The Shimmering Secrets of Seed and Song

March 30, 2009

The call of the land sounding strong in his soul, John Kimmey responded long ago, back in the 1970s. That’s when he made his initial pilgrimage, becoming acquainted with the traditional elders of the Hopituh Shi-nu-mu (Hopi) at Hotevilla, Arizona.

The Hopi are a tribe of about 7,000 people located by the heart mesas among the Four Sacred Mountains of the Four Corners of Turtle Island —  northeast Arizona, North America. Hopi culture traces back well over two millennia, making Hopi people keeper of one of the oldest, extant agrarian expressions of life on North America. The Hopi developed a system of dry farming. In relation with arid, exposed, windswept land, they learned and passed on through generations successful ways to grow a variety of crops, including squashes, beans, sunflowers, tobacco and maize (corn).

John Kimmey

John Kimmey

At the request of some traditional Hopi elders, John settled in to assist them in communicating with the House of Mica (United Nations headquarters). In the 1970s he became a student and traveling companion of the late, widely respected Hopi messenger, Grandfather David Monongye.

sweetcornhopi“When I associated with Native American elders, they encouraged me to grow gardens,” John explained when I interviewed him for The Call of the Land. “Grandfather David gave me Blue Corn seeds and asked me to grow them out. He said ‘I want you to experiment. The first experiment is to divide the seeds, then to grow two separate plots: one right next to where you are camped, the other further away, out of earshot.’

“I planted both plots of corn on the same day, and did normal cultivation and irrigation with both. Grandfather told me to sing to just one of the plots, the one closest to where I slept. I awoke each morning at dawn and sang to the crop nearest, and I also sang whenever I cultivated.

“I asked what song I should sing, and Grandfather said to sing any song that is meaningful to me, and to sing every day.

“As it turned out at harvest time, the sung corn matured a week earlier than the control corn, with more ears per stalk, and the ears had transformed from the more typical dull blue to a rich, vibrant purple color. I went back and gave Grandfather David the results, and he nodded with understanding. He said the ancestors always sang to their crops, especially during drought. ‘Song makes them stronger,’ he said.

“Grandfather David said that your cultivars – the seeds you save and grow – become part of your family. ‘Treat them with the same love, care, and attention that you show to your children.’”

Dry field of corn at the Hopi Mesas, Arizona

Dry field of corn at the Hopi Mesas, Arizona

Read All About It: Food & Farms Much in the News

March 23, 2009

Land and food are much in the news this season, and well they should be. The ongoing shocks and shifts in our economic foundations are jolting awake hordes of citizens to the absolute importance of the ways we care for the land and the ways we grow our food.

Many magazines and newspapers are offering in-depth stories to inform and educate the public about a range of 21st Century agrarian issues that are coming to the forefront, and that will likely occupy the forefront in the years ahead. To support readers in becoming informed, and then taking action, I offer the following roundup of significant snippets and links:

motherjonesThe March/April 2009 issue of Mother Jones magazine features a package of articles on what their editors think we need to do to grow enough healthy sustainable food at an affordable price.

What we grow, the magazine posits, is at the very core of how we live, how we run our economy, how we exist in the world.

The themed edition of Mother Jones, available online, includes an interview with agrarian journalist Michael Pollan. In the interview he observes: “I don’t know if organic is the last word. It’s sort of an all-or-nothing idea. People getting it partly right is very important…Let a thousand flowers bloom, and let’s see what works…The whole problem of industrial agriculture is putting all of your eggs in one basket. We need to diversify our food chains as well as our fields so that when some of them fail, we can still eat.”

According to writer Gwen Schantz in an article posted at “industrial agriculture is sooo 20th century,”

She writes, “As America moves forward with a new agenda of change, our food system is getting a green, healthy makeover that promises to leave thousands of food and farm advocates with nothing to do…From a White House garden to rule changes at factory farms, the era of industrial ag calling the shots is changing.”

On March 22 the business section of the Sunday New York Times posed the question, ‘Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?’ Essentially, yes, the writer answered, asserting that sustainable-food campaigns have reached a critical mass of influence in the United States

The Times article quoted Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack  making note that the USDA’s recently released Census of Agriculture included more than 100,000 new small farmers. Vilsack said he wanted his agency to help develop regional distribution networks, so that produce from these small farms could be sold to institutional buyers like schools.

As part of the overall national economic stimulus plan, he said, the Agriculture Department plans to award $250 million in loan guarantees, spread over the next two years, for local and regional food networks.

Vilsack also told the Times that ultimately agriculture and food policy should fit into the administration’s planned overhaul of health care, by encouraging good nutrition as a basic way to prevent disease; and that agriculture should also be part of the effort to combat climate change, by encouraging renewable energy and conservation on farms.

green_beans_bigThe Spring 2009 issue of YES! Magazine is also dedicated to the Good Food Revolution, and offers a range of noteworthy artless on this theme.

