Food Localization, Mendo & Beyond: A Dialogue
by Lucy Neely and Will Parrish, February 29, 2012
On February 10th, on a misty morning at Rain Tenaqiya's permaculture demonstration site in the hills far above Ukiah, we gathered with four pillars of the local food movement for an in-depth discussion of their respective philosophies and goals.
Mendocino County is home to a diversity of food production and/or cultivation, and one of the reasons that makes this area an exciting place to live for people who value ecological balance and social justice. We sought to reflect this diversity in our choices of conversation participants.
We first approached our mutual friend Mr. Tenaqiya, in whose hand-crafted earthen home on Parducci Road the conversation took place. He has been a permaculturalist and food forester of twenty years. He is zealously committed to reducing his carbon footprint and easing the suffering of all beings. He's growing out dreadlocks. When we presented the idea of our discussion to him, he enthusiastically agreed to participate.
From there, we invited Doug Mosel of the Mendocino Grain Project, a sage observer of the local food movement, as anyone who listens to his twice-monthly KZYX program, or who attended his presentation called "The Politics of a Local Economy" before 50 people this past Friday, February 24th, at Plowshares in Ukiah, can attest. He is also one of the most innovative practitioners in the movement, providing healthy organic grain to the growing number of subscribers of his grain share program (e-mail Will Parrish at firstname.lastname@example.org, and Parrish will get you in touch with Doug).
Ellen Bartholomew, who frequently describes herself as "a daughter of a wheat farmer" from Colorado, who for twenty years has managed the Golden Rule Garden at Ridgewood Ranch based on the Willits-based group Ecology Action's BioIntensive farming method, was another participant. And then there was Tamara Wilder, the buckskin-embroidered paleotechnic
skills maven who prefers to hunt or gather, and who identifies her current role in our food system as a teacher of animal processing.
As each of the participants noted prior to the beginning of our conversation, countless other people in Mendocino County would have made vital contributions, ranging from the Decatur Family of Live Power Community Farm in Covelo to individuals who are involved in raising livestock in ecologically sensitive and innovative ways. Depending on the response we get, we may publish more of these dialogues. Part 2 will appear next week.
Will Parrish: Rain, would you like to start by telling us a bit about the land and what you've done here?
Rain Tenaqiya: This is an 800 acre parcel that so far has 10 shareholders, and each shareholder gets a 10-acre lease. My particular 10-acre share is a permaculture demonstration site. We're growing about half of our food and get almost all of our energy on-site. The house is made mostly from earthen plasted, meaning from the soil that's on-site. So, we're trying to minimize our inputs and think about long-term sustainability here. I've been really anal about getting our carbon emissions here down to the United Nations target goal for 2050, which represents an 80-90 percent reduction from 1990 levels. This past year, we got it down to that level. So, it's possible, and I can tell people how to do it.
Ellen Bartholomew: You always have to do it first before you can tell other people to do it. Which isn't necessarily the American way. I think the whole ticket is the teaching, because we all know things aren't going to get easier. The way to survive this is to teach people how to feed themselves.
RT: Yeah, I think all four of us are doing education on some level. I just did a presentation at the Seed and Scion Exchange in Anderson Valley, and I was really emphasizing the importance of information. I mean, that's the limiting factor more than anything. And I think we need to value that more, and contribute to the production of information more.
TW: And a crucial part of that is helping people learn to trust their experience. Food production really is intuitive. It's not so much about downloading information; it's about learning to understand and respond. It's the very thing we should know how to do, but we don't – or, at least, that's what most people have allowed themselves to be convinced of. We have that knowledge inside of us. The primary thing I do is teach animal processing, and my emphasis is to give people a safe place to have their first experience with it, while allowing them to realize they can take charge. The moment they step through their mental blocks around it, that sense that it's unapproachable, they realize 'Oh, this isn't that big of a deal.'”
EB: It's an urban legend that you can't do these things, and it's just another way of separating people from where their food comes from.
