Local Food Movement: Mendo & Beyond, Part II

by Lucy Neely and Will Parrish, March 7, 2012

In the first installment of this two-part series, the participants discussed the factors in their individual lives that influenced them to dedicate themselves to their present work, the barriers to a local food economy that the regulatory system imposes, and the growing popularity of the local food movement in Mendocino County and elsewhere, among other subjects. If you'd like to read Part One, which includes a description of exactly who the participants are, click here.

All four participants are involved in ongoing educational work. For example, Tamara Wilder will conduct a weekend workshop on pig slaughtering and processing on March 24-25 at Ro Sham Bo Farms in Healdsburg, titled “Using the Whole Animal.” For more information, contact naomi@sonic.net  or subscribe to Tamara's Facebook page. She regularly teaches classes in Mendocino County and other regions of California.

Ellen Bartholomew works closely with the group Ecology Action, which was founded by pioneering biointensive farmer John Jeavons. The group regularly conducts events, including five-day workshops called “Grow Biointensives.” at its demonstration site in Willits. For more information, see www.growbiointensive.org .

Whereas most permaculture classes cost several hundred dollars, Rain Tenaqiya is offering a completely free course entitled “Practical Permaculture,” which is a part of a new project called Mendo Free Skool. His weekly sessions start in early-April and cover a wide range of topics. For more information, contact mendofreeskool@gmail.com. Rain is also the author of the book West Coast Food Foresty, available online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/2029243/West-Coast-Food-Forestry.”

Doug Mosel can be heard on KZYX's “Ecology Hour” on some Tuesday evenings at 7pm. His grains are available at Westside Renaissance Market at 1003 W. Clay St. in Ukiah, and they are coming soon to the Ukiah Natural Foods Co-Op at Gobbi and State St.

This conversation offers a unique glimpse into the thinking of four of the individuals who are most actively shaping the food movement here in Mendocino County.

Will Parrish: Doug brought up how the political climate has influenced the increasing popularity of the local foods movement. Rain also brought up how his political philosophy has informed his work as a permaculturist.

Lucy Neely: So, the question we have comes from the fact that we all recognize the larger political system, if not the entire culture, is problematic.

WP: Yeah, so could you all talk about specific larger factors or changes — the precarious economy, climate change, a personal sense of alienation, whatever — that may have influenced your choice to be involved in food cultivation or harvesting in the way that you are? Also, how have you seen them influence other people who are becoming a part of the local foods effort?

Ellen Bartholomew: Another vivid memory I have as a wheat farmer's daughter is an embargo on wheat exports, I think in 1976. It was in the waning years of the Cold War. It was an embargo on Russia, which resulted in all the grain elevators in our town being full. That's how you know where a town is in the flatlands — where a grain elevator is.

I remember watching the wheat rot on the ground, and seeing people starve. I was just enraged. Farmers were in tears. It was just awful. There's a whole rhythm to the whole harvesting, and then to see the fruits of your labor rotting in the rows because of someone's ideals, while people are starving somewhere else — it changes you. At the same time, there was an oil embargo. I remember suggesting to my father — probably not real popular for conservative small town Americana — that maybe we should create our own wheat cartel, like the oil cartel. Everyone was going, 'Oh, your daughter's so crazy, Leroy.” That was my revolt.

This is the exciting part: You don't have to let your food rot because some political idealist doesn't want to get along with somebody else. You grow your own food, you ingest your own food, you save your own seeds — the government can't tell you what to do. And, if you share what you have and don't monetarily benefit from it, nobody can tell you not to do that.

So, as far as the political climate goes, some farmers are getting paid these days to put their farms back in natural grasses. That's not a bad thing in some parts of the country because it's land that should have never been dug up to begin with. That's why there was dust blowing by my window. But that land is going to have to feed people some day, and I think the way is to take the profit gain out of the picture.

Rain Tenaqiya: Stop treating it like a commodity.

