Friday, October 12, 2007

Feeding New York

Well, Al Gore and the IPCC won the nobel prize, something I'm more than a little ambivalent about. On the one hand, they both did an enormous amount to draw attention to climate change, and that's really important. On the other hand, in re: Al Gore, I'm reminded of what Tom Lehrer said when Henry Kissinger was given the nobel peace prize, that it made political satire obsolete. I mean the man was a participant in the Clinton policies that, among other things, allowed half a million kids in Iraq to die from sanctions. But then again, I would have thought "never was a Nazi" was a criteria for Pope, and that's clearly untrue. And obviously the "never was a mass murderer" bar for the Nobel Peace Prize, if it ever existed, is long since broken. Probably my standards are too high.

As for the IPCC, I would tend to say that were I give out Nobel Prizes (which no one has asked me to do yet, for the record, but I'm sure any day now), I would tend to focus on people who actually bring about peace and show moral courage doing it. While some IPCC scientists have shown enormous courage, the committee as a whole has not been able to withstand the pressure of governments not to water down its findings - as hundreds of its own members admit. So yes, I'm glad the IPCC is bringing attention to this issue. I'm glad Al Gore is bringing attention to this issue, and that he is in some sense redeeming his participation in other ills. Heck, if he runs for president and we have to choose between mass murderers, him, the comparatively powerless veep, the current monster or the she-president who could have at least withheld sex (ok, Al could have withheld sex too), I'll probably vote for him. And my fantasy world, the Nobel Peace Prize actually stands for telling the truth and bringing about change. Of course, in my fantasy world, all this new awareness is happening 30 years ago, when it would do a lot more good. Ah well.

But moving on to more interesting news, I was wondering how I could get from the Nobel Prize in climate change to the following. Pat Meadows sent me the report on this fascinating study at Cornell on how much land is needed to feed people. This is a really important study for a couple of reasons. But equally important is the study that came across my desk yesterday, documenting that shipping goods around the planet produces more carbon than flying does: The reality is that relocalization of food and goods is more urgent than ever. We have to start growing and producing more goods and foods locally.

The value of the Cornell study, particularly as it intersects with the UN's work on shipping emissions, is that it brings to our attention the deeply urgent word POLYCULTURE. As we know from the work of Peter Rosset and other researchers, diversified farming is the name of the game to getting the most possible good food out of our land. The revelation that we need farmers to make use of grazing and marginal land in multiple ways shouldn't be news, but it is.

Second, it supports something I've been arguing for a long time - the future will not be vegan. I don't mean that we won't be eating vastly fewer animal products than we do now, but this study demonstrates that animal husbandry is an integral part of maximizing food production per acre. The 0.6 acres required for a largely vegetarian but some animal products diet is just about how much arable land will be available per person in the US by 2050.

Third, it highlights the absolute urgency of getting gardens going. The arable farmland calculations used in the Cornell study do not include home yards, public greenspace, etc... According to this study, the maximum number of people that New York State could feed is about 32% of its current population. Well, we don't have much choice but to raise up those numbers - transportation issues, natural disasters, rising food costs - we need more regional food self-sufficiency, even as this study also indicates our interdependence with other states.

If we put our lawns and yards under intensive cultivation, integrated small scale chicken, rabbit, pigeon and goat raising into our gardens, if we encouraged the growth of small farms of 1/2-5 acres, encouraged polyculture techniques in existing farms, and layered animal agriculture, if we transformed some of our existing marginal and forested land into nut forests providing protein, if we invested our interests into absolutely maximizing our food production, how many people could we feed?

Half, I suspect, at least - maybe many more - on a largely vegetarian diet with small amounts of meat, eggs and milk mostly as flavorings. And that brings up an important point. Half is not everyone. We're always probably going to depend on agricultural areas for some transportation, and stabilizing those relationships is going to be essential - we don't just need ways to transport food, we need ways to keep farmers in the midwest from going out of business in the long term - because the best farmers are the ones who know their land, and are invested in their land. The best farmers want to make a living working the land - they need to be able to do the kind of farming we need, and still make a living. They need not to be pressed by the money into growing biofuels, because it takes time to develop polycultures. That is, we need to expand the CSA model, so that whole regions are directly connected to the people who are growing the food they cannot grow, and are invested in their success. The Japanese term for CSA is "farming with a face" - we not only need to maximize our production, but we need to put a face on the people who we depend on, and integrate their success with ours. Because their failure is certainly ours.