TW: Like, 'We can't do that because we're modern people.'
DM: It's more than that, though. It's that we're actively discouraged, if not legally forbidden, from doing much of it because it's “not safe” unless it's been inspected, stamped, or approved.
TW: That's especially true in cases where people try to sell what they've harvested. We're not always legally prevented from doing it for ourselves.
RT: [The legal system] has tried to outlaw some of that too, though.
LN: So, as people involved in the food localization movement, how do you address that?
EB: Well, here's how we're going to get through the tough times ahead. I can practically grow everything. I'm very, very spoiled. A lot of people, like on the coast -- they won't be able to grow grains. Some grains, yes, but [those in power] are not going to be able to illegalize everything that happens when it come to survival
TW: The thing is that even if you want to do everything, you can't in your one life, one day, one week, do everything. So that's what this is: people who both raise pigs are trading different pork products with each other because one of them is really into making bratwurst and one of them is really into making something else. There's always something in abundance, and there can always be someone who knows how to cultivate that abundance.
WP: Doug, it sounds like you've had some direct experience with the legal system clamping down on what you want to do as a farmer. Or is that something you're more familiar with second hand?
DM: I've not so far, knock on wood, had that experience. I live with the reality that at some point we could be inspected, or that someone could shut us down because we are presently not doing our grain operation in a so-called sanitary facility because we don't have the space in which to do it. Thankfully, we're handling a product that we can handle safely in a less than perfect environment. But the California Department of Food and Agriculture or the Health Dept, or somebody of that sort, could at any time choose to crack down on us, because for the first time our product is starting to show up on the retail shelf. Westside Market in Ukiah carries it, and the Ukiah Natural Foods Co-Op is about to. That's the point where we become more susceptible to examination.
TW: What's frustrating is that the rules that were written are really good when it comes to keeping large-scale companies and facilities from poisoning people. When you get as big as food production has become, especially with animal processing, you're setting up the possibility that you could poison and kill lots of people, if you make one mistake or cut costs to gain a competitive edge -- or whatever. But the idea that those same rules apply to the small scale farm producers is a big problem, because the problem is actually from the large scale producers. Small scale production doesn't have that risk factor. Plus, if it's done on a small scale for people you know in your community, there's more of a relationship of personal integrity and responsibility built in.
At the same time, it's important to recognize that when it comes to methods of food preparation like fermentation, we tend to feel like, 'Oh, wow, people have been doing this for so long.' And it was only a couple of generations ago that it was entirely common. Unfortunately, we do have a gap of knowledge that's emerged, and the knowledge of how to keep the food completely safe has been lost in the process to some degree. It should be common sense. Because people didn't get taught it by their parents and their grandparents, though, there's not a built-in knowledge about safety.
Also, we're in a modern world now, and things are changing rapidly. One of the traditional hunter-gatherer groups up in Alaska have been aging their own meat for thousands and thousands of years. In recent years, they've been poisoning themselves because they've been putting that cured meat in plastic, which creates a toxic product. It's the same thing they've been doing, but their old containers weren't airtight. That changes everything over. So, it only takes one tiny gap of knowledge or one change for the cultural continuity to be disrupted.
EB: We used to have a raw milk dairy, Richard Ranch Raw Milk [in Willits]. It used to be really popular in the area in the '70s, '80s. We had a great record. As you can imagine, we got inspected all the time. We had 30-some cows. Then, at a far larger farm down south, which had thousands and thousands of cows, caused some people to get salmonella. One person died. Then, our insurance got so high that we had to go out of business. It's been 30 years, and we still have people come to us like, 'We miss your milk!' It was a great local resource.
TW: The thing is, a lot of people get really sick from eating pasteurized milk, too. That's not recognized by the FDA, whereas one person dying from a natural organism is going to shut something down.
DM: Actually, the Center for Infectious Diseases in Atlanta have recorded more instances of people falling ill from consuming pasteurized products than they do from consuming raw milk. So, there actually is data. But, as you say, that's not what the federal and state agencies emphasize.