Tamara Wilder: The biggest thing for me, referring to your question, Lucy and Will, is not so much politics as empowerment. That's why I first got into what I do, and the food part of it is a big element. When people feel empowered to just grow food and create what they need for themselves, they don't buy in as readily to what the system tells them they have to do. That is something that can never be taken away from you: knowledge, skills, and the ability to do things.

For example, with some of the survivalist stuff, a lot of people when we first had trainings would show up in these huge trucks with all these canned foods and stockpiles of guns. Then, if they liked what we were teaching them, well, some of them never came back, that is if they were just into their fear thing even more than being into survival. But, so many of them over four or five years, after coming back year after year, will come along in a little pick-up truck without any of the canned food, no gun on their hip. If you stockpile a bunch of things, someone will try to take it away from you. Your biggest asset isn't what you own, it's your capacity to do useful things. That's something people will always keep you around for [laughs]. And, if everyone strives toward having that asset, you've got a community that functions.

EB: Building right on what you're saying, that's something I feel a lot of gratification about living here because of. A lot of the world lives at subsistence level, and they're much closer to life and death than we assume we are on a given day. When you have someone trying to rule your land, saying “You think this way, and in exchange, I'll feed your kids,” you'll follow that person. You'll do what they say. But, if you can share the knowledge with people of how to grow food, no matter where they're living, they can break away from that dominance. It gives you a sense of freedom.

RT: Definitely what's been motivating me is to have more control over my life, which means draining the control the corporations have over my life. To me, the two goals of permaculture for the 21st century should be addressing climate change and eroding the control of corporations. I think you need to fight the current structure at the same time that you're empowering yourself to take control over your own life, taking responsibility for your connection to the system.

TW: That process of replacing the current system with new models is something that has to grow out of having a strong base. People love to come in and say what you should do, but they're coming in with no base to replace the system with. If you have a community of empowered people, they're building up a village that gets stronger and stronger. And, if those are happening all over the place, then you can create a model that actually is functional.

Doug Mosel: Earlier, in thinking about your question, the factors that immediately came to mind for me are technology and consolidation. Those are negative drivers that have influenced me significantly, and they've both been suggested in different ways by what you all already said. Economic consolidation has meant that control of the food system, from production to distribution, even to processing it into the forms in which we consume it, is increasingly controlled by smaller and smaller numbers of corporate entities that have no loyalty to place. They are extractive in nature, as opposed to regenerative. They don't build soil — they feed plants. That has resulted in dissolving national and regional markets in favor of so-called “free trade international markets,” in which the corporations commodify everything possible and reduce it to its lowest common denominator at every step along the way, including in terms of varieties. So, we go from hundreds of varieties of wheat to the three or four that are most conducive to mass industrial production. The same is true of potatoes. On the technology side, the way in which we produce food has been influenced by the so-called convenience of petroleum-derived chemicals and by the casual way in which we have gone about modifying the genetics of staple crops.

I have to tell you a brief anecdote about attending a meeting of the wheat commission last fall. In the first talk of this all-day meeting, scientists from Cal-Davis were talking just as casually as you or I talk about cookies or apples or anything we're speaking of here today, about engineering wheat to remove the bran, because bran is a nuisance for modern millers. They want it out of the wheat. [Everyone expresses consternation.] This non-mindful approach to the application of technology is disastrous in its effect on how we see the production and processing of food.

As we sit here today, the USDA that is supposed to safeguard the food, along with the FDA, is working to undermine organic practices with respect to synthetic chemicals used in the processing of organic foods — genetically engineered chemicals, I should add. Now, as a movement against these two heavy influences, I've been strongly affected by deep ecology. In 1996, a workshop I attended brought all these threads together into one strand for me in helping me see the interconnection of all of these. That has influenced heavily how I want to think about growing and producing food that is an alternative — a genuine alternative — to what and how we do it on an industrial scale.

RT: The food itself has intrinsic value and deserves respect, as do the systems they're embedded in.

DM: And, as you've all already said — especially the soil. If we don't build the soil, if we don't honor the soil, we have nothing.