And at the same time, we cannot say "well, because New York may not be able to grow all of its food" it shouldn't absolutely maximize its production. We cannot afford to warm the planet by bringing oranges from Israel to the US, or lettuce from Columbia. We need to get our food (and our goods, but I'll write more about that later) as close to home as possible - which means we need polyculture, diversified *small* farms, experimental agriculture, and every other trick in our collective book.



Anonymous said...

-Sharon "we need ways to keep farmers in the midwest from going out of business in the long term - because the best farmers are the ones who know their land, and are invested in their land." - You've been doing the research, but my impression was that we are way too late for this. The farmers in the Midwest have almost all gone out of business already, over a decade ago, and those that are left are extremely old statistically, and very rarely own the land. The issue is how can we attract a younger generation of farmers, get them equity in the land, get them to farm small scale and THEN keep them in business long-term. We are in a re-building phase, not a maintaining phase. That said, I see a lot of hopeful signs that the re-building phase is actually begining, but still...
-Brian M.

homebrewlibrarian said...


Many of the Midwest farms going under are family dairy farms that can't compete with the mega industrial dairies in California and elsewhere. Also, these farms have been heavily invested in monoculture so it shouldn't come as a surprise that they're failing because they just aren't sustainable. These farmers are in debt so deep a backhoe couldn't dig them out.

But on the bright side, there is an almost under the radar movement of new, small, mostly organically certified farms operated (and often owned) by young farmers. While small, these farmers are building their farms on sustainable models which I believe will be the future of agriculture in the U.S. I've met some of these new farmers and their passion energizes me.

To feel hopeful about farming check out these websites: This is Joel Salatin's page. He's the leader in intensive land management as well as a leader in the local foods movement. Read his "Everything I want to do is Illegal" essay. Here's a Mother Jones article about him: This is the page for CROPP, the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, a farmer's cooperative through the Organic Valley company. This is the page for MOSES, the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. They provide training for organic farm certifiers as well as have loads of educational opportunities. Check out the newsroom articles and their calendar.

And to really not feel like it's all going to hell in a handbasket, check out Local Harvest. While not complete, it's the best list of local farms, food, restaurants that use local foods, etc.:

Despite all the small farms, it's true they couldn't collectively feed the entire country but the good news is that farming has not gone out of style. Little by little the return to sustainable, small farming operations is happening. We can do our part by buying their products. That's the best form of encouragement!


Rosa said...

Kerri, don't forget the Land Stewardship Project, which does a lot to facilitate an (admittedly small) number of people back onto the land or transitioning to more sustainable practices.

Or the local food project in Sioux City, Iowa.

Or the organic farming program at Iowa State, home of anthrax research and turf science majors.

Or the White Earh Land Recovery Project's Native Foods program, for that matter.

I live in a small city, and it is full of under-utilized public spaces. I've ben thinking about doing some guerilla gardening on the south-facing slope of the rails-to-trails bike path I ride to work. I'll have to haul in soil, though, what's there is full of lead, arsenic, and god knows what else.

I think we could grow 50% of the food Minneapolis need, though, if we had to. There already are flocks of urban chickens and neighborhood gardens full of corn, beets, and tomatillos. We just need to do all the soil remediation we can, while we can still afford it.

I have a daydream where the top level of all the parking ramps is full of truck-tire gardens. I wonder what kind of acreage we have in parking ramps, right now.

papabear said...

Benedict XVI wasn't a Nazi (i.e. a member of the party), but was required by law to enroll in the Hitler Youth, along with all other German teenage males.

homebrewlibrarian said...

Rosa, thanks for the additional links!

Ah, guerrilla gardening. I have mentioned in a previous blog comment about an abandoned home on the corner of the block a friend lives on. We were in cahoots but needed to let the "neighborhood watch" (a fellow named Lee) know about it. Turns out Lee knows all about the property. It's been vacant for years and Lee and other neighbors would go out and mow or rototill the birch saplings out of it or whatnot so it wouldn't be such an eyesore. After the owner (who makes extremely rare appearances) told Lee to never step on his property again (but not nearly in so nice of terms), there have been no more attempts to keep the property looking like something other than a derelict place.