LN: Well, our first prepared question is to ask you to describe your approach to food cultivation, how long you've been practicing that method, and – pay special attention to this part – describe what personal life experiences and factors contributed to your decision to pursue the modality you're practicing?
DM: What I realize in thinking about your question is that although I grew up on a farm, my dad had stopped farming after my mom died when I was very very young. So, although I was on a farm that until her death was virtually self-sustaining, and although I also worked on other people's farms, I grew up eating Corn Flakes and commercially made bread, that sort of thing. So, my consciousness about food was not high in that environment.
Jumping ahead to the early-'70s, when I was pretty much starting my so-called 'professional' work life, I would counsel people who either had a dying family member or had recently lost a family member to cancer. While I was doing that work, I was invited to write a grant proposal on nutrition. I was in the Mid-West, in Indiana. All these interesting types from California came out and took part in a weekend workshop funded by this grant. They raised questions about the nutritional value of the food we're eating, which got me to thinking about natural foods, that sort of thing.
I assisted a colleague in writing a paper, where she was asking questions about food's connection to emotions and psychology. That started making a whole lot of sense to me, and it started affecting my food choices. So, I went from being afraid at 18 in Washington, DC, where I went to college, to walk into a health food store because I knew these strange people were going to come after me, to starting to shop in such stores and seeking whole grains, whole foods, that sort of thing.
I dabbled a little bit with gardening and started eating better and introducing whole grain breads to my children, who at first went 'What is this brown stuff?' and then started liking it. I really dove into that more fully when I actually did move to California about 20 years ago. My first real introduction to local food came through living across the street from the Freys, where I helped as two of the family members started growing vegetables and so on in the vineyards.
I was in a transitional point in my own life at that point. During Measure H, the anti-genetically modified crop campaign here in Mendocino County [authors' note: Mosel was chair of the campaign which led to a ban on genetically modified food growing in Mendocino County], I got to know other farmers. For three years after that campaign, I worked with what was then a goat dairy on the coast that many of you know about, which bankrupted a few years ago. I started growing hay for local animal use, and then through my work in the Anderson Valley Foodshed Group, identified a gap in our local food supply in terms of grain. Once I determined that's where I wanted to put my energy, I knew the way I wanted to do that was dry farming without external inputs. I've done so based on the understanding that what I'm doing is part of a transition that involves rediscovering more sustainable farming methods. Although I use mostly biodiesel, I'm not free of the larger petroleum-based economy at this point.
So, I see this as a teaching moment where we're starting to learn that we're starting to do this again. We're learning the skills and methods for doing it, then we can scale back to even smaller homescale and plot scale as the economy shuts down and we find it necessary to do that.
The last thing I'll add is that I remember vividly being in Seattle in 1999, in a huge auditorium, where down on the stage, [Indian author and activist] Vandana Shiva said that the most radical act someone can take is to eat all their food from within 25 miles of where they live. For the last several years, I've been fairly close to getting it to within 25-50 miles. And it wasn't so much a dogged determination to do that on my part as evolving into it, because of this amazing place where we live, with so many other people doing it.
RT: I grew up where the Clackamas River flows into the Willamette River south of Portland. My grandparents always had a vegetable garden. They grew up as farmers but move to Idaho, then Utah, and became middle-class suburbanites. But they had memories [of farming] and they told me stories, and they raised me with food right from the backyard. My grandma really impressed on me things like using all of an onion, sort of like traditional hunters who use the whole animal for one purpose or another, from nose to tail.
I studied ecology and permaculture in the early '90s. I was involved in forest activism some, which reflects that I was thinking about the big picture a lot: climate change, biodiversity, social justice issues. So, I'm coming from a really strong ideological perspective with permaculture, which I've been teaching since the late-'90s and practicing since the early-'90s. Permaculture design is a perspective based on creating sustainable systems that minimize inputs, which pays close attention to cycles, to nutrient cycles like nitrogen and carbon. The basic principle is that what you take out, you put back, and you do so without relying on external inputs such as having to truck all of your soil in from off a soil company. We harvest all of our leaves and grass for compost and mulch, and we recycle all of our waste back into the system, and slowly we're building up the fertility of the land.