TW: I'm almost blown away whenever anyone mentions there are children who don't realize a plant grows from a seed. To me, that's mind-boggling, that we've created a world that can happen in. It happens all the time, though. I run into these kids when I do programs in the cities.

DM: What you just said, Tamara, brings two things to mind. One is this vivid recolleciton of a piece of video I saw recently where very young children are out in a garden, and this child who draws a carrot from the ground screams with delight. “Ahhhh!”

RT: [Laughs] I still do that!

DM: Also, to watch the daughters of Tyler Nelson [of Nelson Family Vineyards] come to the barn when I'm looking at grain, taste the wheats, and tell their friends about the differences in the wheat — it makes me want to cry! These kids get it! So, that made me think about the socila healing that growing food in this way promotes. Jail gardens — you know, most state prisons as recently as the '50s had their own farms, so that the inmates can feed themselves and had their hands in the soil. And that's one of the best things they can do for themselves.

RT: This applies to me, too. I'm continually amazed at what I take for granted. I think it was you, Tamara, who said we're more alienated from the earth than any generation to come before us. We've forgotten basic facts of life!

TW: And it doesn't take long. Information gets lost really fast. The idea with wild harvesting of plants, and it's the same with a domestic plant, is basically this. When you walk by in a garden or in the woods and appreciate the beauty of something and say “I want to preserve this because it's really beautiful,” that's one depth of connection. Then, if you actually go in and utilize some part of that plant, then use it in your world, that's another level. But if you actually consume that plant or animal, it becomes a part of your system, and that's an even deeper level of connection and intimacy that's unmatched. Then you're part of that system. So, even if you're not doing that on a daily level, it brings some level of connection for people if they're doing it in a school garden or something like that.

EB: That connection is really intuitive, and you can't get there unless you're there. You have to have the connection to the environment.

WP: Okay, a really important question now. Can everyone name their favorite food?

RT: I still am amazed at potatoes.

DM: Anything I am eating something locally grown that I'm preparing, whether it's a fresh apple or a piece of meat, I am equally amazed. But I don't think I can answer that question with a specific favorite.

TW: My favorite is something that's been prepared for me by someone else out of something they created, especially if they grew it and prepared it with love, or else I helped them prepare it, that's the best.

DM: I think beer would have to be somewhere in there pretty close! Liquid grain!

WP: Well, I guess the message here is that it's not just about the physical sensation of eating the food but the entire process that went into getting the food onto people's plates.

LN: How does your method of food procurement or harvesting relate you to the land and to society?

DM: One of my favorite things about growing grain is that it's not very hungry or very thirsty. It's phenomenal to watch its willingness to grow. To cite a few quick examples, the first wheat crop I harvested is one I planted in the spring thinking I might be watching a bare field all year because it was so dry. That crop received an inch and a half of rain and produced beautiful Durham wheat. It's a miracle. Grains are so phenomenal. I'd never seen what lentils looked like when they grew. They're beautiful, these short, lacy, broad-leafed, white-green plants. A couple of years ago, during the spring that was so wet we couldn't plant until late-April or early-May — it was though the barley crops knew they didn't have much time to grow and mature. So, instead of putting a lot of energy into the stalks and stems, it all went into the heads. Some of the plants grew only a few inches, but they had full heads of barley on them. To me, it's the miracle of the genetics.

I just read a scientist who said the genome of wheat is more complicated than the genome of a human being. Its evolution is miraculous. Almost every day I walk one of the fields where I'm growing grains, because I walk my dog, so I'm getting to look at the relation between soil conditions and how we prepare the field, how the grain is competing with the weeds, where the soil is healthiest and produces most willingly, and all of that has deepened my understanding for and respect for the soil and how it produces.