Executive Editor Sarah van Gelder writes “…change is coming to food. As the global economy unravels, and as the implications of peak oil and climate change sink in, interest in alternatives to the current food system is growing. People are reconnecting with the land and with community, and rediscovering diverse, local, and organic practices. All over the world, people are standing up to the agro-industrial complex and calling for ‘food sovereignty’—the right to nourish and strengthen their families and communities, sustain their culture, build health, and protect biodiversity.

“A new generation of farmers is going local, opening farmers markets and bringing fresh foods to urban ‘food deserts.’ Schools are growing their own fruits and vegetables. Cities and towns are adopting food-friendly policies. Farmers and ranchers are turning to land management practices that protect and restore ecosystems.

The development that has generated the most press attention to the theme of agrarianism, at the level of the household, is the lead of the Obama Family, which is establishing an organic vegetable garden at the White House.

First Lady Michelle Obama and a team of children, chefs and gardeners began digging the (garden map) on the White House South Lawn on Friday, March 20. This is the first vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s victory garden during World War II.

White House chefs will use the produce to prepare meals for the family and for official functions, and some of the produce will be donated to Miriam’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen near the White House.

The example of the Obama family is generating widespread news coverage, and will likely inspire many thousands of people to follow their example.

Peak Oil is Here: Ag Alarms are Sounding

March 18, 2009

oil-derrickAccording to a widely respected energy blog, The Oil Drum, the long-prophesied phenomenon termed Peak Oil has already happened. It happened about a year ago, in mid-2008 at 81.73 million barrels of oil per day,

If The Oil Drum is correct, and there are lots of reasons to assume it is, then that means oil production declines from here on out, supply tightens and cost goes up

No doubt there will continue to be disagreements about the exact date of Peak Oil, but the posters at The Oil Drum are learned nerds and have earned a wide measure of respect in both business and academic realms. If they are off in their reckoning, they are likely not off by much.

combineThe reality of declining oil supplies has – and will have – profound consequences for the small percentage of people who grow food, as well as for 100 percent of the people who eat food. The industrial agriculture system which now supplies the vast majority of our food depends absolutely on gas and oil not only to power the heavy equipment in the fields and the trucks used to ship it, but also for the production of petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides.

Changes in the cost of the raw material – oil – mean changes in the capacity of industrial farms to purchase and employ these fundamentally polluting materials. And that will mean changes for food cost, already a crisis according to Time Magazine, and for food supply in the years ahead.

Many householders, neighborhoods, urban and suburban communities already sense this change along with the reality of a recession in full swing and a fundamental shift in base of national and global economics. According to a recent story from the Associated Press, they are responding in droves.

AP reported that industry surveys show double-digit growth in the number of home gardeners this year and mail-order companies report such a tremendous demand that some have already run out of seeds for basic vegetables such as onions, tomatoes and peppers.

“People’s home grocery budget got absolutely shredded and now we’ve seen just this dramatic increase in the demand for our vegetable seeds. We’re selling out,” according to George Ball of Burpee Seeds, the largest mail-order seed company in the U.S. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

A new report by the National Gardening Association predicts a 19 percent increase in home gardening in 2009, based on spring seed sales data and a telephone survey. Community gardens nationwide are also seeing a surge of interest.

The Links page of this blog offers resources that can be employed now to develop gardens, community farms, and a host of other sustainable, earth-healing responses to Peak Oil, to the call of the wallet, and in general to the call of the land.

Vandana Shiva Speaks on Global Food Crisis

March 12, 2009

As reported on Uprising Radio, President Obama met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon earlier this week to discuss the global food crisis and the “potential threat” to food supplies if the economic crisis worsens.

Last year there was much discussion about escalating food prices that left millions more people hungry. Now, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, warned of the perverse effect of falling prices of wheat, corn, and rice resulting in lower rates of investment in agriculture, which also leaves millions more hungry.

The fact the food prices are dominated by the volatility of financial markets is a problem that many critics have pointed to. One such critic is internationally renowned physicist, environmental activist and author Vandana Shiva, who recently gave a talk to an audience of students and professors at the University of Southern California.  To listen to the talk online, follow this link.

Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva

Amid Abrupt Economic and Environmental Changes CSA Farms Emerge as a Resourceful Strategy

March 10, 2009

rowsveggiesAs the economic and natural worlds abruptly mutate around us, food and farms are also, inevitably, in the ongoing thrall of this blitzkrieg of change. Consider the factors in motion: finance, employment, transport, climate, oil, agrochemical and water supplies, human health, and the genetics of our food chain. All of the above, and more, underscore the need for individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities to take steps now to cultivate food security.

Big corporate farms depend absolutely on bank credit, oil, and agrochemicals — all precariously vulnerable factors. Thus, the industrial agriculture model which at present brings us most of our food, will have to reckon with the wildly shifting financial climate. We must mobilize our will, intelligence, and strength on the essential matter of producing clean food for ourselves in a way that stabilizes and heals the land. This is a basic and inescapable idea of 21st century agrarianism.