I've been trying to use mostly perennial [plants]. So, eventually, I hope to get half of our food from tree crops. Unfortunately, at this site, with our water and soil situation, we're actually getting most of our food from our kitchen garden. We also have a grain field we're gradually expanding. We're probably growing about half of the food we eat, examples being corn and wheat.
So, my emphases have been declining petroleum resources and climate change, and trying to create something really sustainable. I'm not shipping nutrients from offsite. It's been a homescale self-sufficiency project. I will say I don't know if that's necessarily the prescription for the rest of society that I'd recommend.
TW: My history is a little similar to Rain's. I just took a trip back to Missouri where I came from. Two generations ago, my family was made up of farmers. I visited cousins I'd never met before, and we were all hanging out together in an original farmhouse. All the crocks were there. All of my cousins, great aunts, and uncles are still farming the same ground they've been farming forever, as part of big combines – growing GMO corn and soy, and wheat. So, a big thing I realized last year was that everyone in one lineage of my family has been a farmer this whole time.
Growing up, though, I didn't experience that directly. My grandparents both migrated from Missouri to California. My mom, from my earliest memories, did have a huge garden and was practicing canning. She was discovering healthy ways of eating, which was spurred at least somewhat by my grandmother, who had a heart attack and became interested in healthier food. I think that influenced my mom, which is really fortunate. We had chickens in the backyard and eggs; imagine how weird that was in LA, especially 25 years ago. Also, while we were doing that, I watched suburban sprawl envelope everything -- fields and pastures and forests just became engulfed.
In high school, I was a staunch vegan and vegetarian. That was even though my dad hunted and fished that whole time. I went into total rebellion and became a 'fascist vegan,' as I like to call it, and did things like lecture my dad for killing a deer. Then I went to college and got into doing the skills that I do, which is paleo technology. I was really anemic when I was a vegan, even though I tried to do it really well. I'm Scandanavian. I definitely thrive on meat products. I started to come full circle into hunting and gathering, [with] no gardening at that point. That was where the animal processing thing came in.
The animal processing focus originally came from picking up road kills and learning how to utilize animal parts, as well as having friends who are hunters. Because of the knowledge base of having people in my community who are into raising goats for dairy, as well as other small-scale animal raising, people came to me saying things like 'I have a male goat I need to kill; will you help me?' So, I'd say 'Go ahead an bring your animal here and I'll help you do it, and leave a quarter or a half of it for me as a thank you.' People even started giving me male goats they didn't want. So, how we've been procuring meat for years is through the excess. Eventually, I moved in to holding full-scale courses on animal processing, teaching people to slaughter, create, and take their animals into the food stage. I think goats are a great way, especially if you're milking them already, to move into animal slaughtering.
Pigs are amazing, too. They are garbage disposals. A lot of people have raised pigs all around the world, and they are so great at closing the loop: taking food you would have to get rid of, plus they have fat and oil you can use for everything from food to making candles.
EB: I started out on a wheat farm in Colorado, which profoundly impacted why I do biotensive farming. I was born in 1960. One of my first memories, probably as a three year old, was growing up in a sod house, an 1886 farmhouse from an 1886 land grant, which I still partly own.
EB: I remember looking out the window and seeing the dirt fly horizontally by and being inconsolable. I knew this was our livelihood, so it was like the world was blowing away. It took me a long time for my folks to calm me down. I was the youngest of four kids born in a span of five years, and to this day I still have nightmares about that. I loved farming; I was my dad's best farmer. I love the tractor to this day! John Jeavons doesn't like to hear that sometimes [laughs]. During wheat harvest, we would fill up our grain truck and back it into the garage, just in case it rained overnight, so you could take it to the grain elevator the next day. My brother would always play in the wheat, like this big sandbox. For some reason, this one year it had a red tinge to it, and as my brother and I were playing, my father came out, and just this look of horror crossed his face. He pulled us out of the truck, and he was just beside himself. He took us in the shower, stripped us down, and scrubbed us. We say, 'Mom, what's wrong?' She says, 'You can't eat that wheat; it's poison!.”