RT: That's one thing about using minimal inputs is you really have to become intimate with the soil and the timing of the natural world. For example, you can make your own fertilizer by harvesting certain plants that accumulate certain minerals at different stages of their life-cycle, then composting them. So, you really have to do an assessment of your site and realize what you've got there, the abundance you already have. Then, you get plugged in to cycles occurring beyond the specific site you're on, too. For example, there are Mediterranean cultures that have been growing specific grains for thousands of years. You start to realize certain things about why they did what they did. So, it pulls you into the history and the evolution. Instead of being plugged in to some intravenous fossil fuel-based drip line, you're not clouded by that external support anymore, and it makes you rely on your own landbase.

WP: Are there ways that permaculture lends itself in particular to what you're talking about?

RT: Observation is integral to permaculture. I write down when the first fruits of certain things occur, the first flowers, the first time certain birds make songs, to try to create connections and how I can predict when to plant something. That's an example. I'm always willing to try new techniques and varieties, too.

WP: What is a good specific example of here on your land of observing those natural cycles leading you in a certain direction?

RT: Because we live in these crazy mixed soils in Coastal California, the soil varies tremendously even across five or ten feet. At the top of our hill, we have a basically neutral pH of 6.9. That's like blue clay up there, serpentine-derived, super high in magnesium, toxic for some plants. You come down the hill, and we lucked out with a sandy-clay loam with a perfect pH of 6.1 and nice texture. You go down to where the madrones are going and there's a pH of 5.5. You can grow blueberries down there! Also, you look at where the winds are coming from, that kind of thing, and I've tried to locate all of our gardens based on those factors.

DM: I have a footnote on observing. It's been remarkable to watch how in a short span my intuitive sense about things has sharpened. I can tell by feel whether a grain has hit the right moisture level to harvest. I like to test that against what the moisture tester tells me. I'm almost always right. I'm really grateful that what feels like some kind of old knowledge comes through when we expose ourselves to these practices.

TW: I'm disconnected somewhat because I'm on the road teaching so much, which helps me feel connected in a different way, to a bigger network. Back to the society-procurement question, I think what most hits with me on that is that we're developing a larger community and lots of localized communities around growing food. In almost any kind of society, we come together to eat. Around food procurement, t hat's how we build the net of community.. In most towns, 10 or 15 years ago, you would come in and ask where the farmers are and there would be nobody. Now, you can walk in somewhere in Mendocino County or Sonoma County, and you see people like my sister growing in the front yard, and the people there know the people in their community because they see each other at the Farmer's Market or somewhere else, and it creates community. You also get back into the old ways of doing things, like barn raises and just people helping each other out. For example, I wanted to smoke some bacon and was hanging at my friend's house in Santa Rosa, and the friend says, “Oh, well the guys next door have a smoker!” And it was a really nice old smoker. They're baptists who have gotten the smoker for smoking the bacon for their baptist ministry. So I smoked my bacon in that!

RT: That gets back to the weakness in the back to the land movement, which is the couple or family thing, which in the long run is really not a model for sustainability.

EB: There are ways to get around the conventions. I just got back from the organic seed alliance's annual meeting. The one thing we're missing is the knowledge of open-pollinated seeds that will grow well in each place, because we have this type of weather at this type of year, we have this type of climate — that type of knowledge. That way, you know which type of lettuce isn't going to bolt immediately, for example. Through community, we can all grow those different things we can all do on our property. So, even though there may be a certain amount of isolation, the way I garden is to grow seeds for a seed company in an area that it will grow well for everybody in that area. And I don't need that much space for it! So, maybe I give Bountiful Gardens [in Willits] two or three pounds out of ten that I grow in a 1,200 square foot area, which can create acres and acres! So, we may feel isolated, but it's not in that sense.

The way I garden involves connection to the soil. Everything about it is dynamic: the people, the soil, the water, the air. Everything Doug says about grain, I go “Preaching to the choir — yay!” We're grain people. But there's this fact that you aren't just growing for yourself, even if you're just growing in your backyard because you're creating things for other people, too.

The whole reason we are societies is that we've figured out how to do the grain thing. We can store it and move it all over the world. If we can do that in spite of things like the Ice Age, why can't we do it now?

LN: So, how do you all see the future of civilization playing out?