While there is no one solution to this deepening complex of crises, there are many workable pathways that lead to increased food security and also healing for our land. I regard Community Supported Agriculture (CSA farms) as one of these workable pathways through the swirls of change. In its many adaptations and permutations, CSA offers models and pathways of positive response. And as recent statistics show, the CSA movement is coming on strong in both the USA and in Canada.

For the first time ever, the USDA counted CSA farms in the 2007 Census of Agriculture (released February, 2009). They tallied some 12,549 CSA farms in the USA. The actual number is probably higher, because some CSA farms prefer to remain below public notice. The development of CSA farms in Canada is also swift; many thousands of CSA farms have taken root there.

In an era when the credit system of finance is collapsing, and jobs are evaporating, money is generally hard to come by. But money is not the essential answer to meeting a basic necessity of life: food. The essentials are land, seeds, labor and water. In changing times, in severely pinched times, those elements can generally be mustered with resourcefulness, rather than cash. People with determination can find a way to produce the food they need.

The CSA movement began slowly in the USA, with just two farms pioneering the model in 1986. As the Organic Outlook columnist for The Mondanock Ledger back then, I had the opportunity to write about it as it was starting.

Then in 1982 I collaborated with Trauger Groh of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm to write the first two books on CSA — Farms of Tomorrow and Farms of Tomorrow Revisited. I documented all the history and the promise of CSA in a two-part story for Rodale’s online magazine, The New Farm.

The increasing number of CSA farms, and the varied models of CSA, can bring people together to form a basic association around land, water, and food. Many resources have been developed, including The Community Farm Newsletter, Local Harvest, the CSA Toolbox, and many others accessible through the Links page for this blog.

CSA farmers often see their micro-operations as a wave of the future, part of  a range of clean, practical alternatives to an industrial agriculture system riddled with problems of oil cost, pollution, and the financial credit and mortgage systems.

As CSA farms continue to multiply and to respond to the economic and food quality crises, participants would do well to remember that the name CSA (community supported agriculture) can be somewhat misleading. It implies that the problem is special support for agriculture. That support is necessary and important, but it is secondary. The primary need is not for the farm to be supported by the community, but rather for communities to support themselves through farming. This is an essential of existence – and as the economy and environment go through wrenching upheavals – the reality of this will become increasingly vivid.

The Call of the Biosphere: Dangerous Diminishment

March 1, 2009

Biosphere 2 in Oracle, Arizona

After working outdoors in a t-shirt under the hot Sun all through an ominously sultry winter day, I headed in to Santa Fe on the evening of February 27 to listen to my neighbor, John Allen, speak at the Garcia Street Bookstore. Allen is founder of the celebrated Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona, and the author of a new book, Me and the Biospheres.

Biosphere 2 has been hailed as one of the most important experiments of the 20th Century. It drew mass public attention to the reality that we human beings live in a fragile, closed environment that is impacted for better or worse by everything we do. Biosphere 1, our Planet Earth, is the global sum of all ecosystems, all living beings, all our relationships. The Biosphere 2 experiment that Allen and his colleagues brought into being in the late 1980s is a miniature Earth under glass domes — a 3.15-acre closed laboratory that emulated the ecosystems of our Planetary Biosphere.

A team of researchers moved into Biosphere 2, sealed the door, and began a complex web of interactions, experiments, and measurements of systems and relationships. In this manner they could begin to comprehend more about Biosphere 1 – our Earth – and our human influences within it. As the years have passed, John Allen and his colleagues have moved on, and Biosphere 2 has morphed to other related research purposes. But the lessons learned, and being learned, remain relevant.

After listening to Allen speak at the bookstore on that unnaturally warm Winter evening, I called him at Synergia Ranch, his home in Santa Fe County. I asked him about the status quo of Biosphere 1, our Earth. What does he hear today when he listens to the call of the land?

allen-john-jpg“There are two ways of looking at it,” Allen said. “From the standpoint of nature, the biosphere is adjusting its mass composition and energy; that goes on no matter what happens. But as for the biosphere in relation to humans, that’s something we need to be concerned about. It is getting very dangerous for us human beings.

“The current state of affairs is dangerous for the Biosphere in general, but on the other hand the Biosphere is generating responses, defenses, as far as humans concerned, such as new diseases. When an aspect of the biosphere is devastated, such as with desertification, the biosphere responds and puts in a desert ecology. But that’s not very useful to us human beings.

“If we cut down a tropical forest, then the biosphere responds by replacing it with a form of tropical forest, but a diminished form, with about 20 percent less of the tree species. The biomass may be approximately similar, but the vitality and diversity is way down. This affects humanity in many ways. It’s an impoverishment.”

In his new book, excerpted in a recent edition The Santa Fe Reporter, John Allen shares a grand radius of ecological, social, and cultural insights — all keyed to helping people and their systems respond swiftly and wisely to the urgent call of Biosphere 1.

Biosphere 1 (Jet Propulsion Lab)

Biosphere 1 (Jet Propulsion Lab)

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