I remember thinking to myself, 'If it's poison, why are we selling it?' Well, it was Malathion [a pesticide commonly used to kill insects, known to cause severe side effects from heavy exposure]. We had grasshoppers go through and eat the grain every six or seven years, s we'd get crop dusted with Malathion to kill them off, and that was what caused the red tinge on the wheat.
Those images never left me. As a teenager, I moved with my grandma to Ridgewood Ranch, which is an intentional community [between Willits and Ukiah, best known as former home of the race horse Seabiscuit]. There was a big organic garden, an orchard, grass-fed beef – so that's how I was raised. We couldn't afford to buy food a lot of time, so we had to grow our own food. We had 800-some acres, but were were still pretty poor farmers. Back there, that's just a medium-sized farm.
It was probably the end of the '90s they needed a gardener at Ridgewood. I'm kind of a jack of all trades, so I figured I'd probably do that. At our intentional community we grow not just enough food for now, but for later: beets, tomato juice, corn, green beans, apple sauce, pears, everything we can. But we didn't grow grain. Charles Martin – if you know him, you know he's a pretty dynamic character – was helping down at the garden, in the bottom lands on the ranch. Charles was working for John Jeavons at Ecology Action, who at the time needed more of a bottom lands area for grain growing, which his mountain site doesn't provide, to train interns. So, I was in the garden for about a year learning biodynamic techniques from Charles. Our community supported John's interns, who in turn helped grow food for the whole community. I took biointensive classes with John, and at this point now I'm teaching it. I have at least four interns a year from all over the world.
The thing that really clicked with me is that it's about soil: what's in the soil that's feeding the plant that's feeding you. When I inherited the garden, they just used to pour manure from the dairy barn and organic grape pumas from whatever vineyard was done crushing. So, we just had really salty soil with lots of poison that just needed high inputs all the time. I loved the fact that I could build soil fertility. Made me feel like I was making amends and able to learn the real secret of the whole farming thing that I loved. So, now we have shrunk from 3-4 acres of farming to one acre, and we're still able to feed the whole community [due to the increase in soil fertility]. And we grow grain. This time it's helping the earth, not damaging it.
WP: How have you noticed changes here in Mendocino County specifically as far as the extent to which the things we're talking about are more prevalent and popular? Also, are you seeing more continuity within families or particular farming communities in this in recent years, when it comes to these practices getting passed down?
EB: I think Mendocino County is unique because this is where the people who dropped out and became back to the landers started. Besides that, the natural wonders – the environment, the climate – make it so you can grow almost anything here. You can actually grow grain on the side of a mountain here. The riches we have, and that the Pomo before us had, are a tremendous blessing. I grew up in an area where the Prairie Indians had to travel hundreds of miles, which is why it became a horse culture.
TW: Yeah, if the Pomo weren't traveling in order to trade for some other material, it was really common that they didn't move more than 18 miles in the course of a year.
EB: There's just an energy here that lends itself to that abundance. One of the things people have a hard time wrapping their brains around the fact that they can grow all the grain here that they can possible need. All the grain I eat is the grain I grow. I can grow all the quinoa I need for a year in 150 to 200 square feet.
RT: A lot of people don't realize we live in a Mediterranean climate. We can grow all the grains and legumes, the bulk of our vegetables, in the winter, with no irrigation.
EB: Yeah, and all the garlic...
RT: Garlic and onions, parsnips.
EB: Because we have a range of environments, too, we have access to a lot of sea vegetables, to fish. We have these tremendous trees, so we have a lot of wildlife. So, if you're on a drive to eat locally, there's no better locale.
