Closing the Gap Between Farming and Eating
Story and images by Bruce Willey
For better or for worse we eat three times a day. Yet this daily but profound connection to the earth has become an act that is wholly disengaged from our perception of the world. We know our dentist, our plumber, our doctor, and our mailman far better than the farmer who grows our food.
And no wonder. Our food system has become a complex industrial web of transportation, manufacturing, political, environmental, scientific, and marketing issues that are largely disconnected from the natural biology of food-giving plants and animals. Eating, it turns out, has become both easier and more complicated than any at time in human history. It’s enough to make your head spin, and render you cranky with hunger pains at the same time.
And in the last few years many Americans have gotten cranky about it, despite the fact that most of us don’t have to wonder where our next meal will come from.
Americans spend less than ten percent of their income on food and devote, on average, only 30 minutes a day preparing it and cleaning up afterwards. That leaves precious moments to think about the fast and easy food we’re eating, and the effect it is having on the planet and on ourselves. Thus the connection between the sources of our food and what’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner has become confusing.
Confusion, as we know, tends to breed faster than rabbits: Why does food travel, on average, 1,500 miles to reach our plate? How does it look perfect while having little or no taste? What chemicals and biotechnology inhabit this food that is digested and then incorporated into our bodies? Is organic better than conventional, and if so, can it feed the world? Why are strawberries called fruta del diablo (fruit of the devil) by those harvesting the fields?
Many of us are now confronting these food dilemmas and finding that a sustainable future lies not in a continuation of the industrial food complex, but in a return to the way food was grown in the past. As the trope goes, “Organic: it’s what your grandparents called food.”
And in this deep beautiful valley of ours—one of the last primarily untouched slices of California—an agricultural movement is already well underway that is trying to address these problems. After all, “Eating,” the farmer and writer Wendell Berry famously said, “is an agricultural act.”
This paradigm shift isn’t just some emerging trend that is likely to go away anytime soon. The American Farm Bureau reports that local, direct-to-consumer food sales in the U.S. conservatively topped out at eight billion dollars in 2007—the last time an agricultural census was taken. That’s one billion more than cotton and rice sales combined. With these astonishing figures, the Bureau can no longer ignore the economic significance of small farms and ranches in providing the food we eat. Like the economic engine of “small business” that is credited with job creation, the Bureau has had to define the movement as “retail agriculture” to better discuss its significance.
Whether we recognize it or not, we celebrate the Earth three times every day with the choices we make about food. All of this matters to the health of our planet and this postcard-worthy environment around us we call home. By buying locally grown or growing your own, we not only benefit from a heaping amount of environmental goodwill, but our food tastes as it should taste and provides the nutrition it was meant to provide.
Eating food that is produced using sustainable farming practices not only ensures that no harm is done to the land, but that we are protecting our own health. Uniformity in agriculture leads to conformity in our eating habits. One of the necessary tenants of organic farming is the preservation of diversity. Biological systems are richly diverse, forming a web of life that is dependent on ecological relationships. Sustainable farming, unlike industrial farming, is wholly dependent on these systems.
But sustainable farming is also the preservation of all we celebrate every Earth Day. As the environmental historian William Cronen puts it, “There has been a tendency in environmentalism to often privilege the non-working land as the land most worth saving, the most natural, the places where nature’s systems and its creatures are most free. We need an image of the just, the beautiful, and the honorable harvest. We must reclaim wise use as a core environmentalist mission.”
California is easy on the eyes. At least part of its beauty is no doubt due to our rich agricultural heritage. As we prepare our next meal, we should remember that the connection between eating and agriculture is a crucial ingredient of the future.
Bruce Willey is a farmer, writer, and photographer living in the Owens Valley. He is co-owner (with Steve Baldwin) of Bishop Creek Farms. Visit them at BishopCreekFarms.com.
1. Participate in food production to the extent that you can. If you have a yard, or a porch box, or even a pot in a sunny window, grow something to eat. Make a little compost of your kitchen scraps and use it for fertilizer. Only by growing some food for yourself can you become acquainted with the beautiful energy cycle that revolves from soil to food to decay, and around again. You will be responsible for any food that you grow for yourself, and you will know all about it. You will appreciate it fully.
2. Prepare your own food. This means reviving in your life the arts of kitchen and household. This should enable you to eat more cheaply, and it will give you a measure of “quality control.” You will have some reliable knowledge of what has been added to the food you eat.
3. Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home. The idea that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense. The locally produced food supply is the most secure, the freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence.
4. Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist. All of the reasons listed for the previous suggestion apply here. In addition, by keeping it local, you eliminate the whole pack of merchants, transporters, processors, packagers, and advertisers who thrive at the expense of both producers and consumers.
5. Learn, in self-defense, as much as you can of the economy and technology of industrial food production. What is added to the food that is not food, and what do you pay for these additions?
6. Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening.
7. Learn as much as you can, by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species.