All: [Laughs]

RT: I've been telling Lucy about this book Human Societies, which I read in college and have gone back to. It breaks up human societies throughout history into different groups. It's given me a lot of insights into where we're headed and the things I really value about industrialized culture, like specialization. I think a lot of people take for granted that this society is flawed. There are lots of things people have hated about this society for hundreds of years that people have been trying to reverse.

So, I've been seeing the value of certain technologies and information, and I've been getting away from a black-and-white apocalyptic view of the future. Renewable technology is moving really fast. One of my biggest concerns is that we have a bunch of fossil fuel basically fulfilling the role of slaves, which enables a huge middle class. If everyone lived like me, where their consumption was 10 percent of the US average, I don't know that we'd be able to sustain an economy with a big middle class, for example. There's all these sociological factors that tie in.

Anyway, how the book categorizes societies is based on how they harvest energy. It started out with people harvesting wild animals and plants. Then it went to things they farmed themselves. Then they went to animal power with plows. Then we went to fossil fuel energy. So, when we switch to renewable energy, what's that going to look like? It's not going to be a linear thing. We can't just look at now and project into the futre. There's all these unforeseen twists and turns, and I think it will end up being a blend.

Definitely, decentralized farming and communities are going to have to re-emerge. I think that's the only way. Along with getting our energy from the sun.

TW: I think re-localization is the only way. There are actually a lot of people here who were born and raised here. I'm always blown away as a transplant to Mendocino County and Sonoma County. These people feel very tied to their area, and they know everyone as they walk down the street. I've been here for close to 20 years, but I didn't go to high school here. I don't have that kind of connection. Knowing your community and working within it is the only way you can go through larger systems collapsing.

I see the larger system as a problem, but I don't see it as dysfunctional as a lot of people tend to look at it as. I see it as just a larger beast grown out of human tendencies. Because of fossil fuels, it's blown up and isn't sustainable. Yet, a lot of ways it works make tons of sense. So, I just feel like getting localized is the best way we can deal with whatever is going to happen, because we really have no idea. Environmental problems could be really severe. Chaos has a way of perpetuating itself. People a hundred years ago were predicting that the end of the world was right around the corner.

The biggest thing I like to tell people is that I do the things I do because it's a better way to live, regardless of whether the system's going down. I don't do it out of a sense of fear about what will happen.

EB: If you look at society over thousands of years, it doesn't work in the long scheme of things when you reach human carrying capacity. It's a biological thing. But the thing that's interesting about food in particular is that it's a basic human need. There's gonna be a chaos, but it will test human beings on a more spiritual level in a certain way. I'm not bringing Christianity into it, but rather I'm talking about people relying on each other because if we don't, we are gone. There is enough land to grow food for all the people in the world, if we work together. Why we're in this room is that we're working toward that.

TW: The biggest thing I like to refer to philosophically is that survival as humans is one thing. Survival of every human on this planet is another thing.

RT: Especially if you factor in other species. We've gone too far for plenty of species already. We're losing the big mammals already.

TW: It may be that a bunch of people die to get to a place where it's ecologically stable again. I'm a populationist. There are pretty much too many people. It's a reality that involves accepting that that's what happens when species get overpopulated.

RT: I think the disconnect is just huge. We're disconnected from the results of our actions by society and the media. So, people are dying in Somalia already and we don't even feel it here. It's frustrating to me. Also, even though population is a major issue, it's not the major one for me. It's the social and economic systems that we're in. This is marginal land to grow food on, and there's land all over the world like that, and it can work.

TW: There's a difference, though, between having land to grow food and having a system that sustains that many people being able to live. Since I am a hunter-gatherer primarily and have embraced agriculture and permaculture as something that needs to be down, and I find the balance of the two, I tend to highly value untouched land. People say, 'Oh, look at all this land that can be tilled up to grow food.” I say, if that's happening, then there's too many people. There's a value to land besides its ability to grow food.

RT: Oh, yeah. But non-humans are like the most exploited class. If you think about it from a Marxist perspective, they're least represented in the system of power. They're the ones who are gonna get screwed the most. That part is so ugly.