So when my friend told him about our guerrilla gardening idea, Lee gave us the scoop. The guy always drives up to the back and never goes to the front. He only comes once a year. My friend decided that gardening was too risky so now we're looking at more of a permaculture idea and planning to plant perennial food plants around the house. Like raspberries, rhubarb, asparagus and maybe red currants. We might even try fruit trees that will grow in Alaska (certain types of cherries and apples). As long as it doesn't look like a garden, we figure the guy won't notice and/or care. Especially since all those things tend to turn up in yards whether you plant them or not (all except the apples, cherries and asparagus). Lee might very well help us and perhaps other neighbors as well.

Maybe this is how we'll meet the neighbors?


Beam said...

Hi Sharon,

In your opinion, what revenue is needed to support a CSA of perhaps 20 acre size? Beyond buying personally, what other support might help a CSA?


Anonymous said...

Purity thresholds are enormously amusing.

emily said...

Sharon, good post. I like the idea of lawns and flower beds being (largely) turned over to food cultivation. The more I read on your blog and other similar ones, the more I'm into the idea.

Now, to live semi-permanently somewhere and actually have a garden...

Mum said...

Hi Sharon and folks
I've recently found this blog so I'm way behind you all. I'm a complete novice, never gardened, and winter will come here in UK sometime, so I'm going to start with 'square foot gardening' in pots on my windowsills. What I need to know is, vermiculite sounds like it uses energy to produce; is used cat litter OK for food crops? Any crops? Or do I need something like broken tableware?

jewishfarmer said...

Mum, you shouldn't use used kitty litter for anything - it can contain pathogens you don't want to ingest. Vermiculite does come with some problems - you can try coir, which is a renewable resource instead. I'm not sure what broken tableware would do?

Beam, it is a good question, but I can't answer it because there are so many variables. Does the CSA owner own the land? What's her mortgage? What equipment is she using? What is she raising? Where does she live? What's the market like? Is there a spouse producing outside income, or a winter job? Revenue streams vary so much. And frankly, I've never had more than an acre or two under cultivation myself, so I can't tell you.

I do think one possibility is that people who don't necessarily want to farm themselves but do want to see agrarian society progress can invest in a CSA - you'd have work out terms, since I'm not sure there's any model for this, but people need help paying off land, or getting on land - perhaps you could share some of the burden and receive some return - a place to go in hard times, bulk food you could sell in your area, etc... I don't know. But getting on the land and keeping it paid up is such a big thing any strategy could only help.

Brian, it is true that we're down to less than 2% farmers and the average age is close to 60, but that's even more reason to keep the ones who are there in business - because they can help transition. After all, 60 and 70 year old farmers have land they either sell to developers or to a bunch of small farmers, and they *remember* when the land was farmed with animals and by hand - they grew up knowing about that and the knowledge isn't lost.

The growing segments of agriculture, though, are young small farmers, and independent women farmers. And we need to preserve their access as well.

Papabear, no offense, but many people resisted the mandate to join the junior nazis - there are a number of essays about the history and possibility of such resistance. Would it have been difficult, maybe. Dangerous - probably. Do I care? Not in the least.

I'm a JEW - that means I know exactly what happens when people don't resist. And accept that maybe he wasn't a Nazi in his heart, but he joined Hitler youth, he did not resist, and I think you shouldn't get to be Pope if you were ever a Nazi - period. It may be one of the great tragedies of the earth that something you did when you were teenager condemns you always to college of Cardinals, but life goes on - at least for the people who conveniently accomodated Hitler youth. The Jews are dead. And speaking for Jewish people all over the world (this is presumptuous, but I still feel ok about it) we'd prefer your pope hadn't been a Nazi - it really doesn't say good things.


Anonymous said...

There are young people beginning to get back into farming and into buying agrarianly farmed things. Those are changing and I agree with Kerri there is lots of reason for hope. My point was just that its hope for new things beginning to happen not for preserving what's already happening.

