Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Why I garden

These days, whenever I introduce myself, I say I'm a professor, a freelance writer, and a volunteer on a non-commercial organic farm and goat dairy. That last identity is a new one since a year ago last April when I began working with retired Upjohn/Pharmacia senior research scientist Ron Klein who owns Dancing Turtle Farm.

Dancing Turtle Farm has eight milking does, four bucks, nine doelings who are a year old and nine kids, two of which I “caught” last January when they were born. We also have eight water buffalo, two turkeys, two llamas who watch over the goats, a dozen guinea hens, a quarter acre of land for gardening and a huge pile of compost that has been affectionately named after me: Mount St. Olga’s.

Although my new venture is not a typical academic endeavor, learning how to garden and farm was a conscious and deliberate choice that came out of several considerations.

First of all, I was inspired to do this by Detroit’s urban gardens. Detroit is my hometown and I’m still proud of my city even though conventional wisdom tells us that it is one of the most devastated places in the world without much hope of recovering. However, in June 2008 I discovered a new narrative there: Detroiters involved in the urban garden movement are determined to rebuild, re-generate and re-spirit the city as it provides the people in the neighborhoods with fresh fruits and vegetables.

I heard about this movement from Grace Lee Boggs, age 95, a philosopher, teacher, activist and one of the founders of the movement. She previously was involved in the union and civil rights movements in Detroit with her husband James Boggs, now deceased. They started the gardens movement in 1992 because James could see from his work on the Chrysler assembly line that downsizing and automation would put people out of work and shrink the resources of the city. To do something about this he applied what he had learned growing up as an African American in Alabama: when things get tough, start a garden.

What James was also recognizing was the end of the industrial era and the beginning of the post-industrial era. It is significant that this was happening in Detroit, the once-proud capital of industrialization via the automobile. The city is now the symbol of de-industrialization and urban decay.

As 30 percent of the land in Detroit became vacant through out-migration and the clearing away of old houses, factories and buildings, people began to “adopt” small plots of land to grow their gardens. Since 50 percent of the city is unemployed, gardening is a particularly good idea because it provides fresh produce that is otherwise unavailable in the city. Gardening also gives people something to do, it enables them to interact with their neighbors, and more recently, it trains them for new ventures in marketing their agricultural products. It is an amazing sight to see these beautiful gardens in all shapes and sizes with very proud people of all ages tending them!

One day two years ago, I met Megan Cohen, one of the members of Greening of Detroit (http://www.greeningofdetroit.com/), an educational and resource network that helps people with their gardens. She was working with a couple neighborhood kids at the Romanowski Park Community Garden on Detroit's Westside while I interviewed her about the garden movement. When we finished, she asked me if I gardened. I hemmed and hawed for a bit until I eked out a response that I used to help my father with our backyard garden. The truth was that I didn’t garden and never thought of doing it. However, her casual question, along with what I had seen in Detroit, somehow inspired me to learn how to garden, my second reason.

But there was a third reason. My husband has been studying and writing about oil and energy resources for the past six years. Not a day goes by that we don't talk about peak oil or the transition into the post-industrial era. So, we decided to live in a place that is close to a grocery store and the downtown where we have bus access and can walk or bike easily, even in winter. In other words, we have arranged our lives geographically for peak oil.

Growing our own food provides us with yet another means of accommodating our lives to peak oil. Actually, I now believe that eventually we will all have to learn how to grow our own food so I am getting a head start by learning how to garden now.

Having enough oil to support our food supply is especially problematic for our country since most of our food is transported in big trucks over an average 1300 miles from our farms to our grocery stores. Under this “just-in-time” inventory-style system, cities have enough food to last only about three or four days. Agriculture itself is highly dependent on oil for its chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and high-tech equipment. You can quickly see the problem of cost in operating our food system, especially if you remember what it was like living with $4 a gallon gasoline just two summers ago.

But there are other reasons why I decided to learn how to garden. My husband developed a lot of food allergies, which at one point amounted to about 40 different foods. As you can imagine, this made cooking for each other nearly impossible. Eventually, he started eating organic food, which costs 20 to 30 percent more compared to “regular” industrial food. I regarded organic food as extravagant gourmet food until I recognized that it was more costly to go to doctors than it was to buy organic food. When I started gardening I suddenly realized that if I grew organic vegetables, I could cut down on our food expenses. At Dancing Turtle Farm we grow potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, cabbage squash, and beans so during four months of the year so I not only save a lot of money on food but I obtain fresh and tasty organic food. I’m also learning how to can food to extend our food supply into the winter months.

But growing and eating organic food was not just a health issue for my husband. It became a preventive health as well as an aesthetic issue for me. Why should I eat pesticided food just because it is cheaper? That metallic aftertaste is just not pleasant to eat. Food should be a pleasure and a delight, not fuel to keep our bodies going! Then I heard about genetically-modified organisms or GMOs and became very alarmed.

Genetic engineering (GE) or the genetic modification (GM) of food involves the laboratory process of artificially inserting both genes and genetic control mechanisms into the DNA of food crops or animals. The result is a genetically modified organism (GMO). GMOs can be engineered with genes from bacteria, viruses, insects or animals-including humans. GMO-derived foods are pervasive and, due to current U.S. laws and regulations, difficult to distinguish between foods that are GMO and those that are not.

One significant problem with GM seeds is that through the GE process, mutations are generated throughout a plant’s DNA, such as deleting or permanently shutting natural genes on or off, thus changing the complex interactive behavior of hundreds of genes or changing or rearranging either natural or inserted genes that may create unique proteins that can trigger allergies or promote disease.

In his second book, Genetic Roulette (2007), GMO activist Jeffrey Smith presents irrefutable evidence of 65 health dangers linked to GMOs including allergens, carcinogens, new diseases, antibiotic resistant diseases and nutritional problems.

Children with young, fast-developing bodies face the greatest risk from the potential dangers of GM foods for the same reasons that they face risk from other hazards like pesticides and radiation: they are susceptible to allergies and have problems with milk, nutrition and antibiotic resistant diseases.

Nevertheless, genetically modified seeds are gaining ground in usage—and they are winning law suits in the courts because they promise crops that not only resist insects and have extremely high yields per acre, but they also produce crops with high levels of desirable nutrients and vitamins (http://www.plunkettresearch.com/Industries/FoodBeverageTobacco/FoodBever...).

So gardening became my defense against ingesting GMOs. But there’s more. As the world’s problems seem to be increasing with climate change, economic downturn and now the environmental catastrophe like the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I find myself overwhelmed by things that I can do nothing about. Growing food and caring for farm animals, however, are not only essential skills to learn for the post-industrial, post-peak-oil era, but they give me things that I can control in my life. Besides, I feel accomplishment after I milk nine goats, clean a barn, plant a quarter acre of potatoes, or weed a field and I never leave the farm without these satisfactions no matter how tired I feel or how dirty and sweaty I get. Of course, there is the pure delight of eating the food—a gratifying payoff for what it took to grow it.

Gardening is also fun and it has opened up new relationships for me with local farmers and a whole community of urban people who are focused on addressing sustainability and food justice issues as well as gardening. These relationships are engaging because they involve people who are actively thinking about and planning for our uncertain future.

Over this past year I have been developing a new relationship with food through the time I spend and the muscle I apply to milk a goat or grow a potato. This all requires care, practice, patience, responsibility—and a little luck from Nature. It is my great hope that more people have the opportunity to gain such insight in their own way because food is basic to everyone's needs and essential to the quality of life.

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