TW: Root vegetables are a great thing. Our winter garden is more productive than our summer garden.
RT: Yeah! The summer garden is more like the condiments. The winter garden has it all.
EB: We also have a strong exchange of information here. We trade seeds, we exchange ideas, we build community.
DM: What I heard in your question, Will, was How have we seen it change here? But first, I want to add a perspective. I think we may be less unique than we think we are. A few years ago, I was doing an exercise with [ecological philosopher] Joanna Macy, which was built around local food systems. We had people from all over the world, as well as all across the country, present in this intensive. One thing I had people do was get people in small groups so they had a chance to talk, and I asked them what was going on locally in their area in terms of local food production.
It was an explosion of ideas. They would have gone on, had I let them, for an hour or more, each one throwing in more than one thing going on in their local communities. I was stunned by it, and the group was moved by it. We realized there how significant this wave we are a part of is. I just want to acknowledge and honor that this is going on in Nebraska, in Japan. We heard a man at [the annual Ecological Farming conference near Monterey, CA] talk about his CSA in Japan, what they're doing and how they're doing it. Some of the pioneers of this whole movement, like Fukuoaka, came from other places in the world – Vandana Shiva, and so on. A lot of our learning is from people in other places, who have been doing this a lot longer than we have.
On the other hand, coming back home, there is a strong, supportive culture here, from the Back-to-the-Landers who arrived during the 1970s, right up to the present. What I sense is a deepening and widening of interest in this local food movement. Just to take our project as an example: Our first year, we had just over 40 share members. This past year, we had over 70. We'll grow again in 2012, I'm quite sure. My sense is that there is a much stronger consciousness about this because of developments in the wider world, about the contamination of food and genetic engineering of basic foods like corn and soy, so that there's more mainstream acceptance of it.
The community gardens effort I've seen take off here has really gained momentum in just the last five years or less. It's enormous what you all [motions to Lucy] have done in that regard. The last thing I'll add is that we had a gathering last March at Nelson's Vineyard, where we do most of our growing. We had 28 people from five counties talking about grain growing – Humboldt, Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma, and Marin. There are some who rpactice on a very small scale, as well as some on several acres. So, it's a very big wave, and it's taken on a life of its own. What's happened in some areas is equivalent to Tweeting a revolution in Egypt, if you can call that a revolution.
TW: Which is exactly why the government is cracking down on it.
DM: Precisely. That's a different part of our conversation, but that's exactly why the government's tightening the grip in terms of regulation.
TW: I totally agree with you, Doug. It's easy to get into, 'Look at how awesome it is here.' So many friends of mine have gone back east to learn skills at farms that are totally sustainable, that have been in families for generations. They're doing it on a business scale, whereas in Mendocino County we don't do that all that much. That's because of a few factors, one of them being the cost of land, number one, and also there isn't this sort of lineage from inherited land. What we can do is set up a village thing with everyone focusing on their own niche.
So, like you're saying, it's a worldwide movement, an I think it's a reaction to how much food production is being taken out of everyone's hands. I've been doing a thing in just the last 10 years, and especially the last five, of people embracing this idea of local foods, even if they're not growing it themselves and instead, say, buying it at the Farmer's Markets. That's true of the younger generations also, seeing my friends' and colleagues' kids embracing it to a higher degree. They've come back to it after having gone away for a time, or else their parents gave them a framework that led to their embracing it, rather than rebelling against it. It's trendy right now, too. The Slow Food thing, for example.
EB: Another aspect is that the connection between nutrition and healing is happening big-time. It's happening here, and it's also happening everywhere. What we ingest is definitely making a difference in how our kids learn in school, in how we heal. I'm on the committee for the hospital garden at Willits. I may be an extreme in terms of doing the physical labor myself, but there are steps – and they are being taken here. The change I see happening is that people are saying, 'Hey, we can do this!' The next step is for everyone to say: 'How can I personally do this?'