In most places around here the missing links aren't the demand for agrarian-food (plenty of that) or people willing to try to provide it. The stumbling points are ownership of land and food-distribution systems. The old farmers often farm other people's land for them and own comparatively little of it. And the young farmers, usually want to farm far more land than they can afford to own. Our young (and recently married) friends at lease 3 different plots of land to work on (and will probably lease land from our church for next season). Our friends at have so much demand for quality local meat they need to expand past their ancestoral land. I agree that enthusiasm is the strong suit of the young farmers we know, capital, equity, and governmental support on the other hand ...

As for distribution, well. The organic movement has been heavily co-opted by industrial organics and the big chain stores like Trader Joes or Whole Foods. Perhaps this is better than conventional, but it sure ain't a local-food system for when things get bad. Farmer's markets are working and will expand (although transportation prices hit them a lot too), as are CSAs and buying clubs. Robyn is working on creating a real food co-op for Terre Haute, but I still can't find the website they got Friday :)

Also Tom Philpott has a great story about how successful Sioux City has been at building a robust local food-system at The trick was strong support from the community, county government getting strongly behind it and generous donations of seed-money by local charities, before the systems became self-supporting. Here's a great quote on the heart of the problem.

"In the past, the county saw 'economic development' as bribing a corporation to set up here by handing out tax breaks," Marqusee says. "Meanwhile, our small- and mid-sized farms are going out of business."

"He says his triumph has been to convince county policymakers that the area's rich store of topsoil is an economic engine. "Until I came around, nobody in the county government saw promoting agriculture as a tool of economic development," says Marqusee, a native Floridian who came to town in the late 1990s to work at Gateway and became charmed by Sioux City."

When people begin to realize that local food-systems are key to local economic prosperity (to the extent it will be possible at all in the future) counties will start encouraging it, and folk will try to get it past start-up hurdles. But pretending we are preserving something that is almost gone, is obscuring the start-up hurdles that the young farmers are working on. Local Harvest is an inspiring site, and the list of farms, farmers markets, groceries, and restraunts that use local food is impressive. But no one could list the farms, markets, groceries, and restraunts that don't. Our food-distribution system is still highly industrial and non-local. We are beginning to adapt, but only beginning.

-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, perhaps your local knowledge is more place-specific than my own, but I think you are wrong to cast this in either/or terms. We have to *both* preserve what is left and also create new local food systems. It is, I think a real and serious problem to dismiss the notion that there's anything left to preserve - I live in the Northeast, where, if anything, the food economy was more destroyed than in any other rural place in the US. The dairy infrastructure, for example, that supported my region has been heavily damaged.

And yet, it is not gone. The farmers are old, and struggling, but that infrastructure feeds people here, and we could not do without it. It would be, I think a tragic, tragic mistake to dismiss what is left when we can both support new infrastructure and work with what we have.


Anonymous said...

"And speaking for Jewish people all over the world (this is presumptuous, but I still feel ok about it) we'd prefer your pope hadn't been a Nazi - it really doesn't say good things."

A bunch of us Catholics would have preferred this, too!

Thanks for your moral courage to speak up and for the bit of light you shed in what seem to me to be dark times.

Anonymous said...

Re the Pope, one never knows what strength of character is forged through the experiences in the foolishness of our youth. Perhaps seeing evil that close at hand makes him all the more stringent in his desire to keep the Church objective about Truth now.

Of course, no one here ever did anything in their youth to be ashamed of, I imagine.

In any case, I'm surprised to see what seems almost a throwaway slur here. It detracts from an otherwise good article.

Anonymous said...

re: the current Pope

it's more relevant to consider what he did as an adult than his forced tenure in the Hitler Youth

he was in charge of the organization that was a successor group to the office of the Holy Inquisition

he was a business partner of Neil Bush

he was (is) in Opus Dei, one of the most reactionary factions in the Catholic Church

it is unfortunate that Pope John Paul I didn't live to implement reforms such as allowing contraception for Catholics and going after the corrupt mafia ties in the Vatican



fascism is one of the reasons we are not having "powerdown" responses to peak oil

Anonymous said...

So many false statements in one comment... Even your linked info states he is NOT a member of Opus Dei, and says the then Cardinal Ratzinger was in the same ecumenical organization as Neil Bush -- not a business partner. He was the head of the office of the Doctrine of the Faith -- fortunately -- and kept the Church solidly rooted to its founding principles.

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