, along with books on urban farms, nutrition and the politics of food freedom and the battle over raw milk.

I love reading this stuff. But I’m also starting to resent it a bit too.

Tired of things that don’t work

Am I the only office guy in America who spends his leisure time reading into the benefits of no-till agriculture or how cows can improve the land by “mobbing, mowing and moving” over a pasture?

I’m not really sure why I do it. Maybe it’s because sustainable farming offers solutions that, even in today’s seemingly untouchable plutocracy, actually seem possible. To have an impact, you don’t need to convince anyone in Washington to do something big and complicated like pass a carbon tax or close down the Federal Reserve. If you’re a farmer, you can just grow your own revolution on your own forty acres.

But because I’m a city boy who doesn’t even own a pair of overalls, it makes reading about farming frustrating.

This is how it usually goes. First, I let Joel Salatin or Michael Pollan get me all excited about producing clean food while regenerating topsoil, reviving rural communities and empowering people to meet their own needs.

But then — reality check. I remember that I can’t join in any of that good farming stuff because…wait for it…I don’t have a farm.

I live in a little house surrounded by concrete and asphalt. I don’t even raise backyard chickens because our city outlaws them. So what can I do about anything ag?

From my perch in the city, it seems that all that fun and heroic stuff on sustainable farms is reserved for back-to-the-landers, greenhorns and other neo-farm hipsters who are making it cooler to plant a winter cover crop than to work for Google.

Meanwhile, about all I can do to help things along is to move my organic kale dollars from Whole Foods into a local community supported agriculture scheme. Or to a farmers market. Or drive to a farm stand.

In other words, in the food world, I’m just a wallet.

Otherwise, I’m left on the sidelines of the sustainable farming revolution. Since most Americans are also city dwellers or suburbanites who wouldn’t know a cover crop from a cover charge and have never walked a pig, I guess they’re left on the sidelines too.

Urban homesteading sounds easy

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Like time and tide, tomatoes wait for no man. Or woman. Photo: Dark Dwarf/Flickr.

But what about gardening, you ask? Any city person can grow vegetables at home, even if it’s only a few sprouts in a cup under a grow light.

At our place, my wife and I really want to grow food but our garden space at home could fit into a couple of oversized black plastic pots from the garden center. So we’re glad to be part of a community garden only a couple blocks away. There we have plenty of space to grow beans, squash, corn and of course, tomatoes.

If I may say so myself, we’ve gotten OK at raising produce. This time of year, our raised beds yield pounds of vegetables each week. So we’re not totally left out of the local food revolution.

But after decades of buying only what we need for the week at the supermarket, my wife and I aren’t really set up to kick into food preservation mode at harvest time. So when the crops all start to come in, we’re overwhelmed. Especially with tomatoes.

We’re trying to adapt ourselves to the Demands of the Tomato. We’ve taught ourselves to mill, steam, boil and reduce tomatoes into salsa, paste, pizza sauce. And yet, the damn tomatoes still keep coming. We give ‘em away to neighbors. Still more tomatoes. We mill, steam, boil and reduce again. Still, more tomatoes.

Something’s got to give. Maybe we can cut out some of that working at computers? If only we could pay the mortgage in tomatoes.

So, we fall behind on tomato management. That means half of our small-but-still too-bountiful-for-us harvest sits in bowls on the kitchen counters getting soggy and attracting fruit flies for two weeks. Finally, I get fed up enough to dump the smelly, squishy mess into the compost tumbler. And then, right back into the garden.

Ah, the circle of life.

City folk need help too

I don’t want to minimize the impact of urban consumers buying food directly from farmers. If enough of us do it, that will create a market for better food and better farmers. We should also grow more of our own produce at home and, if it’s allowed, even follow Salatin’s advice to keep a few chickens.

It’s just that families like mine who are already into local food need more help. We’ve already planted our gardens. Now we need coaching and easy instructions on what to do with our harvests.

Did I mention “easy”?

I know I’m being unrealistic here. Compared to picking up a couple frozen entrees at Safeway to pop in the microwave, preserving your own produce will never be easy. So, city foodies also need to feel like it’s worth the steep curve to learn all this food processing lore and that it’s worth rearranging our schedules to process a late summer crop.

For my family, that would mean spending our evenings watching fewer revisionist Westerns on Netflix and spending more time canning tomatoes.

Can some of our sustainable farmer friends help out with this? We know that you’re already pretty busy curing heritage pork. And we’re glad that you get to try out cool new stuff like rotating chickens with beef and llamas on your forty acres.

But what about us city folk? We feel left out.

Yes, we’ll buy your food. But we want to do more. We want to change the world for the better too. And we’re tired of banging our heads against the wall of Washington and Wall Street. We want to do something local and something that works and something that’s natural and gentle and satisfying on a human level.

America may need more farmers in the future. But for now, we can’t all move to a farm. Even so, we city foodies do want to be a real part of the part of the sustainable farming revolution. We just need a bit of hand-holding. That doesn’t make us stupid or lazy. It just makes us humans in an age of distractions.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

Erik Curren

Erik Curren is the publisher of Transition Voice. He co-founded Transition Staunton Augusta in December 2009 and serves as managing partner of the Curren Media Group, an online marketing company. He is also partner in a solar energy development company. He has served on the city council of Staunton, VA since July 2012.  

Tags: food preservation, sustainable agriculture