THE CRY OF THE PEOPLE FOR BROCCOLI

8 03 2008

Last month, my wife and I went to the very first Nashville Food Security Summit, where we heard a number of local and imported speakers and activists talk about their own particular piece of the puzzle, and joined with other conferrees to brainstorm on what to do next. There were aspects of the one-day conference that were very encouraging, and there were aspects that left me scratching my head. I’ll start with the good news.

First of all, I was very happy to see 250 people come together to talk about the issue. Some of them were old friends, but many were people I hadn’t met before, and if there’s anything the local food question needs, it’s to escape from the activist ghetto and run wild in the general population.

The conference addressed two semi-separate questions, and this broadened its appeal. One is the lack of availability of healthy food choices for people in urban situations–that is, mostly lower-class blacks and other ethnicities. The complaint was made that in many parts of Nashville it’s easier to buy cigarettes and soda than fresh fruit and vegetables. The other issue, the one that brought me in, was concern over the long distances traveled by much of what we eat, which dovetails with the lack of locally-grown food.

In the morning, I attended a panel discussion whose primary speakers were a couple of small-scale commercial vegetable gardeners. They were both making a modest living by cultivating 5-10 acres and feeding a couple of hundred people, marketing their produce directly to households. Both said there was far more demand than they could supply, and welcomed the idea of more small farmers. Both had learned their craft through the intern system, which amounts to apprenticing with an organic grower to learn the trade, and both met a fair amount of their labor needs by taking on interns, but they also both managed to acquire their farmland by dint of a spouse with a 40-hour job.

At this point in the seminar, I did a little math and offered up the resulting statistics: if one farmer with 5 acres provides vegetables for 200 people, then it would take 5,000 small farmers gardening on 25,000 acres of land to meet Nashville’s vegetable needs. Currently there are 15-20 vegetable growers in the Nashville area, cultivating no more than a couple of hundred acres. How do we get there from here, I asked; not surprisingly, nobody could really say,except to encourage people who already own farmable land to either work it themselves or lease it long-term to somebody who will. Leasing land for organic farming is a touchy subject; so much of what one does to create fertility is long-term investment and hard to justify doing to a piece of land that one may lose at the whim of the owner. One of the farmers pointed out that, with the spread between food prices and real estate prices being what it is today, it is impossible to pay for land by farming it. This is an impasse that will need to be addressed.

Twenty-five thousand acres of vegetables sounds like a tall order, but according to the latest agricultural census, there are still more than 50,000 acres of cropland in both Davidson and Cheatham Counties and over 200,000 each in Williamson, Wilson, and Robertson Counties. That’s good news–even including acreage for grain, bean, oilseed, egg, meat, and dairy production, there’s still enough open land in the metro Nashville area to support the population if it’s all intensively farmed and if the infrastructure can be put into place to distribute it.

Local distribution infrastructure was the subject of the afternoon workshop I attended, a presentation by Anthony Flaccavento, who works with an outfit called Appalachian Sustainable Development, based over on the Tennessee-Virginia border. ASD has “helped former tobacco farmers and other ‘traditional’ growers transition to growing organic produce, free range eggs, and other farm products that are sold to more than 600 supermarkets in the region,” including Whole Foods. Flaccavento filled us in on the nuts and bolts of creating agricultual infrastructure from scratch. It was inspiring just to know that it can be done, even if it’s not making a profit yet and only involves about 70 acres of cropland. Through the whole day at the conference, this question of how to upscale our efforts quickly enough to forestall famine kept coming up for me, although most conference participants seemed blithely oblivious of such a dire possibility.

Flaccavento was not oblivious to the wider political implications of his work, however, citing Wendell Berry and James Howard Kunstler as his inspirations and talking about framing (not houses but questions), pointing out that the strongest argument in favor of the status quo is its ability to provide cheap, plentiful food, (or at least “food-like substances“) that fills the needs of most Americans. We who believe we’re onto a better way of doing things will have to beat the mainstream at the food game in order to prevail, he predicted, saying, “Only about ten percent of people will actually change their mind due to a logical argument. For the other ninety percent, you just have to give them something that works better for them than what they’re used to, and then they’ll adopt the philosophy after they adopt the technology.”

At the final session of the conference, we were teamed up with other attendees and asked to brainstorm our three best ideas for what to do next, present them to our team, and have the team vote for the three best ideas. My table approved my advocacy of an Appalachian Sustainable Development-type outfit for the Nashville area, but didn’t see so much merit in pushing for a legal framework that would better enable small-scale, local production and distribution of dairy products and meat. (I don’t eat ’em, but for most people, that’s what’s for dinner!)

In case you didn’t know, the laws around meat and dairy are strongly slanted towards large dairies and slaughterhouses, supposedly for quality reasons–so we get milk that may or may not have high doses of Bovine Growth Hormone in it, downer cows in our hamburgers, and a couple of nationwide “organic” dairy producers that may or may not be engaging in organic practices. But, although it’s still legal to keep your own cow and milk her, it’s illegal to share her milk with anyone for a commercial consideration of any kind, and if you try to open a small slaughterhouse, you will have to follow the same regulations that guide the big boys–like maintaining a separate restroom for the use of the USDA inspectors. And when you factor in the way USDA regulations are designed to keep big row-crop producers from branching out into vegetables, and how firmly both the Democrats and Republicans agree on these issues, it starts to look like a more local food production and distribution system will be happening in spite of, and not because of, the federal government.

Back to the conference–what my tablemates (and a great many people at the conference, I discovered as the tables reported their results) wanted to do was give school children more hands-on experience with growing and cooking garden vegetables. That is probably a very good idea, because the way the economy is tanking, soon a lot of people won’t have anything better to do than swing a hoe to try and feed themselves, and community gardening is going to get very popular. I think we will need to teach the kids blacksmithing, as well, because if you can’t work iron to make tools, or afford to buy them from China any more, you’re back to scratching up dirt with a pointed stick, and that’s a very long way to fall from our current affluence.

But I avoided that kind of extremist talk at the conference for the most part, overcome by the ambience of shared hope for the future. This year, the main concern was a bountiful supply of local fruit and vegetables. Next year or the year after, maybe we’ll hear hungry people crying for bread.

music:  Grateful Dead, “Uncle John’s Band”

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10 04 2009
MAY FAMILY MAKES TSU AN OFFER IT CAN’T REFUSE « DEEP GREEN PERSPECTIVE

[…] happen not just on Bell’s Bend, but all around Nashville.  As I’ve detailed in other stories, it is going to take thousands of small farmers to feed Nashville locally, and at this point in […]

15 06 2010
THE GRASSROOTS ARE ALIVE AND WELL « DEEP GREEN PERSPECTIVE

[…] kinds of  “dedicated open space.” Inspired by the Nashville Food Security Summit, I once estimated that it would take about 25,000 acres and 5,000 farmers to feed Nashville’s current […]

26 01 2013
FARMER’S MARKUP « DEEP GREEN PERSPECTIVE

[…] in such a way as to make it difficult for local alternatives to arise.  In an earlier post, I calculated how much acreage and how many small farmers it would take to actually feed Nashville from its […]

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