DM: I'm not optimistic about the future, and most of the reasons I'm not have already been touched on. And I'm not optimistic that technology, whether it's electric tractors or the internet, will save our butts. Y'all talked about what happens when animal populations reach their limit of resources. Well, the same rules apply to people. We suffer from the illusion that they apply to everyone else except us. The earth as a living system has no particular interest in humans as the crown of creation. It will slough us off in the same way that any other species fails when its food sources also diminish.

So, I'm not optimistic and don't have a lot of faith in technology to save us. We long ago crashed the limits of what the planet will support. And I'm not even talking about population. I'm talking about extraction, demand for resources. For all the amazing stuff going on in this county, the majority of it would immediately cease the moment we didn't have access to fossil fuel. Although I run on biodiesel, I'm conscious of the fact that in my trip from Boonville to Ukiah, I'm doing what the vast majority of the world simply cannot afford to do because I have the luxury of living in a country that has been massively efficient at exploiting natural resources. Historically, that's something that's happened for a long time. Yet, in the life of this nation itself, the cost of doing that from blood to fossil fuel has been such that there is simply no way it can be sustained. If we stop global warming tomorrow, it still cant' be sustained. What we've done with global warming certainly complicates things, though.

I happen to disagree. I think the people who will survive the best are the poorest. The suffering is going to be here. When this thing crashes, the people who are going to suffer are those who can't go to the Safeway store anymore and buy their pre-packaged, disposable, microwaved food.

Where my hope lies for any short term possibility for the human species is just what y'all said: localization. It's scaling down. Where I see our grain effort plugging into that is that I hope it can be a transition into what some of you are already doing, and that is very small scale production of food. To the extent we can grow our own food and resource survival net locally, we have the possibility of being around for a while, or maybe lessening the pain is another way to think of it.

TW: And those things are being built. In Oakland, there's tons of people building little backyard farms. You can get a permit for $15 a year for so many pigs in the City of Oakland. It's actually easier to do it in the hood of Oakland than it is in Berkeley. In Berkeley, we'd have the cops on us in two seconds. There's so much going on in areas of Oakland and Santa Rosa of people building those communities.

RT: This is something that those of us in the permaculture community have discussed a lot. It's all about power. Capitalism is a resilient system. It's based on the market, which is in a sense self-organizing. I hate saying it, but it's a very adaptable voracious system. The cities have the power to suck the countrysides dry. I'm not convinced it's going to be Mad Max, because the power lies in the system.

EB: Remember when we had all that rain in 2006-2007, with like 12 inches of rain a day? At our ranch south of Willits, water was over Highway 101. People were freaking out, but not at our ranch, because we have natural grass-fed beef. The only thing we would have run out of was toilet paper. There was a sense of ease, and it kind of made us feel like “We're on the right path. We might have to not eat as much, but that's good for all of us.”

DM: We could have a debate this, and I don't want to turn it into that. In Seattle recently, they had massive snowfall very quickly. Within hours, they ran out of snow shovels and people had no way to move their snow around. I'm not saying this is all going to happen with the snap of our fingers, but our production orientation is not turning fossil fuels into shovels and rakes. It's turning it into — pardon my French — fucking Ipods, which are built in slave environments in China. If you've heard the recent reports about the conditions that involve making something that is obsolete virtually the moment it's put in its doggone plastic package: that's what we're still putting our fossil fuels into. There will not be enough electric tractors to go around. First, I couldn't afford one. Second, I can only run one for an hour in the field before I have to recharge the battery. Where will the solar panels come from when people cannot live on this planet in the way that people live in Mendocino County? We have people with all their own individual systems, paved driveways and all. So, if there is any hope, it's in localizing.

LN: For our actual last question, we wanted to open the floor for anyone to offer a Wendell Berry quote.

DM: I still like his showing up at the USDA Animal ID Hearing, where he said in effect, “I'm an old man. I don't have much more to live for. I will be the first in line to be thrown in your jail.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *